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New Thought (aka Mind Cure or Mind Science) movement

Therefore I say unto you, what things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. — Mark 10:24.

Believe ... and you shall be saved -- Acts 30:31

'Suggestion' is only another name for the power of ideas, so far as they prove efficacious over belief and conduct. --William James

Thoughts are things. --Norman Vincent Peale (parroted by Rhonda Byrne in "The Secret")

New Thought is a term used to describe a movement that began in the 19th century, but the central idea of New Thought is ancient: believing makes it so.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866) is known as the father of New Thought. He was a New England clockmaker and a follower of the methods of Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Like Mesmer, Quimby had a substantial number of followers who believed in his powers of healing. Quimby came to believe that the healing ability was due not to animal magnetism, as Mesmer had thought, but to a god, and that they'd stumbled upon the healing technique of Jesus and other faith healers. They probably had. The power of suggestion, the optimism of the healer, the strong motivation of the sick to be rid of their various ailments (many of them psychological), the faith of the patient in the cure and the healer, the rituals and theater of the healing all combine to produce what we now loosely call the placebo effect. Quimby called his healing practice by many names, including Christian Science, which was appropriated by one of his patients, Mary Baker Eddy.*

After Quimby's death, one of Eddy's students,Emma Curtis Hopkins Emma Curtis Hopkins (1849–1925), organized New Thought and turned it into a national movement. Religion, healing, and imagined contact with occult forces give people a sense of purpose and control in an indifferent and cruel world. In the 19th century, religion, healing, and the occult were three of the few avenues to power and control that were open to women. So, it is perhaps no accident that many of the early proponents of New Thought were women.* Others who spread the ideas of New Myrtle Page Fillmore - WikipediaThought were co-founder of the Unity movement Myrtle Page Fillmore (1845-1931), founder of Home of Truth Annie Rix Militz (1856-1924), and founders of the Church of Divine Science Malinda Elliott Cramer (1844-1906) and Nona L. Brooks (1861-1945). Fillmore and her husband Charles imported a belief in reincarnation into the Unity version of New Thought (Gardner 1993).

Another early proponent of New Thought was William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932), who attributed his recovery from various physical, psychological, and financial disasters to the power of belief. He wrote a number of popular books about it, including Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction in the Thought World (1906). The power of New Thought's central message is obviously strong, but it has often been overestimated. Even so, we cannot ignore the fact that belief in the power of belief still motivates millions of people, even though most of the supportive evidence is anecdotal. The evidence from science supports a limited influence from the placebo effect. Proper scientific tests of the power of belief to cure serious illnesses, however, have been universally negative. Those who claim that some tests have shown a positive healing effect from prayer, visualization, or positive thinking are motivated more by desire to believe than the actual evidence. The same is true for scientific tests of the ability of people to affect something physical using only thought.* (See, in particular, my entries for the work done by Robert Jahn at Princeton and the work by Roger Nelson.)

New Thought has both religious and secular versions, and the religious versions are both denominational and non-denominational. The dominating idea of all forms of New Thought is that thoughts or beliefs have an effect on things and people around us independently of our doing anything. Thinking creates reality. Happiness and health are the direct result of our beliefs and thoughts. We have the power to change our beliefs, and thus our state in life, at will. If we are sick, it is because we are not thinking correctly. If misfortune befalls us, it is because we are not thinking correctly. Health is due to correct thought; the truth will set you free and the truth is that you need only faith to be healthy, rich, saved, whatever. Also central to many forms of New Thought is the idea that a god or spirit or energy or universal force—something mysterious and powerful— permeates everything, or is everything, or everything is in it. Thinking correctly involves being one with, in harmony with, aligned with, or attuned to this universal whatever.

New Thought is, in the words of American physician, psychologist, philosopher, and dabbler in the paranormal William James, "a deliberately optimistic scheme of life." James was one of the first to try to characterize the sources of the New Thought movement, also known as the Mind Cure or Mind Science movement:

One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkeleyan idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of 'law' and 'progress' and 'development'; another the optimistic popular science evolutionism of which I have recently spoken; and, finally, Hinduism has contributed a strain. But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is an inspiration much more direct. The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind....

Mind-cure might be briefly called a reaction against all that religion of chronic anxiety which marked the earlier part of [the 19th] century in the evangelical circles of England and America.

William JamesJames identified a basic dualism in motivational history, a dualism that has no room for skepticism. On the one side, we have those who try to motivate us with fear, as Jesus did with the threat of eternal torments in hell to those who didn't accept his message. On the other side, we have those who try to motivate us with hope, as Jesus did with the promise of eternal life if we accept his message. We see this dualism every time there is a national election and every time we watch advertisements on television. In fact, in pitch after pitch for product or idea, for candidate or proposition, the appeal is to hope or fear. We know both are great motivators because we have seen how both get people to act. What we don't have evidence for, however, is that just hoping something will happen will make it happen (any more than just being afraid that something bad is going to happen makes something bad happen).

The number of New Age promoters of the delusion of mind cures is staggeringly high. Television and radio talks shows and the Internet have opened the floodgates for promoters of these alleged panaceas. Many of these New Age mind cures have incorporated references to quantum physics and Eastern mystical notions, such as chi and chakras, into their repertoires. To name just a few: Barbara Brennan, Rosalyn L. Bruyere, David L. Cunningham, Cyndi Dale, Donna Eden, David Feinstein, Guy Finley, Richard Gerber, Burt Goldman (Quantum Jumping), Soleira Greene, Stanislav Grof (Holotropic Breathwork™), Stephen Halpern, Louise Hay, Vernon Howard, Dorothea Hover-Kramer, W. Brugh Joy, Byron Katie, Rachel Kohler, Dolores Krieger, Bruce Lipton, Grant McFetridge (Peak States and Whole-Hearted Healing™), Mary Morrissey, Carolyn Myss, Peter Occhiogrosso, Judith Orloff, Simon Rose (Reference Point Therapy), Linda Salvin, Eckhart Tolle, and Marianne Williamson.

In addition to promoting delusions about the ability of people to cure others and themselves of horrible diseases by the power of thought, the New Thought movement encourages delusions in other areas of life. Outside of the healing arena, New Thought beliefs contribute to what might be called the empowerment delusion: the false belief that feeling empowered, or believing you are empowered, is the same as being empowered. The empowerment delusion leads people to believe that they can create health or wealth or anything material by willing it or asking a god to will it. A corollary is the delusion that poverty or sickness is their own fault: their bad thoughts, stinkin' thinkin', negative ideas, lack of faith, etc., cause all misery. The empowerment delusion is fed by appeals to nonsense like the law of attraction, to nonsensical appeals to quantum physics (Deepak Chopra, Rhonda Byrne, & a host of others), or to faith in faith (like all faith healers and prosperity preachers like Reverend Ike or Joel Osteen). The billion-dollar self-help industry is largely driven by the empowerment delusion. The popularity of Helen Schucman's (1909-1981) A Course in Miracles gives testament to the attractiveness of New Thought's revisionist biography of Jesus as wanting more love and forgiveness, and less suffering and sacrifice. Heaven awaits us all and there is no hell.1

James may have been right in attributing the rise of New Thought in the 19th century to a reaction to the pessimism of anxiety-producing religions. The rise was probably also due to the fact that medicine didn't have much to offer people suffering from anxiety and hopelessness. The promise that all you need to do is believe to make things better for yourself and the world is a common response to life's uncertainty, indifference, haphazard distribution of pleasures and pains, and unfairness. New Thought gives the illusion of control over things that can't be controlled but which are inexorably linked to our well-being and happiness. New Thought absolves the allegedly benign creator of all responsibility for bringing evils to good people and it does so without resorting to the absurd claim that the ways of gods are not our ways, or that evil is really good, or the most absurd of all, evil isn't real. New Thought just ignores evil and tries to get us to look the other way.

New Thought probably won't have much influence in most corners of the world. More than one-third of the people on our planet don't even have access to a flush toilet.* Will Oprah, one of the great promoters of New Thought in our time, advise 2.5 billion people to just believe in hygiene and it will come? Can anyone believe that if you happen to have the misfortune of being born, say, in a squalid Indian village governed by a caste system, that all you have to do is believe your way out? An ignorant person might blame karma or some god's will, but nobody in his right mind should believe that anyone born in those conditions lives and dies in those conditions because of her thoughts or beliefs, which could be changed by an act of will.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that many people attribute their health or success to New Thought. There are some obvious truths that can get muddled in New Thought metaphysical jargon. Nobody ever accomplished anything without a positive attitude and belief in his or her own ability to succeed at achieving a goal. Thoughts lead to actions and actions bring about results. No thought, no action—unless you're a robot. On the other hand, nobody ever cured cancer by thinking about it or having happy thoughts. Nobody every became a CEO by just believing it would happen. No kid ever had a bicycle materialize before his eyes just because he daydreamed about it happening.

Suggestion, self-hypnosis, the power of positive thinking—call it what you will—clearly benefits people. Likewise, suggestion, self-hypnosis, and negative thinking can harm people. This much is obvious. The rest of New Thought, however, is little more than metaphysical rubbish. Instead of helping us overcome the superstitions and magical thinking of our ancestors, New Thought encourages us to delude ourselves.

New Thought has grown into thousands of little movements in the past 150 years. The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? are just two recent manifestations of this Hydra-headed monster guarding the gates of Wishful Thinking. There have been many others. Some might have heard of Jerry and Esther Hicks (they claim they were the discoverers of the law of attraction!). Some might remember Émile Coué's optimistic mantra therapy, Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics, or the prosperity preacher Norman Vincent Peale, whose bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) was a New Thought offshoot. The book's only original thoughts are errors, yet it has sold more than 7 million copies. (Hint: positive thinking never cured a mental disorder or polio.) It is a safe bet that we will never hear the end of New Thought. It works!

There are many anecdotes of people who quit behaving as if they were ill and in need of healing and started acting as if they were healthy and healed after they began thinking more positively and developed some self-confidence. Often all it took for the healing to occur was an encouraging word from a preacher, a friend, a mountebank, or a celebrity. Occasionally, the healing may have just been a coincidence. But more often than not, the healing occurred because of a number of factors that we now understand are important in the treatment of people who think of themselves as ill. We know that most of our ailments will go away of their own accord and that many of our ailments are responses to our social situation. We know that having faith in the healer is important for success, as is the ritual and theater that often accompanies the meeting between healer and patient. We know that the optimism and hopefulness of the healer play an important role in affecting the faith of the patient in the process. We know, in other words, that belief is a powerful placebo.

We also know that we can't cure cancer, heart disease, measles, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other illnesses by prescribing placebos. Likewise, we know that teaching people to feel powerful and go for their dreams is not enough to guarantee success. You have to have more than belief in yourself. You need talent and you need some good fortune. For every success story like Oprah or Obama, there are thousands of failures who never get to tell their stories. Our evidence is incomplete. We never hear from the countless bartenders and waitresses who thought their desires would be enough to make them movie stars. In fact, we rarely hear from the ones who found out the hard way that hard work alone doesn't guarantee success. We never hear from the folks who tried the mind cure but died. They aren't around to give their testimony. So far, we have only the word of alleged psychics that the dead are appearing on Oprah or Larry King. When the dead do show up to give their testimony, however, they may cast some doubt on the power of belief.

 1. See Gardner 1999 for an account of how the NewElla Wheeler Wilcox Thought movement stripped Christianity of such things as sin, hell, demons, and other nasty things, and replaced them with beliefs in a hodge-podge of beliefs from Eastern mysticism and Western paranormalism and spiritualism. Gardner focuses on a minor poet and writer who was a major player in expressing the beliefs of New Thought, Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). She penned some memorable lines, e.g., "Love lights more fires than hate extinguishes" and "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone."

Another important figure in the history of New Thought is Ernest Shurtleff Holmes (1887–1960), whom Gardner describes as the founder of the Church of Religious Science, which still has some 100 branches throughout the United States. Holmes broke away from Divine Science and seems typical of many New Thought leaders: when they disagreed with the leaders of the cult they were in, they left and formed their own cult. Other New Thought cult leaders mentioned by Gardner include: Raymond Charles Barker (1911–1988), Claude Bristol (1891-1951), Robert Collier (1885–1950), Emmet Fox (1886-1951), Ervin Seale (1909-1990), and Ralph Waldo Trine (1866-1958).

See also Celestine Prophecy, Course in Miracles, est, firewalking, Jean Houston and the Mystery School, hypnosis, Large Group Awareness Training, Landmark Forum, manifesting, prayer, neuro-linguistic programming, psychoanalysis, therapeutic touch, and my essays "Healing Prayer and Distant Healing," "A Short History of Psi Research," and "Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places."

further reading

books and articles

Anderson, C. Alan and Deborah G. Whitehouse (2003). New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality rev. ed. 1st Books Library.

Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Oxford University Press.

Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work by Barry L. Beyerstein

Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work by Barry L. Beyerstein (1999)

Braden, Charles S. 1963. Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought. Southern Methodist University Press.

Christopher, Milbourne. (1970). ESP, Seers & Psychics Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Gardner, Martin. 1993. "New Thought, Unity, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox," in Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy. Prometheus. Republished in When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish: And Other Speculations About This and That. 2009. Hill and Wang, ch. 7.

Gollwitzer, Peter M. 2009. When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap? Association for Psychological Science. It is commonly assumed that whenever people make their intentions public, the behavioral impact of these intentions is enhanced....When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised.

Harrington, Anne. (2008). The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. W. W. Norton and Company. My review of this excellent book.

James, William. (1902). Varieties of Religious Experience. Hardcopy.

Larson, Martin A. (1987). New Thought Religion: A Philosophy for Health, Happiness and Prosperity. Philosophical Library.

Park, Robert L. (2008). Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. Princeton University Press.

Price, Robert M. (2008). Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today's Pop Mysticisms. Prometheus.

Salerno, Steve. (2006). Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. Three Rivers Press.

Bioenergetic Fields by Victor J. Stenger


The Power of Belief - a transcript of John Stossel's 20/20 special that aired 6 October 1998 (YouTube videos of the special)

Robert M. Price - Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms (Point of Inquiry interview - mp3)

New Thought Movement Home Page

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby

Quantum Quackery by Victor J. Stenger

New Thought - Wikipedia

The Secret Behind The Secret: What is Attracting Millions to the Law of Attraction? by Ingrid Hansen Smythe

Process New Thought


[new] Imagining Positive Outcomes May Bring Pleasure Now But Pain Later from the Associaton for Psychological Science

"In a series of four studies, Oettingen and colleagues Doris Mayer (University of Hamburg) and Sam Portnow (University of Virginia) found that the more positively participants fantasized about the future, the fewer depressive symptoms they showed at that moment but the more symptoms they showed at a follow-up session....Given the correlational nature of these studies, further experimental research would be needed to determine whether there is a direct causal link between positive fantasies and depressive symptoms in the long term. But, according to the researchers, the findings suggest that positive fantasies are a risk factor for depressed mood over time."[/new]

A Fighting Spirit Won’t Save Your Life "...there’s no evidence to back up the idea that an upbeat attitude can prevent any illness or help someone recover from one more readily. On the contrary, a recently completed study of nearly 60,000 people in Finland and Sweden who were followed for almost 30 years found no significant association between personality traits and the likelihood of developing or surviving cancer. Cancer doesn’t care if we’re good or bad, virtuous or vicious, compassionate or inconsiderate. Neither does heart disease or AIDS or any other illness or injury."]

Coroner: Self-help course drove woman to suicide

An Australian coroner has found that 34-year-old Rebekah Lawrence’s death in Sydney four years ago was due to participation in an intense self-help course that led her to suffer a psychotic breakdown. Lawrence stripped naked and leaped to her death from an office window in front of horrified co-workers.

“The evidence is overwhelming that the act of stepping out of a window to her death was the tragic culmination of a developing psychosis that had its origins in a self-development course known as ’The Turning Point,”’ Deputy State Coroner Malcolm MacPherson said.

Last updated 20-Mar-2016

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