Why not a Fast from Religion?

I notice that Ramadan begins next Thursday. This, of course, is the month that Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. I am not sure that it is good for your health to abstain from water if you are working outside in 110 degree temperatures, as are common in many parts of the Middle East this time of year. Yet the faithful say that it is good for their spiritual health. Other religions also have seasons for fasting and self-denial; the Catholics have Lent, for instance. Many religions require some form of self-denial year-round. Jews and Muslims cannot eat bacon, Mormons cannot drink coffee, and I have known many Southern Baptists who claimed to be teetotalers. Speaking personally, it has always seemed to me that one of the great things about being an atheist is that I do not have to worry that I might be offending some vindictive deity if I eat shellfish, shake hands with a woman, shave, drink a beer, or watch an R-rated movie. Still, though, the faithful claim that following such rules and regimens enhances their spiritual well-being.

Here is a suggestion for religious people—and it is really no more than that: Why not have a fast from religion?  That is, try to live for, say, a month without praying, reading scripture, or attending a religious service. During that time consciously try to discipline yourself to see all events as naturally rather than supernaturally caused. Also, try to base your ethical decisions on respect for the inherent worth of sentient creatures rather than on the commands of a deity or on any religious rule. Do not try to repress any honest doubts that might arise; rather, indulge in freethinking, attempting to consider seriously that some of your convictions might be wrong. Hang out with some atheists. During that month of irreligion, eat if you are hungry and drink if you are thirsty. If you want to continue to abstain from coffee, beer, or bacon, that is fine, but don’t feel guilty if you do decide to indulge in a few forbidden fruits. In fact, try to take a holiday from any feelings of religious guilt or shame that your preacher, priest, rabbi, or imam might try to inculcate. In general, try to live for a short while as if there is no God and no book of instructions and as if you alone are wholly responsible for figuring things out for yourself.

I imagine this suggestion will elicit two kinds of responses from the faithful:

(1) Horrors‼! What you suggest is vilely sinful. God demands our absolute allegiance 24/7 and 365 days a year (366 in a leap year). We cannot ignore God’s demands for a single moment, much less a week or month. Those demands are absolute and admit no compromises or suspensions, however temporary. All of God’s commands always apply. There is no “holiday” from being a child of God! Further, God’s rules are not arbitrary commands, but are for our own good. Therefore, any rejection of God’s directives is a repudiation of God’s grace and mercy towards us, and therefore is a grievous sin. Remember, we do not belong to ourselves, so we do not get to decide what rules we will live by. We are God’s creatures and have one fundamental obligation—to obey, always obey.

(2) Yahoo‼! OK, if I am going to pretend that there is no God, then I will be free to do anything I damn well please! If there is no God, everything is allowed!  I can take whatever I want and booze, whore, and riot to my heart’s content! No rules! No restrictions! Hey, you want to go butt-naked in public? Go naked! If I want to take the whole steam tray at the buffet, I grab it and dig in! Maybe I will stop going to work. If my family complains that I am not supporting them, I will say, “Hey, if there is no God, I don’t owe you anything!” And so on.

Either of these responses would be unfortunate.

With respect to the first sort of response, it is too bad that God gives no sabbaticals because a break from piety might be good for the soul. Too often religious observance becomes a matter of habit or reflex. You do it because you have always done it; being observant becomes the path of least resistance. You do it without thinking about it. However, if you intentionally abstained from your religious habits for a while and then consciously began them again, you might really see their purpose clearly for the first time. Instead of prayer just being a ritual or routine—like mumbling grace at mealtime—you might really mean it and it might mean far more to you. Religious services, which—let’s be honest—often seem boring or insipid might take on a depth of meaning they never had before. On the other hand, there is, of course, the danger that after giving up some item of religious practice for a while you will come to see it as truly pointless and not worth your time or effort. So, with respect to religious practice, will abstinence make the heart grow fonder or make you feel that you have shed a bad habit? There is only one way to know.

As for the second sort of response, it is common but based upon a deep misunderstanding. It is an understandable misunderstanding because so much of religious training is about “shalt” and “shalt not.” One thing common to many religions is that there are many, many things that God does not want you to do. A few things are OK and lots and lots of stuff is forbidden. Naturally, those raised within a religion with many prohibitions will tend to think that no God means that nothing is forbidden. This response is reinforced by apologists and politicians who have an ax to grind. However, there is no basis for assuming that bad things are bad only because God forbids them. In fact, if you reflect for a moment, you can see that the assumption is silly. God’s commands can carry moral authority only if he commands what IS good and forbids what IS bad. Not even God’s say-so can MAKE something good or bad. If, for instance, there is nothing objectively wrong about eating an oyster and if abstaining from oysters conveys no objective value, then God would only be doing something pointless and stupid to command us not to eat oysters. The same applies to theft, debauchery, murder and everything else. If they are bad, then they are bad whether or not God forbids them.

Another response to my recommendation of fasting from religion would be this: Why not sauce for the goose?  Why not recommend that atheists spend a month going to religious services, praying, reading scripture, observing religious rules, etc.? This, in fact, is exactly what Tolstoy recommended after he got religion. All those rules and rituals that seemed so silly before will now seem full of meaning. Why not give them a try if you are an atheist?

Sure, why not? If you want to.  Remember I am only making a suggestion, not citing it as any sort of obligation. Actually, my suggestion would apply most to those who have always been religious or who have always been atheists. It might be good, for once, really to try to see what living like the “other side” is like. On the other hand, there are plenty of people, like yours truly, who spent a good bit of their lives on that “other side.” I was a sincere Christian for the first quarter-century of my life and I got a pretty good idea about the pluses and minuses of religious life. Likewise, someone who converted from sincere atheism and became religious will be able to compare and contrast the two states as well. I think that those with first-hand acquaintance with the “other side” make the most effective critics.