Is A Course in Miracles a cult? One of my students asked me this other day. His question was genuine, but troubling. After all, the word cult has nothing but negative connotations (unless you’re a fan of this band, of course).
Generally, we understand a cult to be a group with rigid (usually in stark contrast to traditional practices and beliefs) belief systems that are religious or spiritual in nature. They are authoritarian – you have to follow the group, the leader of the group, and in the process surrender your identity. You don’t have a lot of choices in a cult. For these reasons, they are rightly seen as exploitative and dangerous.
The other aspect of cults is that they tend to involve – in practice or in perception – some degree of mind control. And what does A Course in Miracles call itself? A course in “mind training” (T-1.VII.4:1).
But that’s a simplistic rendering of a complex idea. A Course in Miracles is a self-study curriculum that teaches its students that the only problem they truly have is their decision to think apart from God – that is, to imagine that their will and God’s will are separate. This split leads to fear and guilt which we then project and pretend is not our own. As a result, we are blame the world for our problems and we fear God’s retribution. Through its lessons, the course aims to restore to our minds their capacity to think with God and to remember our fundamental unity with Creation.
A Course in Miracles is not for everyone, of course. There are plenty of people for whom it is too far-out, its metaphysics too hard to believe, and so forth. This is okay! The course is clear that it is only one form of what is calls the universal curriculum. There are many ways to be whole and healthy – including atheism, psychotherapy, Buddhism and others.
Really, A Course in Miracles is simply one expression of the perennial philosophy. Using Christian language and imagery, with a healthy dose of Freudian psychology and Platonic philosophy, it gently asserts that we are not separated from God but only believe that we are separated.
In other words, there is no expectation that A Course in Miracles is the only way to live a spiritual life.
Moreover, the course is deeply personal and meets each student where they are. Thus, one person’s practice of the course may look entirely different from somebody else’s practice. The emphasis is on the individual, not on conformity to some group standard or ideal.
The value of the Atonement does not lie in the manner in which it is expressed. In fact, if it is used truly, it will inevitably be expressed in whatever way is most helpful to the receiver (T-2.IV.5:1-2).
Really, A Course in Miracles is simply one expression of the perennial philosophy. Using Christian language and imagery, with a healthy dose of Freudian psychology and Platonic philosophy, it simply asserts that we are not separated from God but only believe that we are separated. Thus, its goal is to restore to our memory the fact of unity.
It is also critical to understand that A Course in Miracles really has no centralized leader or board of directions. There is certainly the Foundation for A Course in Miracles (FACIM) headed by the late Ken Wapnick and his wife Gloria. The Foundation aims to help students understand and bring into application the course. And while I think it does aim to be definitive, it is hardly coercive. There are a lot of people running around doing stuff with ACIM that wouldn’t pass muster at the Foundation.
The Foundation for Inner Peace publishes a version of the course that many students consider the “official” version. The FIP was established by the scribes – Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford – for the purpose of disseminating A Course in Miracles. At the same time, there are several other version of the course available – older ones, modified ones, altogether rewritten ones . . . The course is a diverse community with considerable dissension when it comes to “what it says.”
And, of course, there are a number of teachers – Marianne Williamson, Gary Renard, Tara Singh and others – and each of them has their following. If you look at them closely, you will perceive differences. Some – Williamson, for example – are more popular than others. Some, like the late Tara Singh, adopt a more Hindu perspective on the course’s themes of nonduality.
And again, the course – while it aims to help us work better with our minds in order to restore us to the sanity of remembering God – is also clear that it’s not the bottom or the only, line. It’s not the only way to heal and it’s not the only way to come into contact with God. If you want to shake the dust off your sandals and try something different, then go for it. It’s not a big deal.
Is that to say that there are not teachers out there who ask a lot of their students? That there aren’t groups that are demanding loyalty from their members while also professing to follow A Course in Miracles? It’s possible, of course. That’s true of a lot of religions and spiritual traditions. And even within perfectly healthy and open communities, there can be individual who display cult-like behavior.
I don’t mean to suggest then that one can’t find examples of behavior in the ACIM community that aren’t troubling. For example, a number of students have been troubled by this teacher and the group that he founded. But I know people who studied with him, and moved on when it was time to do so.
In my own experience, most students of the course are disciplined and intelligent and altogether in touch with their own power of decision. Most of them study at their own pace and in their own way – sometimes venturing out to study groups for tea and discussion – but rarely more. Indeed, most serious students have more in common with monks than with cult members.
So no. For my money – and you are entirely welcome to disagree of course - A Course in Miracles is not a cult. It’s radical. It’s intense. It can change your life and that can be a scary experience – both for you and people who love you. But it’s not going to ask any sacrifices of you – it isn’t going to take anything that you didn’t want to give anyway. The only teacher it is really going to share with you is the Holy Spirit – your inner teacher, who is the Voice for God, the part of your mind that remains healed.
And the only place that the course will take you is towards joy and peace. I always encourage curious sojourners to take a look at it and even try it. If it works, great. And if it doesn’t, that’s great, too.