Most of us who read this article would probably not identify ourselves as particularly religious. Rather, we probably think of ourselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious." Why is that? What is it about that label we want to keep our distance from?
I'll give my own answer to that question. While I have made friends with the term "religious" in recent years, I still don't feel very religious myself. I avoid church like the plague. I have an aversion to any sort of ritual or ceremony. Those things are fine for others; they just don't suit me. Why not?
I think there is something at the heart of the religious impulse that I find a bit frightening. It is just so total. The religious impulse is one in which you give all of yourself, in allegiance, obedience, love, and worship, to God. You belong to God—in mind and heart, body and soul. If you go all the way with this impulse, you hold nothing of yourself back. It's all given to God, Who then basically owns you. You are no longer your own. You're His.
Doesn't that idea scare you a little? I mean, what if you get it wrong? What if you give yourself to a God that is basically a human fiction? I'm not saying there is no God—I'm obviously convinced there is—but there are so many different and irreconcilable ways of conceiving of God that most of them must necessarily contain a lot of fiction.
So, in a worst-case scenario, let's say you do give yourself over completely to what is essentially a man-made fiction. There you are, swaying with the crowd, tears of joy streaming down your face, singing your heart out to a deity that is basically a myth made up by a bunch of Iron Age men. That may sound harmless, but it doesn't stop there. For this fictional deity then asks all sorts of things of you. He asks you to abide by a long list of seemingly arbitrary rules or face dire consequences. He asks you to take part in all sorts of rituals that look meaningless to an outside observer but that you and your cohorts believe possess secret, magical power. He asks you to make all kinds of sacrifices on His behalf. He asks you to give your mind over and believe things "on faith," even though they fly in the face of all the evidence. This last one is particularly scary, because it deprives the whole thing of a means of review. If this God is the sole authority and thus automatically overrules your reason, then what basis do you have to question His system?
I don't see this as capturing religion itself. I personally see a great deal of beauty in religion. But this is the scary side of religion, and it scares us all. It brings up images of Jim Jones' followers lying dead in Guyana or the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in San Diego. We all know that, in the extreme, a fictional God can ask everything of you, and that you can by then have lost all ability to question Him. You had given Him everything and He then proceeded to take everything.
This is why I keep my distance from the religious impulse. I want to keep hold of myself. I want to be my own person. Above all, I want to retain my reason and use it to shoot down any fictions that would make grand promises as a pretext for draining me dry.
Or so I think. For the problem with these bold claims about myself, from the standpoint of A Course in Miracles, is that they are one hundred percent wrong.
The religious impulse is inherent in our being
The impression I get from the Course is that being religious is a fundamental and inextricable part of our being. We were created by God, and thus woven into our being is an inherent recognition of our Creator. Consequently, at our core we are permanently turned toward God in a natural acknowledgment of Him as our Source. This results in an effortless outpouring of love and gratitude toward Him. As the Course puts it, "You love your Father for the gift of creation" (T-8.VI.5:7). The Course describes this love at one point as "awe" that is even "worshipful" (T-1.II.3:2). Its favorite image, though, is one that depicts us pouring ourselves out in a continual, collective song, "a song of gratitude and love and praise by everything created to the Source of its creation" (T-26.IV.3:5).
This state of gratitude, love, praise, and awe is total. It involves all of our being. It is very much what I described above in that there is nothing outside of it, no critical standard to which it is subjected, and thus no checks and balances to limit it. It takes place without question. Yet—and here is the really crucial point—it is absolutely healthy and empowering.
How can that be? How can we give ourselves completely and unquestioningly to Someone Else without that being unhealthy and disempowering? The answer is that this is a God that is unlike the familiar Gods of religion. This is a God Who only gives and never takes. This sounds simple, but it is actually something that lies completely outside our earthly experience. That is why the Course says we are literally unable to comprehend the depth of God's Love for us:
You cannot understand how much your Father loves you, for there is no parallel in your experience of the world to help you understand it. There is nothing on earth with which it can compare, and nothing you have ever felt apart from Him resembles it ever so faintly. You cannot even give a blessing in perfect gentleness. Would you know of One Who gives forever, and Who knows of nothing except giving? (T-14.IV.8:4-6)
God is not only incomprehensibly loving and giving, our being is naturally in harmony with His, at one with His. Therefore, when we obey His Will, we find our own will, for we share the exact same will; we and God want the exact same things. When we let in His Love, we find out who we are, for His Love is His knowing of who we are. In summary, belonging to God does not mean sacrificing ourselves, it means being ourselves. As the Course asks, "Can your self be lost by being found?" (T-29.I.9:6).
So there is a profound religious impulse at the root of our being. This impulse frightens us because it is so total. Jesus told Helen and Bill that in their resistance to the Course they were fighting "against a pull which you both recognize is so intense that you are afraid that you will be uprooted" (Urtext). We don't realize that only by letting this pull have its way will we find our authentic self and be filled with both safety and power.
Now here is what may seem like the worst news of all: We cannot get rid of this religious impulse. We can only decide where we will direct it. We cannot leave church, we can only switch churches. And according to the Course, we have all made a very bad switch, which leads to the main subject of this article.
The religion of the ego
I don't know if you have noticed this, but a great deal of the religious language in the Course is about the ego. When the Course talks about religion, creeds, commandments, churches, temples, shrines, altars, hymns, chants, litanies, rituals, rites, processions, bowing down, kneeling, and worship, it is more often than not talking about how we relate to the ego. In the Course's perspective, then, we have transferred that fundamental religious impulse, which is naturally pointed at God, to the ego. Let's look at the following passage:
Do not underestimate the power of the devotion of God's Son, nor the power the god he worships has over him. For he places himself at the altar of his god, whether it be the god he made or the God Who created him. That is why his slavery is as complete as his freedom, for he will obey only the god he accepts. The god of crucifixion demands that he crucify, and his worshippers obey. In his name they crucify themselves, believing that the power of the Son of God is born of sacrifice and pain. The God of resurrection demands nothing, for He does not will to take away. (T-11.VI.5:1-6)
The assumption here is that we will have a god, whether that be the real God or the god we made (the ego). Whichever we choose, we will place ourselves at the altar of that god, giving him our total devotion, and giving him complete power in our lives. We, unfortunately, have chosen the god of crucifixion—the ego—and we now relate to him as our god. Indeed, we actually worship him. The Course says elsewhere, "And if you accept him you will bow down and worship him, because he was made as God's replacement" (T-10.III.11:6). Having made him our god, we obey him absolutely, which is unfortunate because all he does is make demands (in contrast to the real God, Who "demands nothing"). Quite naturally, the god of crucifixion demands that we crucify ourselves, that we voluntarily undergo sacrifice and pain. And as a sign of our allegiance to him, we do it.
Here, then, we have two themes that we see in the Course again and again. First, we worship the ego as our god. We have transferred our innate religious devotion over to the ego. Second, all this god does is take. For this reason, the Course calls him the "god of sickness," the "god of depression," the "god of cruelty," the "god of fear," and the "lord of death." We thus enter into a very sick relationship with our god, in which we give him worship, devotion, and slavish obedience, and he graciously rewards us by draining the life out of us. As the Course puts it, "What the ego loves, it kills for its obedience" (T-19.IV(C).4:7).
For any Course student familiar with the Course's conception of the ego, the idea that we have made it our god is very disturbing, as well as possibly quite hard to believe. Have we really done this? What is the evidence? What does membership in this religion look like in everyday life? Actually, the Course is not short on examples of this, and so it is to these we now turn.
Our everyday rituals
I hear a lot of warnings to not make the Workbook into a ritual. Trying to follow the practice instructions too closely, I hear, turns the whole thing into a ritual. The Workbook does mention not making our practice into a ritual, but its take on this is very different from ours, I believe.
The introduction to Review III in the Workbook (after Lesson 110) talks about this issue. It says that "when you miss a practice period because it is impossible at the appointed time" (2:2) and then feel you have to make that up later, that makes a ritual out of your practice. You are making "excessive efforts to make sure that you catch up in terms of numbers" (2:3) and thus giving those numbers magical power.
What, however, do you do about practice periods that were not impossible but that you actually chose to skip? This paragraph explains:
Those practice periods that you have lost because you did not want to do them for whatever reason should be done as soon as you have changed your mind about your goal. You are unwilling to cooperate in practicing salvation only if it interferes with gods you hold more dear. When you withdraw the value given them, allow your practice periods to be replacements for your litanies to them. They gave you nothing. But your practice periods offer you everything. Accept their offering, and be at peace. (Helen's original dictation of W-pI.rIII.4)
Clearly, different rules apply to the practice periods you could have done but chose not to. Those practice periods should be made up. The explanation of why is what concerns us here. The key word in that explanation is "gods." In the FIP version of the Course, this reads "goals." But in Helen's handwritten notes and in the Urtext, it is clearly "gods" (although in the Urtext, two letters have been typed on top of each other which could have been misread as "a" and "l," making the word "goals," even though one of those letters is actually a "d"). "Gods" makes sense here because it fits the religious language about "rituals" and "litanies." It also makes more sense to read "litanies to them" as "litanies to gods" than "litanies to goals."
What actually is a litany? A litany is defined as "a series of sung or spoken liturgical prayers or requests for the blessing of God." More generally, a litany is a repetitive chant or a lengthy recitation or enumeration ("a litany of complaints"). A litany, in other words, is a lot like a ritual.
Now the passage becomes clear. Based on experience, we know that when we refuse to do our practice period, it is because we would rather do something else, something we think will deliver more happiness, right? And that something else is probably a thing we do all the time, something we repeat again and again. It could be checking our e-mail, or having a snack, or watching more TV, or getting more work done, or washing the dishes, or calling a friend. You know what your examples are. Whatever they are, they are actually litanies. They are long repetitive prayers to your gods, the "gods you hold more dear" than salvation. These prayers ask for happiness from your gods, but as your experience has probably taught you, these gods actually "gave you nothing." In contrast, says the Course, "your practice periods offer you everything."
Therefore, making up those skipped practice periods is really an act of allowing "your practice periods to be replacements for your litanies." Now we can see the whole story. If you make up practice periods that were not possible to do, that's a ritual. But if you make up practice periods you chose to skip, that's a replacement for your rituals. It's a replacement for those long, repetitive prayers you chant to your false gods all day long. You are taking time out from your profane liturgy for a brief prayer to the true God.
Haven't we all skipped a lot of practice periods that we really could have done? If so, it's because we were too engrossed in our all-day worship service in the church of the ego.
The Course also sees our drive to acquire possessions as a sign of our membership in the ego's religion:
Possession for its own sake is the ego's fundamental creed, a basic cornerstone in the churches it builds to itself. And at its altar it demands you lay all of the things it bids you get, leaving you no joy in them.
Everything the ego tells you that you need will hurt you. For although the ego urges you again and again to get, it leaves you nothing, for what you get it will demand of you. And even from the very hands that grasped it, it will be wrenched and hurled into the dust. For where the ego sees salvation it sees separation, and so you lose whatever you have gotten in its name. (T-13.VII.10:12-11:4)
This passage sketches a vivid picture. Attending the ego's church and reciting its creed involves repeatedly affirming the saving power of having material things, of "possession for its own sake." So, at the ego's bidding, we go out and get a new possession, but we aren't allowed to actually keep it. The ego demands that we bring it to church and lay it on the ego's altar, that we make it a pleasing sacrifice to our god. Yet as we are still approaching the altar, the ego wrenches this new possession from our greedy hands and hurls it into the dust. And it does this every time we acquire something new, thus leaving us with nothing.
This is colorful language, but it describes a frequent experience. We buy something, thinking we have obeyed the voice of happiness within us, only to then discover that we find no joy in it. The reason is that possession is a separation concept. So possession as salvation equals separation as salvation. And it is salvation for the ego. But for us separation is only loss and emptiness. So the ego gains and we lose. We have served our god at the expense of ourselves.
Thus, if you have that drive to acquire and possess—if you take part in our consumer culture—it is because you are obeying "the ego's fundamental creed." And if you have felt strangely empty after a purchase, it is because you have then offered that possession as a sacrifice to the ego, so that it got fed and you got left with nothing.
Special relationships and marriage
Our romantic relationships, it seems, are a place where devotion to our false god is particularly evident:
Suffering and sacrifice are the gifts with which the ego would "bless" all unions. And those who are united at its altar accept suffering and sacrifice as the price of union. In their angry alliances, born of the fear of loneliness and yet dedicated to the continuance of loneliness, each seeks relief from guilt by increasing it in the other….The fury of those joined at the ego's altar far exceeds your awareness of it. For what the ego really wants you do not realize. (T-15.VII.9:1-3, 6-7)
Why is marriage so often not what we hoped for? Because, without realizing it, we got married at the ego's altar, apparently with the ego officiating! As it laid its blessing on our union, it said, "You will each experience the other constantly demanding sacrifice from you, as payment for all your sins. This will cause a fury to grow in you, which will be far greater than you realize, and you will end up feeling fundamentally alone. But, my dear children, that's just the price of love. Now go with my blessing, for suffering and sacrifice are my blessing. From this day forth, your relationship will be a continuing hymn of hate in praise of me" (see T-17.V.1:7).
If this sounds like an apt description of your marriage, or one of them, could it be because the two of you got married in the church of the ego?
The above passage ended with the enigmatic statement that "what the ego really wants you do not realize." Several sections later, in "The Choice for Completion" (T-16.V) we find out what that is. Here, the religious imagery becomes actually macabre.
An altar is erected in between two separate people, on which each seeks to kill his self, and on his body raise another self to take its power from his death. Over and over and over this ritual is enacted. (T-16.V.11:5-6)
The special relationship must be recognized for what it is; a senseless ritual in which strength is extracted from the death of God, and invested in His killer as the sign that form has triumphed over content, and love has lost its meaning. (T-16.V.12:4)
This section is very hard to follow, but it's really an explanation of what we are unconsciously after in our special relationships. What drives us into those relationships is that we don't feel special enough, which we ultimately see as the fault of how God made us. So we find a person who is more special, and once we do, we sacrifice ourselves for that person. We give that person our self. This is actually a trap, for he now becomes guilty of the loss of our self, and to relieve that guilt he must pay us back, by giving us his more special self. In the process, we may have lost our self—he now owns it—but we now own his far more special self. We thus have gained the specialness we lacked.
The Course depicts this exchange of selves as a religious ritual. We erect an altar between the two of us, and then on this altar we kill our self. "Killing our self" means sacrificing and giving our self to our partner, which then obligates him to give us his self. This, however, is only the surface level. The ritual's actual aim is to kill God. By sacrificing our non-special self, we send God the message that the self He gave us is so worthless that we might as well kill it. And when our partner then gives us his special self, it's as if we have forced God to give us the specialness He originally withheld. We have thus forced Him to abandon His impersonal Love and grant us something totally against His nature: special love. It's like forcing a monk who has renounced the world to engage in sex. We have thus defeated God, conquered Him, killed Him.
This sounds bizarre at first. But the special relationship does give us the feeling that God has blessed us with the gift of special love. It no longer seems so important to God that we love everyone equally, for see, even He dishes out special love. If we can find that thought tucked somewhere in the recesses of our minds, could that be the evidence that we are taking part in a far more sinister project? That we have become willing accomplices in the ego's attempt to kill off its competitor, our Father?
Another way in which we take part in the ego's religion is through, well, religion. The Course doesn't see all religion as being of the ego, but it certainly sees much of it as being so. For instance, the Course criticizes the traditional Christian notion of Atonement, in which God kills Jesus for being good, and then says, "Such anti-religious concepts enter into many religions" (T-3.I.1:7). How do you spot an anti-religious religion? I think the more it feels like you are there to fill God's demands, through your sacrifice, appeasement, and worship, and the more you curry God's favor with ritual, ceremony, and obedience to prescribed behavioral and lifestyle rules, the more the ego is what is really being worshipped.
What I find particularly telling regarding the Course's attitude toward religion is that its images of the ego's religion are basically caricatures of normal religion. Can you spot what the following image is a caricature of? "In suffering, the price for faith in it [the ego] is so immense that crucifixion of the Son of God is offered daily at its darkened shrine, and blood must flow before the altar where its sickly followers prepare to die" (W-pII.12.4:2). This is clearly meant to call to mind the Catholic Mass, a daily ritual that celebrates the crucifixion of God's Son, at which followers gather before an altar where blood is present. This is not to say that Mass is purely an expression of the ego. However, the Eucharist (which, of course, is what is celebrated in the Mass) does come in for direct and heavy criticism in the Course (see T-7.V.10:7-8. and T-19.IV(A).17:5-7).
The point is that much of what draws people into religion is, in fact, their prior allegiance to the ego's religion. In the worst case, they find in a particular church the twisted worship that has already been going on in the secret shrine of their hearts.
Leaving the ego's religion
So we are all religious. Normal life, even the life of an atheist, is deeply religious. We are all in church every day, all day. We are just in the wrong church.
According to the Course, this is the story of our lives. The repetitive thoughts and behaviors that largely make up our lives are really our litanies to the ego. They are "a continuing hymn" we sing (T-17.V.1:7) "in solemn celebration of the ego's rule" (T-19.IV.B.16:3). This is why we are unhappy, because we are bowing down to a god who does nothing but demand and take. This is why we get sick, because "the god of sickness obviously demands the denial of health" (T-10.V.3:2). This is why we die, because we came to this earth to "serve the lord of death" (T-29.V.7:6). And this is why we tend to live our lives stuck in patterns that are clearly against our best interests, why, even when we know the road to happiness, we so often don't take it.
What can we do about this information? I can see a few things. Perhaps the first thing we can do is squarely face our worship of the ego and feel our natural distaste and even revulsion over it. To help in this, you may want to imagine the following things. Picture yourself kneeling down before the ego, with forehead to the ground, and worshipping it as god. Then imagine clasping your hands together and praying to the ego as your lord and creator. Finally, still on your knees, picture yourself singing a heartfelt hymn of praise to the ego. Now realize that as you go about your normal daily activities—looking for love, buying cool new stuff, skipping your practice periods—you are doing these things. You have been doing them today. How does that make you feel? Several years ago I led a class through an exercise in which we prayed to the ego as "my father and my source." Several of us felt physically sick to our stomachs. Could we be feeling sick at heart about this all the time, and just not realizing where that feeling comes from?
We also need to remind ourselves, as the Course repeatedly does, that the god we are worshipping is not real; he is just a figment of our imagination. Thus, we are not trying to wrench ourselves away from a power that is actually there. We are in charge; indeed, we are the only real party in this relationship. Because this god is unreal, says the Course, "if you refuse to worship him in whatever form he may appear to you, and wherever you think you see him, he will disappear into the nothingness out of which he was made" (T-10.IV.1:9). Lesson 170 ("There is no cruelty in God and none in me") is actually devoted to this process of looking on the god we made and realizing his nothingness:
Today we look upon this cruel god dispassionately. And we note that though his lips are smeared with blood, and fire seems to flame from him, he is but made of stone. He can do nothing. We need not defy his power. He has none. (W-pI.170.7:1-5)
Finally, we need to come to accept that the religion of the ego does not actually give us anything. It makes huge promises, but never delivers on them. It asks of us tremendous sacrifice, for which we believe we'll be rewarded, but the rewards never come, or are so meager that they really amount to yet more promissory notes about some fantasy payoff in the future. Think about it: Has the ego's religion really earned your allegiance? Or are you just playing the role of the battered wife? Could the Course actually be right when it says, "They [your gods] gave you nothing. But your practice periods offer you everything"? Could it be that the Course offers us everything, that God offers us everything, all for no payment whatsoever?
Perhaps, then, we have gotten things completely backward. Most of us, when it comes down to it, are busy protecting our lives against the Course. We see in the Course a God Who asks so much that we feel we must erect a buffer to protect our everyday pleasures from His lofty directives. What if we realized that in our "normal" lives we are busy worshipping a god who is bent on taking everything, and that the Course's God, out of pure concern and care for us, wants only to save us from that? Could that realization allow our innate religious impulse to revert to its original form, pointing once again at our Creator and drawing us into His life-giving embrace?