On Ash Wednesday this year, which fell on February 18, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page about how people were asking her what she was giving up for Lent. She’s not Christian, and she didn’t plan on celebrating it. “I don’t want to make a mockery of your religion for my own purposes,” she wrote. When I asked her about it recently, she said celebrating it would give credence to something she doesn’t believe, and would be insulting to true believers.
Both she and I know tons of people who aren’t observant Christians but who nevertheless participate in some kind of targeted fast for the religious holiday meant to evoke Jesus’s 40 days and nights wandering through the wilderness. To be true to tradition, one should spend the holiday abstaining from meat—sensuous, hot-blooded—and all other foods that bring to mind earthly pleasures. Protestants rejected the practice for many years, but it’s now enjoying an upsurge, even among evangelicals. Nowadays, there are tons of non-churchgoers giving up things they know are bad for them but don’t want to do without, like alcohol, sugar and gossip. I asked my friend why she thought people did it. “Fitting in?” she said. “A desire to seem noble and sacrificial?”
I think she’s right, but I disagree that it’s a bad thing. There’s a strong case to be made for the celebration of a secular lent.
Christmas has already gone that way: 81 percent of non-Christians celebrate the holiday every winter, including 87 percent of the religiously unaffiliated. Christmas is ingrained in American society, but the group of people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostic or “nothing in particular” is rising. Non-Christians are not going to give up the tradition, so it is bound to become ever more secular, which should guarantee plenty of winter programming for Fox News for years to come.
So why not lent?
My mother was Catholic, from one of very few Catholic families in our small Bible Belt town, but my family was nothing for the first eight years of my life. This made us stand out, and friends and classmates were always inviting us to their churches. My sisters and I begged our mom to start taking us. It took awhile to find a place of worship, but we settled on the Methodist Church, which was more liberal.
When I was 16, a Catholic friend started coming to our youth group and talked about what she was giving up for Lent. She led our Ash Wednesday program that year. We wrote something down on pieces of paper. For the life of me, I can’t remember what this was, or find any reference to it anywhere: The bad things that happened in the last year? The intentions for the new year? We burned the papers in a bucket. I gave up sweets, like desserts, jams and sugary cereals. I tempted myself throughout the holiday, baking cakes for others’ birthdays and sitting near the candy machine during study hall. My friend told me the prohibition was lifted on Sundays, but I never took advantage.
I stuck with it. For someone without much willpower, it was a new exercise for me. It empowered me to think about my life in a different way, to consider what gave me real pleasure and what was only passing, to think about the longterm versus the short. I eventually stopped missing brownies, and—this is going to sound cheesy—Palm Sunday and Easter services were especially beautiful that year. It felt as it had never really felt before, like a true Spring, life beginning anew.
I’m not religious at all now. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the purpose of religion, at least in its purest form. If we think about what we hold in common, from Catholics on Easter Sunday to yogis on the mat, we all need a time and space for quiet reflection, to consider what connects us, and to wish each other well. From “peace be with you” to “namaste,” there’s a universal desire to pull ourselves out of the everyday and set our intentions for a better life.
Like any religious fast, Lent forces you to think about what you’re eating, why you’re eating it, and whether it’s tied to your goodness as a person. It provides an opportunity to believe you can start fresh. Some of us may be preparing our souls for the afterlife, but I’m assessing mine in this one. A lot of nonreligious Americans, who tend to be young and urban-dwelling, must find this humanistic quality to Lent appealing. (Indeed, Millennials are more likely to observe Lent than average Americans, and there’s a rise in giving up the sorts of technology that take up so much of our time now, like social media and smartphones.)
It makes sense, if you’re constantly surrounded by other people, to occasionally ask: What kind of neighbor am I, and what kind of space am I taking up? Does my own consumption harm others, and, if so, how can I curb it? That’s useful and worth celebrating, even if there’s a selfish aspect to it. Even those of us who weren’t raised Christian don’t need Jesus to understand there’s something about modern life that makes us long for a wandering, to make the easy a tad bit harder, to reconnect with something old.
Of course, there’s something grating about the dominance of Christianity in American society—how it radiates everywhere, how it’s used to oppress religious minorities and minimize their holidays. If everyone celebrates Lent the way they celebrate Christmas, it could just seem like another way Christianity is taking over. But I think nonbelievers reclaiming the best parts of religious traditions does the opposite, and reestablishes American morals outside of organized religion.
I still give up sweets for Lent every year, and sometimes alcohol or meat. I don’t always make it all the way through, but I don’t go around breaking Lent willy-nilly. I take it seriously. Partly, it’s a way to try to jumpstart post-winter weight loss. But there’s something more to it for me, a sense of connection with my own past and with others in my present. I look forward to it as much as I do the sun melting the snow. And when Easter Sunday comes April 5, the chocolate bunny I buy will taste better than it ought to.
Monica Potts is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a fellow with the New America foundation.