Fasting, Prayer and Alms-giving: My atheist take on the Catholic tradition

I really love the idea of Atheist Lent, which is described in much better words by Vlad Chituc over at Non-Prophet Status.  His follow-up post talks about the three intentions of Catholic Lent (fasting, prayer and alms-giving) and how that can be translated to a secular practice.  With that in mind, I’m going to attempt some lenten sacrifices.


1. No soda – I’ve gotten back into a bad habit of getting a Coke with dinner.  Yes, I know how terrible it is for me.

2. No new clothing purchases – This is clearly the most difficult one on this list for me.  I had to think long and hard about whether I was willing to put this on the list.  (I have some work travel coming up – and I may have to make an exception to buy dress pants.)


3. Writing – It’s a version of prayer that works for me, but only if I make time to do it.  I’m going to make time every day to write – whether it is my personal journal or another writing project that I’m working on.


4. Charitable Giving – I will make an additional donation to the food bank equaling what I would have spent on clothes.

I’m curious what lenten sacrifices other are making this year.

I am my grandparents’ legacy.

My grandmother used to talk to herself all the time.  Sitting in the living room listening to her wash dishes was like being treated to a one woman play.  Mommom would talk about the birds outside the window.  The condition of the tomatoes in the garden out back.  The effectiveness of the dish soap she was using.  Sometimes she addressed the dog, but Czar’s presence wasn’t required for Mommom to let her inner monologue out.

Pappap cracked jokes when the conversation got tense.  He was the family peacemaker; if someone started to feel like they were being picked on, he’d make himself the butt of jokes to take the pressure off.

xmas96_mommompappapMommom had a mouth like a sailor.  She used curse words to show love.  And anger.  Annoyance. Surprise.  The point is that she cursed.  A lot.

No matter what the reason for a visit, Pap felt like every visit required food.  Pizza, cake, ice cream, hamburgers… When family came over, comfort food was pulled out.

Mommom was jealous when my sister and I got tattoos.  She was in her 70s and, in her words, “too old” to get a tattoo – but she had always wanted one.

Pappap bought me my first pair of high heels.  They were lace up, black, high heeled boots – and I was probably about 8.

Why the trip down memory lane?

xmascouch91This Saturday would have been my grandparent’s 66th wedding anniversary, were they still alive today.  Tuesday would have been Pappap’s 90th birthday.  I miss them, but I’m grateful for their legacy.  I’m grateful for my uncles and aunts, my cousins, and newest generation that they never got a chance to meet.  A friend reminded me today that I’m blessed to have this great family.  I am.  And that’s because of my grandparents.

It’s in what we leave behind

I want to believe in an afterlife.  I want to believe – and often fantasize – that I’ll have a chance to talk to my grandparents again some day.  I want to know that they are somewhere.  I want to believe they are proud of who I am right now.  I don’t, in my analytical mind, believe that is true.  And for the most part, I don’t feel like it matters.  When we die, it’s not about where we go – it’s about what we leave behind.

I believe that I carry my grandparents with me every single day.  I talk to myself all the time.  When conversations get tense, I make jokes or turn it around on myself to divert the negativity.  I swear all the time.  To show love. Anger.  Annoyance.  Surprise.  The point is, I swear a lot.  I use food for comfort and associate it with family.  I never want to be “too old” to do something I love, and I bought my niece her first pair of high heels.  The good and the bad – who I am is, in large part, due to who they were.

For me, that’s enough.

We are human and mortal.

It really isn’t my intention to make this blog all about religion. I swear I’ll be mixing it up again soon.

I found this Op-Ed piece in the NY Times to be really lovely. Written by Father Kevin O’Neill, it is a great piece on how to reconcile faith in God with evil in the world.

I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

Again, my beliefs are not really so different.  I believe that humanity is responsible for the care of each other.  We are human and mortal.  We will suffer and die.  But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether love is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

“As an atheist, I believe that there is no divine force that will save us. We are going to have to try to save ourselves. That means we’ll have to work together, in spite of our religious disagreements.

Thus, my atheism moves me to care for and love my neighbors—it is not an excuse for violence. “

I know that some days I sound like a Chris Stedman fangirl.  I am. He manages to put words around the way that I choose to live my life better than I have ever been able to do.

What Christmas means to this atheist.

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a couple of weeks now, mostly because I just haven’t had time to finish it.  I’m also working really hard to balance complete honesty with respect.  I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m insulting their beliefs.  The opposite is true, but it’s a fine line.  In the meantime, Chris Stedman said most of the same things – only better.  For your sake, I should just link to his post and stop talking now.

I love Christmas and I celebrate it enthusiastically.  My tree is usually up sometime in early November.  I love buying presents, making cards, writing the family Christmas letter and listening to Christmas music.  I love spending time with my family, watching Holiday Inn on Christmas Eve with my parents, and the quiet cup of coffee Christmas morning before the madness of the day kicks in.

nativityI grew up in a Catholic family, where Christmas meant pageants recreating the birth of Jesus and Christmas Eve Mass – and I loved it.  I loved being in front of the congregation, reading the story of the wise men, Joseph, Mary, the manger and baby Jesus.  I loved the idea of humanity’s savior being born in the most humble of beginnings.  I loved helping to decorate our small church with Christmas flowers.  I loved the ceremony of bringing baby Jesus to the altar and placing him in the manger during Christmas Eve Mass.

And then I went home, crawled into bed and waited for Santa Claus.

I stopped believing in the literal reality of Santa Claus when I was five years old.  I continued to pretend to believe for years after, because it seemed important to my parents and because I enjoyed the myth.  I think I stopped believing in the literal reality of Jesus* a couple of years later, although I continued to pretend to believe for many years after, because it seemed important to my parents and because I enjoyed the myth.

I continue to enjoy both the aspects of Christmas.  I think that Santa Claus is a lovely story that encourages us to spread kindness and joy – and keeps little kids in line when they misbehave.  There are so many random acts of kindness and charity during the holiday season that we attribute to the spirit of Santa Claus.

I also still believe that the story of Jesus’ birth is a lovely story about greatness coming from humble beginnings.  Teachings attributed to Jesus inspire many people to do wonderful things for others.

There are vocal groups of atheists who put up billboards every Christmas to encourage people to give up their religious myths.  I want no part of that community.  I want people to believe in whatever it is that provides them with peace and joy.

I also wish that we didn’t need these stories to be kind and charitable to each other.  I would like to believe that humanity has the capacity to be our best throughout the entire year – not just at Christmas.  However, the annual reminder is the nicest possible kick in the pants – and it is comes with sugar cookies.


* To be clear, I do believe that the biblical representation of Jesus is based in historical fact.  However, I don’t believe that the bible is historically factual or literal reality.

Refusing to give up my faith

I mentioned in a previous post that I have strong feelings about the word faith.  It’s something of a mantra for me with personal historical significance, yet I know that many find that my allegiance to the word is contrary to my atheistic beliefs.  I disagree.  Passionately.

As with many words, there is more than one formal definition of the word faith.  Per Merriam-Webster, faith is defined as:

a : allegiance to duty or a person
(1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions

(1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
(1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust

: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

Even in the comments to the dictionary entry, there are several strings of comments berating “faith” as contrary to science and a sign of a weak mind.  I think faith is a sign of strength, even if we all might differ on what we have faith in.

More than ten years ago, I discovered faith.  I was just a couple of years out of college and experiencing my first real taste of failure.  My career that was supposed to be glamorous was turning out to be a nightmare.  In retrospect the circumstances that took me to the edge of complete and utter despair that particular night don’t seem significant, but I had taken some kicks that day when I had already been down for awhile.

I called the friend that I trusted with my lowest moments.  I’m going to call her M. for the sake of my story.  M. was younger than I was by several years, had been home schooled her entire life, was the daughter of a preacher and had been sheltered in every possible way.  For reasons that I still don’t understand, she and I understood each other and she had a significant impact on my life.  And that particularly night, she was the only thing holding me together.

I sobbed on the phone for a while, and when I’d finally calmed down enough to talk, M. told me that I needed to have faith.  I scoffed.  (I’m pretty sure I literally said “psssh” into the phone.)  She knew that I was not a religious or a spiritual person, but she repeated it.

M. told me that I needed to have faith, and while she found comfort in having faith in God, it didn’t have to be that for me.  She begged me to have faith in myself.  Faith that while everything right now felt like it was wrong, it would become right again.  Faith that I continued to have a purpose in life, even if the career I thought I’d love turned out to be a terrible fit.  Faith that I could handle whatever was going to come next for me.

I’d like to say that her words changed my life immediately and that everything was sunshine and rainbows after that.  It wasn’t.  In fact, following that conversation, I went through the roughest year of my life.  And a few years after that, M. and I grew apart and lost touch.  But every time I think that nothing can possibly be right again, I still hear M’s voice in my head reminding me to never give up my faith.

I continue to cling to that word.  Faith. I have faith that my life has a purpose and that everything that happens is an opportunity for me to make a positive impact on this world.  I have faith that regardless of how small, those positive impacts are important.

In simplest terms, to me faith is believing that everything will be okay.

This post was inspired by the awesome new bracelet that I just bought from farmgirlpaints (pictured above), and by the fact that while I’d really love to address the fiscal cliff, or the debt ceiling, or Monsanto, or welfare reform – my brain has been fried by work lately and I really don’t have the energy right now.

If I could have been an altar girl, maybe this never would have happened.

My best friend from high school asked me in the comments on the Faitheist post about the catalyst that moved a former Catholic to atheism.  I haven’t really told that story yet – so I thought I’d bring it out of the comments and make it a separate post.

I wish I could point to something specific, but to be honest there isn’t one thing. I questioned the Catholic dogma pretty early on, and no one was willing to take on my questions. The Catholic Church is not exactly a great place to argue whether animals are capable of love (the Catholics say no), whether it is important to memorize the Ten Commandments in order (I refuse to believe that matters), why girls can’t serve on the altar during Mass (a practice that has changed in some parishes) or whether homosexuality is really wrong. And yes, as a kid I found all of those discrepancies between my own beliefs and the Catholic church to be equally important.

The truth is that I don’t think I’ve ever really believed in God, as much as I wanted to at times. There is a lot that I love about religion and spirituality as a matter of ceremony, structure and discipline – but as much as I tried, I always felt like I was just playing along.

Within the past ten years or so, I have gone through this period of being really angry at “religion” for the hate and rhetoric that tears our country apart. Interestingly, I never blamed Islam for terrorism – but I blamed Christianity for homophobia, racism and misogyny. And in the end, it’s all just misplaced blame.

The word “atheist” scared me for a long time – because it scares so many other people. But one day I just decided that I was tired of dancing around the word. It was true, so I was going to own it. (I have a few very close friends who are atheists, and they owned it first.) But I knew that if I was going to use that word, I needed to be educated and articulate about why. So I started to read a lot about religion. (The Evolution of God is a fantastic book. The author, Robert Wright, is not an atheist, but it’s a wonderful historical view of God. I have a list of other resources that are great, if you are interested in reading more on the history of religion.) The more I read, the less I blamed religion for all that is wrong with the world, and realized that it might just be religion that will ultimately be able to repair some of the wrongs.

Where am I now? I love thinking about God and religion from a historical and social perspective. I can’t deny the impact that the idea of God has had and continues to have on society. More importantly, I have no desire to change anyone else’s mind about their belief in God. If that belief is something that helps you to structure your life, educate your children to be wonderful people and gives you a stable, strong community – go for it. I’m just not going to be playing along.

As far as labels go, “Faitheist” is not so bad

I’ve struggled with the word “atheist”.  It’s accurate; I don’t believe in God.  Strictly speaking, that does make me an atheist, so why do I always add a caveat?  (I’ve done it just this week in a blog post.)  In part, I suppose I am a bit of a coward.  I know that word frightens people, so I just avoid it.  But it’s more complicated than that.

The most prominent atheists of our time have largely been individuals who not just didn’t believe in God, but were advocates of an anti-religion movement.  Richard Dawkins, whose The God Delusion is perhaps the most famous modern atheist text, is (in my most humble opinion) quite a bit of a jackass.  While I find value in many of his arguments for the non-existence of God, I find his manner, tone and ultimate goals to be rather detestable.

I am ashamed to admit to my own moments of religion bashing.  When faced with the (primarily Christian) fundamentalist rhetoric in our country, I have reacted and pushed back against organized religion as a whole.  It has been the significant relationships with Christian friends who are open to conversations about faith and morality that have caused me to realize that religion isn’t the problem. 

Enter Chris Stedman and his new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  I didn’t even know how much I wanted this book to exist until I absorbed it within 20 hours of stumbling across it during a book buying binge.

The image to the left is my actual copy of the book, taken so that I can point out the 23 post-it flags sticking out of the pages.  Occasionally I’ll grab a post-it flag to note a quote or passage that I really love – something that I want to highlight when I talk about the book or pass it along to someone else.  I felt compelled to do that 23 different times as I was reading this book.

The book is, at its core, a memoir of Mr. Stedman’s journey from his irreligious childhood, through a born-again Christian period in his early teen years, to an angry, reactive atheism and finally to the realization that by seeking the commonalities in all of us, people of all faiths, beliefs and non-beliefs can come together to accomplish our common goals.

This idea that it is worthwhile to make an intentional effort to find common ground is, to me, the difference between mere diversity and engaged pluralism.

The idea of engaged pluralism is what I’ve been striving and yearning for, admittedly from a more political than religious perspective, in recent months.  We have common goals – prosperity, safety, love – basic ideals that we all want to accomplish, regardless of our political or religious affiliations.  We can’t accomplish them independently, not to mention when we’re in opposition with each other.  We need to come together and find the common ground.

Mr. Stedman’s proposal for how to do that is simple: Learn about each other.  Talk to each other.  Tell your story.

There is so much about this book that I love and long to share and talk about with others.  (I hope that you might buy the book and join me in conversation in the comments.)  The desire to bring atheism out of the darkness and help people to understand that not believing in God does not mean that our moral character is any weaker.  The yearning for conversation across differences with the intention of finding the commonalities.

I also feel as though I’ve been given some language to talk about my own beliefs.  The “faitheism” label was originally bestowed on Mr. Stedman as an insult, but one that he accepted with some pride.  I want to write it across a t-shirt or get it tattooed on my forehead.  The one thing that I was a bit disappointed by in the book – and perhaps in the entire movement – is that the word “faith” continues to be applied to those with a religious affiliation.  It’s just a word, I know, but it’s one that means a lot to me on a deeply personal level.  To me, faith is believing that I have a purpose – even if it is one that I define and not one that is divinely bestowed.

I told a friend of mine today that it was likely that I would be talking about this book ad nauseum for some time to come.  I really hope that I might entice you to join me in that discussion – via blog comments or Facebook (if we happen to be connected personally).

Is Heaven Real?

I recently shared a copy of Newsweek magazine with a good friend of mine, after reading the cover story Heaven is Real: One Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife.  I picked the magazine up myself specifically because the cover story intrigued me, albeit with a very different perspective from the way that I suspected it would intrigue my friend.

This post isn’t specifically about my views on god (or God, if you prefer), but it is probably helpful to give at least a little bit of explanation.  If I have to label myself, I choose “atheist”, although that certainly isn’t a clear term to describe an extremely complicated subject.  I am certain only that I will never identify as “Christian”, “Muslim” or “Jewish” – but I leave myself open to thinking about the subject of god in any number of ways.

My friend is Christian and I envy the clarity of her faith.

The article that I passed along recounts the experience of a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who, previously convinced that “afterlife” experiences recounted by patients were caused by their own brain chemistry – not any true spiritual journey, has his own near death experience.  He describes an experience of puffy white clouds, ephemeral beings and feelings of complete peace.  Dr. Alexander’s argument for changing his opinion on the subject is not because he, himself, had an experience – but that his brain was uniquely incapable of consciousness at the time due to his illness.  His own journey contradicted his previously held assumptions about the science behind the experiences, that required some level of active brain function.

The article is an interesting read, and I recommend that you check it out regardless of your belief in an afterlife.

After sharing the article, my friend asked me what I thought of the article – and I have since struggled to give her my answer.  I did think that Dr. Alexander made a compelling argument that we should, perhaps, re-examine our assumptions about out-of-body, near death experiences.  I’m not able to fact-check the neuroscience in the article, but assuming that he is correct about the biology of his experience – our current explanations don’t hold true.

Does that make me think that Dr. Alexander did, in fact, journey to heaven during his comatose state?  That all of those patients before him did, in fact, find themselves in the heaven that we read about as children?  Here’s where I hesitate to be too open with my own beliefs.  If he believes that he was in heaven, if he now has a deeper faith that makes him more connected to his life and his purpose… I think that’s an amazing sign of faith and miraculous in its own right.  Why does it matter what I think?

My most passionate belief on the subject of “faith” is that it is personal and meaningful to every person in his/her own way.  I don’t want to convince someone to believe the same things that I do.  In matters of “faith”, I have no illusions of being “right”.  It’s not a subject of factual arguments and I have no desire to change anyone’s mind.

With that said, I did, of course, have my own thoughts after reading Dr. Alexander’s recounting of events.  The article didn’t change my own mind about heaven.  In the specific case of out-of-body experiences, I think our brains are translating something far more complicated into something far more simple that we can understand and process in our human lives.  I don’t believe that after death we journey to a place in the clouds where we find eternal peace.  I don’t believe there are angels waiting to guide us.  I don’t believe that our ancestors exist in a specific location where we can “join” them.  It’s not that I don’t believe that there is something bigger in the universe – and that we’re a part of that something even after our human lives have ended.  I think there are infinite mysteries that we can’t even fathom or dream of that are so much larger than what we know.

My thoughts?  I think we have a lot more to learn about our brain chemistry and about our ability to create and translate emotions into sensory experiences.  But as for my thoughts of heaven, those haven’t changed at all.  I still think we don’t know anything at all about what comes next.