The Law of Attraction
Probably one of the most vilified tenets of self-help philosophy is the concept of The Law of Attraction. This "Law" has achieved a significant amount of cultural currency in recent years due to The Secret - basically, the Law of Attraction WAS The Secret (sorry if that's a bit of a plot spoiler!), and many millions of people encountered the idea for the first time there.
But it is a mistake to think it is a recent invention. Rhonda Byrne herself freely admits that she came across the idea of LOA while reading the works of Wallace Wattles, books published around the turn of the 20th century. The idea in its recognisable form can probably be dated back to Charles and Myrtle Fillmore and the Unity School of Christianity in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.
What is the Law of Attraction? Simply put, it is the idea that whatever you think about, you attract. As the Buddha used to say in the opening credits of Monkey, "With our thoughts, we create the world."
This idea goes well beyond the pioneers of New Thought, of course. This kind of "mind only" philosophy has a long history in Buddhism and, before that, Advaita Vedanta schools of Hinduism. I think the real difference between these Eastern and Western forms is where the emphasis lies. For the most part, this realisation in Hinduism and Buddhism is meant to lead the seeker to try and transcend this world, realising that ultimately nothing is real, and all is meaningless, a creation of our desire. Law of Attraction as it has manifested in popular American thought has been directed in a thoroughly more worldly manner: since we're creating our world, how about we create a really nice one.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Indeed, many of the spiritual practices of Mahayana Buddhism involve just this process, visualising the jewelled Buddha lands and the extraordinary treasures of various divine realms. The Law of Attraction enthusiasts are, if anything, a shade more honest than most of their consumerist counterparts, by recognising that they want nice things in their world, and seeking to create these things at a metaphysical level. Whether or not you believe this is possible is a whole other question, and one with which I do not engage.
What I do find interesting is the vehemence with which such beliefs are denounced by those who don't share them. As religious beliefs go, I consider the Law of Attraction a pretty benign one. It certainly beats a whole lot of other religious and secular worldviews, including those of most who pour such scorn on the LOA scene.
At its simplest I really just see LOA as a Western re-casting of the same ideas of karma and rebirth that are subscribed to by pretty much most of the Hindu and Buddhist world. As such, it attracts many of the same criticisms and is subject to all the same shaky logical and philosophical premises. It's just that, being an idea seen (incorrectly) as the product of modern consumer culture, it is subjected to the kind of paternalistic scorn that people would never dare direct toward a Hindu or a Buddhist.
The fact that it is always mentioned as a "Law" is also significant. The new religious movements that emerged in America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were all, to some extent, responding to modernity. One of the ways they did that was by casting their new ideas not as religious revelations, but as much more scientific-sounding "Laws", "Principles" and "Sciences."
Apart from The Secret, the great proponents these days of the Law of Attraction are a cuddly pair of middle-American trance channelers called Esther and Jerry Hicks. Esther channels the voice of a disembodied entity called "Abraham" and this material sells wildly throughout the world, making the Law of Attraction more and more one of the strongest contemporary popular religious beliefs. Those from a more orthodox religious background may pooh-pooh it, but its longevity, resonance and, apparently, relevance cannot be denied.