Excerpted from Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture, by Chris Edwards





Rhonda Byrne’s mega-bestselling book, The Secret, is a fascinating read, but not because of the clarity of its writing or the power of its content. It’s fascinating because it’s a religion and marketing hybrid. Essentially, Byrne’s “secret” is just the old Christian prosperity gospel reworked to take most of the Christianity and references to god out so that the final product appeals to a greater number of people. Don’t worry though, all of the typical New Age elements—a misunderstanding of quantum theory, ramblings about vibrations, an appeal to mysterious sources, and statistical errors—are all present. However, the main theme of The Secret is not religion or New Age philosophy, but consumerism. The Secret, like indulgences, is the perfect product for the seller.

SecretThe assumption the authors make—there are many contributions by different writers scattered throughout the text by “Secret teachers”—is that the reader is not only stupid but horribly lazy. The Secret is not even a book in any conventional sense; it’s more of an elongated Hallmark greeting card. Assertions, backed up purely by anecdotal evidence, if any at all, leap from the decorated pages. The text is very short and very redundant. It’s the equivalent of cereal boxes containing kids’ cereals, which are only half-filled with colorful, non-nutritive sugar and bleached flour. But at least those boxes have a prize inside; put your hand inside The Secret and rummage around, and all you’ll pull out is a handful of fallacies.

Like the author of The Celestine Prophecy, Byrne wants the reader to believe that her Secret was both well-known by every ancient civilization and religion, and is heavily guarded by a powerful cabal. She writes:

I’d been given a glimpse of a Great Secret–The Secret to life. The glimpse came in a hundred-year-old book, given to me by my daughter Hayley. I began tracing The Secret back through history. I couldn’t believe all the people who knew this. They were the greatest people in history: Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, Hugo, Beethoven, Lincoln, Emerson, Edison, Einstein.

Incredulous, I asked, “Why doesn’t everyone know this?” (ix)

A few pages later, Dr. Denis Waitley answers Byrne’s question:

The leaders in the past who had The Secret wanted to keep the power and not share the power. They kept people ignorant of The Secret. People went to work, they did their job, they came home. They were on a treadmill with no power, because The Secret was kept in the few. (2)

Somewhere, I suppose, Secret knowers gather for an annual convention where they all whisper in each other’s ears and nod knowingly. So what is this Secret? (And yes, that sound you’re hearing is Edison and Einstein, both atheists, grinding what’s left of their molars.) Well, it’s not much. The idea is that the universe (the substitute word for God) gives you what you want. This is defined as the Law of Attraction, which is a natural law that works just as regularly as gravity.
Bob Proctor (one of Byrne’s many unknow experts) explains it:

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…Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you. (4)

Yikes! Try not to think of knives or Rush Limbaugh emerging from a bath. A skeptical reader might dismiss this simple notion out of hand, since it is so clearly ridiculous. If this is a law, why can’t I imagine a dragon, or a many breasted maiden of virtue true, materializing on my front lawn? Well, The Secret works like prayer, but not in any way that can be tested by science. Prayer might help you get over the flu (and I emphasize “might”), but will it help you to regenerate a lost limb (check out or recover from a serious genetic disorder. It only works in cases where a sick person might recover through normal means. If one prays and prays and prays for a person with cancer who then dies, then the only way to protect the notion of “the power of prayer” is to say that there was something wrong with the believer’s prayers.

This is even worse than the old Christian evasion, “God works in mysterious ways.” Byrne postulates a Law of Attraction. In Byrne’s twisted philosophy, everything that happens to people is a result of their thoughts. If one is sick, or poor, or if The Secret doesn’t work, then it’s the fault of the individual, not of microbes, injustice, or a author preying on the gullible.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell:

A perfect example to demonstrate The Secret and the Law of Attraction is this: You may know of people who acquired massive wealth, lost it all, and within a short time acquired massive wealth again. What happened in these cases, whether they knew it or not, is that their dominant thoughts were on wealth; that is how they acquired it in the first instance. Then they allowed fearful thoughts of losing wealth to enter their minds, until those fearful thoughts of loss became their dominant thoughts. They tipped the scales from thinking thoughts of wealth to thinking thoughts of loss, and so they lost it all. (7)

So companies like Enron didn’t fall and wipe out the savings of their workers and investors because their executives were secretly fixing the books; it was because their workers were having negative thoughts and sending them out into the universe. Interesting. I wonder if the kids in the developing world know that they aren’t poor because of political and economic oppression, but because they insist upon thinking about poverty all the time—the idea being that if you think negative thoughts then you attract negative things. If you think positive thoughts then you attract positive things.

The Secret is almost entirely based upon a single philosophical error, that of reification. Another of Byrne’s unknown experts, Mike Dooley, states:

[T]hat principle can be summed up in three simple words. Thoughts become things! (9)

Just as in the Celestine Prophecy, there is a lot of babble about “vibration” and magnetism. Thoughts are alternatively described as attractive and projective forces that are sent into the universe where, by law, they attract things. Thus, the Law of Attraction becomes a type of faceless deistic god:

The Law of Attraction is a law of nature. It is impersonal and it does not see good or bad things. It is receiving your thoughts and reflecting those thoughts as your life experience. (13)

Later, Byrne describes this law as “the mightiest power in the universe.”(14) The reader might notice that this same conceit is repeated throughout the book like a mantra. I doubt this is an intentional indoctrination technique, but rather the efforts of an author desperate to stretch a banal assertion into a salable commodity. Throughout, there is ample white space, quotes from famous people (some, like Winston Churchill, who really deserve better) and many, many plugs for The Secret DVD, which I have declined to buy.

Inevitably, Byrne brings up quantum physics and reworks it into a creationist creed that is, incredibly, more vapid than the traditional Young Earth delusion: “The Law of Attraction is the law of creation. Quantum physicists tell us that the entire Universe emerged from your thought!” (15)

Quantum physicists do not tell us this at all. Where Byrne got such a notion is a mystery, a Secret, though I’m assuming it wasn’t from actually studying quantum physics.

This error is later repeated by Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, who actually has written some books on science and has a degree in theoretical physics:

I’m not talking to you from the point of view of wishful thinking or imaginary craziness. I’m talking to you from a deeper, basic understanding. Quantum physics begins to point to this discovery. It says that you can’t
have a Universe without mind entering into it, and that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived. (21)

This is subtle trickery from the good doctor. Quantum physics does not tell us we cannot have a universe without a mind. You can’t have a rational understanding of the positions and workings of particles without a mind to perceive them. This does not mean that the particles cease to exist if they aren’t being observed. Your mind does shape your perception of the world around you; it shapes it into an understandable vision that allows you to survive. It does not alter physical reality outside your head.

The Secret is, like other New Age spewage, not benign. In fact, it is in some respects perfectly hateful. Again, belief in The Secret is like belief in prayer or other religious rituals. If one begins with the proposition that faith in such things must work, then the only way to explain away incidents where they don’t work is to blame the believer for not having enough piety. In other words, the victim is always at fault. This is made evident early on in an unsubstantiated anecdote by one Bill Harris:

I had a student named Robert, who was taking an online course I have . . .

Robert was gay. He outlined all of the grim realities of his life in his emails to me. In his job, his coworkers ganged up on him. . . . When he walked down the street, he was accosted by homophobic people . . . He wanted to become a stand-up comedian, and when he did a stand-up comedy job, everybody heckled him about being gay. His whole life was one of unhappiness and misery, and it all focused around being attacked because he was gay.

I began to teach him that he was focusing on what he did not want. I [said] . . . “I can tell you’re very passionate about this and when you focus on something with a lot of passion, it makes it happen even faster!”

Then he started taking this thing about focusing on what you want to heart, and he began really trying it. What happened within the next six to eight weeks was an absolute miracle. All the people in his office who had been harassing him either transferred to another department, quit working at the company, or started completely leaving him alone. He began to love his job. When he walked down the street, nobody harassed him anymore…His whole life changed because he changed from focusing on what he did not want, what he was afraid of, what he wanted to avoid, to focusing on what he did want. (17–18)

Perhaps the single most annoying trait of religious believers of all stripes is the tendency to put themselves at the center of every narrative. Surely, none of Robert’s co-workers quit their jobs or were transferred because of anything going on in their lives. No, they were simply bit players in The Robert Show. Robert’s harassment wasn’t due to the ignorance of people, nor to their hateful religious beliefs and practices, it was due to the fact that he was thinking about discrimination. (Let us remember that the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god, as many of its fanatical supporters often point out, emphatically does hate homosexuals—check out Leviticus 20:13 and 18:22.)

Later, this blame-the-victim philosophy reaches its peak:

The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. Every negative thought, feeling, or emotion is blocking your good from coming to you, and that includes money. It is not that the money is being kept from you by the Universe, because all the money you require exists right now in the invisible. If you do not have enough, it is because you are stopping the flow of money coming to you, and you are doing that with your thoughts. (99)

This must mean that the millions of Africans ripped from their homes and sold into slavery during the Triangular Trade were just too goddamned focused on bondage. Had Rhonda been in the galleys of a slave ship I’m sure that she would have whispered, “Your problem is that you are projecting slavery to the universe. Try to think freedom,” to the people chained there. Poor people in Haiti aren’t suffering in poverty, according to Byrne, because of historical and economic forces beyond their control, but because they just aren’t gosh-darn positive enough and are blocking money coming in from the universe. Such flippant disregard for suffering and poverty borders on sadism.

At times, it seems as if The Secret is literally trying to combine every half-baked thought and money-making con into a single slim volume. It’s not enough for Byrne to combine the prosperity gospel with New Age blame-the-victim pabulum and faith-based religiosity; she can’t seem to resist turning The Secret into a weight loss scheme, too. Forgive me for the length of this quote, but I fear that if I summarize it, it will look as if I’m making this up:

The first thing to know is that if you focus on losing weight, you will attract back having to lose more weight, so get ‘having to lose weight’ out of your mind. It’s the very reason why diets don’t work. Because you are focused on losing weight, you must attract back continually having to lose weight.

The second thing to know is that the condition of being overweight was created through your thought to it. To put it in the most basic terms, if someone is overweight, it came from thinking ‘fat thoughts,’ whether that person was aware of it or not. A person cannot think ‘thin thoughts’ and be fat. It completely defies the Law of Attraction.

Whether people have been told they have a slow thyroid, a slow metabolism, or their body size is hereditary, these are all disguises for thinking “fat thoughts.” If you accept any of those conditions as applicable to you, and you believe it, it must become experience, and you will continue to attract being overweight.

After I had my two daughters I was overweight, and I know it came from listening to and reading the messages that it is hard to lose weight after having a baby, and even harder after the second baby. I summoned exactly that to me with those “fat thoughts,” and it became my experience. I really “beefed up,” and the more I noticed how I had “beefed up,” the more “beefing up” I attracted. With a small frame, I became a hefty 143 pounds, all because I was thinking “fat thoughts.” (58–59)

Byrne must have been thinking about sub-literate writing when she wrote that passage, because that’s what the universe granted her. (I will spare the reader a section where, literally, Byrne tells a story about a magic rock.) Notice that there is no mention of calories or exercise in her illuminating passage; one does not need to work at anything in Byrne’s universe. In fact, she goes out of her way to assure the reader that no work will be required. After Bob Doyle states that for The Secret to work “Action will sometimes be required…” Byrne is quick to say:

Action is a word that can imply ‘work’ to some people, but inspired action will not feel like work at all. The difference between inspired action and action is this: Inspired action is when you are acting to receive. If you are in action to try and make it happen you have slipped backward. Inspired action is effortless, and it feels wonderful because you are on the frequency of receiving. (55)

What this means, exactly, is beyond me. I’m inclined to think that Byrne is trying to assure her customers that they can have anything they want in the world. When those customers discover that this will require work, they may de-convert, so she simply changes the word “work” to “inspired action.”

If work isn’t necessary to make the universe work for you, then one might ask what is necessary. Three guesses as to what it is…that’s right, The Secret requires faith. The problem with faith is that it requires ignorance, something that Byrne embraces with glee:

How do you get yourself to a point of believing? Start make-believing. Be like a child, and make-believe. Act as if you have it already. As you make-believe, you will begin to believe you have received. The Genie is responding to your predominant thoughts all the time, not just in the moment you ask. That’s why after you’ve asked, you must continue to believe and know. Have faith. Your belief that you have it, that undying faith, is your greatest power. When you believe you are receiving, get ready, and watch the magic begin! (50)

So, one has to pretend that The Secret is working in order to get The Secret to work? I really don’t even know what in the hell this means exactly, although I do know that it is a cornerstone of oppressive systems whose goal is to keep people believing in what they are told.

Oh, but there’s more. Byrne makes no bones about borrowing from the Christian prosperity gospel. She notes that “The Creative Process used in The Secret, which was taken from the New Testament in the Bible, is an easy guideline for you to create what you want in three simple steps.” (47)

The New Testament quotes upon which Byrne is basing this statement are, for those who are interested, Matthew 21:22 “Whatever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” and Mark 11:24 “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” (54). Byrne is quite right that the nonsensical sentiments of The Secret are anchored in Christian texts, which just goes to show that portions of the Bible are just as stupid and vapid as Byrne’s “Secret.”

Byrne, by the way, emphatically endorses “The Millionaires of the Bible” series by Catherine Ponder. Byrne notes:

In these glorious books you will discover that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of. (109)

Huh? To begin with, all of the individuals she mentions here are fictional characters. Secondly, some of them had multiple wives and slaves as part of their opulent lifestyles. Should this be an aspiration? And, really, were the stories about the life of Jesus intended to portray his wealth?

There are a lot of personal anecdotes in the book about people curing themselves of cancer with “strong faith.” The story of Norman Cousins, who supposedly laughed until he was over an “incurable disease” is related. “As he laughed, Norman released all negativity, and he released his disease.” (129) The problem with such stories, again, is that we never hear the stories of people who laughed their asses off and still died of their disease. A certain number of people, diagnosed with anything, will be pronounced “incurable” and will get well. To attribute Cousins’s recovery to laughter is to commit the fallacy of “false attribution.” Why should his laughter, as opposed to the position of the furniture in his house, or the breakfast cereal he ate, be considered the cause of his recovery? Unless a clinical trial was done which isolated his laughter from other factors, there is no reason. Also, if laughter is so effective, why can’t an amputee laugh himself a new arm?

There is one small nugget of sanity tucked deep in the babble. Dr. John Demartini wrote:

If somebody is in a situation where they’re sick and they have an alternative to try to explore what is in their mind creating it, versus using medicine, if it’s an acute situation that could really bring death to them, then obviously the medicine is a wise thing to do, while they explore what the mind is about. So you don’t want to negate medicine. Every form of healing has its place. (126)

In other words, don’t really expect this Secret shit to work. I wonder if a nervous lawyer had something to do with this little excerpt.
Finally, if James Redfield sought to make Jesus the central figure of the New Age, one who straddled the real world and the spiritual as an example to everyone else, then Byrne takes this one step further. She simply makes everyone Jesus:

You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet. (164)

Such humility.

In the end, Byrne strips religion of most of its unsavory aspects and makes it more consumer friendly. She has offered the believer everything she wants, from money to being the central character in the universe’s drama, without the pain of work. All one has to do is believe.

Byrne has created a solipsistic system that by definition is perfect, and that fails only if the believer’s solipsism is imperfect. The product is non-returnable, because it only works if the buyer is using it properly. If it doesn’t work, the problem is with the user, not the product.

Incredibly, Byrne has managed to offer a much bigger reward than almost all traditional religions. In Byrne’s New Age, the believer—like the author—gets to be god.

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  1. […] At about the same time, while brooding on the sales of my books (good by small press standards, but that’s not even sufficient to maintain one in genteel poverty) I noticed in another issue of PW that many of the trade paperback and hardback bestsellers were New Age (rhymes with “sewage”–with a tip of the hat to Penn & Teller) titles, and that the number one book was something called The Secret.  […]


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