Giving up God for Lent is not quite as odd as it may sound, Pastor Erin Schendzielos says.
Over at The Well, a Rapid City church that welcomes agnostics, atheists and spiritual seekers of all kinds, Schendzielos and her husband, Pastor Ryan Schendzielos, are hosting a weekly Atheism for Lent discussion group that uses daily email devotionals from the website atheismforlent.net to get Christians thinking and talking about thoughtful criticisms of Christianity.
"Atheism for Lent has brought us to wrestle with some of the most well-reasoned critiques of Christianity. Out of this has come an environment of honest and open discussion about the times we have felt the deep absence of God in our lives and what that means to our faith," said Ryan Schendzielos.
Erin Schendzielos says the concept of exploring atheism during Lent may alarm some, but it fits with The Wells' mission to be "a different sort of Christian presence here in Rapid, one where ... we openly admit that we don't have it all figured out, and where we step into learning how to make space for one another each time we meet, instead of stomping out our differences."
For her, it mirrors the 40 days that Christ spent wrestling with temptation, doubt and fear in the desert.
That's the idea that the website's creators, the religious organizations ikonNYC and Pyrotheology, based their Lenten devotion on. "Lent is a time that is traditionally reserved for a type of psychological purging that leads up to the Crucifixion. In light of this, Atheism for Lent seeks to use some of the most potent critiques of Christianity as a type of purifying fire that might help us appreciate and understand Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross in a new way. Just as Christ experienced the loss of God on the Cross, so Atheism for Lent invites participants into that desert space traditionally called the dark night of the soul."
During the six-week exercise, the Rapid City gathering has invited members of the local Free Thinkers group to join the Friday evening conversation "in a hope that they'd bring this often unheard voice within Christianity to the table," Schendzielos said.
Group member Angie Thorson finds the daily readings and comments interesting but said many people are bewildered by the idea. "People do not understand how one could give up God for Lent, let alone for a lifetime," she said.
Michaelia Kendall said Atheism for Lent helps her transform a "defensive attitude toward Christianity" left over from her youth when she tried to justify her faith to others "in hopes that they might come around to my way of faith."
"In sort, I believed God needed defending, an idea I now think is nothing but ego. Atheism for Lent, to me, is a way to take in those critiques of Christianity, allowing them to transform my life without defense," she said.