Meditation without God

Critical thinking ranks among the most dearly held values for those of us who are skeptical of religious faith. It’s … Continued

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.

Rick Heller
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  • WmarkW

    Lying to oneself is not necessarily bad. A medical patient can improve his chance of recovery by believing the chances are better than they are. Holding an imaginary conversation with a respected authority figure, like a deceased relative or Abraham Lincoln, can help guide a decision-making process.

    A key distinction is using lies (or religion) to better oneself or to control others. A well-meaning On Faith panelist once advocated that even if you don’t believe God exists, you should live as if you do. He was probably envisioning implementations like not stealing, even when no earthly individual is watching you. But believing that God sends children, is not reason to deny others access to birth control.

    Atheists are used to thinking (correctly) that we hold this belief because we have rejected delusion. And are (correctly) adamant about not allowing the delusions of others to control non-believers’ actions. However, finding a substitute or equivalent for the psychology strength some people gain from religion in their personal lives, is a necessary step in the growth of secularist philosophy.

  • Certainlyso

    Meditation does quiet the mind and improve the senses. I have also found that gardening, cuddling the cat or dog, or reading a good book do much of the same.

    One thing we skeptics feel is that the burden of having to be judgmental about beliefs (the “right faith” anxiety) is forever lifted. It is difficult to express to believers the freeing sensation that that reality achieves for us.


  • Hildy J

    Meditation may have Buddhist roots and mindfulness may have Hindu ones but the techniques do not require either religion. I tell my kids to focus on the Hindu mantra “be here now” and it works for them without them knowing it is religious. For myself, I meditate on the smoke rising from my cigar each evening after dinner.

  • ThomasBaum

    Why do you think that “the growth of secularist philosophy” needs a crutch?

  • Rongoklunk

    Pot works for me. Makes me somewhat introspective and quite spiritual. It helps me appreciate reality and the wonder of the cosmos, and existence itself. Like Dawkins says – the world is much more profoundly interesting and awesome “because” there’s nothing supernatural involved; no gods, no angels, no demons – just the “real”, and that’s enough for nonbelievers. Reality itself is magic enough with inventing fairies.

  • Rongoklunk

    Should be “Reality itself is magic enough withOUT inventing fairies”.

  • 3vandrum

    I have listened to Sam Haris’s lectures. He is against all organized religions but I am not sure he is e against meditation and mindfulness practices, since these stress reduction techniques are powerful
    and scientifically confirmed to provide beneficial effects, a belief in a God is un-necessary to practice these techniques. Meditation without God is not an oxymoron. Of course you can believe in any God including Zeus and can get similar beneficial effects but the problem is the uncritical thinking and where it leads to including religious fanaticism

  • edbyronadams

    Since Buddhism does not posit the existence of “God”, it is pretty easy to sever the relationship between Buddhist practice and the concept. While the philosophy does rely on a mystical reality in which cause and effect work, it is not a being but a description of a larger reality. Faith and self deception are analogous and the proof is in what works on a subjective level and in life.

  • larryclyons

    what is the difference between mediation with out its religious elements and relaxation training or guided imagery? Little or nothing so it would seem.

  • Rongoklunk

    Critical thinking results in nonbelief, if it’s really critical. That kind of thinking tells us that gods don’t exist and that lifeafterdeath is just wishful kind of thinking. Critical thinking is trying to get at the truth – even when it tells us what we don’t want to hear. Religious people are not curious enough to search for truth. They think they’ve already found it. And truth or not, it feels so good. And that’s better than truth.

  • ThomasBaum

    Fanaticism is not limited to those that believe in God, not by a long shot and recent history gives quite a few examples.

    Besides that, there are those that hide behind a “religious label” in their fanaticism.

    Maybe some can get beyond their prejudices and see that.

  • ThomasBaum

    Could be that some “Religious people” have not found the truth but the Truth has found them.

  • leibowde84

    “Truth” is innanimate, so it can’t “find” anything. One can be enlightened to the truth, but that is done by a third party. The “truth,” as it is meant in Rongoklunk’s comment, is not a thing, but a clarification. Although his piont is a bit harsh in a way, I think it demonstrates a problem that religious people have. Once they find what they think is the truth, they stop looking. No one has found the truth of our existence as of yet. Everything is speculative, but it is extremely pathetic when people give up questioning their faith and questioning the sources of their beliefs. It seems to come from pure laziness … or fear.