Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Everything Old Is New Again

I recently inherited a copy of a book I've wanted to read for a long time: Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

(I've wanted to read this book for a long time because when I was a teenager two things happened: I came to the understanding that what I really wanted to do with my life was be a scientist, preferably in some flavor of biology; and there was a periodic eruption of anti-evolution crusading here in Kansas. That those two things happened so close together made me especially eager to find out why people were so hostile to evolution, and later I figured the answer must lie somewhere in American history, as this seems to be a particularly American bit of unreasonableness.)

Anyway, I got my hands on one of my uncles' old copy of this book (it's from 1966! The physical book is that old! Isn't that neat?), and am now reading it.

It's hugely interesting, and I might review it here if I can organize my thoughts about it sufficiently to do so, but right now I want to point out one particular thing that astonished me.

What astonished me was that a strain of magical thinking that I had thought mostly emerged in recent decades, and whose roots must lie in the 1960s counterculture-derived New Age movement, is really a whole lot older:
As late nineteenth-century America became more secular, traditional religion became infused with, and in the end to some degree displaced by, a curious cult of religious practicality. If we accept the evidence of a long history of best-selling handbooks, from Russell H. Conwell's "Acres of Diamonds" to the works of Norman Vincent Peale, this cult has had millions of devotees. It has become, by all internal evidence and everything we know about its readership, one of the leading faiths of the American middle class. It is, as I hope to show, a rather drastically altered descendant of the older self-help literature, but it affords, in any case, striking evidence of the broad diffusion in American life of the practical motif. Modern inspirational literature takes its stand firmly with the world: what it has to offer is practical. "Christianity," writes Norman Vincent Peale, "is entirely practical. It is astounding how defeated persons can be changed into victorious individuals when they actually utilize their religious faith as a workable instrument."
Modern inspirational literature builds upon the old self-help tradition and bears a general resemblance to it, but it also has major differences. In the old self-help system, faith led to character and character to a successful manipulation of the world; in the new system, faith leads directly to a capacity for self-manipulation, which is believed to be the key to health, wealth, popularity, or peace of mind. On the surface, this may seem to indicate a turning away from the secular goals of the older self-help books, but it actually represents a turning away from their grasp of reality, for it embodies a blurring of the distinction between the realms of the world and the spirit. In the old literature these realms interacted; in the new they become vaguely fused. ...

It is what Raymond Fosdick calls "power for daily living" that the success writers purport to give. In the nineteenth century the primary promise of success writers was that religion would bring wealth. Since the early 1930's there has been a growing emphasis on the promise of mental or physical health; inspirational writing has been infused with safe borrowings from psychiatry and has taken on a faint coloration from the existential anxieties of the past twenty years. Although success literature has given way to a literature of inspiration, its goals remain largely everyday practical goals. For more than a generation, the metaphorical language of this writing has been infiltrated and coarsened by terms taken from business, technology, and advertising; one often gets the sense that the spiritual life can be promoted by good copy and achieved like technological progress by systematic progressive means. Louis Schneider and Sanford M. Dornbusch, in their illuminating study of the themes of inspirational books, have spoken of this as "spiritual technology." One success writer tells us that "God is a twenty-four-hour station. All you need to do is plug in." Another that "religious practice is an exact science that ... follows spiritual laws as truly as radio follows its laws." ... "Conduct the affairs of your soul in a businesslike way," exhorts Emmet Fox. Prayer is conceived as a usable instrument. "A man," says Glenn Clark, "who learns and practices the laws of prayer correctly should be able to golf better, do business better, work better, love better, serve better." "Learn to pray scientifically," commands Norman Vincent Peale. "Employ tested and proven methods. Avoid slipshod praying."

... What the inspirational writers mean ... is that you can will your goals and mobilize God to help you release fabulous energies. Fabulous indeed they are: "There is enough power in you," says Norman Vincent Peale in an alarming passage, "to blow the city of New York to rubble. That, and nothing less, is what advanced physics tells us." Faith can release these forces, and then one can overcome any obstacle.
All of the stuff about instrumental faith --- faith that was supposed to make good things happen for you in this world, particularly to bring you riches --- rang some bells for me, as I'd read about something called the Prosperity Gospel that pretty much said the same thing, but was held to be a recent development coming out of the megachurches.

I was also somewhat reminded of The Secret (an appalling bit of woo popularized in a mega-best-selling book from 2006, where if you want something badly enough, "the universe" will bring it to you --- poor, innocent quantum mechanics is horribly abused in attempts to explain how this supposedly works) by the mentions of willing what you want into being, particularly in a long paragraph following the passage I quoted, where Hofstadter describes a nineteenth-century quasi-spiritual movement called the New Thought, which apparently held that "... one could have whatever one wishes by 'sending out a requisition to the great subconscious'." That nailed it down for me; except for what they call the mysterious, all-pervading cosmic sugar daddy, the Handbook of New Thought and The Secret might well be interchangeable*.

I also got a chuckle out of the throwaway reference to "advanced physics" in the last Norman Vincent Peale quote. I suppose that, back then, the physics that people misused to justify their magical thinking was either electromagnetics (those newfangled radio and TV waves!) or nuclear fission (I imagine this is where the bizarre comment about New York is coming from --- all that energy, lurking inside atoms! Never mind that only a few elements are fissile, and even then only under a very specific set of conditions; it's not like common household objects will explode if you look at them while thinking explodey thoughts), while today, of course, it's quantum mechanics.

*Apparently this is only news to me, as Wikipedia mentions the New Thought on its page for New Age philosophy, and their page for prosperity theology mentions both New Thought and the mid-20th-century writers that Hofstadter was talking about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suspect that they're actually talking about mass-energy equivalence as if it were tantamount to spiritual power; in which case, I can only assume that the fatter you are, the closer you are to God. I wonder if this is the earliest occasion upon which physical energy has been conflated with some kind of all-pervading mystical field, or if it's just the earliest case that I've heard of...
One interesting thing that I took away from this discourse is that these "New Thought" religions seem to blur the distinction between praying and 'magic' (by which I mean magic in the spell-casting sense, rather than the illusory one). Traditionally the purpose of prayer is to nicely ask supernatural entities to intercede on your behalf; when one casts a spell, one is commanding supernatural entities to behave in a particular way. What they are doing sounds closer to the latter.