This year I decided to give up God for lent. This wasn’t an idea that I took lightly or for the sake of controversy but because I wanted to find God. I have struggled to know God for some time. My rationale went something like this:
I don’t understand my beliefs any more, nor do I have any recent experience that makes me believe in God, so maybe if I choose to live without God, I will find where God has been in my life. Maybe I will discover that I have made an idol of God and be able to work through that idolatry.
That might not make sense at first, but it did actually work out that way.
How did I do it?
I set out on the experiment after hearing Peter Rollins talk about it at a retreat that he led in Northern Ireland. I liked the idea – exposing ourselves to ideas we are unfamiliar with. But I felt that the approach that Peter suggested was a little tame – it seemed very liturgical and, well, religious. I was more interested in abandoning any kind of liturgy and simply being an atheist.
So I began lent choosing not to attend a religious service (despite Lent not falling on Sundays I felt that it would have betrayed the ethos behind Atheism for Lent), not praying and trying not to have thoughts that involved the existence of the divine. I also aimed to shift my worldview to fit this reality.
How did it go during Lent?
The first week or so was incredibly refreshing. I actually felt a sense of relief. I didn’t have to pretend to be faithful any more. I didn’t have to fake belief when I didn’t feel like believing. I didn’t have to worry myself over some existential question that had been eating away at me for months.
I actually enjoyed being an atheist more than I had enjoyed being a Christian for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t hard to avoid prayer.
It was hard, however, to avoid prayer in the wider sense. Whenever I felt thankful, whenever I felt in need, I would pray in my heart, and then have to stop myself. I quickly realised that it wasn’t just a habitual loss that I was finding discomforting. Instead, I was experiencing theloss of God. As it is said, only a Christian can be a true atheist. I think in some sense I have an understanding now of what that means.
What was most interesting about this was the way in which I treated God. Often I would want to petition God, often I would want to thank God. In a way, this is the deus ex machinaidolatry of God that people such as Rollins talk about. I did also find that I missed God in a general sense, too. I missed being able to relate to God day in, day out. So in that way, the experiment was comforting in that it affirmed that I don’t simply idolise God (at least not all of the time).
Another observation was that it was very difficult to leave my subculture. I would have had to have moved out of my house, fasted from Twitter and Facebook, thrown out half of my bookshelf and not seen many of my friends, if I had wanted to try and truly readjust my approach. That was too great a sacrifice for what ultimately seemed to me to be a useful experiment – not something worth totally altering my life for.
The upshot of this was that I failed on many an occasion. I found it hard to be an atheist. Sometimes I was too used to behaving otherwise. Sometimes I just wanted to believe in God. Sometimes I felt I had to. My grandfather passed away during the lenten period and I wasn’t going to let an experiment get in the way of praying for him; of wrestling in grief with questions about life after death, and so on.
I frequently lapsed back in to belief simply through conversations with friends. Often that belief would be intellectual. Often it would be because I enjoy a good debate, but I can’t help but feel it did change the tone of my experiences.
How do I feel now?
On reflection, I would recommend the ‘Atheism for Lent’ experiment to people struggling in their relationship with God. For me, I looked back and I saw where God had been – in those spaces where I would normally share good news with Him, where I would rest with Him, where I would walk with Him through nature, where I would find Him in others as I served them. I saw that my relationship with God was something more than a human-human relationship. It went deeper than conversation, than emotion. It was about companionship.
However, I still feel dissatisfied at my ‘lack of God’. I don’t feel as though I have an active, ongoing relationship with God – but the last month or so has given me enough to go on.
I was intrigued to discover how I idolised aspects of God. I think the philosophy of trying to have a ‘purer’ relationship with God is interesting, since we are nothing more than the sum total of our experiences. It seems to me to be folly to disregard those experiences.
What I mean by that is this: if I choose to scrap my past and start at square one, of course I would be an atheist. I would have no reason to believe in God. As it is, I have past experiences that point to the existence of the divine, that point to me having a relational experience of God. If I embrace those past experiences, I am more likely to come out of the experiment still a believer.
As far as Church goes, I went back on Easter Sunday. When I stopped going I was relieved to get away. I struggle to find the Sunday service at my church relevant. The more I learn about Jesus the less I think it matters in any case. I try and live a missional life, being among the community as Jesus would have been. I’m not particularly interested in a weekly service that amounts to little more than keeping the faith of the congregation ticking over (if it even achieves that).
I wouldn’t want to use church as any sort of barometer of faith. I think that would be to misunderstand what a Christian experience of God truly is (or at least should be). I began lent dissatisfied with church and ended it much the same. What lent did do for me was to help me to rediscover God in new ways. For that, I will be ever grateful.