No, I’m Not Giving Anything Up For Lent

Today is the start of Lent where Catholics traditionally give up something they love. Now as a child I had to go along with this like everyone else. It was just something that was done, we never thought about it. Since becoming an Atheist, I’ve looked at Lent in a whole new light. Why does everyone celebrate a period of suffering? Why do we deprive ourselves of the joys of life? Why do we self-flagellate and call it good?

Lent comes from the time when Jesus supposedly spent 40 days in the desert without food. Now, I’m not sure how we are supposed to commemorate this event, seeing as we lack the powers of the Messiah. So rather than giving up food people just give up things they like. It has been turned into a period of self-improvement where people give up smoking, or try to lose weight or children give up sweets. It is cast as resisting temptation, as improving self-control.

However, when you think about the principle, it’s pretty nasty. The thinking is old style Catholic, that we are all sinful, bad and we must undergo penance to be forgiven. The idea is that suffering is good. When you are raised a Catholic in a Catholic country, this doesn’t sound strange, but when you think about it, it’s quite messed up. This is the logic of people who whip themselves or walk barefoot up a mountain. It’s a view of humanity as spoilt and bad, which needs to return to the pure and simple. It’s like that Patrick Kavanagh poem, “Advent”, where he glorifies sitting in a dark room with only black tea and burnt toast. It’s redemption through suffering.

Modern day lent isn’t that bad. People do things they should have done anyways, like give up smoking. In this way it’s almost like a second New Year’s resolution. However this is not the original aim of lent. Its original idea was that you would give up something you love. For example I would give up reading or drinking tea or the internet. The idea was to create suffering and offer it up. Traditionally people would fast (starve themselves) though this was stopped as part of Vatican II. Imagine that, people being told that they had to starve themselves and unnecessarily suffer, all in the name of religion.

But why is suffering good? Why is denying ourselves the pleasures of life something we do? What benefit comes from denying a child the simple joy of chocolate? Self-harm is considered horrific, yet not if religion does it. After all, what is the difference? Imagine if I choose to give up reading for lent. Instead of enjoying myself and broadening my mind with a book, I would suffer in boredom and ignorance. I would spend 40 days aimlessly wasting time staring at the ceiling. Instead of understanding the world around me, I would dwell in ignorance with only the coldness of the rosary for comfort (kneeling has got to be the most uncomfortable position which is probably why that is how you must pray). I would deprive my life of colour for the sake of “offering it up” and box myself into a grey and narrow world.

Similarly, it’s strange when you look into meaning of Ash Wednesday. I realised today that I had no idea why people put ashes on their foreheads, despite having done it (or more accurately had it done to me) many times. It turns out; it’s to remind us that we are going to die. The ashes are to remind us that one day we will die and become nothing more than dust (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). Now, that’s a depressing thought, if I ever heard one. Who in their right mind would want to tell children “Here is something to put on your head so you don’t forget that you will die and you corpse will rot and disappear.” Count me out. Today, Ash Wednesday I will not think of death or forbid myself meat (another daft and pointless rule) but instead glory in all that the world has to offer.

So, no, I won’t be giving anything up for lent. Instead, I will enjoy life and all it has to offers. Life is too short to punish ourselves for no reason.  Instead we should embrace it and all it offers. Throw away the mealy-mouthed self-punishment of religion and live. Don’t deny yourselves the things you love, embrace them, savour them, enjoy them. Don’t do less, do more.

14 thoughts on “No, I’m Not Giving Anything Up For Lent”

  1. And talking about giving stuff up…..I read that the reason the Pope declared Friday to be meatless was to try to prevent people eating horse. In the long run seems to have mostly worked Not quite on topic, but interesting nonetheless

  2. Hi Robert,
    I can understand your rebellion against Lent and if I was young again I am sure I would join you. However, can I offer some of the insights that old age has given to me. To really appreciate all the good things we have in our lives we sometimes have to do without them to realise how good they are. It is a good exercise to close our eyes to understand how it feels to be blind or to cover our ears and sit in silence to understand the world of someone who is deaf.
    Likewise Lent is about giving up something we enjoy for a short period of time and simply see what that is like – do we end up missing it alot or perhaps we find we can do without it, a small example from many years ago when I gave up sugar in my tea and never missed it.
    Our lives should not be continuous struggles nor should they be total indulgence – balance is the key and lent is a time for us to simple reflect on all the good things in our lives and how much we can miss them.
    To end may I quote some lines from the singer ‘passenger’

    ‘only miss the sun when it starts to snow
    only know you have been high when you are feeling low
    only miss your lover when you let her go’.

    1. Monica, however noble this is, does it have to have religious undertones? If you can give up something, maybe you didn’t need it in the very first place like sugar so no big deal.

  3. I’ve told people that I gave up religion for Lent and never went back!

    Let’s see what else I could constructively give up for lent. I could give up being too self-conscious to try new things. Maybe I’ll give up being tolerant of stupidity. Or maybe give up my habit of not drinking alcohol?

  4. “For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket – by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.”

  5. I thought the ash was a way of showing humility and penance as in the days of old when people like David would wear sackcloth instead of his royal garments to ask for forgiveness from god.
    The christian invention of man being depraved and sinful is the worst blot to humanity and lucky are all those who grew up without this feeling of shame and lucky still those who have overcome this absurdity.
    Am not giving up anything except lent which I already gave up a while ago!

  6. What I find weird is the way secular non-religious people here (UK) still ‘do’ Lent, like some odd cultural conditioning. One of my workmates asked me what I’m giving up and I said I wasn’t because I’m an atheist. She looked at me so strangely and said ‘yeah, me too, but it’s a thing, isn’t it?’

    Shows how deep the roots of indoctrination can go I suppose!

  7. I aimed at writing down 25 things for which I was thankful for the forty days. I understand acknowledging sorrow to appreciate joy, but giving things up for 40 days so I could go at the same vice on day 41 with more gusto is not something that makes sense to me.

  8. well Robert I do so every year and use this time of Lent to remind myself that my life is blessed and I can give myself the luxury of choosing not to consume something. I have made it a habit of cutting back on all sugar – hard task! If you take the time to check out what you are eating and feeding yourself you’ll be horrified at the amount of sugar that is tucked and hidden away in our food. I not only talking about the obvious sweets and pastries. ALL food industry is sickly over prepared with sugar. Year after year, I have cut back on the amount of “junk” I eat…worth the thought.

  9. I don’t think lent is ieven biblical you don’t earn salvation through it and ash Wednesday I never knew that that’s awful I’m glad I wasn’t Catholic

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