Woe is me and alas! Pity me, for I am a secular humanist and gnu atheist embarked on trying to read the quintessential New Age non-dualistic blueprint for spiritual transformation, Dr. Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles.
And it is heavy going indeed. All I’ve done so far is download the free excerpt from kindle (which goes on and on past the 9th chapter at least), I’m 88% through, and I’m not sure if I have the heart to continue. According to the book I don’t, of course – but more on that later.
It’s not that the book is hard to read. Nor is it even particularly hard to understand. I was an English major and now I am old and I have read plenty of books which were far more philosophically and technically difficult, to be sure. But I keep alternating between frustration, boredom, anger, and an almost stupefying astonishment that the book is really as bad as it is. I am, however, learning quite a lot. It’s just not what I am presumably supposed to be learning.
I’m also surprised. A Course in Miracles was not quite what I expected.
This book, you see, is very highly regarded by many good people, including my new-agey neo-pagany spiritual-but-not-religious modern liberal friends, who regularly extoll the peace, acceptance, and insight of this book in suspiciously vague terms. If you look it up (or have already encountered it) it’s a cottage industry of vast proportions. What is it about? Cagey answers – mostly involving something called “nonduality” which somehow entails no right, no wrong, no judgments. Learning to accept yourself and others. It’s about letting go of ego. Forgiveness. Buddhist type stuff, from what I gathered.
Ah, okay. I thought I had a handle on that one: humanist spirituality. Or spiritual humanism. Years ago I had read and enjoyed what I assumed was a similar tome – one which also spun off courses and workbooks and workshops and calendars and positive affirmations to stick on your walls. Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy was written by a very nice relaxed woman named Sarah Breathnach. And Simple Abundance was a very nice relaxed book you could slip in and out of, one concerned with simplifying your life, slowing down, learning to appreciate, and becoming nicer and more relaxed. Nothing in it was earthshaking or groundbreaking, of course – but I dare say it doesn’t hurt to have some positive reminders on How to Live Well and Concentrate on What Really Matters. You can have a lot even when you have very little. That sort of thing. Not to everyone’s taste and of little worth in a crisis, admittedly, but of good will.
This book was of course ‘inspirational’ so there were plenty of references to Spirit and everything all happens ‘for a reason’. But it wasn’t particularly hard for a metaphysical materialist-type like me to either re-translate those parts (Spirit = Nature) or just skip them and proceed to ‘take what you need and leave the rest.’ That style of ‘spirituality’ works for humanists because it’s less concerned with metaphysics and more concerned with how to live.
Buddhism is a bit like that – or rather, can be in some of its forms. My own brother has recently written a book (shameless plug!) entitled Zen Unleashed: Everyday Buddhist Wisdom from Man’s Best Friend. It’s a simple and basic guide to the principles of Zen Buddhism as told from the point of view of a dog (since “dogs are Zen Buddhist.”) I helped proof an early draft and found little to nothing objectionable and much that was valuable. As he describes it, “Zen teaching emphasizes a daily practice of living in the now, being open to life.” In the short chapter (they are all short) titled “Does God Exist?” the answer is that it’s irrelevant. Buddha
was only interested in talking about suffering in this life, its causes, and how we could escape it. By refusing to discuss the existence of God, the Buddha left belief or nonbelief up to us.
Very well. My friends were all either Buddhist or very sympathetic to Buddhism, so I bravely entered A Course in Miracles not only interested in what it was all about but happily willing to re-translate, skim the bad parts, and take what humanist wisdom I need and leave the rest. I was open. I downloaded. I read as usual on two levels: that of the hypothetical ‘author’s perfect reader’ and also with a more cautious eye.
Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
There is not a thing – not a goddam thing – which is worthwhile about this book. There is not one chapter, one section, one insight, and I deeply fear not even a single word which is useful, valuable, or capable of being taken in and used with advantage by a secular humanist and atheist. In my opinion it is one of the most vile, anti-humanist, passive-aggressive screeds I’ve ever wasted so much time on — but, just like the passive aggressive little piece of gnostic propaganda it is, the book is fine with that. Really. No atheist is capable of understanding the insights and wisdom of the divine revelations within … yet. So all is as it should be. I am not being judged. No. We’re too nondualistic to do that. My ass they are.
Not a high recommend, in other words.
But let me set out not just what I see as the theme and message of the book, but why it’s important for us to pay attention to what it is saying. There is I think a tendency on the part of atheists to assume that the more liberal forms of religion – the New Age, the pagan, the spiritual-but-not-religious – are all steps on the path towards universal humanism. They’re less concerned with God and more concerned with Good. They share our respect for the environment, for human rights, for science and reason. The focus is on the natural world and how to live in it.
Not always true. Sometimes, certainly. Often, perhaps. But when you look below the surface of at least some of these so-called “liberal religions” you can occasionally discern a regressive, repressive, anti-science, anti-humanist stance beneath the benevolent smiles and expressed concerns for peace and tolerance which is every bit as reactionary as the traditional fundamentalism they pretend to rise above. There’s a hierarchical, mystical strain of irrational transcendentalist rebellion against the Enlightenment in this spirituality which is much, much closer to cult-like thinking than to empirical rationalism and the progress it has made in the world.
They are generally lovely people, to be sure, but they are not ‘on our side’ — meaning, they are not following a path towards humanism. Or, rather, they often live like humanists but have the mindset of fundamentalists who cannot, will not deal with dissent — and will drop science in glorious principle at the first sign of a conflict. This book is nothing but an unstinting panegyric to faith, handwaving metaphysics, and a sublimated self-satisfied smugness over that fact. It is woo lived. And if this is taken seriously … it will not cash out well.
If I had to sum up the main point of A Course in Miracles – and if I was allowed to be flip and sloppy and biased about it – I would say it is a blueprint for How Not to Be an Atheist. Oh, it does not say this clearly (trust me, clarity is not its strong suit.) Instead, it re-defines words so that they mean the opposite of what they normally mean, a technique which I believe is popular in brain-washing (“War is Peace!” “Freedom is Slavery!”) Belief that the natural world really exists and that we can discover truth through reason and science = “ego” (also “dualism.”) Atheism = “ego” (also “insanity.”) The “miracle” in the title does not refer to the conventional idea of miracles (though they actually happen) but – from what I can make out – that which occurs when we encourage other people to just open their heart and recognize that the only reality is a primary and nondualistic one of a Mind God of LOVE.
Which atheism then destroyed… and threatens everyone’s soul unless we constantly fight it off.. No offense, of course — because the book is not meant for us (I had wondered a bit why nobody urged me to read it.)
And so it goes on and on. Being skeptical of whether or not any of this stuff is true = “fear.” The whole point of life is to “let go of ego” (stop believing in the world) which causes all “suffering” and “renounce fear” (critical thinking.) One must seek to become so certain (“humble”), so pig-sure of our insight that we are all One Spirit (or something like that) that the possibility of being wrong – the possibility that the existence of God could hypothetically go either way – cannot even be entertained. It must become literally unthinkable.
And this book is going to help you with that. My child.
Yes, it’s channeled. Yes, the real author of the book is supposed to be Jesus Christ so that yes, we quite literally have an author who thinks they are God. Or, perhaps, who is content, nay eager, to have the reader accept everything he or she is told as if they were listening to God. Every time the writer brings up the possibility of doubt there are soothing reassurances that no, there is no need to fear. When you are ready you will accept. Till then we cannot hear you, because we come from different paradigms.
And it’s all assertion, assertion, assertion with not even a scrap of an attempt to support anything with a rational argument.
Of course there isn’t. Because there can be no argument. Everyone, deep within themselves, already knows that what the Course in Miracles is citing is the unquestionable Truth. We all know there is a God. Yes. You do. Because I say so, that’s why … and I’m Jesus, after all. Perhaps you are not ready to let go of ego yet, my child. Have no fear. I will not attempt to reason with you. There is no reasoning. There is only Knowing. Arguments — debate — is bad. Ego.
It’s a classic presuppositionalist argument, beloved by Calvinists and fundamentalists the world over. It reeks of the sensus divinitatis upped to the maximum level (though you also get the advantage of hearing direct from Jesus what he really meant in the Bible — which turns out to be the opposite of what the Calvinists think it is!)
And yet its thin veneer of tolerance (“hey, I don’t proselytize!”) actually masks a deep-seated hostility towards the common ground and human fallibility. This is not a course to travel on in order to unite people: it will only divide. Faith will separate the Saved from the Damned and the Enlightened from the Unenlightened with equal efficiency and as little possibility of appeal. It seems to me that there is nothing more divisive to humanity than pointing to a group of outsiders with whom one disagrees and intoning “there is no point in reasoning with Those People: they cannot be persuaded because they are too different.” As far as I know there is no point in history in which that sort of thing turned out well. And though I could be wrong, I doubt very much it will do much better in personal relationships.
We have no special revelations but I think atheists always have the advantage of the broader perspective when it comes to finding universal LOVE through God. The insiders have no idea how different this looks from the outside when you aren’t ready to just confuse your intuitions with insights, your hopes with reality — and simply roll over and believe. Or, rather, they do know and don’t care. Our objections are a feature – not a bug. And our resultant resentment of this is simply further confirmation that they are right. Though of course there is no right or wrong, no good or evil: nondualistic, remember. This works. Because I said so, that’s why. Child. Only Love.
Okay. I have yet to quote directly from the book and I know I should. Nor have I finished the course and this is problematic considering I’m doing what amounts to a book review – so do take it with a grain of salt. My lack of discipline opens me up to justified accusations of misrepresentation or misinterpretation (a guarantee anyway though since I lack spiritual discernment.) Plus there looks like there will be an upcoming shitload (I use the word deliberately) of dangerous pesudoscientific advice on healing the body with wishful thinking and alternative medicine (hey, where’s the harm?) Bottom line: it is woo and it encourages very bad habits of thinking indeed.
But when you download a free sample into your kindle it apparently does not allow you to highlight and save into a file (one of my favorite things!) so that means I will have to go searching through what I’ve read and try to remember the best passages which caused me to snort, roll my eyes, sigh heavily, and/or moan “Oh …. hell, no.”
Perhaps you are curious. Perhaps there is nothing you would rather look at less. Perhaps this post has gone on long enough.
You can get a hefty bit of it for free and my guess is that it’s just as good all the way through.
So I’ll end with an interesting observation and a positive. While I have been forcing myself and my ego (Ego thought it could create separately from Love and thus broke apart the original God Unity and this is how the physical material world formed) to wade through this I have simultaneously been taking breaks to start reading Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason. This one is a highly-praised new atheist/ New Atheist book which dissects the arguments for the existence of God with lucid, analytic, academic precision and o my, is the effect of going back and forth … bizarre. It’s like washing down a marshmallow with a bottle of Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild 1869. It’s like channel flipping between a documentary on Einstein and “The Housewives of New Jersey.” It’s like – well, yes – it’s like reading A Course in Miracles side-by-side with God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason. The comparison is extreme but apt.
High recommend on the latter book, by the way.