The Secret Is Total Bunk

I’ve been intending to write about The Secret for a while and Rev. Fred Small‘s recent UU World article Psst: ‘The Secret’ isn’t total bunk,”(adapted form a sermon) inspired me to sit down and get to it. (The Secret has also recently been mentioned at Philocrities and over at Surviving the Workday).

The problems with the book, the DVD companion to the book, and the general philosophy/science outlined therein are so numerous that I have no intention of trying to outline them all. You can read the wikipedia article, which outlines a good number of the problematic aspects and claims. The question for me, as it is was for Rev. Small, is if there is something redeemable about The Secret. Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

In the end, for Rev. Small, there was something redeemable about The Secret. After pointing out some of the problems with the book, he writes:

The Secret reminded me that to dwell constantly in the negative is its own kind of hell—a hell of my own choosing. I don’t want to deny or flee the negative, but I need not build my house on its sinkhole. How effective an activist for change can I be when my thinking and speaking are infused with hopelessness? How much time and energy in all areas of my life do I devote to criticizing what is, rather than creating what could be?

“There is no greater power in the Universe than the power of love,” says The Secret. “The feeling of love is the highest frequency you can emit. If you could wrap every thought in love, if you could love everything and everyone, your life would be transformed.” That’s a view I wholeheartedly endorse.

Yet, for me, 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.

What does the overall package imply, you ask? That your thoughts are responsible for what happens in your life – if you think positive things, positive things will happen. And if you think negative things, negative things will happen. There is no gray area here.

“Everything that’s coming into your life, you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind,” Bob Proctor of The Secret DVD tells us.

As Rev. Small reminds us in the UU World article:

The Secret demands three simple steps: 1) Ask. 2) Believe. 3) Receive.

“It’s like having the Universe as your catalog,” explains [Dr. Vitale, Metaphysician]. “You flip through it and say, ‘I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like that.’ It is You placing your order with the Universe. It’s really that easy.”

The insurmountable problem I have with this is that the logical conclusion these sort of theological/scientific claims require: if things aren’t going well for you, it is because you are doing something wrong. Not only is this just reprehensible to me in general (thinking of those I know who have suffered and succumbed to cancer despite hopeful, joyful honest asking and believing), but this is also a quite racist, classist and sexist claim as well: those who are doing well are doing so because they have asked and believed – because they have done what they need to do, attracting good to themselves. Those who are not doing well have not asked and have not believed – according to The Secret‘s law of attraction, they have not attracted good things to them because their thoughts and energies are not good enough. So, women, if you get raped: you could have prevented that with different thoughts. To the millions suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa: you could have prevented this by thinking different thoughts. Did your wife get laid off from her job?: that also could have prevented by thinking different thoughts. If you go to a highly segregated school that is vastly underfunded and get an inadequate education: you simply did not open that catalog of the universe and pick out what you wanted – you could have prevented this by maybe taking a little action, but mostly by thinking different thoughts, emitting different energy. It’s really that easy.

Rhonda Byrne speaks to this in a Newsweek article:

“The law of attraction is that each one of us is determining the frequency that we’re on by what we’re thinking and feeling,” Byrne said in a telephone interview, in response to a question about the massacre in Rwanda. “If we are in fear, if we’re feeling in our lives that we’re victims and feeling powerless, then we are on a frequency of attracting those things to us … totally unconsciously, totally innocently, totally all of those words that are so important.” (Jerry Adler. “Decoding ‘The Secret'” Newsweek, March 2007)

Right. So apparently the Rwandans might who were massacred (or those killed during the Holocaust or, say, Matthew Shepard or other people who have been brutally killed) might have been having totally unconscious, totally innocent frequencies which, in the end, resulted in their deaths. What a woefully inadequate answer to questions about longing, hoping, and suffering in our world. Shame on you Rhonda Byrne.

Positive thinking is great. Emitting love frequencies is great. But this is not what The Secret is about. The Secret is making claims about how the universe works. If you think about what you want, believe it will come to you, it will. If it doesn’t, you aren’t doing things right. This sounds to me too much like blaming those who suffer from injustice, oppression, and simply those who suffer. It feels like such a slap in the face to all of the people who I have known throughout my life – and really, those throughout the world – who have believed, and yet suffered and struggled and not received. And, it is a slap in the face to those who, for whatever reason, have not been able to believe.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith does not offer easy answers to why there is suffering in the world. We do not have answers as to why we do not always get what we want, or why justice and goodness and health so often fail to manifest in our lives. This is because there are not easy answers to these questions. These are important places for reflection, exploration, struggle, and grappling with hard theological and scientific questions. Why did the cancer treatment not work? Why did our dad lose his job? Why does violence like that which we see in Darfur continue? The Secret, and any embrace of it, dismisses these questions and this grappling that is so central to our faith with easy, simplistic answers.

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.

Addendum: I just want to clarify, after reflecting on this post, that my frustration with The Secret is primarily about The Secret and its theology, not about Rev. Small’s attempt to glean something useful from it. I understand where Rev. Small was going with trying to take some good out of a book/theology/world-view that he takes pains to point out has great problems. I just respectfully disagree with that approach. I don’t know Rev. Small, but imagine, like so many of our ministers, is a thoughtful, kind, and very wise person. Just thought it was important to clarify this.

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18 Responses to The Secret Is Total Bunk

  1. Elizabeth,

    I’m totally with you on the danger of taking the Secret to its logical conclusion (both politically and theologically).

  2. While I enjoyed The Secret, I did so in the way that I enjoy movies about magic (how many children’s movies, for example, are about the power of “belief”). I got some inspiration from it, but it is definitely not my theology.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I also see that Earthbound Spirit has recently written about The Secret
    http://earthbound-spirit.blogspot.com/2007/11/more-on-secret.html

    Thanks for the comments, Hafidha Sofia and Barry. I agree that if you read The Secret as sort of a fluff, interesting thing about magic and such, it is harmless and perhaps even inspirational. My fear is just that this is neither how it is presented nor how many read it….

    Much peace all, E

  4. Stentor says:

    My problem with Rev. Small’s attempt to rescue some good from The Secret is that the good he found is not unique to that book/DVD. You don’t need The Secret to tell you that hope is good. Trying to rescue that message from it gives it too much credit, at the expense of diluting the criticism of all of the uniquely-Secret elements, which are bunk.

  5. I’m a bit late, but thanks for this post Elizabeth. You’ve said what is wrong with this book far more eloquently than I. I first encountered this sort of thinking back when Shirley MacLaine’s books were popular and she wrote something about people choosing their parents – clearly implying that abused kids had chosen their lot in life for some complicated karmic reason, which raised alarms with my BS detector. “The Secret” rang the bells on my BS detector again.

    Blessings to you…

  6. Woody says:

    Elizabeth,

    I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with some of your points. Let me explain:

    You don’t have an understanding past your present beliefs. These teachings disturb your present belief system (according to your article) and challenges it. And that challenge is healthy.

    Buddhism and Hinduism have been teaching these principles for thousands of years. They teach about karma. The teachings from the Law of Attraction (the real foundation of “The Secret”) are very similar to the Buddhist concept of karma. If you do bad things in past lives or in present life you get those things back either in this life or the next.

    While this concept of karma envelops past, present and future, the teachings from the Law of Attraction and The Secret dwell mainly in the “now”. I’m wondering if you reject the concept of karma. If you accept the idea of karma, then you have no reason to discredit The Secret.

    I would personally recommend watching the Law of Attraction instead of The Secret which is a lot of hype and similar to the Davinci Code. The Law of Attraction DVD isn’t like that. Watch it and see what you think then.

    Like you, I was skeptical about these teachings and 6 months ago discarded them as the ramblings of mad people. Now it’s different based on my personal observations of the principles found in these teachings.

    You condemn The Secret for the answers it gives to life and suffering, etc, but freely admit that your faith does not offer easy answers or any at all concerning it. Do you see where I’m coming from? Think about it.

    The L.O.A., along with the concept of karma, offers the simplest and rational explanation for the divide between the duality of our existence. How else can you explain the divide? An unjust God who picks and chooses who is right and wrong and who deserves pain and who deserves pleasure?

    Offer your own thoughts that solve the apparent problem with life before destroying something that you don’t know much about. I offer this comment as a cause for you to ponder things to a greater extent. I offer constructive criticism in love. I hope you receive it as such.

    Peace…

    • Madame Lore says:

      So, if you were to hurt someone’s feelings, what do the teachings of The Secret tell you is your duty? Aren’t you instructed to turn from their negativity? And what are The Secret’s directions on how to treat others, other than to instruct you to be “loving”? And how does The Secret define “loving”? Isn’t it true that if someone is emotionally hurt, regardless of why, it is their own fault and therefore a personal problem they need to go figure out on their own? Isn’t it “loving” to strand them in their pain, because it serves nothing for you to get sucked into the negativity of their self-imposed suffering?

      The Secret is just a license to be cold, selfish, intolerant and judgmental. I hope you don’t lose your heart and humanity to it. Pain is not innately bad. It teaches. Trying to escape your mortal predisposition as a feeling being is abnormal and will only lead to more suffering than if you had just learned some acceptance for how Life really is. There IS Divinity in the universe… but it is not going to rip and tear the fabric of itself to give you your childish desires. That’s negative thinking, right? No. It’s adult acceptance… and from there I can become the individual, complex human being, with pain and loss and grieving as well as all the nice stuff too.

  7. […] favorite post is The Secret is Total Bunk about the ethical and theological problems with a philosophy/mindset/belief that if you believe […]

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. Madame Lore says:

    Very good treatment of the ugly side of The Secret. I’d like to add that there’s also a problem with accountability amongst believers. You can do whatever you want if you believe in The Secret, as long as it’s positive… for you and only you!

    My cousin and her husband were completely taken in by The Secret about 2 years ago. Ever since, they have skirted every emotional moment that wasn’t absolutely positive, saying that they are not allowing themselves to indulge bad feelings anymore. Well, that’s meant that they refuse to interact with anyone who is having a bad day and needs a friend to just listen, or some emotional support. They tell us that we are just complainers and that we need to get on-board with The Secret and stop indulging our pain… as though life can just stop being difficult if we think of it as simple. So, they are now cold and self-centered and they never used to be. And they’ve become terribly judgmental and intolerant of anyone who is having troubles of the heart.

    When I finally confronted my cousin, she told me it sounded like a personal problem to her, and that I needed to sort it out on my own. When I tried to tell her that my pain was due to her coldness, she cut me off and told me that she no longer wanted to have contact with someone as negative as me.

    That’s an improved life? Getting rid of your loved ones because they’re whiney losers if they confront you with how they miss your loving interactions? What’s so ironic is this couple are known in our circle of friends and family as the ones who are always calling freaked out about some horrible life circumstance, or borrowing money, or living with people because they’re homeless and so on. The rest of us have done WAY MORE for them over the years, both materially and spiritually, than they EVER did for us. It’s mind-boggling. Now they just have a license, The Secret, to do the selfish things they did before AND are excused from having to think how what they do effects the people who love them. If we get hurt by them, it’s our own fault.

    I’m not a hater, but I hate The Secret for what it’s stolen from me… my flawed and yet once bubbly loving cousin. If that hurts, I KNOW it’s my fault…

  10. Jennifer R says:

    A friend of mine said that the Law of Attraction beliefs are just selling your soul to the devil. And she isn’t Christian. I think what she meant was you are abandoning any attempt to help others, and are assuming that you are free to try to get whatever you want without worrying about the cost. All sellers of this type of snake oil include some truth, some helpful things, in with the junk they sell, or people wouldn’t be so willing to buy it. It’s time to call it for what it is. Thank you!

  11. Bennett says:

    Great article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our website.
    Keep up the good writing.

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