The New Thought Movement emerged in 19th century US, in part as a response to the doctrine of materialism, challenging the view that the psyche has no measurable impact on matter. A heterogeneous set of ideas and practices made the movement impossible to define, and over time it moved away from its foundations in Christian theology, toward a more abstract conception of God as the unconscious mind.
Two foundational thinkers in second-generation New Thought are Ernest Holmes, who founded the Church of Religious Science, and Joseph Murphy who eventually became minister at the Church of Divine Science in Los Angeles. Both Holmes and Murphy taught a set of practices that promised one could heal their body and obtain prosperity through “scientific prayer.”
The New Thought Movement had a sweeping impact on the other movements that followed, including the Human Potential Movement of the 1950s (inspired by Humanistic Psychology founder, Abraham Maslowe), and the Personal Transformation movement of the 1970s. Traces of New Thought can still be detected in today’s personal development industry and in this article I want to discuss why and how a central New Thought concept works.
The Benevolent God Concept
Much of our depression comes from thinking about the past, and much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future. In the spiritual psychology of New Thought thinking, the practitioner is given a paradigm which helps eliminate regret about the past or fear for the future. This comes through the concept of an all-encompassing, benign God. This all-encompassing creator has placed us in a universe where all our experiences are for our benefit and ultimate good. In this universe evil does not exist.
Contemplating this idea takes us from experiencing life as a series of random, meaningless and chaotic events, to a series of intentional, relevant and ordered occurrences. When we are in a state of distress we can connect back to the idea that there is an underlying order that we are simply not seeing for the time being. This gives us the centeredness we need to re-narrate the events of the past, and the possible outcomes of the future, as ultimately self-beneficial.
It doesn’t really matter whether the all-encompassing, benevolent God concept is true or not, or whether we believe it to be true or not. What matters is the improvement in the quality of our inner world that results when we consider the possibility of “well, what if it is true?”
There is now evidence to suggest that people who have a powerful spiritual experience sustain lifelong benefits after the event. A study published this month in PLOS One indicates that “although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health.”
By contrast, fundamentalist thinking narrows down the possibilities of God to a concept distilled from ancient scripture, in which God is potentially vengeful. This kind of thinking has been shown in a recent study to reside in brains that are incapable of cognitive flexibility. The study, conducted by Jordan Grafman et al. at Northwestern University, found a positive correlation between fundamentalist thinking and damage to regions in the pre-frontal cortex that are associated with the ability to consider multiple points of view and contradictory concepts.
In his book How God Changes Your Brain, neurotheologist Andrew Newberg states that fundamentalism is in itself benign, but that it is the anger resulting from it that can potentially cause brain damage. Newberg also observed in the same book that atheists who contemplated a benevolent God were still able to benefit from the practice, showing a reduction in anxiety and a greater sense of well-being.
We now have neurological evidence that concepts in spiritual psychology such as the benevolent God concept can have a positive impact on our brains and health. What is truly interesting is that neither the truth of the concept nor our belief in it are necessary for us to benefit. Perhaps there is such a thing as “scientific prayer,” after all.