Thursday, November 17, 2011

New Thought

The “New Thought” movement is actually over 150 years old. That’s the trouble with naming a movement. But this one is not about any particular set of thoughts that were once described as new, it has something to do with pointing your mind in new directions. Things like this used to fascinate me. I can see how, at the time they were developed, they might have seemed like a viable alternative to scientific thought that was just developing and sometimes failing. Since then, it has had to be repackaged and renamed to avoid criticism.

The forgotten name behind much of the thought of New Thought is Phineas Quimby.

Using his ideas of mind over matter, he treated Mary Baker Eddy, who went on to found Christian Science that is still going strong and still publishes the respected news magazine, the Christian Science Monitor. More recently, Norman Vincent Peale used some of the doctrine, mixed with Christianity and the psychology of Freud and Jung.

Since then it has crept back into popular use as a form of Christianity called “prosperity gospel”, often found in suburban mega-churches. Estimates of 17% of Christians believe in these ideas. The idea is that Christ wants to give you health and wealth, you just need to believe in him, and of course give 10% of what you have to your church. If that doesn’t suit you, there are books like “The Secret” or other “Law of Attraction” programs. You can find this idea of suspending reason and directing reality using your own thoughts mixed in with Buddhism, quantum physics or Mayan prophecies.

When trying to tease this apart, you can find some things that seem to map onto personal experience and seem to have merit and they kinda do. People do get stuck in ruts based on their thinking. You can read what Southern plantation owners said about their slaves, about how lazy they were, how they appeared to have no ambition, no self-motivation and it was only the whippings that got them to do anything. Even if you talked to one of those slaves, you would have trouble knowing how much of that is true. After years of conditioning, being told you are lazy, given no opportunities to better yourself, people will come to think of themselves as worthless. The slave system relied on this.

Slaves had to maintain the dual thinking required to see themselves as free human beings and still act subservient for the master to avoid punishment. Some of them were not able to do that. But how that affected their actions does not prove that our thoughts can change reality. Attempting to act on those thoughts of freedom led to death for many or the loss of a foot or a hand. It took efforts by slaves and people who could choose to own slaves or not to finally end slavery. Sometimes your circumstances really do suck and there is not much you can do about it.

Further evidence of this can be seen in the behavior of American slaves when they were declared free near the end of the Civil War. They immediately began to educate their children, fight for getting land that they had worked and to run for Congress. Reports of the “Sambo” mentality have since been shown to be greatly exaggerated. It took years of political maneuvering and terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan to restore the power relationship of whites over blacks.

Stopping your thinking is not the answer. That is more along the lines of what Quimby was suggesting. I’m suggesting that a lot of thought has been done about what “thought” is over the last 200 years and we can benefit from it. We have moved far beyond these philosophies and to continue to treat them as if they are useful puts us into the same kind of rut that they claim to be rescuing us from.

Any of these systems, Christian, New Age or otherwise, whether claiming divine intervention or that they are based on the thoughts of ancient philosophers, ultimately rely on making a leap from an effect to claiming their system is the cause. If the desired effect is not achieved the reason given is that the individual did not use the system properly. And that’s putting it nicely. Phrases that are spoken with an intention of being helpful have the opposite affect. Phrases like “you need to have more faith”, or “you just have to want it bad enough” or “buy my latest book”.

Thanks to the guys at Reasonable Doubts for the inspiration for this week’s blog and to Howard Zinn for some help with history.

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