A common trope of atheism is the assertion that all the best aspects of religion—the bits that are truly worth saving—do not require religion in the first place.
Christopher Hitchens phrased it as a challenge: Can you identify a moral action or statement, typically made by believers, that could not be executed by a nonbeliever?
Surely things such as giving to charity and treating others with respect are not the sole holdings of any one faith, or faith in particular. They are virtues that are common to all upstanding persons and, dare I say, would have (or did) come about in organized religion’s absence.
To the extent that this is true—no one has ever convincingly argued to the contrary—it is equally true that religion has given the world certain worthwhile concepts that might not ever have materialized from any other source.
One such creation is Lent, the Christian bridge between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that began last week. For the last several years, I have tried my best to “keep” Lent, choosing a facet of my daily life to surrender for the six-and-a-half weeks the holy period lasts, as a means of self-discipline and recognizing that some things are more important than my own comfort.
I am not always successful in my Lenten sacrifices. But then again, I am not even Christian. Technically speaking, I am under no obligation to even participate in the ritual, let alone endure it in its entirety.
But I try it anyway, because at some point I decided the idea of abstaining from a certain behavior or temptation for an extended period was a good one. That the practice is otherwise engaged in by members of a church to which I do not belong has never much bothered me. On the contrary, it licenses me to devise my own rules and provisos without fear of incurring the wrath of a humorless deity.
Of course, what I am describing is essentially “cafeteria Catholicism” by another name.
A “cafeteria Catholic” is defined broadly as a member of the Catholic Church who disagrees with and/or ignores certain bits of Catholic doctrine—in effect, someone who takes religion into his own hands and shapes it to his own purposes.
The term is often used derisively. I don’t see why it should.
The charge is that à la carte religion is not religion—that if one is to sign on with a particular church, one necessarily assumes the entirety of the church’s teachings and preachings, and that any wholesale disagreements should be kept duly under wraps.
This has always been a fascinating standard, insomuch as it is impossible to meet—first because the injunctions are often so challenging in the context of the modern world, and second because of the many ways in which they contradict each other.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that all of us are guilty of a cafeteria-style exercise of religion all the time, and we might then further deduce—if only for sanity’s sake—that this is not such a bad thing for our species.
To pick and choose which pieces of one’s religion one takes seriously is to maximize its utility to one’s life, and is that not (in so many words) the very point of religion in the first place? To what possible end, and for what possible good, does one defer to doctrine with which one does not truly believe in one’s heart?
Should we accept the validity of this argument up to this point, it stands to reason that one is not transgressing all that much in adopting choice practices of other religions, provided that they don’t clash with those of one’s own that one also takes to heart.
Picturing it as a literal cafeteria: If you descend from a long line of meat eaters, but you happen also to enjoy peas and carrots, who is everyone else to prevent you from tossing a salad alongside your burger?
That is, unless you have decided to give up beef for Lent.