Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 9, 2007

“The Secret”: You Must Be THIS Tall to Ride

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Sorry if I repeat myself, but I must return to one of my favorite targets this week. I’ve had an ongoing debate for years with people who defend Oprah Winfrey as only a positive influence on our culture, who don’t see how she also confuses the issues sometimes. Lately, that debate has revolved around Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book, DVD, CD set, and “achievement” movement that is one of Oprah’s latest pet causes.

I admit Oprah’s done some good things: her book club got people reading something more than just Danielle Steele, her occasional focus on Africa and other Two Thirds World development issues reminds us that with privelege also comes responsibility, and she has not ignored the problems of urban America, either.

Nevertheless, with The Secret, she’s gone too far out on a limb for us to follow.

First of all, a disclaimer: I’ve only read excerpts of the book, and I have not seen more than a few minutes of the TV shows or DVD materials. So anyone who takes the position that I should not criticize what I have not checked out firsthand would be partially accurate. But I have read some of the book, and also have some knowledge of the earlier ideas The Secret’s authors use as source material (religious, economic, psychological and philosophical). The Secret’s self-help gurus on steroids have used smatterings of Norman Vincent Peale, Eastern philosophy, and the uniquely American (and non-Christian) “prosperity gospel” to build their so-called success system. Just add in some “if you build it, they will come…”-style, romanticized New Age ideas about risk vs. reward, and you get The Secret.

I’ve also read highly credible reviews and critiques of this program, first on , and then from Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center For Action and Contemplation (one of the leading voices in a growing centrist spiritual/political movement, one that is both inclusive and incisive).

The criticisms have come from several arenas. Science-minded skeptics are concerned about the vague and emotionally-laden terminology that The Secret uses and confuses. Take, for example, The Law of Attraction, a foundational idea in The Secret which says that consistent positive thinking plus positive behavior will attract more positive people and results in one’s life. Now it’s been awhile since I took grade school science, but even I know that when talking about magnets and energy, what actually happens is that positive charges repel other positive charges.

Now that’s what *I* call a “law”: something that’s repeatable, that happens every time, because the essence of the universe requires it to happen. Yet with The Secret, if I don’t see the results I want, it’s my own fault. I broke “the law”. Or I didn’t use and apply the law of attraction well enough (more “blame-the-victim” thinking… great!). The reality is that –other than providing a mediocre metaphor– science has nothing to do with The Secret, even though the system loves to dress in fancy scientific clothing to make what is basically a souped-up motivational sales pitch sound more credible.

Religion and philosophy experts have their own criticisms as well, among them the always questionable claim that The Secret does not contradict the basic tenets of any world religion. Besides being presumptuous, this false claim is just plain illogical.

First of all, the major religions themselves disagree substantially on a few basic points, the most important of which for this discussion are 1) humans’ sinful nature, and 2) the role of money. I’ll spare you the long, boring details on how The Secret misrepresents the very clear (and different) metaphysical teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, Moses, and other historic religious leaders on just these two topics. Let’s just say history has proven it impossible to propose a comprehensive system that doesn’t contradict either one religion’s exclusive claim, or the other’s. They can’t all be completely right if they’re not all saying the same things. So The Secret has to contradict somebody. And it does — quite clumsily, in fact.

I may not be doing the best job of making my point here. I’m not very eloquent when I’m aggravated (in this case, aggravated with the American public, for having such a faulty B.S. detector). So I’ll quit ranting, and let Father Rohr do the wrap-up for me:

“The Secret” is probably a classic example of something that is partially true, and even good, being made into the only lens through which you read reality, and then it becomes untrue. Heresy could be defined as when we absolutize a partial truth, and I believe that is what is happening here. But I would also love for Christians to learn the partial truth, and that is why we teach the contemplative mind…

BUT, it is also a first world luxury to think this way! Suffering people, poor people, oppressed people know very clearly that “your thinking does not make it so”! It will help their ability to love and survive within this painful and sad world, and that is indeed wonderful; but to make it into an entire metaphysical principle is just not true. Reality has plenty of reality to it before my mind comes onto the scene… Left to itself, it would be the continual recurring heresy of Gnosticism, which asserts that spiritual reality is the only reality…

“The Secret” will actually do a disservice to many people when their mind cannot control the death of their innocent child, or make them a million dollars, or make their former husband forgive them, etc. It will also keep people from that much more honest, humble–and REALISTIC–position of Incarnational Christianity. God comes to us disguised as our life, not as a Platonic world of ideas, even positive and good ideas.


  1. Excellent commentary. I like Oprah, and only watch little bits and pieces, but thought there was something vaguely disquieting about it (The Secret), and that there was some familiarity to the success Gospel folks. Thanks for teasing it apart a bit.

  2. This was a good piece. I was browsing to see if there were other people who thought the way I did about The Secret, and you have defined it well.

    At first, the movie (and perhaps the book from what I can deduce) would be highly inspiring and motivational to those who tend to look on the half-empty side of things, and believe me there are many such people. For them, it is a boon (if used sparingly).

    Then again, I see The Secret as “Newton’s laws of motion” of the spiritual world, i.e. they can only apply within an extremely narrow frame of reference. Taken outside that frame of ref, they are invalid.

    For instance,
    How could you think positive when your nearest and dearest has met an untimely end? Can you attribute the illness that happens to a child as a cause of his or her ‘focusing on the negative’?!
    And most ridiculous of all, think about natural calamities or terrorist attacks, where masses of innocents perish. Did they ALL, cumulatively, ask for that? Even if you happened to be in a place and have miraculously survived, would you have said “It was because I didn’t think of the negative stuff”?!?!

    To put it in short, the secret makes it appear that you are the *only* force that steers the Universe.

    Still, I’ll recommend it for certain people at certain times.


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