I have a bone to pick with The Secret. A couple of them, actually. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Secret by now. The Secret is really no secret. It’s a marketing ploy by an Australian film maker named Rhonda Byrne and it’s been very successful. Being Unitarian Universalists, we have no creed or dogma, but we do have values that support an engagement in a responsible search for truth and meaning and I find The Secret troublesome, bordering on irresponsible spirituality. I don’t think you can make an argument for The Secret being in line with our principles and purposes. And even though it has been hyped by Oprah (a person I generally like – but see “Oprah’s Ugly’s Secret” from Salon.com) and has given a boost to positive thinking (which is a positive in itself), it’s no secret that I don’t like the Secret. It’s a shortcut spirituality. Spiritual practices are work, not wishful thinking. Spiritual practices responsibly engage you with the world; they don’t let you off the hook from having to worry about others who aren’t attracting enough positiveness.
I have a few big issues with The Secret. One is its foundation on what Rhonda Byrne calls the “law of attraction.” She claims this “law” governs the universe. Well, universal laws are applicable all the time, everywhere, such as the law of gravity, the first law of motion, etc. I am willing to wager the “law of attraction” can not be proven to be such a law. The law of attraction says that like attracts like and when you think and feel what you want to attract on the inside the law will use people, circumstances and event to magnetize what you want to you and you to it. Poppycock! Drop down in the middle of Darfur. There are a whole lot of people there thinking and feeling with every mote of their being not to be in the middle of a genocide. But, since the law of attraction isn’t a real law, it still goes on because real human social injustice has real oppositional factors that willfully obstruct good intentions and wishful thinking, which basically is what the Secret is about. As a Unitarian Universalist minister I can’t go hog wild down The Secret path, because as a Unitarian Universalist I also value Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit. Rushing headlong down Secret Road aims in this direction. Someday the situation in Darfur will improve, but it will not be due to a nonexistent “law of attraction”, which, if it were so powerful and so many people were imploring it for an end to the situation, would have worked this monster of a calamity out years ago.
The second big issue I have with The Secret is that I see it as a prosperity Gospel for the secular world. I don’t like the Gospel of prosperity that is preached in some Christian churches today. I think it’s a perversion of Jesus’ message and I see the message in The Secret leading to the same kind of thinking. American culture is already too materialistic for another prosperity Gospel. One is bad enough. I much prefer the Social Gospel.
The social Gospel preached that you are responsible for your brother and sister; that you are your brother’s keeper and your sister’s keeper. The Social Gospel movement aimed to engage people of faith in transforming society be eliminating social ills. The prosperity Gospel is a misinterpretation of the message of Jesus that allows one to feel comfortable with greed and materialism run rampant, and with turning a blind eye to the social injustices of the world being visited upon other human beings who happen to be our brothers and sisters. The prosperity Gospel’s attitude is “hey you must not be praying right, or you must not be pleasing to God, so you are aren’t getting blessed with the riches.” It’s a weak, unfounded, theology, that fails to take into account the many forms of oppression humans foist upon each other that actively keep others from access or equal opportunity.
The prosperity Gospel leaves out the socially constructed component of injustices such as poverty. So does its secular equivalents such as The Secret. I’m working with an Interfaith Homeless Coalition where I live. The Social Gospel would encourage us to look at homelessness as something we all need to be concerned about because it’s our job to look after each other. The prosperity Gospel says, why should I worry about people who obviously aren’t right with God or they’d have the blessings I’d have.
This type of thinking is as old as the D writer in the Pentateuch with his overarching theme of retribution theology: Obey God and you’ll be blessed; disobey and you’ll be cursed. I’m too much of a Unitarian Universalist, emphasis on the Universalist here, to take up this kind of thinking, as I believe everyone is blessed and saved, you don’t have to have the right intentions, or attraction or anything – you’re just in and worthy, period.
This may sound harsh for UU’s out there who are into The Secret, but I worry about it because we are about to enter into tough economic times and those who have are about to have less and those who have less are about to have little or nothing. I don’t even like thinking about what those who already have little or nothing are going to end up with as things get rough. It will be easier in such times to retreat into lazy resignation that there is nothing to do about the growing problems of poverty and homelessness and hunger; that people facing such issues need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; that such people aren’t attracting enough good fortune their own way, and so on.
We’re called by our faith as Unitarian Universalists to combat social injustice and to use our reason. I believe in the power of positive thinking, but I don’t believe in marketing gimmicks as spiritual practices or that we should look for ways to get out of responsibility to others with whom we are tied, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And that’s no secret.
Pastorally, there are individual “blame the victim” issues that are microcosms of the justice issues. These are outlined well in an article in USA Today:
However, the fear that The Secret will lead to a blame-the-victim mentality is a serious claim of critics.
For example, the book dismisses conditions such as a genetic predisposition to being overweight or a slow thyroid as “disguises for thinking ‘fat thoughts.'” And during times in which massive number of lives were lost, the book says, the “frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event.”
Psychotherapist and lifestyle coach Stacy Kaiser said that after reading The Secret, several patients have worried that it was their fault they were abused, or laid off from their jobs. Others seem to expect everything in their lives to change overnight, she said.
The Los Angeles-based Kaiser joins several other therapists who praised the positive thinking espoused in The Secret, but who question its failure to discuss action.
“People start to think that they don’t have to use their free will, that they don’t have to have power anymore, that they don’t have to make choices,” Kaiser said. “They don’t realize they have to do the work. And that’s the conversation I keep having to have with people.”
Dr. Gail Saltz, an author and psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, pointed out that cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to modify harmful thoughts as a way to improve patients’ feelings.
She said that among people who are ill, those who remain hopeful and have a positive attitude tend to do better. But she was especially upset about a portion of Byrne’s DVD in which a woman claims her breast cancer was cured without radiation or chemotherapy; the woman watched funny movies and had faith that she had already been healed.
Saltz received hundreds of angry e-mails after she talked about her concerns on the Today show. She thinks that some fans of The Secret take it figuratively — they don’t think they’ll get a necklace just by thinking about it, but feel improving their thoughts improves their life. But from the e-mails she received, she said some people do believe it is based in scientific reality.
“Living is difficult. … People want … a solution and an answer. If it were an easy one, like ‘think it’ — that would be even better, right?” she said. “I understand. It’s a wish fulfillment. I really do understand that.”
The Secret has been dealt with in the UU blogosphere before. Rev. Fred Small, now minister of the First Parish in Cambridge, (MA) Unitarian, published a piece on it UU World titled “The Secrect isn’t Total Bunk” in which he excerpted a sermon on The Secret he preached while still minister in Littleton, MA where he quoted some positive passages from The Secret that he could believe in such as “The feeling of love is the highest frequency you can emit.” Indeed. Who could disagree? I couldn’t. Still can’t.
The best rebuttal was from Elizabeth at her Little Blog in a post titled “The Secret is total Bunk” and the crux of her post was that:
while I understand that some good thoughts and ideas can come from The Secret – especially the sense that positive thinking is important, focusing on the negative is not often helpful, that we should “emit” love our lives, I think it is total bunk. Just because some parts of a book or a way of thinking can be isolated and might be helpful, I don’t think that we can, or should, separate out the acceptable parts of thinking such as that espoused in The Secret given what the overall “package” implies – an overall package that people are buying into by the thousands….
Let’s call this what it is. The Secret is bad pseudo-science and has nothing to do with what Unitarian Universalism is about. We can embrace love and positive thinking and hope without contaminating our faith or our lives with the absurd theological and scientific claims of The Secret.