In the 19th century, the legacy of Calvinism led to an epidemic of ill-defined emotional and physical ailments. Wretched sinners’ fear falling into the hands of an angry God drove the members of the rising middle class into paroxysms of guilt for failing to work hard enough to be worthy of salvation. Women of means and clergymen were afflicted in particular. Noted Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher, father of the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, exhorted his children to “agonize” continually over their spiritual condition. And so they did. His clergyman son George committed suicide after a nervous breakdown. Mary Baker Eddy, later the founder of Christian Science, was so consumed by the implications of the doctrine of predestination that “the family doctor was summoned, and pronounced me stricken with fever.” Her malaise continued until she met Phineas Quimby, a watchmaker and self-educated metaphysician. “It was the meeting of Eddy and Quimby in the 1860’s that launched the cultural phenomenon we now recognize as positive thinking,” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich in “Bright-Sided” (p 79). Quimbyism probably was more effective than bleeding for the “neurasthenia” and bed-rest for the “melancholia” aggravated by acute Calvinism. But what efficacy does it offer today, beyond the obvious benefits of maintaining a good attitude?
It’s a belief system that works well for corporate America, especially when things go badly for workers. Hire a motivational speaker when you “downsize” your company. Pep-talk your remaining workers into believing that they must stay positive in their outlook and demeanor as their pay and benefits are slashed and their co-workers are ushered out the door by security guards. New Thought is used to privatize the misery caused by social-structural failures.
But Ehrenreich argued that this dogma proved disastrous for the economy as a whole. She placed much of the blame for the 2007 debacle on the “bright-siding” of executives in the financial industry who would not let portents of economic collapse distract them from positive thinking about endless growth. They could not let facts dissuade them from making ever-riskier investments. Meanwhile, prosperity gospel preachers led their flocks to mire themselves hopelessly in consumer debt. God wants you to live richly, so manifest wealth now! Ehrenreich noticed the striking similarity of culture between corporations and the mega-churches that preach wealth and positivity. The churches look like office parks, not sacred houses of worship. And they are managed by CEOs with MBAs. In turn, business executives in recent years have re-branded themselves as gurus, acting and talking like spiritual leaders. The only real difference between the church and the office, Ehrenreich suggested, is that at church you can’t get fired.
As the book outlines, New Thought adherents often invoke science in support of their doctrines. But the properties of the infinitesimal realm of quantum physics don’t work at the scale of neurons in the brain or in the functioning of everyday events, where Newton’s laws still apply. Ehrenreich also shows that the claims of the “positive psychology” movement about the effects of positive thinking on mental and physical health are overblown.
This spiritual pyramid scheme contributed to the global economic collapse, but who can complain? If you do, how are you going to get or keep a job, when so many employers are high priests of New Thought? Once I heard a commercial real estate broker tell me that “everyone I ever fired from my firm told me later that they were grateful. They said they were better off doing something else.” To my amazement, he said it as if he actually believed them. Of course they said they were grateful. What choice did they have? They had to maintain their reputations as positive people: an absolute necessity in any kind of sales position.
As the pastor visiting the sick, I saw the suffering caused by belief in mind-over-matter. True believers were certain that if they did the right visualizations, they’d manifest perfect health. They’d cling to that faith all the way to their deathbeds. If they questioned it, they’d blame themselves for thinking such a negative thought. This belief system isolated them and compounded their suffering. New Thought feeds on its own failures.
You don’t have to be a Calvinist to offer a theological alternative to New Thought and the cannibal capitalism it is used to promote. Progressive Christianity leads a way out of the blame game altogether, by following Jesus as our pioneer of spiritual and social change, rather than as a blood sacrifice for original sin or as a huckster for magical thinking. Christianity is about transforming the structures of the real world so that there will be positive outcomes for everyone. An Old Thought, but still a good one.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California