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Critical thinking ranks among the most dearly held values for those of us who are skeptical of religious faith. It’s therefore startling to read a story in this newspaper about an atheist who prays to a goddess he knows is imaginary. He says this practice has been very beneficial, especially in helping him deal with overeating.
If it works, it’s fine. Right?
Engaging in a knowing fiction can “work.” Ted Kaptchuk and colleagues at Harvard Medical School found that subjects with irritable bowel syndrome who took placebo pills had a significantly better outcome than a matched control group that received no treatment. The twist in this experiment was that the subjects were actually told they were getting an inert placebo. Yet it worked.
“It’s not expectation. It’s behavior. Behavior is stronger than theories in your mind,” Kaptchuk told me in explaining this result when I spoke to him in 2010.
Mythmaking can have beneficial effects. The danger though, is that indulging in myths can cultivate uncritical thinking. And even if there are some noble lies, there are many ignoble ones that make the teller feel good but cause others to suffer.
Furthermore, even if pragmatism might argue for doing whatever works, pragmatically speaking, mythmaking does not go over well with most nonbelievers. When atheists, agnostics and skeptics get together, a common inclination that unites us is the pleasure of poking holes in commonly held beliefs.
So if mythmaking is out, what can organized nonbelief offer as an alternative for those of us who are having a rough time?
Sam Harris, whose writing is hostile to religion, has paradoxically asked atheists to explore meditative practices. In recent years, explicitly secular organizations have taken up his challenge, including the Secular Buddhist Association and the Humanist Community Project. I participate in both and since 2009 have led meditations for the Humanist Community at Harvard University.
To be sure, these are not the first secular meditation programs. The cardiologist Herbert Benson created the Relaxation Response technique in the 1970s, and Jon Kabat-Zinn followed with the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program. But these two programs are secular in the same way that a Toyota Corolla is secular—they’re vehicles anyone can use. The new efforts are tailored specifically for atheists and agnostics.
The very funny religion writer Anne Lamott describes the three essential prayers as being “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” Through meditation and mindfulness practices, secularists can do “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow” in their own way.
In our humanist mindfulness group, we do both formal sitting meditations and informal mindfulness practices. In a formal meditation, one sits on a chair or cushion and focuses on an object, such as the breath or ambient sound, for perhaps 20 minutes. Mindfulness is the practice of paying close attention, with a kindly attitude, to whatever is going on throughout your day. There is now quite a bit of evidence that mindfulness can help people deal with emotional distress. There’s no need to ask an external being for help; we can help ourselves.
We can also cultivate a desire to help others through compassion meditation. After the bombing of the Boston Marathon, religious communities engaged in prayer; we did tonglen meditation. In this practice, one contemplates the suffering of other people on the in-breath, and evokes feelings of compassion for them on the out-breath. Of course, since feelings themselves don’t directly affect the world, we need to follow it up with behavior—such as making a contribution to a relief fund.
The “Wow” comes from attention. When people quiet their internal chatter and really focus on their present experience, they often report that sensations seem more vivid. Eating slowly and mindfully, you notice subtle tastes. Sights and sounds become more striking when you stop to take them in.
When we become aware of the beauty of everyday life, it’s natural to feel a sense of gratitude. Although we have no deity to thank for this, we can appreciate previous generations for their legacy. Being mindful that the heath of the planet depends on our actions now can inspire us to do things for which future generations might be thankful.
Not everyone takes to meditation. If it works, fine. If not, fine. But be assured that although meditation and mindfulness emerged from religious traditions, they can be completely severed from them. Scientific studies of secularized meditation practices have found they reduce stress and increase positive emotions. They are tools for the mind that nonbelievers can use without suspending disbelief in gods.