Elliot Benjamin, Ph.D.
Is Neale Donald Walsch, the founder of the Conversations with God organization, a guru? Is the Conversations with God organization a cult? These are the questions that led me to the Living Enrichment Center in Oregon in June, 2003 to attend the first ever Humanity’s Team conference. Humanity’s Team is the organization that Neale Donald Walsch founded as part of the Conversations with God network, and is geared toward literally saving the world from disaster by embracing the main ideas in Walsch’s book, The New Revelations
As in his previous books, including Conversations With God: Books 1,2,3, Friendship With God, and Communion With God, The New Revelations focuses upon God as a universal Buddhist kind of force that is both within and without, part of each and every human being, representing the deepest and noblest parts of who we are. The essence of Walsch’s teachings involves total freedom to follow your own deepest and noblest instincts and inclinations; for Walsch these are portrayed as literal conversations with God. In The New Revelations Walsch goes further, claiming that all the problems in the world ultimately stem from people thinking that their spiritual/religious beliefs are the one and only true beliefs about God and the universe. Walsch calls for a cultivated humility and openness in all people to other points of view in the spiritual/religious context, claiming that there is no ultimate right or wrong. His organization, Humanity’s Team, as part of the umbrella organization Conversations With God, has been established essentially to spread Walsch’s teachings in The New Revelations, referred to as The New Spirituality to all the people of the world.
As Neale Donald Walsch claims to have had the experience of speaking directly with God, he could be viewed as being a medium or channel for a higher spiritual force, in a somewhat similar way that Helen Schucman could be viewed as being a channel of a higher spiritual energy when she wrote A Course in Miracles. Personally I don’t view either of these two spiritual experiences as involving an external God or communion with Jesus (in the case of Helen Schucman), but rather as deep-level spiritual experiences within their own selves. Ken Wilber describes these experiences brilliantly as the subtle, causal, and non-dual levels in his book, Sex, Ecology, And Spirituality. But as Walsch himself discusses in his books, he has quite a large ego and has to be continuously careful not to fall into the trap of being made into a guru by his many ardent followers, as millions of people have read Walsch’s books and feel very inspired by him. There are strong connections with the well known new age synchronicity ideas of James Redfield (The Celestine Prophesy) as well as the mind over matter prayer ideas of Larry Dossey (The Recovery Of The Soul), expressed concretely as “your experiences follow from your beliefs”—in a very similar way to the foundational philosophy of Harry Palmer’s new age spiritual organization, “Avatar,” founded a few years before “Conversations with God: Book 1” appeared. The whole series of books is filled with a kind of humor and wit and unpretentiousness which has reached the hearts of a great many people. Thus, it seemed like it was time for me to experience firsthand what Neale Donald Walsch and Conversations with God was truly all about.
The initial part of the Humanity’s Team conference was conducted over a weekend and attended by nearly 1,000 people. Out of these nearly 1,000 people, 135 people, including me, had opted to pay the additional $650 to spend a few extra intensive days with Neale Donald Walsch to be instructed in the New Spirituality on a higher level; this was called the Teaching the Teachers Tutorial. The cost of the retreat was quite reasonable, as it included food and lodging in a beautiful rustic Oregon setting. The Living Enrichment Center is widely known as the brainchild of Reverend Mary Morrisey, an inspiring author and speaker in her own right.
But getting back to the question at hand, when people ask me if a particular spiritual organization is a cult, I try to explain to them that the term “cult” is not an all-or-nothing term, but rather a gradual continuum of behaviors that range from exceedingly dangerous to quite mild. There are a number of cult description scales in use, and one of the most comprehensive and useful scales that I have seen can be found in Neopagan leader Isaac Bonewits’s book, Real Magic. The behaviors that Bonewits focuses upon include overpowering ego of a charismatic leader, authoritarian control by this same leader, exorbitant financial demands, coercive pressures to recruit new members, alienation from those who are not members of the spiritual organization, adversity and animosity to other viewpoints, dogmatic beliefs in the absolute truth of everything the leader says, etc. Yes, Walsch has a big ego and is most definitely a theatrical charismatic leader who loves to be on stage. Yes, Conversations with God is run by Walsch in an essentially authoritarian manner. And yes, I must also admit that what I consider to be beyond reasonable high costs have recently been instituted in some Conversations with God programs. For example, their Leadership Education program costs nearly $10,000 over a 3 year period or $12,500 on a fast track three-month special deal. This does not sit well with me; neither does the recent increase in prices of the “Recreating Yourself” and “Being It” workshops from $300 or $400 to $1,250. I honestly did not expect to be confronted with these financial blocks to go further in the Conversations with God organization, but I immediately found this to be an unpleasant surprise when I arrived at the conference. Walsch and the Humanity’s Team leaders also made it clear from the outset of the conference that we were expected to take the New Spirituality home to our communities after the conference was over.
However, Walsch had also surrounded himself at the conference with well known new age leaders who did not seem to have the ego/guru kind of problems and challenges that Walsch has. These leaders included Barbara Marx Hubbard, futurist author and founder of the Foundation Of Conscious Evolution, Voluntary Simplicity author Duane Elgin, popular ex-actor Dennis Weaver (Chester on “Gunsmoke”), Korean spiritual leader Ilchi Lee, Living Enrichment Center founder and author Reverend Mary Morrissey, and popular love author Daphne Rose Kingma. But will Walsch listen to these people when it comes time to make the important decisions that truly distinguish a positive, safe, beneficial spiritual organization from a dangerous, manipulative spiritual cult? It was so touching to me how 73-year-old Barbara Marx Hubbard honestly admitted to a group of people at the conference that Neale Donald Walsch has a big ego problem and that she sees part of her own role in Humanity’s Team as offering balance to Walsch’s overwhelming powerful masculine ego. Yes, Walsch had the good sense to surround himself at the conference with these truly enlightened beings who have been able to allow the real and pure essence of the New Spirituality to permeate their inner state of being without the need of on-stage theatrics. However, as the weekend part of the conference came to a close, I became concerned that all of Walsch’s safeguard true spiritual colleagues would not be at the second half of the conference. He had his small group of devoted followers who carry out his instructions to organize Humanity’s Team and would be with him the rest of the workshop. But these people were by no means the kind of people whom I considered to be independent thinkers and inspiring spiritual beings. I was somewhat scared, especially as I had heard that Walsch primarily intended to lecture us for many hours non-stop, and I knew that this was not how I assimilate material in a good way. It was not my intention to start a Humanity’s Team Center in Maine, which seemed to be what the organization was hoping I would end up doing once I returned home.
As the second part of the conference began, it became increasingly clear to me that Neale Donald Walsch is tremendously powerful, has an enormous ego problem (more than just “big”), and is overwhelmingly flamboyant, theatrical, controlling, and impactful. It made sense to me that these were the qualities that had enabled him to gather such a massive following for his Conversations with God movement. But I also had the feeling that Walsch was somehow deeply genuine and authentic on the inside, and he truly believed that he had received the divine inspiration and message of God. Walsch loves to lecture and tell spontaneous jokes for hours upon end, sharing whatever comes into his mind at the moment. His ability to capture the audience through prolonged intellectual stimulation mixed with taking people through deep individual processes reminded me of the powerful abilities and demonstrations of the est trainers whom I had encountered back in the 1970s. However, what finally persuaded me to give Walsch the benefit of the doubt in regard to his dangerous guru aspects was a rather daring step that I took relatively early on in the second half of the Humanity’s Team conference.
I have always disagreed with Walsch’s belief that there is no right or wrong; i.e. on the deeper level of the soul everything is good. Hitler and Nazi Germany are enough reason for me to believe in evil and the existence of right and wrong, and I do not choose to believe otherwise. As Walsch began lecturing non-stop for many hours and went on and on about his right/wrong philosophy, I found myself becoming quite low key and disillusioned with Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God, and Humanity’s Team. But during the meal breaks people would always ask me how I was doing, and I found myself honestly conveying to people how I felt and what I thought. Various people encouraged me to express my views to Walsch, either privately or in front of the group. It was challenging enough obtaining the microphone to ask a question, as Walsch does tend to dominate the stage, to say the least. Even though I still wanted to consider myself to be part of Humanity’s Team and practicing the New Spirituality, it felt quite terrifying to me when I thought of telling Neale Donald Walsch that I disagreed with one of his major new revelations in front of 135 people when Walsch is the public theatrical master and I am shy speaking up in large groups. But Walsch was highly sensitive to the emotion in my voice, and immediately said that I did not need to agree with everything he said to be on Humanity’s Team and practice the New Spirituality. And I witnessed all my inner turmoil immediately leave me, as Neale Donald Walsch and I stared at each other, with an openness and mutual understanding that I never dreamed would ever have taken place. And this is when I made the decision that Neale Donald Walsch, egocentric and overpowering as his outward personality may be, is not a dangerous guru and Conversations with God is not a manipulative cult.
In conclusion, I can say now that I have experienced Conversations with God and Neale Donald Walsch on a much deeper level than I had been able to before I attended the 2003 Humanity’s Team conference. I encourage people to explore Neale Donald Walsch and Conversations with God as well as the New Spirituality and Humanity’s Team, but with a reasonable degree of caution mixed with a healthy grain of salt in regard to the many things that Neale Donald Walsch claims to know through his conversations with God.
Dr. Elliot Benjamin is the author of the book, Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis And Expose, which describes his experiences with Scientology, est, Unification Church, Divine Light Mission, Gurdjieff, Eckankar, Self-Realization Fellowship, Course In Miracles, Reiki, Avatar, Conversations With God, Neopaganism, and more…For information on obtaining the book, contact Dr. Benjamin’s at firstname.lastname@example.org