Dear student of A Course in Miracles —
To this day I remember the warm wash of peace that seemed to flow over me as I read the first few lessons of the Course.
Nothing I see in this room means anything… These thoughts do not mean anything… I am never upset for the reason I think… I see only the past… I am upset because I see a meaningless world… God did not create a meaningless world.
Even now, two decades after first opening the heavy, hardcover book with the onion skin paper, I can read these lines, close my eyes, and put myself back into that place where all of the loneliness, anxiety, and despair seemed to melt away. The voice floating above the page was soothing, radiant. It seemed to understand my nameless predicament, and to speak directly to it, helping me, step by step, to slow down and disassemble the internal machine of endless conflict that had become my mind.
I had tried many things to soothe myself. I had travelled to India, and learned to meditate. I had poured over yoga books and prostrated in temples. I had fasted and chanted. I had taken Buddhist vows. But the Course spoke to me in English, with a directness, simplicity and rhythm that felt so at home. That the voice said it belonged to Jesus, and that he spoke of forgiveness and resurrection: this mended the broken shards of Christianity at the bottom of my soul.
The spell began to break after a little more than two years — a few weeks into circling through the round of 365 lessons for the third time.
Why did it break? Context is everything.
I had been introduced to the book by the charismatic leader of a cult. He thrilled me with his knowledge of the book, his commitment to it. I moved across the country to listen to him teach from it every day.
But at some mysterious point it became clear that, despite his seeming brilliance, he was emotionally manipulating and financially exploiting the hundreds of us who gathered around him. He wasn’t an outright criminal. My impression after all of these years was that he was a deeply traumatized former alcoholic who had learned to present his emotional turmoil as a form of enlightenment. He was using A Course in Miracles as a fig leaf for his mania and its resulting abuses of power.
I eventually left the group. I went to therapy. I slowly rebuilt my relationships. I started writing again, which took a while, because my brain was so full of the Course it was impossible at first to hear my own voice. I remarried, and became a parent. Now I am a cult researcher.
The woman who introduced me to the Course said: “If a group begins to form around the Course, run in the opposite direction.” I think almost all Course in Miracles devotees have heard this saying. The reasoning is that the Course is a personal journey undertaken by forging a personal connection with the voice of Jesus. And the book is emphatic about the reader needing no other authority beside itself. So, you may say: “You weren’t really studying the Course. Sadly, you didn’t get the experience in its authentic form.” And you would have a good point.
You might also want to defend against where this letter is going by saying: “It wasn’t the Course that abused you. That cult leader could have used the Bible, or the Quran.” And you would be right about that, too. In fact, the cult leader also used the Blue Book, from Alcoholics Anonymous. If he hadn’t found the Course, he would have found something. He craved to be at the centre of the universe, and the Course merely gave him permission.
But even if my experience with the Course was not “pure”, it did leave me with an interesting split. My devotion to the text left it seared into my memory, while my disillusionment with how it had been used against me allowed me to examine its ideas dispassionately. The fact that I had to run far away from the Course for my own mental health meant that I got to talk to others who had as well. It forced me to broaden my reading, better understand the strange origins of the Course, and learn where it fits within the broader history of New Age — formerly “New Thought” — religion. Yes: religion. The Course and those who love it like to think of it as though it has somehow completed and transcended religion, but this is not true.
I’m writing this letter to say that this double vision — knowing the Course well enough to see through it — has convinced me that its ideas are really harmful. Not just because they don’t make sense, but because they are presented in a hypnotic, thought-scrambling form that needs no cult leader to weaponize it. It is a book that teaches the reader to isolate and manipulate themselves.
You might think that my contact with other Course devotees is limited to those who also were in cults. But as a journalist on the New Age and wellness beat, I have spoken to dozens of people who came to the Course on their own, or through the popular Course-based books by people like Marianne Williamson and Gabrielle Bernstein. I’ve listened to the stories of how the Course has changed them. Some are still devoted students. Some have left it. Some have family members invested in it.
My general takeaway from my personal, group, and now research experience, is that the Course works — if it can be said to work— by turning its student into a cult of one.
What do I mean by that?
Here’s the standard — not popular or sensationalistic — definition of “cult”, as formulated by Michael Langone and Dr. Louis West in the 1980s — around the same time that the Course enjoyed exponential growth:
“A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”
— West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 119–120.
The Course has primarily spread through word-of-mouth, which means that social influence plays an important role in how it is practiced. For example: while Marianne Williamson presents herself as a neutral “teacher” and humble servant of the Course, her status as a charismatic influencer cannot be ignored when we consider how broadly her teachings have reached. If it was really about the Course, everyone who taught it would enjoy similar exposure.
But for the sake of argument I’ll agree for the moment with the belief that “groups” that form around the Course are either illegitimate (they miss the core message) or too decentralized to really function for the benefit of any “leader”. Even with that agreement, I can turn back to West and Langone’s definition and strip away references to groups and leaders, and render a list of troubling conditions that true for most, if not all, of the Course students I have known.
- “This is a Course in Miracles. It is a required course.” With this famous opening, Course students convince themselves over time that it is the only book and set of ideas they need, and ever will need. It is totalizing.
- As a totalizing worldview, it slowly but surely begins to pry the student away from friends and family. Course students begin to feel that it is natural for those who “awaken from the dream of separation” in the non-Course world to find themselves alone, or only able to communicate with fellow students. I feel that one of the more pernicious aspects of the Course is its definition of all intimate human relationships as “Special Relationships”, which “Jesus” claims are contrived to keep him sidelined, or to pretend that human relationships can replace the divine plan. One thing that might be of interest to consider is that it is standard practice for cults to separate marriages and families, so that there are no emotional bonds that can compete with the bond between the member and the group. The question is whether this narrowing of relationships is healthy over time. Toxic or abusive relationships should be boundaried. But in general, a trend toward self-isolation does not seem healthy to me.
- “Debilitation”. I have known and heard of dozens of Course students who have refused to seek out psychotherapy, addiction treatment, medical treatment, social services, and even alimony and child support that is due to them because they were convinced by the Course that “I am not my body”, or “sickness is a defence against the Truth”, or that “love offers everything forever”, or that “forgiveness offers everything I want”. I have known people to suffer with acute and chronic illness, pain, or mental health issues because of these beliefs. I knew one woman who died, riddled with painful and treatable cancer, because she believed that “sickness and separation are not of God”. She died alone, alienated from her children, who found they could not talk to her without her deflecting every conversation back to Jesus, or the lesson of the day. It was as if she had forgotten the most intimate anchors of her life —who she had parented—or simply lost interest in them.
- “Special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience.” The requirement of daily and often hourly prayer sessions can create a psychosocial bubble around the student that sharply limits other inputs, and begins to dictate all responses to circumstance through the instructions of the Course. Also, we cannot ignore the hypnotic rhythm of the text. An astonishing 75% of the Lessons are written in iambic pentameter, and about half of the actual 600-page plus text is as well — the latter half. I’ve looked for neuropsychological research on the effects of iambic pentameter, and it seems that there isn’t much. But anecdotally I am convinced that it is hypnotic, with registers that can switch back and forth between the monotonous and the coercive. I am also convinced that the rhythm is a contrivance, i.e., not consistent with a “channelled” voice from “out of time”. (“One in/stant out / of time / can bring / a-bout / time’s end.”) Even if we accept that the book really comes from a disembodied Jesus, why would this incredibly influential rhythm become central to the text part-way through? And to whom is the “subservience”? I believe that the Course effectively implants the voice of “Jesus” in the student’s brain as a kind of superego, an internal voice of discipline and sanctimony. The subservience is not to an external authority, but to an internalized brainworm. I have seen countless Course students stop in the middle of a conversation to close their eyes and “listen to what Jesus is saying.” I used to do this as well. What I heard were memorized lines from the book.
- “Information management”. Dedicated Course students will use the book to interpret every piece of information they come across through the voice of “Jesus”. For many students I have known, this has meant cutting themselves off from all news of the world, because the stress of constant re-interpretation can be very tiring. They default to the article of faith: “There is no world.” When this process goes mainstream, it looks like the political campaigns of Marianne Williamson, in which the rhetoric of love, peace, light, and miracles displaces any educated or realistic conversation of political and economic policy. On an interpersonal level, the consequences of information management can be tragic. I have heard many stories of Course students being told by their friend, partners, or even children that they have suffered some kind of abuse. And instead of empathizing with the survivor, the Course student will them that “pain is an ego illusion”, or that “God knows nothing of your pain”, or that everything that has happened has a higher or divine purpose.
- “Suspension of individuality or critical judgment.” There’s something oddly homogenous about Course students — and I don’t just mean most of them are white, although that’s another part of the story. I remember the feeling that I should always be standing upright, that I should always have a gentle smile of equanimity. It was very important to feel and show that I had overcome all internal conflicts through the inner guidance of “Jesus”. In my case this entailed a severe amount of emotional repression, and I have heard as much from many former students as well. The homogeneity acts as a kind of social buffer that both proves that the student has attained a higher states, and protects them from having to engage with others, except for when they are proselytizing. The affect and vibe is quite similar to that of Jehovah’s Witnesses who recruit from door to door — minus the suits. The “critical judgment” piece is reflected in all of the above points, but I can add here that every Course student I have ever known has gone through a period — sometimes permanent— of complete depoliticization. They even stop voting. It’s not just the belief that having a critical perspective on something displaces the unity of God in their minds. It’s also the belief that taking any action in the world is a denial of the eternal perfection of things.
I don’t want this letter to be too long, or to feel like it’s hitting you over the head. To sum up:
Why does A Course in Miracles feel so good? I believe it’s because it provides a hypnotic bubble of escape from the world. Its duet form — “Jesus” is speaking directly to you— is very intimate and highly charged. It can feel like an intensely personal experience. These feelings can be useful for a time. But there’s an addictive quality to it, and with enough repetition, the bubble can become a kind of armour against the world that “Jesus” claims does not exist, but that you are still living in and dependent on. In so many cases I have seen, that armour stands between the people that the book claims to want to bring together. Students become islands unto themselves, comforted only by their capacity to recite the lessons over and over again.
And where do these lessons come from? What is the Course? You are likely aware of the buckets of ink spilled on sorting out the various editions, how Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford“took dictation” and edited it, and then Ken Wapnick edited it again. Maybe you are aware that Bill Thetford worked as a psychological consultant on the CIA MKUltra programme, which was dedicated to discovering and weaponizing techniques of mind control. The full history of the Course has yet to be investigated, corroborated, and written. But we know enough to honestly say that this book emerged through a very human process. Which leaves us all with the question of whether it is deceptive, or self-deceptive, to claim that the voice of the text comes from some divine source.
What is much more plausible is that two psychologists with a complex and intimate relationship, who likely had easy access to mind-altering chemicals, recorded together a strange and compelling trip that made them feel better about life. A different turn of the screw might have produced an opera, or play, perhaps in iambic pentameter.
Things that make us feel better at the expense of our relationships and connections with the world, and our political will, exact a price. What I’ve seen is that while A Course in Miracles is always “given away freely”, the costs are very high.
I can end by saying: it’s okay to stop reading it. When I did, I didn’t lose anything but a sense of inner authoritarianism that had disguised itself in wisdom.
Over time, I found I had my own internal voice. It wasn’t “Jesus”’s, Helen’s, or Bill’s. But it was good enough: curious, inventive, capable of reassurance, able to reach out to others, and able to rest.