Millions of people have bought a book called The Secret that claims that people can increase their health, wealth, and happiness just by thinking intensely that they will get what they want. This view and other New Age ideas are symptoms of Endarkenment, the contemporary resurgence of magical, superstitious, and religious ideas.
Endarkenment is the opposite of Enlightenment, which was the philosophical and scientific movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that challenged mysticism, traditional theology, and autocratic government. Thinkers such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Newton disputed dominant ideas that combined Christian theology and Aristotelian science. According to Enlightenment views, beliefs should be based on reasoning and scientific experiments, not on religious faith or authority.
Today, endarkenment comes in various forms: religious, spiritual, and philosophical. The starkest form of religious endarkenment is fundamentalism, which prescribes strict adherence to a basic text such as the Bible or the Koran. A somewhat more reasonable form is scientific creationism and the theory of intelligent design, according to which belief in God can be defended as a hypothesis that explains the complexity of the universe. However, biology and physics provide broad and deep explanations of scientific phenomena without invoking theological hypotheses.
Many people today describe themselves as being spiritual rather than religious. Abandoning traditional churches, they nevertheless want to hold on to mystical aspects that make the universe more appetizing. “The Secret” is one of those aspects, because it suggests that people have more control over what happens to them than is suggested by the economic, medical, and interpersonal disruptions that make life so unpredictable. Other variants of this vague spirituality include belief in karma, whatever goes around comes around, and everything happens for a reason. These forms of spirituality supplant traditional religious reassurances that whatever happens is God’s will, but they have the same psychological function: life isn’t as scary as it seems because there is some spiritual sense behind it all.
In the absence of any solid empirical evidence for the truth of The Secret, karma, and other spiritual and religious doctrines, we need to look to psychology to provide explanations of why these views are so widely adopted. One of the most relevant thought processes is what the late social psychologist Ziva Kunda called motivated inference. Although people’s goals and desires are logically not supposed to influence what people believe, it is natural for all of us to attach greater credence to ideas that make us happy and help us to deal with the negative events that occur in our lives. Cognitive and emotional processes are thoroughly integrated in human brains, so it is not surprising that people are drawn to emotionally appealing ideas such as that we can get what we want just by thinking about it or praying for it.
There are also philosophical forms of endarkenment that try to find holes in the scientific and rational barriers to faith and wishful thinking. Thinkers far too sophisticated to be taken in by The Secret find room for religious faith by exploring Kantian idealism, Heideggerian phenomenology, Wittgensteinian conceptual analysis, or ultra-empiricism that confines science to consideration of only what is directly observed. In contrast, I think there are good theoretical and practical reasons to prefer a contemporary Enlightenment approach. Many areas of investigation such as neuroscience and positive psychology can be used to understand how minds work, including how they can find meaning in a vast and mechanistic universe.