It's Ash Wednesday and so we start the regular jokes about giving up Lent for Lent and, this year, about giving up the papacy for Lent. I'm never quite sure where I fall on the metaphysical questions of religion. Is there a God? What is His nature if He exists? Does the soul survive death? On many of those questions, I am not sure what an answer looks like, on others my answers would be on no one's list of orthodox beliefs. I tend to think of myself as an atheist among theists and a theist among atheists. And, that's not just because I'm contrary.
But whatever the metaphysical answers, I am tempted to think that what matters about religion is less its truth—let's have that discussion another day—than the shape it can give to a life. Religion can, of course, be really bad about that; religious life quite often puts life into exactly the wrong shape. But one thing that religion or what remains of it for me does is give an ordering to time and tools for reflection.
Of course, I can reflect on my life and my mortality at any time, but the rhythms of the liturgical year give an impetus. Today, we are reminded that we return to that from which we came, that life has a limit. And, being reminded of that is a good thing, no matter whether we believe that we continue after death or not. I won't go on forever and that is something I ought to think about when I am living my life.
It's traditional to give something up for Lent and, unfortunately, most of those who do so like to advertise what they have given up. As problematic as that is—what is the merit if I reward myself by advertising?—there is a value in asking ourselves what we can do without or comparing our lives with those who have much less or even disciplining ourselves. What is really necessary for my happiness? What do I need?
Fasting and abstaining themselves can be exercises in discipline and reminders of exactly how good we have it, especially in this country where we eat so much and so often and so much meat. When we live in a way that others cannot, there's value in remembering how others must. Empathy is only strengthened in that way.
It is easy and clever to make fun of religious believers and their beliefs. But sometimes, maybe, we ought to ask ourselves whether there isn't some value in religious practices even apart from questions about the religious beliefs.
I'm not sure there's too much disagreement with religious practices themselves by skeptics of religion, at least as I've interpreted it. Especially in the case of Lent, discipline, temperance, and moderation appear to be "virtuous" traits to possess regardless of any pragmatically held ethical view (we'll disregard hedonism and its various forms as being unrealistic for the vast majority of people).
You raise a good point regarding the value of religion in a way that I'd forgotten, as it's far too easy to focus on the more questionable theological claims and ludicrous constraints on personal conduct. At its core, and in this context speaking specifically of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus are neither difficult to understand nor controversial: don't be an overly self indulgent prick. Of course, one need not be a philosopher to understand that.
This is another place where we agree in specifics, or most of them—I think there's probably a little more content to Jesus' ethics and most of it difficult to live by—even if we disagree about principles.
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