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Religion Without Religion

September 22, 2010

Here’s a fascinating article from The New Yorker, by Kelefa Sanneh that takes on Rhonda Byrne and the “spiritual empire” she’s built through the huge success of her two books The Secret and The Power. Both books promulgate an updated version of “the power of positive thinking” called “the law of attraction,” and Sanneh does a meticulous job of showing how Byrne fits within the nearly two-hundred-year history of New Thought–that quintessentially American form of spirituality that believes that “the secret” to living a good life is to think hopeful, upbeat, optimistic thoughts all the time. Among other things, Byrne promises that if you follow her teaching, you will become rich.

The article is a long and wide-ranging exploration of the issues around this new American positivism and as I read it, I found myself recalling this recent sermon on Jesus warning that “you cannot serve God and wealth,” as well as this post on whether the different traditions, modes of worship and beliefs of the world’s various religions matter, and this post on American 20-somethings, and then there’s this sermon on “God’s social order.”

But of particular interest to me is Sanneh’s concluding summary of Byrne’s New Thought “religion”:

In distilling a spiritual message that claims to be compatible with all religious traditions, Byrne has had to bracket all possible points of disagreement, discarding anything that might seem, as [Oprah] Winfrey put it, “weird.” The result is a pair of religious books curiously devoid of ancient lore and esoteric beliefs, history and holiness—curiously devoid of religion itself.

In my experience with young adults around my age and younger, I can guess that this “bracket[ing] of all possible points of disagreement,” this “discarding of anything that might seem… ‘weird,'” this paradox of religious books “devoid of religion itself” is precisely what makes The Secret and The Power so popular.

My generation has such a negative view of organized religion, for so many reasons–most of which, I think, are quite legitimate. All you have to do is watch comedian Bill Maher’s recent documentary “Religulous” to understand what I’m talking about. For 20-something and 30-something Americans, religiosity so often signifies magical thinking, being anti-reason and anti-science, as well as bigotry, hate and violence toward those who do not proudly display one’s religious label.

But like all human beings, I think that those anti-religion 20-somethings and 30-somethings still crave a sense of connection to what I call God–or what others might call “the infinite” or “the greater good” or “the spirit of love.” And they crave guidance regarding how to access such a connection. And for many, Rhonda Byrne has stepped into the void and offered them something to fill that need.

Anyway, here are the bits and pieces of the article I found most interesting:

As Ralph Waldo Trine, one of the most popular New Thought writers, wrote in 1897, the law of attraction was bound to dissolve creedal squabbling:

“Minor differences, narrow prejudices, and all these laughable absurdities will so fall away by virtue of their very insignificance, that a Jew can worship equally as well in a Catholic cathedral, a Catholic in a Jewish synagogue, a Buddhist in a Christian church, a Christian in a Buddhist temple. Or all can worship equally well about their own hearth-stones, or out on the hillside, or while pursuing the avocations of every-day life.”

This urge to transcend religious difference is also an urge, thinly veiled, to transcend religion itself. In Trine’s utopia, every house of worship is equally valuable—which is to say, equally superfluous…

It was the creed of the self that would have its say.

In “The Conquest of Poverty,” from 1899, a New Thought proponent named Helen Wilmans used language that any regular viewer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” would recognize: “If search be short or long, I say, discover self! Then, know thyself, and then record a solemn vow and let it be, I can—I will—I dare—I do.” In 1910, Wallace D. Wattles published “The Science of Getting Rich,” which is the book that first got Byrne interested in the law of attraction. Wattles offers his readers some harsh-sounding advice: “Get rich; that is the best way you can help the poor.” By then, the New Thought success manual had become a genre of its own, a genre that concentrated less on what Trine called “the infinite” and more on the finite. Your fortunes were what you made of them: the secret was out…

Wallace Wattles was no apologist for the existing social order. The son of a Midwestern farmer, he was heavily influenced by the “social gospel” preacher George D. Herron, and in the years before he published “The Science of Getting Rich” he twice ran unsuccessfully for public office, in Indiana, as a candidate of the Socialist Party. “The Science of Getting Rich” is a self-help book, but it is also a political manifesto: it urges its readers to acknowledge not only the importance of wealth but also the arbitrary nature of its distribution…

In one of the book’s more startling passages, he suggests that the proletariat use the law of attraction to attract a new era of communism… By such means, he believed, “the working class may become the master class.”

A century later, Byrne betrays little interest in workers’ coöperatives; Wattles’s radical influence appears in “The Secret” only in inverted form. Early in the book, a success coach named Bob Proctor poses a conspiratorial-sounding question: “Why do you think that one per cent of the population earns around ninety-six per cent of all the money that’s being earned?” He doesn’t quite have an answer (“It’s designed that way,” he says, ominously), and neither does Byrne. Where Wattles was convinced that the “plutocrats” were abusing their mental power, Byrne is more likely to conclude that they must be doing something right. Confronted with the injustice of the world, she can only promise, like many religious figures before her, that deliverance is almost at hand:

“An epidemic worse than any plague that humankind has ever seen has been raging for centuries. It is the ‘don’t want’ epidemic. People keep this epidemic alive when they predominantly think, speak, act, and focus on what they ‘don’t want.’ But this is the generation that will change history, because we are receiving the knowledge that can free us of this epidemic!”

This is the language of faith, not scientific theory or political struggle; it can’t be refuted, only disbelieved. But what makes Byrne’s creed so powerful isn’t simply that she offers revolution purged of politics; it’s that, in the best New Thought tradition, she offers religion purged of religion…

“The Power” unfolds as one long pep talk, underscoring Byrne’s increased confidence in her own pronouncements. In one passage, she advises readers to imagine that the front of a dollar bill is the “positive side,” associated with “plenty of money,” and the back is the “negative side,” associated with “a lack of money.” Accordingly, she suggests a ritual: “Each time you handle money, deliberately flip the bills so the front is facing you. Put bills in your wallet with the front facing you. When you hand over money, make sure the front is facing upward.” One can imagine devotees in the distant future holding fast to this practice and repeating this explanation to one another, doing this in remembrance of her. Certainly, she is a grander and more remote presence now than she was three years ago, not least because she has gone into media seclusion. In the weeks before the publication of “The Power,” the publishers announced that Byrne “chooses not to do interviews.” All we have is the scripture…

There is nothing odd about Byrne’s growing inclination toward Christian mysticism. What is odd is that the doctrine she propounds has no room for it… Byrne must be one of the most influential religious writers in the world, and yet she seems to consider her own evolving religious beliefs to be unmentionable.

The creed promulgated by “The Secret” and “The Power” is finally noteworthy not for its audacity—many religions promise more—but for its modesty, its thinness. In distilling a spiritual message that claims to be compatible with all religious traditions, Byrne has had to bracket all possible points of disagreement, discarding anything that might seem, as Winfrey put it, “weird.” The result is a pair of religious books curiously devoid of ancient lore and esoteric beliefs, history and holiness—curiously devoid of religion itself. Byrne’s hope is that this minimalist creed will be enough for her readers. But surely some of them will notice that it doesn’t seem to be enough for her.

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