If the world is an illusion, what’s to stop people from attacking others?

Question: What's to stop people from just attacking others with impunity to get what they want? One could argue that since it's all an illusion anyway, it doesn't really matter how we treat other people.

Short answer: It is true that because the world is an illusion, how we treat others in this world has no effect whatsoever on ultimate reality. But it is equally true that because the world is an illusion, we have no real incentive to attack others, because attack gets us nothing that we really want. In fact, we have a powerful incentive not to attack others, because attack only reinforces the "reality" of this painful illusion in our minds, and thus brings us pain and suffering. Therefore, if we really take seriously the idea that the world is an illusion, we will be led to extend only love to others and thus free everyone from this painful illusion.


Critics of the Course often contend that the belief that the world is an illusion would lead to moral anarchy. The argument goes like this: If the world is an illusion that never really happened and will inevitably vanish into thin air someday, then what does it really matter what we do here? What's the point of trying to live a moral and ethical life if it's all just a dream? And what's to stop the more unscrupulous among us from running roughshod over people to fulfill their selfish desires, justifying their rapacious ways by saying, "Hey, it's just an illusion anyway. Might as well live it up while we're here, and it's every man for himself!"

This is a classic example of how a thought system can be grossly distorted if a single idea from that thought system—in this case, the idea that the world is an illusion—is taken out of its larger context. But when we place the idea of an illusory world back into the larger context of the Course's teachings, it does not lead to the horrifying results that critics of the Course imagine. In truth, it leads to quite the opposite. Rather than leading to moral anarchy, the Course's path ultimately leads to the highest and most sublime morality imaginable: the complete relinquishment of attack, and the unconditional extension of love to everyone in thought, word, and deed.

It is true that because the world is an illusion, how we treat others in this world has no effect whatsoever on ultimate reality.

Though the Course's critics are wrong in asserting that an illusory world must lead to moral anarchy, the Course does teach that nothing we do within this illusion can affect reality as God created it. Changelessness is one of reality's defining attributes, and so no matter how we treat each other in this world, God's eternal creation remains wholly untouched. The world we see is simply the dance of illusory forms; beyond this world, our true Self shines on, "unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable, forever and forever" (W-pI.190.6:5).

The pages of the Course contain countless references to this idea, but perhaps nowhere does Jesus bring this point home more clearly than in his discussion of his own crucifixion. In the Text section entitled "The Message of the Crucifixion" (T-6.I), he tells us that he allowed himself to be brutally attacked and crucified in order "to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter" (T-6.I.9:1). Why didn't his crucifixion matter? Because only his illusory body was crucified, and his reality was totally unchanged by that event—a fact he demonstrated in his resurrection. Thus, in his crucifixion, Jesus gave us a profound demonstration of a shocking but ultimately liberating truth: Whatever kind of brutality we may inflict upon one another in this world, in the ultimate sense it amounts to nothing, because the reality of who we are cannot be destroyed, or even harmed.

But it is equally true that because the world is an illusion, we have no real incentive to attack others, because attack gets us nothing that we really want.

If the idea expressed in the previous point were all the Course taught, then this certainly would seem to give us license to run amok in this world, as its critics claim. But the Course teaches much more than this. And one thing it teaches very clearly is that the recognition of the illusory nature of the world doesn't lead inevitably to attacking others with impunity to get what we want. On the contrary, it leads to the relinquishment of attack because attack cannot get us what we want.

If we think about it, it is not difficult to see why this is so. People attack others because they believe doing so will get them something that they want: material possessions, money, revenge, power, safety, status, fame, or a host of other worldly things they think will make them happy. Attack is rooted in the idea that "the battleground can offer something you can win" (T-23.IV.8:7). But the truth is that all of the prizes this world offers are part of the illusion, and so they are literally nothing. Therefore, the logical outcome of the recognition that the battleground of this world is an illusion is the concomitant recognition that there is nothing whatsoever to win here:

The world you see holds nothing that you need to offer you; nothing that you can use in any way, nor anything at all that serves to give you joy. (W-pI.128.1:1)

What we really want is the love, peace, and joy that only reality can bring, and reality cannot be gained by attack. In fact, as we will see below, our awareness of reality is actually blotted out by attack.

In my mind, the clear implication of the Course's teaching here is this: A person who uses the illusory nature of the world as a rationale for attack doesn't truly believe that the world is an illusion, however much she may give lip service to the idea. If she truly believed it, then she wouldn't want the things of the world, and wouldn't attack to get them. The attitude of such a person is reminiscent of the antinomians of the early Christian era, who falsely justified their licentious behavior by saying that since they were already forgiven by God's grace, they were exempt from any kind of moral or ethical law. But the "Course form" of antinomianism, like its predecessor, is sheer nonsense. A person who truly believed that the world is an illusion would have no desire for the things of the world, and thus no motivation for attacking anyone.

In fact, we have a powerful incentive not to attack others, because attack only reinforces the "reality" of this painful illusion in our minds, and thus brings us pain and suffering.

Attack not only fails to get us what we really want, but it also ends up getting us a lot of what we don't want. Of course, it only does so within the illusion, but this does not make it a trifling matter. What we do within the illusion may have no effect on our reality, but it has a profound effect on our awareness of reality. For this reason, what we do within the illusion—or, to be more precise, how we perceive the illusion, which determines what we do—makes a big difference. We haven't lost our reality, but we have lost sight of it, and how we choose to perceive the world determines whether or not we will become aware of our reality once again. "The wholeness of the Kingdom [reality] does not depend on your perception, but your awareness of its wholeness does" (T-6.V.8:3)(C).

Thus, how we treat others in this world—both how we perceive them, and how we behave toward them as a result of how we perceive them—really does matter, because our experience of reality depends upon it. The Course puts it very bluntly: "You cannot enter God's Presence if you attack His Son" (T-11.IV.5:6). Yes, in truth we are already in God's Presence, but we won't really know that deep down as long as we mistreat other people. Attacking anyone in any way totally blots out our awareness of reality, and reinforces the "reality" of the illusion in our minds. However unreal the illusion may be, as long as we choose to attack, we will experience it as real.

And as long as we experience the illusion as real, we will experience ourselves as subject to the illusion's laws. Our minds will remain enslaved to the brutal laws of sin, lack, pain, fear, punishment, and death that the Course says are the very fabric of this world. Yes, whatever harm we do to others is totally forgiven, because no real harm can be done. However, unless we have a genuine shift in perception, the harm we do will be punished in this world (by our own minds, not by God), because the very decision to harm others reinforces our own belief in the reality of a cruel world and a vengeful, punishing God.

So, for example, if I were to murder someone to serve some selfish end, my illusory act of murder would most likely lead to a painful illusory jail term, or perhaps an even more painful visit to the illusory gallows, gas chamber, or electric chair. Even if I were to get away with it as the world judges these things, I would be no better off, because my attack would wrack me with guilt and fill me with the fear of oblivion and everlasting damnation. "A murderer is frightened, and those who kill fear death" (T-20.III.4:5). Using the idea that the world is an illusion as a flimsy rationale for my attack wouldn't save me from any of this.

All of this is an expression of a very basic principle of the Course: What we give, we receive. "To attack another is but to attack yourself" (W-pI.196.1:2); whenever we mistreat another person, we suffer pain. If we really took this idea to heart, then what motivation could we possible have to harm another person? The question "What's to stop people from attacking others with impunity?" becomes absurd, no more difficult to answer than the question "What's to stop people from repeatedly banging themselves on the head with a hammer?" The person we would attack is part of us, and so attacking him or her for any reason becomes unthinkable. Avoiding the pain of self-attack is all the incentive we need not to attack the brothers who share our Self with us.

Therefore, if we really take seriously the idea that the world is an illusion, we will be led to extend only love to others and thus free everyone from this painful illusion.

It is always possible to distort a teaching for selfish ends if one is bent on doing that; the Course tells us that the ego "is quick to cite the truth to save its lies" (W-pI.196.2:2). We see this kind of thing happen all the time, especially with spiritual teachings. (We saw a non-Course example above in the antinomians' distortion of Christian teachings.) So, there is really no stopping someone from justifying his selfish disregard for others by claiming that it is all an illusion and therefore doesn't matter.

But it should be clear by now that when other aspects of the Course's thought system are taken into account, this distortion becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain. For we have seen that even though our treatment of others in this world has no effect on our reality, it has a powerful effect indeed on our experience of reality. We have seen that attacking others gives us nothing that we really want, and in fact ensures that we ourselves will suffer. We have seen that in the Course's thought system, there is no good reason to mistreat other people, and every good reason not to do so.

What, then, would the Course have us do while we seem to live in this illusory world? How would it have us treat other people? Quite simply, it would have us extend love to everyone in thought, word, and deed. For just as attacking others keeps us stuck in the illusion and reinforces our enslavement to a world of pain and suffering, so extending love to others leads us out of this painful illusion and into the experience of the eternal joy of Heaven. This is the positive application of the principle that what we give, we receive: "By your gift of freedom is it given unto you" (T-29.III.3:13). Because love is our reality, the extension of love ultimately restores our awareness of our reality.

Therefore, if we are truly walking the Course's path, the idea that the world is an illusion will not lead us to attack others with impunity to get what we want. Instead, it will lead us to love others without limit to get what we truly want: the restoration of our awareness of God's Love, and of our glorious shared Identity as His beloved Son.

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