The Law of Attraction, Prosperity Gospel, and Other Ways of Controlling How People Think


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In the words of Rhonda Byrne, who brought the Law of Attraction to popular consciousness with her book The Secret:“Life doesn’t just happen to you; you receive everything in your life based on what you’ve given.”

Or, to put it even more bluntly: “You attract to you what you think about most.”

At first glance, these words seem empowering. We all want to be the masters of our own destinies. It’s that desire for autonomy and agency that attracts many people to witchcraft and alternative spirituality in the first place.

Until very recently, I was a firm believer in the power of the Law of Attraction. I believed that it worked the same way magic did, and I encouraged other witches to add it to their spiritual toolbox. I even included an episode about it in my Baby Witch Bootcamp series. (Which you will notice has since been taken down.)

That all changed when I started reading a book about mind control.

For context: I grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. Whether the Church is a cult or not is up for debate, but it definitely uses cult thought control techniques to control its members. Although I left the Church several years ago, I never untangled myself from the Church’s flawed and harmful rhetoric. Recently, I’ve decided to take on this challenge, and I started my healing process by reading the book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control by Luna Lindsey. This is an extremely well-researched book about how the Mormons use cult thought control techniques to keep members enmeshed.

In a section on the Church’s mandatory tithing (a sort of tax paid to the Church by members) and promise that tithe-payers will be rewarded with material wealth, Lindsey quotes the book Recovery from Cults by Paul R. Martin. Martin says: “The prosperity gospel holds the conviction that if a believing person has enough faith, is completely repentant of all sin, and gives at least 10% of his or her income to the church or to some Christian ministry, then he or she will have good health, obtain financial wealth, and experience general prosperity in all areas of life.” 

I was taken aback by how similar this concept — the so-called prosperity gospel — is to the Law of Attraction. Prosperity gospel teaches that faith in God will be rewarded with material blessings. The Law of Attraction teaches the same thing, but replaces the word “God” with “the Universe.” In both cases, believers are encouraged to focus only on the positive while ignoring or minimizing any problems they may face.

In the church I grew up in, we were taught that doubt comes from the devil and prevents us from receiving God’s blessings. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the governing body of the Mormon Church, says: “We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and coined the popular Mormon mantra “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” 

In The Secret, Rhonda Byrne quotes Henry Ford: “Whenever you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right.” Later in the book, Byrne says, “Instead of focusing on the world’s problems, give your attention and energy to trust, love, abundance, education and peace.”

I was struck by an eerie similarity between Uchtdorf’s and Byrne’s words. I had turned to the Law of Attraction as a means to empower myself after trauma connected to conservative Christianity and its values. Was it really possible that I had merely swapped one kind of thought control for another?

This lead me to look into other similarities between the Law of Attraction and other forms of thought control, and what I found was frankly disturbing.

The Law of Attraction employs at least three of the four components of the BITE model, an illustration of cult mind control techniques created by cult expert Steven Hassan. The four aspects of the BITE model are: Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control. These are techniques used by cults to mold the identities of their members.

Both prosperity gospel and the Law of Attraction employ Behavior Control; prosperity gospel demands outward displays of faithfulness from believers, while the LoA teaches that we should “make sure that [our] actions are mirroring what you expect to receive,” as Byrne puts it (i.e., act like our lives are already perfect). Both systems employ Thought Control; prosperity gospel warns believers to keep their thoughts pure (“If ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, ye must perish.” – Mosiah 4:30), while the LoA teaches that all of our thoughts have energetic vibrations and that we should focus on “high vibrational” thoughts. Both systems employ Emotional Control; prosperity gospel labels certain emotions as sinful and promotes shame around these “sins”, while Rhonda Byrne tells us to, “Ask once, believe you have received, and all you have to do to receive is feel good.”

The fourth aspect of the BITE model is Information Control. Although not everyone who believes in either prosperity gospel or the Law of Attraction will engage in Information Control, many do. Many Christians are encouraged to avoid media or informational resources that contradict the Church’s message — I know I was in my church. Believers in the Law of Attraction are encouraged to avoid “low vibrational” media and anything else that makes them feel even a little uncomfortable. In either case, this selective consumption of information feeds into confirmation bias and creates a closed system of logic. As Luna Lindsey puts it in Recovering Agency, “All signs point to ‘Yes.’ It transfers the burden of proof to an emotional basis for evidence, which is extremely easy to engineer.” 

But Sam, you may argue, the Law of Attraction is a belief — it isn’t tied to any organization! There is no Law of Attraction cult!

Tell that to authors like Rhonda Byrne and Esther Hicks, who are making millions of dollars from books about the Law of Attraction. Tell it to the thousands of people who treat those books like gospels, and those authors like modern day prophets. Tell it to the life coaches and “lifestyle gurus” building social media empires by appealing to people who want to believe that they can manifest their dream life just by changing their thoughts.

And that rhetoric is inherently flawed. Both the Law of Attraction and prosperity gospel employ cognitive distortions in order to plug holes in their logic. Cognitive distortions are irrational or illogical thought patterns, and overcoming cognitive distortions is one of the main goals of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Both prosperity gospel and the Law of Attraction often lead to overgeneralization (the tendency to find patterns where none actually exist), personalization (believing that everything other people do or say is a personal reaction to us — taking everything personally), blaming ourselves for situations and events outside of our control, and the fallacy of change (expecting other people or situations to change to meet our expectations). All of these are cognitive distortions. 

The biggest and most obvious of these cognitive distortions is black and white thinking, also called all or nothing thinking. As Luna Lindsey points out in Recovering Agency, black and white thinking is also a common element in cult thought control. Black and white thinking divides everything into “either/or” categories, with no room for shades of gray. In terms of mental illness, someone with an anxiety disorder may feel that if they can’t be perfect they’re a total failure — this is an example of black and white thinking. In conservative Christian theology, everything is either righteous or sinful, aligned with either Jesus or Satan — this often leads church members to feel like the world is out to lead them into sin. In the Law of Attraction, everything is either “high vibrational” or “low vibrational” — you never hear about neutral emotions or experiences.

In fact, the concept of low vs. high vibrations is just a way of rebranding the Christian concept of sin vs. righteousness. Take virtually any quote from a Law of Attraction author, replace “low vibration” with “Satan” and “high vibration” with “Jesus” and you’re left with typical conservative Christian rhetoric.

(By the way, the idea of emotions having vibrations seems to have originated with the book Power vs. Force by David R. Hawkins. I can find no scientific evidence to support the idea that different emotions have noticeably different frequencies. The idea of sin is just as unverifiable, since there’s no way to prove that something is or is not sinful.)

Finally, both prosperity gospel and the Law of Attraction can have a negative affect on the mental health of people who believe in them. A study from the University of Toronto, lead by Nick Hobson, Geoff MacDonald, and Juensung Kim, found that exposure to prosperity gospel sermons lead to an increase in risky financial behavior. 

“New research out of the University of Toronto’s department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science suggests that exposure to prosperity gospel messaging – thinking God wants you to be wealthy, prosperous and donate money to the church – makes you more likely to show an exaggerated and unrealistic sense of optimism for life and take more financial risks,” Alexa Zulak says in an article for U of T News. “Hobson says atheists and agnostics were just as likely to be susceptible to ‘unrealistic optimism’ – as long as the prosperity sermon they watched was masked as a motivational speech. Even when the research team removed all references to God and religion, participants still exhibited increased optimism – meaning the messaging is less about God and religion.” [Emphasis added.]

These ideas are dangerous, whether they’re packaged as gospel or a manifestation technique. And that’s not even getting into how both of these systems can contribute to perfectionism, victim-blaming, or toxic positivity.

I’m not the only witch who has noticed a disturbing similarity here. Tumblr user north-of-annwn (who describes themself as a “witch, writer, cult researcher, folkloric Heathen, and analyst, but definitely not clergy”) says that, “The Law of Attraction is just Prosperity Gospel and Thought Control repackaged in a new age wrapper.”

They go on to explain how both of these systems are inherently ableist and are based in privilege. Later in that post, they sum up exactly why the Law of Attraction is so dangerous: “It introduces a fear/shame relationship with your own thoughts.”

So… yeah. I’m going to go ahead and admit that I was wrong — wrong about the Law of Attraction and wrong to spread these ideas to other witches without doing more research first. I hope that this post has been informative, and that this information will serve readers on their journey to find a spiritual belief system that serves and empowers them — without telling them how to think.

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