Secular Meditation

A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard

Religion as a Habit

Hemant Mehta photo


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Back in 2007, I interviewed Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for an article I was writing for a journalist class at Boston University. The class was taught by Mitch Zuckoff, whose book 13 Hours, is considered, I believe, to be a fairly reported account about Benghazi, and is now being made into a movie.

The short audio clip is noisy, because it was just meant for my private use at the time, but with Hemant’s permission, I’m publishing it here. In it, Hemant discusses his deconversion from the Jain religion, one of the religions that came about in India in the same milieu as Buddhism.

Hemant credits his family’s move from Tennessee to Chicago when he was in eighth grade for disrupting his belief in religion. The move was initially painful and it caused him to question heavenly justice. Now that I know about how our habits system work, I wonder is something else may also have been at work.

In chapter 34 of my book, I write about how to break bad habits using mindfulness and I interviewed the psychologist Wendy Wood, then at Duke University. In the interview, she mentioned a study she and her colleagues did about students transferring schools and how it disrupted some of their habits.

Because habitual behavior is something we do without paying attention, it has to be triggered by something. It’s cued by our environment, including the people we’re with and the locations themselves. When we move locations, the habits that were triggered by the old location (e.g. stopping at the donut shop on the way to work) are disrupted. This gives us an opportunity to mindfully choose new habits. I asked Wood for advice on how to change habits, and she told me:

Take advantage of naturally occurring changes in your everyday context. When you move. When you change a job. You’re faced with new options and you may not have old habits for them.

This obviously applies to the habit of going to religious services. People grow up in a religious community and may have a habit of going to their church or temple, say, even if their faith has weakened. But if they move to a new community, they have to make a conscious choice to re-engage or not with a religious community. I was told by MIT researcher Ann Graybiel that habits don’t just apply to our physical behaviors but to our thoughts. We have habits of thought and being in a new location can help us look at things differently. That is one reason why travel is broadening.

This may also account for why students often lose their faith when they go to college. It may not solely be the intellectual challenge they encounter, but simply the loss of a familiar environment that triggers habitual attitudes.

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