Beyond ‘The Secret’: self-help, New Thought and more

The Secret, the enormously popular book and film, tells people to focus their thoughts on their goals and desires and to withhold thought or attention from unwanted outcomes. The author, Rhonda Byrne, and the handful of self-described metaphysicians, philosophers, writers and New Age thinkers whose work she references, describe this “law of attraction” as ordering up what you want from the universe. The emphasis is on material desires, and the premise is that Byrne and her colleagues are revealing ancient wisdom that has been suppressed from popular distribution

The phenomenon presents the opportunity to explore lesser-known strands of American religious history, including the New Thought tradition, which began in the 19th century and is alive today among Unity churches, churches and groups allied with the Universal Foundation for Better Living and, to a certain extent, in Christian Science. It is also richly represented by self-help writers and lecturers, from Shakti Gawain to Wayne Dyer. Mainstream religions are responding to The Secret’s popularity with sermons that differentiate New Thought principles from the tenets of the faith.

Background

The Secret’s spiritual underpinnings may be new to many, but they have a long history in the U.S. The belief that thinking creates reality, which is the basic notion of The Secret, has been preached by such varied American philosophical and religious leaders as Norman Vincent Peale and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, says Carl Raschke, religious studies professor at the University of Denver, who suggests that positive thinking is a secular American religion, an extension of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps frontier ethos.

Why it matters

All religions explain humans’ relationship to the universe, and most embrace a supernatural power that controls human destiny. Books such as The Secret raise the question: What’s the difference between religion and New Age or self-help philosophies?

Angles for reporters

  • The law of attraction – the idea that thoughts are made manifest in the material realm – has origins in early Hindu thought, which proposed, Raschke explains, the “mind alone” theory: that the mind is the only reality; all else is illusion. Such traditions of spiritual discipline, however, are not materialistic, unlike The Secret, which adapts the notion to American concerns with material acquisition.
  • The 19th-century Theosophists and their leader, Madame Helena Blavatsky, are direct ancestors of the positive-thinking New Thought movement, of which The Secret is a part, says Dell deChant, associate chairman of the religious studies department at the University of South Florida. He says America is a cauldron for the development of new religious and spiritual traditions from old sources because of our strong emphasis on freedom of religion.
  • The success of The Secret brings to the forefront other books and videos on positive thinking, New Thought and the law of attraction. Two best-selling examples are The Secret: Universal Mind Meditation by Kelly Howell and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires by Jerry and Esther Hicks, longtime writers and teachers of material similar to The Secret. Esther Hicks channels a spirit called Abraham. Noted thinkers in this genre also include Napoleon Hill (who wrote, with Arthur Pell, Think and Grow Rich, reissued by Tarcher Publishing, 2005); Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking, reissued by Ballantine Books, 1996); Church of Christ, Scientist founder Mary Baker Eddy (Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, IndyPublish.com, 2002); Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky; and 18th-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
  • Many scholars consider The Secret and the law of attraction to be representative of New Age philosophies. Other scholars of New Age say that tradition includes belief in the occult and paranormal, which is not part of New Thought, The Secret’s direct predecessor.
  • The Universal Foundation for Better Living is an alliance of churches built on the New Thought Movement established by the Rev. Johnnie Colemon (founder of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago) in 1974. It promotes what it calls practical Christianity, in which Jesus is seen as a Way-shower, experiences are seen as a reflection of beliefs, the key to happiness is right thinking and right action, and that rather than primarily helping the needy, the emphasis should be on teaching them to release their divine potential. Find churches and study groups associated with the foundation in states around the country.
  • Unity church (distinctly different from Unitarianism) has some 900 churches and study groups and claims more than 2 million adherents in 15 nations. Unity’s five principles include one stating that thinking affects our reality.
  • Soka Gakkai International is the organization of Nichiren Buddhism, whose tradition includes chanting (“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”) with the aim of attaining, for example, good health, financial stability, noble character and family harmony.

Articles

  • “Do you know the 100-year old secret behind “The Secret”?”

    Read a Feb 24, 2013 Patheos article about the increasing popularity of the New Thought church and it’s portrayal through Rhonda Byrne’s novel, Secret (Atria Books, 2006).

  • “Unlocking the mind’s power”

    Read a Feb. 16, 2007, Chicago Tribune article about Chicago’s Center for Spiritual Living, describes the spiritual dimensions of a New Thought church in the tradition of The Secret.

  • “The Hubris of ‘The Secret'”

    In this Beliefnet article, the author, a cancer survivor, questions the book’s premise that one’s life is the result of one’s thoughts.

  • “Everybody loves Secrets”

    Read a March 14, 2007, article at Catholic Online, urges pastors and religious educators to use The Secret’s popularity as a teaching moment.

National sources

  • Roger Olson

    Roger Olson is an expert in historical theology and professor of religion at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. Olson co-chairs the evangelical theology group of the American Academy of Religion. He wrote the “theology of evangelicalism” entry in the Encyclopedia of Protestantism (Routledge, 2004).

  • Catherine Albanese

    Catherine Albanese is Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions & Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to New Age (University of Chicago Press, 1991) and America: Religions and Religion, 5th. ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2012).

  • Wade Clark Roof

    Wade Clark Roof is F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society and chairman of the religious studies department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is a columnist for Beliefnet and author of, among other books, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2001). He is also editor in chief of Contemporary American Religion (Macmillan Reference USA, 1999).

  • Leigh Eric Schmidt

    Leigh Eric Schmidt teaches religion and chairs the religion department at Princeton University. He wrote Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality From Emerson to Oprah (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) and can speak about expressions of American spirituality, including their role in 19th-century communal living arrangements.

  • J. Gordon Melton

    J. Gordon Melton is a distinguished professor of American religious history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Formerly, he directed the Institute for the Study of American Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written about New Religious Movements and about Christian Science and is an expert on American-born religions. He co-wrote Perspectives on the New Age and has written on New Thought Movements.

  • Kathryn Lofton

    Kathryn Lofton is a professor of religious studies, American studies and  history and divinity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She has written about the religious content of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire and is knowledgeable about American religion and materialism, especially Christian kitsch.

  • Blaine Mays

    Blaine Mays is president of the International New Thought Alliance, which holds, among other things, that mental states are manifested in daily experience. He can describe the New Thought movement and discuss whether the blockbuster success of The Secret has created demand for New Thought churches and spiritual centers.

  • Carl A. Raschke

    Carl A. Raschke is professor of religious studies at the University of Denver. He is particularly interested in postmodernism, popular culture and religion. He wrote The Interruption of Eternity (Nelson-Hall, 1980), a reference on the origins of the New Age movement. He is co-founder and senior editor of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

  • Douglas R. Groothuis

    Douglas R. Groothuis is a philosophy professor at Denver Seminary and an expert in Christian apologetics, the defense of Christian ideas and faith. He wrote Unmasking the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1986) and Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1988) and contributed to The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (Routledge, 2000). He can discuss the New Age worldview.

  • Dell deChant

    Dell deChant is an instructor and associate chairman of the religious studies department at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He has written numerous entries on New Thought and New Age movements for various encyclopedias of religion.

  • Michael Bernard Beckwith

    Michael Bernard Beckwith is minister of the 8,000-member Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, Calif. He is one of the spiritual leaders featured in The Secret, and the Agape Center is part of the New Thought tradition.

    Contact: 310-348-1250.
  • James Trapp

    James Trapp is CEO of the Association of Unity Churches, based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Unity claims about 100,000 members in some 700 churches.

    Contact: 816-524-7414.
  • Church of Christ, Scientist

    The Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston does outreach in seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Contact Adam Scherr.

  • Unity Ministries

    Unity Ministries is an organization based on the power of prayer and hope. The ministry provides resources for training faith leaders in their houses of worship. The Unity movement was founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in 1889.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Glenn Shuck

    Glenn Shuck is an assistant professor in the religion department at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He has said that the trend of tweeting and using other social networks during religious services is likely to grow, especially among emerging churches.

  • Eric Michael Mazur

    Eric Michael Mazur is a religion professor at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., where he teaches courses on religion and popular culture and Judaism and film. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Film. He says that if Americans are looking for spiritual expressions as opposed to institutional forms of religion, it’s logical they will seek spiritual themes in film.

  • Beryl Satter

    Beryl Satter is associate professor of history at Rutgers University. She can discuss the development of New Thought philosophy and religion in the United States. She wrote Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity and the New Thought Movement, 1875-1920 (University of California Press, 1999).

  • Carol MacPherson Kauffman

    Carol MacPherson Kauffman is assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard University Medical School. She founded Positive Psychology Coaches, which helps clients by focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses and stresses research-based measurement and exercises. Kauffman is an adherent of the new field of positive psychology and the scientific study of happiness.

In the South

  • Phillip Charles Lucas

    Phillip Charles Lucas is a professor of religious studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. He is the co-editor of Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community (University Press of Florida, 2000) and general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. His other publications include “Enfants Terribles: The Challenge of Sectarian Converts to Ethnic Orthodox Churches in the United States,” published in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions (2003).

  • Catherine Wessinger

    Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, has written widely on theosophy, millennialism, New Religious Movements and New Age religions. She is co-editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.

  • Tommie Novick-Lunsford

    Tommie Novick-Lunsford is a minister of the Universal Foundation for Better Living who leads the Christ Delta study group in Indianola, Miss.

    Contact: 662-887-1955.
  • Henry S. Levinson

    Henry S. Levinson is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He wrote The Religious Investigations of William James (University of North Carolina Press, 1981) and is an expert on 19th-century American transcendentalist thinkers.

  • Amanda Porterfield

    Amanda Porterfield, historian of American religion, is a religion professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She is particularly interested in the interplay of religion and culture and has written about Mary Baker Eddy.

  • Temple Hayes

    The Rev. Temple Hayes is pastoral care minister of First Unity Church and spiritual leader of Unity Campus, a New Thought center, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

  • Phyllis Nelson

    Phyllis Nelson is the teacher and director of Christ’s Jewels of Truth, a Nashville study group affiliated with the Universal Foundation for Better Living.

In the Midwest

  • Dr. James R. Lewis

    Dr. James R. Lewis is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tromsø and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales Lampeter. He edits Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series and co-edits Ashgate’s Controversial New Religions series. He is an active, highly-published scholar of new religious movements. He has written about Sikhism.

  • Johnnie Colemon

    Johnnie Colemon is founder of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, where the first statement of belief is “We believe that it is God’s will that every individual on the face of this earth should live a healthy, happy and prosperous life.” She blends traditional prosperity gospel with New Thought theology – the belief that one’s mind creates one’s reality. Her church bills itself as the largest New Thought Christian church.

    Contact: 773-568-2282.
  • Jerry Park

    Jerry Park is an assistant professor of the sociology of religion at Baylor University in Waco. His specialty is in racial, ethnic and religious identity. Ask about his research into religious consumption – he delivered a paper, “What Would Jesus Buy: American Religious Consumption in the 21st Century,” to the 2006 conference on the Scientific Study of Religion – and how it pertains to the popularity of New Age media products.

  • Philip K. Goff

    Philip K. Goff is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Indianapolis, where he directs the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. He co-edited (with Paul Harvey) Themes in Religion and American Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and (also with Harvey) The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945 (Columbia University Press, 2005).

  • William Michael Ashcraft

    William Michael Ashcraft is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. He has written about New Religious Movements.

  • Robert M. Fowler

    Robert M. Fowler chairs the religion department at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. He is a member of the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture editorial board. His focus is on unconventional U.S. religions.

  • John K. Simmons

    John K. Simmons is professor and chairman of the department of religious studies at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He has written about metaphysics, the Unity Church and Christian Science.

  • Ruth A. Tucker

    Ruth A. Tucker is an independent scholar of religion based in Grand Rapids, Mich. She has taught courses on world religions, cults and New Age for 30 years, most recently at Calvin Theological Seminary. Tucker wrote Another Gospel: Cults, Alternative Religions and the New Age Movement (Zondervan, 2004).

    The Secret is typical of the think-yourself-healthy, think-yourself-rich genre, she says. Not all positive thinking is problematic, Tucker says, but she finds The Secret’s lack of compassion for the difficulties of others particularly troublesome.

  • John A. Saliba

    John A. Saliba teaches world religions and other liberal arts topics at the University of Detroit-Mercy and is an authority on the relationship between Christianity and New Age religions. He participated in a lengthy Vatican study of New Religious Movements, and he wrote the scholarly book Understanding New Religious Movements and Christian Responses to the New Age Movement: A Critical Assessment.

    He has not read The Secret but is familiar with its context in American religious history.

  • Mark Anthony Lord

    Mark Anthony Lord is a spiritual leader of the Center for Spiritual Living in Chicago, which is in the tradition of the New Thought movement.

    Lord has studied with Michael Bernard Beckwith, one of the figures featured in The Secret. Lord says that using spiritual power for material gain is only one aspect of the faith, which turns to a variety of sources for inspiration, including the Bible, Marianne Williamson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Deepak Chopra.

    Contact: 773-248-5683.

In the West

  • Jeffrey Howard Mahan

    Jeffrey Howard Mahan is a professor of religion and communication at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is the author of Media, Religion and Culture: An Introduction and Religion and Popular Culture in America.

  • Paul Harvey

    Paul Harvey is a professor of American history at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He wrote Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South From the Civil War Through the Civil Rights Era and co-edited (with Philip Goff) The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945. Harvey is working on a history of religion, race and American ideas of freedom.

  • Sarah M. Pike

    Sarah M. Pike is an associate professor of religious studies at California State University in Chico. She has written about New Age and neopagan religions and is working on a project about teens on the margins of American culture. She addresses Scientology in her writings.

  • Colleen McDannell

    Colleen McDannell is a professor of religious studies and history at the University of Utah. She is the author of Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy and Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America

  • Rennie B. Schoepflin

    Rennie B. Schoepflin is a history professor at California State University, Los Angeles. He is interested in the historical interplay among science, health and religion. He has studied religious healers, including Christian Science healers, and can talk about the Christian Science view of the power of thought.

  • Susanna Morrill

    Susanna Morrill is an assistant professor of religious studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. She wrote entries on Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science for the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics (Facts on File, 2003).

  • Della Reese Lett

    Della Reese Lett (aka the singer/actress Della Reese) is the minister of the Understanding Principles of Better Living Church in West Hollywood, Calif. The church, which calls its message one of practical Christianity, offers to teach worshippers not what to think but how to think. It is part of the Universal Foundation for Better Living association of New Thought Christian churches.

    Contact: 310-641-7991, 310-412-7729.

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