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.

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.

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.

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).

If Jesus is your guide, I don’t understand your vote for Romney

ImageI struggle to understand why the most devout Christians tend to vote Republican*.  It’s a bold statement coming from someone who uses the atheist label (albeit only for lack of something better) – and I am always reluctant to bring it up publicly.  I don’t have the right.  

I’ve had this conversation with a good friend, who is also a devout Christian, and she’s as baffled as I am.  Through her, I discovered a brilliantly well-written blog, Faithful Democrats, whose tagline is “Because Jesus Wasn’t Kidding About Loving Your Neighbor“.  Not only is there a community of intelligent and articulate Christian Democrats who see the same hypocrisy, but they are snarky, too.  I’m in love.

There are a number of really great posts, such as Voting Biblical Values, Who would Jesus vote for?,  and Buttprints in the Sand.  (That last one isn’t quite as coherent as some of the others, but it cracks me up, so it gets a mention.)

The underlying idea of all of the posts is that Jesus, as he is represented in the Bible, preached about love of your neighbor, providing for the poor, and leaving the passing of judgement on others to God.  Sound familiar?

It’s pointless for me to try to represent Christian values, when it’s already been done more eloquently by actual Christians.  Here’s just a sample:

From Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Giving to “God the things that are God’s” requires promoting a government that serves the good of the people, by lifting up lowly, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, giving education to the ignorant, and welcoming strangers and foreigners. 

From Voting Biblical Values:

I am voting biblical principles on November 6th.  I am voting for President Obama because he protects the sanctity of life, not just while it’s in the womb, but with health care, education, and a social safety net that insures no one gets left behind and that women will continue to have access to family planning and if need be, safe and legal abortions.  I am voting for President Obama because he supports not just one hetero-normative model for families, but rather stands by families in their beautiful diversity and believes who we love should never stand between us and our civil rights. I am voting for President Obama because he understands care for the environment entrusted to us is not the butt of a joke, but our solemn responsibility.  I am voting for President Obama because Jesus simply was not kidding when he demanded we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick, and care for the least of these in our midst. 

 From Jesus Doesn’t Care or Why Liberals Need Christ:

As Christians, it does not matter if a person deserves our help or not.  We are commanded to give it, no matter what.  Jesus did not say, “whatever you’ve done for the least of these who deserve help, you’ve done for me.”  He did not command, “feed my sheep who are hungry through no fault of their own.”  Do.  Love.  Serve.  No qualifications, no exceptions.  (Do you know who did say we should only love those who deserve it?  Ayn Rand).  The reason we do this is because every single person bears the image and likeness of God.  We don’t love people because of what they have or haven’t done; we love the Christ that is within them.

I’ll likely be exploring this topic more in future blog posts, beyond just the role of Christianity in American politics.  While I identify as an atheist, the values I live by are the same as the Biblical values outlined above – and I just consider them to be good moral sense.


* To be fair, I don’t even know if this is true – but it is certainly the impression that the Republican party (and their media outlet, Fox News) would like you to believe.

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.