Self-help books represent the next step in the evolution of our collective consciousness. It might sound like a stretch, but if we consider that religion was once how society told its story to itself, then the recent erosion of religion is creating a new kind of story.
Believers often defend religion with this rhetorical question: Without religion, how will people know right from wrong? But the standard rebuttal, as trumpeted by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, is that everybody already has an innate understanding of right and wrong. Hitchens said that religion gets its morality from humans and that every society has forbidden perjury, theft, murder, and rape.
But notice what transgressions he cites: perjury, theft, murder, and rape. These are heinous wrongs that are obvious even to children. Obviously, lying is bad. Obviously, hurting others is bad. So to knock down religion for reiterating obvious morals comes across as straw-manning.
Another tactic that atheists use is to mock low-level norms, such as the Mormon practice of wearing Temple garments or the Orthodox Jewish ritual of Kapparot where you grab a live chicken by the shoulder blades and move it around your head three times.
Religious norms, therefore, receive attacks on two fronts: high-level norms, such as “Don’t steal,” “Don’t lie,” etc., have been rightly deemed redundant by modern, civil society; and, low-level norms, such as dietary restrictions, seem redundant thanks to modern inventions, such as refrigerators.
But there is still this vast middle zone of norms, which may be the most crucial normative output of religion. For example, respect for the elderly is a norm that has to be taught. Look at any teenager, and you can tell they “innately” don’t care for old people. Or consider adultery. In some cultures, the practice is taboo, in others, it’s a cause for being executed, and still, in others, it’s just something not talked about in polite conversation, but definitely practiced in private. What should be the rule be about adultery? The answer isn’t self-evident.
Example: dating and relationship norms
The way we establish norms today is a simulation of how norms were established in the past. Instead of Sunday mass, we have the podcast. Instead of the priest, we have the therapist. And instead of one holy book, we have self-help books.
Self-help books, just like holy books once were, are probably the most tangible artifact representing our society’s norms. If you visit any bookstore, you’ll see that the largest section of nonfiction is self-help.
You might be scratching your head at comparisons between the Bible and self-help books, but you can take any aspect of modern society and anchor it to ideas first popularized in self-help. For example, modern dating and relationships are heavily mediated by self-help. Books like The Five Love Languages or any book about the Myers-Briggs personality test are the lens by which single people view dating today. Case-in-point: on popular dating apps like Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel, two of the most common prompts are: “What is your love language?” and “What is your personality type?”
Once you begin a relationship, you may shift to viewing it through the lens of books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus or Codependent No More. I remember my mom bought a copy of Men Are from Mars and then dog-eared and highlighted passages for my dad to read. In a different era, she would have taken her husband to church and squeezed his hand and nodded in his direction during parts of the sermon that applied to their marriage.
Even if you don’t read self-help books, we all take cues from observing our peers, many of whom have filtered ideas from those same books. So, for better or worse, the self-help bookshelf is now a physical manifestation of our norms.
From Holy Book to Holy Wiki
It’s not just norm dissemination that has been taken over by self-help. Self-help is now being used to answer deep questions that were once the mainstay of religion, questions such as, What should we do with our minds, and what should we do with our lives? For this generation, the answers are found in books like The Alchemist, The Secret, and Man’s Search for Meaning, which are some of the best-selling books of all-time. One of these books or a book like them may out-sell the Bible by the end of the century.
So, while I started this essay with a specific, but cute, example of how self-help books have molded modern dating norms, it was meant to illustrate a broader point, that the decentralized bookshelf of ideas has disrupted the old technology of centralized holy books.
Society is now being molded by our individual choices, much like a wiki. Every time you pull a self-help book from that bookshelf, you implicitly increment its attention in the global soup of ideas. And just as Wikipedia is now a visible manifestation of our evolution in collective consciousness, so too is self-help.