A secular critique of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Are you an atheist/agnostic reading the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for the first time and seeing the words “God” or “Jesus” floating around, and wondering “hey, what’s that doing in there?” – if so, this review is for you.

In 1989 author Stephen Covey published the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people – one of the most successful self-help books of all time. It has sold over 25 million copies worldwide and been translated into 40 languages. It ties for the 5th most sold self-help book in the world, and in 2011 was listed by Time as one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Management Books”. It’s a great book, but it contains religious undertones and is not fully “secular” (as it was actually intended to be).

But before I dive into my secular critique of the book, I want to make something clear: I am a huge fan of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people. I’ve personally read it multiple times, I really enjoyed it each time and I heartily strive to adopt the habits into my life. I think there are a lot of valuable principles to be gleaned from this book.

Hence, this article is not intended to bash or put down the book. Rather, it is intended to discuss when and where the book’s philosophical underpinnings are lacking, and how they could improve from a secular standpoint.

Think of this as polishing an already great book – not bashing it. The book is already 98% of the way there, and this article aims to polish that remaining 2%.

Summary of Position

My claim is that the 7 Habits of Highly Effective people contains underlying philosophical weaknesses that crop up from time to time within the content of the book, and that these are traceable to Steven Covey’s Mormon beliefs. These weaknesses do not majorly affect the value or message of the book.

In this critique, we’ll spend no time debating theism/atheism/secularism. For that you could refer to countless books and dialogues debating those subjects. Rather, we will instead simply assume a secular standpoint as a premise, and critique the book from that angle.

In other words, the claim is that we could further refine the value and accuracy and validity of the 7 Habits by removing any and all religious colouring through identifying and pointing out how, where and when Covey’s religious worldview colours the content of this book, and what alternative secular thinking is available for those points.

By so doing, we can adapt the book to be more suitable for a purely secular audience, who may be turned off by said religious undertones.

Background: Covey’s Mormonism & The 7 Habits

Stephen Covey was a famous and prominent LDS Mormon, as such, the theist/religious ideas of the Seven Habits are traceable to his religious worldview.

7 Years before Covey wrote the 7 Habits , he wrote another book entitled The Divine Center (1982) which was addressed to a Mormon audience. I haven’t read that book, but with some reading online it seems that a few of the anecdotes and principles are the same as the 7 Habits. This book may have formed the foundation upon which the 7 Habits was written.

Then Covey then went on to write the 7 Habits for a more general audience. In a note about his obituary, Clayton Christensen claimed that “The seven habits are essentially a secular distillation of Mormon teaching”.

But as you can tell, the 7 Habits did not make it 100% to secular language. It’s probably more applicable than The Divine Center, but it was not completely “cleaned up” of religious influence (perhaps in the 80s for a Mormon the word “secular” meant “other Christians can read it without raising too many eyebrows”).

With all of that as preamble, let’s move on to some specific criticisms.

Criticism #1: The Conflation of “Secularism” with “Cynicism”

In the Foreword to the 2004 edition of the 7 Habits, the first sentence that jumped out at me was this one:

Culture: succumb to growing secularism and cynicism
Principle: recognize that the source of our basic need for meaning and of the positive things we seek in life is principles — which natural laws, I personally believe, have their source in God”

(By “culture”, he was essentially pointing out aspects of modern culture that are the “problem”, and by “principle”, he was pointing out which principles are the “solution”)

So, here we go….

“Secularism” basically means “non-religious”. In this introduction by Covey, secularism and cynicism are mentioned in the same breath as though the two are directly related, which Covey then implies is a growing “negative” trend in society.

But secularism is related to cynicism, and cynicism is not related to secularism. I don’t see any valid reason why these two ideas could be conflated in this way.

But to understand the reason why Covey says this, we need to peek into his religious beliefs.

Religious thinking tends to view secularism as cynicism, due to the fact that secularism is explicitly critical towards religion, religious ideas and religious “authority”. But secularism is not cynicism, and critically thinking about religious ideas or rejecting
religious “authority” does not automatically make one cynical.

Let’s use an analogy to explain. For an atheist, it’s about as clear that the Christian God doesn’t exist as it is for a Christian that Thor doesn’t exist. Now, imagine a devout “Thor believer” facing a Christian:

Thor Believer: “You’re so cynical about our beliefs in Thor! Can’t you just accept the reality of the God of Thunder?”

Christian: “But it’s just ridiculous! Everyone knows there’s no Thor! It’s just a story that the Norse used to tell themselves!”

Thor Believer: “I am deeply offended by your insolence and cynicism towards my beliefs.”

This is, essentially, what’s going on here. “Secularism” is conflated with “cynicism”, because secularism unapologetically rejects religious ideas (like the Christian God) that people like Covey take very seriously.

How could we fix this issue?

If I could re-write the book to fix this problem, I’d modify these sentences in this way:

Culture: succumb to tendency of cynicism and meaninglessness (or nihilism).
Principle: recognize that the source of our basic need for meaning and of the positive things we seek in life is principles — natural laws, that when understood and applied, bring more meaning to life.”

I think this gets at what Covey was trying to convey — replacing secularism entirely with a different concept of meaninglessness (which is probably what Covey thinks secularism is, but it’s not).

As a secular person myself, I can attest to the fact that secular life can be rich and meaningful without religious ideas cluttering up my worldview. We have science. We have the vast cosmos to contemplate. We have curiosity. We have art, culture, history, and so many other interesting subjects to study to enrich and benefit our lives. Furthermore we have love to give, aid to give, people to understand and assist, and suffering to alleviate. Secular, but hardly cynical!

Now over to criticism #2.

Criticism #2: The claimed “Source” of Principles  as “God”

Returning to the second part of the quote above, Covey states:

“Recognize that the source of our basic need for meaning and of the positive things we seek in life is principles — which natural laws, I personally believe, have their source in God”

And at the end of the book he reiterates this idea with a longer statement:

“As I conclude this book, I would like to share my own personal conviction concerning what I believe to be the source of correct principles. I believe that correct principles are natural laws, and that God, the Creator and Father of us all, is the source of them, and also the source of our conscience.”

As you can imagine, anyone who’s genuinely secular would baulk at such a statement. As passionate atheists well know, “God” is the ultimate thought-stopper. Invoke God to explain something, and you need not think any more about that thing! Why do the planets orbit the sun in the way they do? God did it (until Newton figured it out). Why are tsunamis wiping out a civilisation? God is angry with them (until weather science disabused us of this notion) etc.

But as Pierre-Simon Laplace once said, when it comes to God, “(we) (have) no need of that hypothesis” — the principles covey refers to and values so much can be explained, quite satisfactorily, without invoking a supernatural creator to “pull the strings” to make exist.

So where do “principles” actually come from?

So if principles don’t come from some almighty creator, then where do they come from? Perhaps even the question itself is wrong (do principles have to come “from” somewhere?), but we can still answer it in its current form.

Principles as ideas

Let’s start answering the question by discussing the meaning of ideas.

What is an idea?

— An idea is an attempt at modelling something in reality, a mental map or schema that we use to describe something.

From the birth of our consciousness, we begin interacting with the reality we find ourselves in. Over time, as our mind develops, it begins to spot patterns. When I walk into the wall, it hurts. When I eat food, my feeling of hunger is alleviated, and so on. From a very young age, we are building mental models of the reality we find ourselves in. Or, in other words, we generate “ideas” – mental maps or schemas to describe reality.

Principle (as described in the 7 Habits) is a kind of idea. All principles are ideas, but not all ideas are principles. Principles are mental models that describe generic trends or patterns in reality that apply around the board in many general scenarios (for example: the principle of honesty is the idea that honesty is generally beneficial to all parties involved).

In this case, the principles this book describes are attempts at modelling the habits of effective people – a set of ideas surrounding effectiveness.

I would argue that “correct principles” (as Covey puts it) are merely correct or accurate descriptions of patterns found within our reality. This broadens the scope of principles significantly, and really means they can be found everywhere.

For example, “eating food alleviates hunger, and good nutrition leads to good health” — there – we just articulated a principle that relates to the functionality of a healthy human body. This could even apply in specific domains, for example, the principles of good science describe things such as the value of empiricism, the value of statistics, that findings need to be replicable, etc.

So where do principles “come from” (or what is “their source”?) — well, they come from our minds actually, the same place that all ideas and mental schemata come from. It is our minds (or our selves) that are interacting with reality, making observations, recognising, extracting and categorising patterns, articulating them as ideas, sharing them, and testing them.

Reality is the terrain, principles are the map. One doesn’t need to invoke a God anywhere in this equation. Thus, invoking a God is unnecessary to describe the origin of principles. Indeed, how could a God be the origin of a principle anyway? (What does that sentence really mean?) Would it not be that God describes them in the same way that we do? How else could any being create a principle aside from describing them?

God didn’t create principles, human minds did – when we observed reality and extracted insights from our observations.

Furthermore the effectiveness/usefulness/truthfulness of principles in the 7 Habits can be explained on a philosophical level, one by one in detail, by observing and constructing a superstructure of ideas that outline generic patterns in human behaviour (both individually and collectively).

For example, habit 1 is “be proactive”, the thesis is that people who are “proactive” (take initiative, think ahead, take action before it is required, etc.) as opposed to being reactive are more likely to lead an effective life. Why is this the case? Because being proactive positions you to shape reality ahead of this moment, creating the reality of tomorrow, and when we observe people at large, we find that generally those who are proactive live more effective lives than those who aren’t. Fortune favours the prepared, when proactive people meet good opportunities, the results are more positive than if they had not proactive prepared. (No God required — this is simply how reality conforms to behaviour).

So much for the source of principles critique.

Criticism #3: Claims about Free Will

This is perhaps the most interesting of all of the criticisms of the book; that is how it presents the notion of free will.

That human beings have some absolute sense of free will is a widely accepted claim. But the evidence is not in favour of it.

Going into the details of this evidence, or the ongoing debate/discussion into the notion of Free Will would take too long to do here. Free Will is a massive subject, worthy of your research if you find it interesting (notice how you cannot choose to find it interesting 😛 — it just is or isn’t for you, based entirely on things outside of your control). I have also written an article about some of my views here.

Now this is where things get interesting. Because there’s a fascinating paradox in the notion of free will. It goes like this:

  1. The notion of an absolute free will is not supported by the evidence. AKA, there is no “free will”
  2. BUT, believing in Free Will is very useful. If you believe you have free will, you can push yourself more and take more responsibility for your destiny.

Hence, ironically enough, I’d suggest you believe that you have free will, at least until you can develop a more nuanced viewpoint about it.

Actually, believing you have free will is a two edged sword of itself:

  1. You take more responsibility for your thought and actions than you actually have. E.G you once thought of strangling your cat when it was meowing and waking you up, and now you feel terribly guilty for having that thought. (Negative side).
  2. You take more responsibility for your thought and actions, leading you to proactively build a better life for yourself and those around you. (Positive side).

In any case again, like the God stuff above, Free Will isn’t real in the way that most people think it is, but believing that it is can be useful at times — and again, this philosophical weakness does not harm the message and power of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but it is (in my view) a valid criticism of its foundations.

Criticism #4: Other religious “leftovers”

Aside from the primary two criticisms above, there are small pieces of religious thought riddled throughout the book. Examples include:

  1. The commentary about hypocrisy; going to church on Sunday and being someone different on Monday.
    1. Though naturally, the concept of avoiding hypocrisy is good, but it is given in the context of religious observance.
  2. The hetero-normative, monogamous angle of the book (because in reality some people are not heterosexual, and some people are not monogamous, while still being ethical —  the book contains the “normal” amount of rejection of these lifestyles that comes with religion)
  3. Blatant references to Mormonism/Christianity such as the one in the beginning of “Inside-Out Again”:
    1. “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” Ezra Taft Benson (Ezra Benson was a Mormon “Prophet” from 1985 until his death in 1994.)

There are others. I will not make a full list, only to say that one bumps into them as one goes along.

Summary / Conclusion

Stephen Covey was a brilliant human being who successfully distilled and synthesised some very important ideas – and the world has benefited from his work. I have benefited immensely from the 7 Habits, and read it at least 3 times in my life (and I’m only 30!)

However, he was also a theist, a Christian, and a Mormon. As such, he brought some religious ideas / “baggage” with him into this book. Although the 7 Habits was meant to be a “secular” distillation of his “Mormon” ideas – in reality I think all that was dialled down was Mormonism itself, but Christianity was not dialled down. Hence, “secular” in this context merely means “more broadly palatable to other Christian faiths”, as opposed to purely “secular” (AKA without a trace left of “God”).

No-one can lay claim to or pretend to own principles or ideas. Mormonism doesn’t own the 7 Habits, Christianity doesn’t own the 7 Habits, and Stephen Covey does not own the 7 Habits (referring to the ideas themselves, not the book or the brand). However, ideas do travel in groups (memeplexes) – and some of these ideas have travelled along with Mormonism and Christianity. As life would have it, Stephen Covey distilled these ideas into his book, and deserves lots of positive credit for doing so. He doesn’t own them, but he articulated them, and he did so very well.

If there were sufficient interest in filtering / sanitising the 7 Habits of all of Mormonism, Christianity and Theism, I could do it. It wouldn’t take significant editing, just a few words here and there. Naturally, given that the Covey family are all Mormon, it would seem very unlikely that they’d support such an effort (I assume they own all rights to the book). Nevertheless, these religious ideas will not survive sustained criticism, and the rise of secularism in the world attests to that fact — so I do hope that by referring to these religious concepts, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People does not render itself irrelevant to its future audiences.

Finally — if you’re a fellow atheist — don’t let a few “Gods” sprinkled here and there put you off this book! It’s well worth the read, with the occasional pinch of salt added.


13 Replies to “A secular critique of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

  1. Thanks for the insight. I have also always thought 7H was LDS principles secularised. I went to a Franklin Covey workshop once and was allowed to take a guest for free. The trainer, who had no idea that Dr Covey was a mormon, was flabbergasted at how much my friend knew. It was fascinating to see someone that had learnt the principles, reacting to someone who instinctively understood the concepts.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this critique, it was exactly what I was looking for. I just picked up 7 Habits today after hearing about its merits my whole life, and I groaned when I hit the first “God”. Your article will make reading 7H all the better for me.

    Also, there’s a small typo at the beginning of this sentence: “{I’d} could argue that “correct principles” (as Covey puts it) are merely correct”

    1. Jonathan, thanks for your visit, reading the article, and your comment (and – typo fixed!) – glad this was helpful for you. Out of interest, how did you find this article online?

  3. Thanks for this critique! Also exactly what I was looking for. After finishing the whole book with Covey’s personal note on what he believes to be the source of correct principles, it was such an eye roll and I couldn’t help being overly skeptical of all the habits.

    The bit where he writes some examples of personal mission statements was also a big turn off, when he wrote “a woman seeking to balance family and work values has expressed her sense of personal mission differently [compared to a man]”. But this critique really confirmed to me that the religious/heteronormative/patriarchal undertones don’t take away from the book being really useful as a whole.

    1. Hi Antonia, thanks for your comments! I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Yes, fully agreed, hence my position that I think this book should be re-written from a truly secular perspective. I believe I could do this but as mentioned I’m fairly certain the Covey family are all Mormon and would not be interested in such an effort.

  4. Well worded and versed review of a highly influential book that clearly has impacted yourself Shawn. Regarding your arguments on free will I would have to say that one most definitely has a freedom of choice and even though they may have certain predispositions, people absolutely have the power to be aware of those predispositions and what choices they can make as a result of that awareness. Like Stephen R. Covey taught one can develop these habits so that the more they apply these habits the greater their circle of influence becomes. Therefore if one applies this principle in the areas of their life that they do control and increase their awareness of the things/areas that they can not control and make choices that are coherent with that awareness then the reality of one having freewill actually becomes all the more prevalent and real. I respect your opinion on the matter moreover the principle of freewill is actually a reality.

    1. Hi Jamie, thanks for coming by and commenting!

      Without writing an essay on free will, I am not disagreeing with your general position that we can make choices that influence our lives and build strong habits, yes. If this is what is meant by “free will” then yes we have it, moreover the belief that we have this kind of freedom is also very useful.

      However, from a physics / cognitive point of view, we do not have the absolute freedom that we think we have.

      For example, you will find my arguments persuasive, or not, but you don’t choose your reaction to them. You simply react in the way that you do, even if that reaction is multi-varied.

      Anyway, here are two resources if you want to keep reading on the subject:

      And Sam Harris’ book Free Will

  5. Hi Shawn,

    I am a trainer from India, and I facilitate learning of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have delivered over 200 sessions of the workshop, and always make sure that I inform my participants about the religious affiliations of Dr. Covey. This helps ensure that the participants take away only the secular aspects of the workshop and not the religious undertones.

    Your article will help me make it even better!

    Thank you!

    1. Mr Meghdoot, lovely to eMeet you. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog. I love your strategy of being transparent about his religiosity. The 7 Habits is an amazing book I’m sure your training sessions are very useful!

  6. Thanks for the article.
    While I do learn useful things from the book of 7 habits, I felt uncomfortable about the deep religious implications there. I was surprised that some advocates or trainers of the book didn’t notice that.

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