The Strange Taboo Against Disagreeing

by Robert Perry

Over the course of the last several years, we at the Circle have taken public stands in relation to two other teachers of A Course in Miracles. In 2003 we wrote One Course, Two Visions about our differences with the teachings of Ken Wapnick. And in 2006 Greg Mackie and I wrote articles expressing our disbelief in the reality of Gary Renard's ascended masters.

In both cases, we received a number of grateful responses from students who were wrestling with these very issues. Some of these were quite passionate, as was one I received a couple of days ago: "THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!!! THANK YOU!!!! One Course, Two Visions has been life transforming!!!…You have made me love the Course again." Yet in both cases, we also received a number of disgruntled responses. With only few exceptions, they were not the sort of energetic discussion we had looked forward to, in which people actually addressed our points and responded with their own. We appreciate healthy disagreement. Yet instead of disagreeing with what we said, by and large people disagreed with the mere fact that we said something. They were disagreeing with us because we had expressed disagreement.

There is an unwritten taboo in spiritual circles: Never talk about differences; never disagree. Breaking this taboo can arouse great ire among spiritual seekers. Yet it is a taboo that no one can seem to adhere to. Certainly our larger culture has no intention of adhering to it. Imagine opening your morning paper and reading that a senator had taken issue with the views of another senator and then been castigated by his colleagues, not for the quality of his views, but for the mere act of voicing disagreement. Or that a scientist had put forth a new theory which differed from existing theories (as they all do), and then had been condemned by his fellow scientists for simply expressing disagreement. Under such norms, science would quite literally fall apart, as would politics, as would all public discourse as we know it. I doubt that any of us would want to live in the society that would result.

Oddly enough, even those who wrote us had no intention of abiding by this taboo for, of course, they too were expressing disagreement. Indeed, their disagreement was so strongly worded that a good deal of it was not suitable for print. Which puts them in a rather extreme logical bind. Somehow it was wrong for us to express disagreement, even though we had done it in a calm and reasoned tone, never speculating about the character or motives of those we differed with, but rather making our case with dispassionate logic and evidence, enabling the reader to evaluate things for him- or herself. Yet on the other hand, it was apparently right for our correspondents to express disagreement, and do so without the restraints we had exercised (in some cases, seemingly without restraints at all), even though their only argument with us was that we had done a more civil version of the very thing they were doing now.

After a number of these responses, I began to sense an implicit philosophy that was behind them. A friend of mine termed this philosophy "Anti-Disagreeablism." Its central tenets seem to be these: All statements are acceptable; they should never be judged or disagreed with, because that would be an attack. Indeed, even though all statements without exception are acceptable, voicing disagreement, no matter how rationally and respectfully done, is never acceptable. In fact, it is so unacceptable that it should be met with the most caustic and scornful disagreement, simply on the basis that disagreement is always wrong.

This sort of Kafkaesque approach could be quickly dismissed as the incoherent thinking of a few kooks out there were it not for the fact that a sizable portion of the Course community seems to believe it, including many otherwise sincere, dedicated, and intelligent people. It is the sheer number of people who believe in Anti-Disagreeablism which prompts me to say something about it.

There is one final thing I want to say about the taboo against disagreement. Not only does the larger culture have no interest in obeying it, and not only do its advocates appear to have no interest in obeying it either, but the author of the Course also has no interest in obeying it. He expresses disagreement all over the place. He is constantly telling us we are wrong. Fifteen times he says to us, "You are [or were or have been or will be] wrong." This penchant of his is especially visible in the Urtext, where he expresses frequent disagreements with such figures as Sigmund Freud, Edgar Cayce, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, the Neo-Freudians, the disciples, and most of all, Helen and Bill.

His motive for disagreeing is not attack (even though Helen clearly felt attacked by it—at one point in the Urtext he mentions that he never attacks our egos, and then adds "in spite of Helen's strange beliefs to the contrary"). Indeed, he tells us his motive, right after cautioning us to not agree with everything in the New Testament: "I do not want you to allow any fear to enter into the thought system toward which I am guiding you" (T-6.I.16:2). His disagreement, in other words, is aimed at keeping us from uncritically mixing non-Course ideas in with the Course, for those ideas will ultimately make us afraid. He is disagreeing, in other words, not to prove himself right or establish dominance, but because he cares about our state of mind.

As you can see, it appears that no one wants to obey this taboo against disagreement. Our larger culture, its own proponents, and Jesus all have no interest in obeying it, and I don't either. Let's just get rid of it. Let's stop giving it lip-service as some impossible ideal that only others should obey. Yet let's not replace it with scathing, mean-spirited vitriol. That's what tears people apart, and that is already too rampant in our world. Indeed, that is what so often lurks behind this taboo around disagreeing. What I described as Anti-Disagreeablism is really just nasty Disagreeablism justifying itself by raising high the taboo against disagreement and pointing a righteous finger at those who violate it. No, let's replace the taboo that says "never disagree" with respectful, constructive, healthy disagreement. What turns a discussion about right perspective into a personal brawl is not the mere fact of disagreeing; it's how you disagree. Wouldn't it be refreshing to get rid of the insults and character assassination and replace them with a mature presentation of the reasons behind our differing views? That kind of disagreement has power to elevate everyone's understanding, including those who are engaged in it.

An example of Jesus ignoring the taboo

I've already stated my basic point. If you understand that point, feel free to read no further. However, I came upon the following example of Jesus breaking the taboo that was just too interesting and instructive to leave out. It is from the Urtext and originally came in between what is now sections VI and VII in Chapter 3 of the Text:

It is essential that this whole authority problem be voluntarily dismissed at once and for all before B's [Bill's] course [Bill was scheduled to teach a course on abnormal psychology]. Neither of you understands how important this is for your sanity. You are both quite insane on this point. (This is not a judgment. It is merely a fact. (No, Helen, you should use the word "fact." This is just as much a fact as God is. A fact is literally a "making" or a starting point. You do start from this point, and your thinking is inverted because of it.))

I don't know if you noticed, but this isn't Jesus simply doing a monologue. This is an exchange, even though we only hear one side of the exchange. Let me try to fill it out in its entirety.

Jesus tells Helen and Bill that their authority problem (in which they want to assert their authority over God's) has destroyed their sanity, and further, that they don't want to look at the devastating impact it has had. In other words, they are in denial. Jesus ends with a very direct comment: "You are both quite insane on this point." When someone is in denial, it isn't always kind to pussyfoot around.

Though Helen doesn't write her response down, we can quickly surmise what it is from Jesus' parenthetical remark. She whips out the standard defense: "Stop judging me!" This is supposed to shut him up, of course, but it doesn't work. He quickly neutralizes her objection with a simple statement: "This is not a judgment. It is merely a fact." In other words: I am not judging you; I'm just stating the facts, ma'am. But she isn't ready to give up yet. Her response, which again can be easily guessed from what he says, is this: "I don't think using 'fact' is correct Course terminology, Jesus. How can you call my insanity a fact when you yourself have been telling us that facts are eternal?"

Helen knew that the best defense is a good offense. With her first objection ("Stop judging me!"), she was trying to shame Jesus into silence (not a very effective strategy with one who has no shame!). Now, with her second objection, she is trying to weaken the force of his point ("My insanity clearly doesn't rise to the level of being a fact"), while also trying to pull rank on him ("Allow me to school you in the correct terminology of your course"), while simultaneously trying to divert the issue ("Let's look at this terminology point"). Boy, is she good!

Jesus, however, is much better. He faces her terminology issue head on: "No, Helen," he says, "you should use the word 'fact.' This is just as much a fact as God is. A fact is literally a 'making' or a starting point." He is correct, it seems. The original meaning of "fact" (from the Latin factum) was "a thing done," or even "the making, doing, or performing" (Oxford English Dictionary). So a fact is a making. Further, the more contemporary use of "fact" often refers to indisputable pieces of information ("the facts of the case") that become the basis for constructing a larger, more subjective argument. So, as Jesus says, a fact is also a starting point.

Then Jesus plays his final card. Using the meaning of "fact" as "starting point," he tells Helen, "You do start from this point [the authority problem], and your thinking is inverted because of it." "Inverted," of course, means "upside-down," and upside-down thinking is insane thinking. This is truly masterful. Jesus has directly answered her point (showing her in the process that she doesn't need to school him in terminology) and has done so in such a way as to neatly bring the whole discussion back to his starting point: the crazy-making effects of Helen's authority problem. He has engaged in a sort of verbal aikido. Rather than falling into some holy silence in which he refuses to disagree, Jesus has managed to take all of Helen's resistance and use it to bring her right back to the very point she was resisting. This is one guy I would not want to verbally fence with!

In essence, he has said, "I called your authority problem a fact because it is. A fact is a starting point, and the authority problem truly is the starting point for all of your thinking. Because this starting point is insane, all of your thinking is insane—the very point I made at the beginning." If your starting point is a lie, then what you have is (as Jesus says a couple paragraphs later) "a thought-system based on lies" (T-3.VII.1:6) You have an entire thought system that is insane.

Jesus is not exactly the model of non-disagreement here. First he tells Helen that she is insane, that her entire thought system is based on a lie. Then, when she objects to being judged, he says that she is wrong; this is not a judgment, but a fact. Then when she objects to this being called a fact, he tells her that she is wrong again; the word "fact" is correct here. Finally, he uses his definition of "fact" to bring her back to his original assertion-that she is insane. If there is a taboo around disagreement, Jesus clearly has no regard for it.

What Jesus demonstrates here is that there are times when falsehood needs to be squarely addressed. If an entire thought system is resting on an unsound base, and you clearly see this while others are in denial, it is not always a kindness to remain silent. There are times when the falsehood must be pointed out. You cannot simply assert it, as Jesus does (since you do not yet abide in that place of ultimate authority); you need to provide your reasons and evidence. Finally, once you have done that, when the inevitable resistance arises and they tell you to stop judging, there are times when you must simply respond, "This is not a judgment. It is merely a fact."