While watching a Sam Harris video on YouTube, I heard a phrase that perfectly encapsulated my thoughts on the matter. He called Christian faith the “perfection of narcissism”.
This kind of faith is really the perfection of narcissism. I mean, God loves me, don’t you know? He cured me of my eczema. He makes me feel so good while singing in church. And just when we had given up hope, he found a banker willing to reduce my mother’s mortgage.
Okay, given all that this god of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, given the misery that is being imposed on some helpless child at this instant, this kind of faith is obscene! To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings.
This is exactly the same kind of religiosity that brought on such antisemitic fervor throughout the world. It is not that the world developed a racist distaste for olive-skinned people. It was the religion-inspired narcissism of a people who behaved as if they had the exclusive mandate of an iron-age war god to take over land inhabited by other people. Honestly, if that kind of national insanity doesn’t get you hated, nothing will.
The same thing is happening in America right now. Ask yourself why so many people in certain regions of the world hate America so much. The simple, and dismissive answer is that they hate us because we are wealthy compared to them. We control more wealth per capita than any place and people on earth. But that explanation is insufficient for the level of hatred we engender in other people. After all, everyone who hates us also wants more wealth.
I believe the real explanation is the same as the reasons behind anti-Semitism. They hate us because we believe, and behave as if we have the exclusive mandate and blessing of god to control the course of social evolution throughout the world. We have so much because god has blessed us. He has granted us an extra measure of favor. Anyone could have these blessings, but we are the only ones who were smart enough, or faithful enough, or chosen enough to have taken advantage of them. We are wealthy, not because we are ruthless, but because god has given us the lion’s share of the world’s wealth. We are god’s new, kingdom of priests.
Such national, religious-based narcissism is exactly the same as the Jewish variety. It can lead to no good for exactly the same reasons. The reason we cannot see this is because we do not accept the idea of Jewish narcissism. We believe their story. We accept that they were/are god’s chosen people. We simply see ourselves as the continuation of the same story.
Judeo/Christian is a word and concept that can only be born of delusion. It is difficult to conceive of two more diametrically opposed religious frameworks. No ancient Jew would recognize a modern Christian as any part of the family tree. No modern Christian could worship with someone who had the sensibilities and practices of the ancient Jew. Smashing the two together is as dishonest for us as it was for the original writers of the Christian scriptures. All of which would be completely rejected by a faithful Jew of the day. Judeo/Christian is no more sensible than Judeo/Mormon. Yet, Mormons see themselves as natural heirs of Judaism, not as offshoots of Christianity.
Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism have this in common: They are all trying to co-opt the Jewish narrative of being god’s chosen people. Each pick up on the Jewish idea of being god’s holy nation, royal priesthood, and differentiated people who are set apart from the rest of the world as vessels through which god’s glory can be seen. This religious exceptionalism is the flashpoint of discord throughout the world.
The Narcissism of Monotheism
Since the invention of writing, historians have catalogued about 3,000 gods. Some who read my writings may wonder why I seldom capitalize “god”. Simply this: God is not a singular being; it is a category. Whatever god you actively worship is undifferentiated from any of 3,000 you could have chosen. Obviously, this is not an acceptable answer to a monotheist. To them, god is a very specific person who deserves to be capitalized and singled out.
This is not just a matter of disrespect for the concept of deity. I also do not capitalize the word, person, when writing about a particular person. I will, however, capitalize the name of the person when calling her by name. God is not a name; it is a taxonomy. I will always capitalize, Jehovah, in the same way that I will always capitalize, Zeus. It is important to distinguish which god one is writing about. But I will not play to the conceit of a singular god.
A certain level of narcissism is required to be a monotheist. In order to believe in a god, any god, you automatically place yourself in a category of people that you consider borderline insane. If a native aborigines tried to convince you of the validity of his God, Bahloo, you would think him mad, or at best, hopelessly ignorant. You would go on believing this even if he explained that the stories of Bahloo shed light on why humans are mortal, and why there is hatred between snakes and men.
With no sense of irony, you would then tell him about your god, Jehovah, and the stories that explain why we are mortal, and have such poor relations with snakes. Despite yourself, you couldn’t help but think less of any follower of Bahloo for accepting such transparent mythology as truth. This, while faithfully and devotionally reading a book that begins with Genesis. That requires self-deception and cognitive dissonance on a scale I find difficult to quantify.
There is nothing of Jewish mythology that elevates it above any other mythology. It is not more scientifically provable. It is not more historically accurate. Nor is it more rationally sound. Even if you believe in an organizing force in the universe properly called god, that does not get you anywhere near a singular god, let alone, the iron-age war god of the Jews.
The monotheist is a single representative of his god, in a room of 3,000 others, representing 3,000 other gods. The monotheist, however, insists that he is the only one there. It is a room full of crazy people, each shouting louder that they are the only one who is there.
Jewish monotheism is particularly obnoxious because of the insistence that he, alone, is to be worshiped. More than that, he, alone, is responsible for everything that has ever happened, and holds the future in his hands. Only the Jewish god can create and destroy on a grand scale. And only the Jewish god can decide who is in or outside his favor. This one god renders all other mythologies and holy books, anathema. You are either a friend of the Jewish god, or you are less than garbage, to be burned in the eternal flames of Gehenna.
In order for you to have navigated the forest thick with gods, to find the right one, you must have been chosen, indeed. If this monotheistic conceit seems just a tad self-affirming, Christianity takes that narcissism to a whole new level.
The Narcissism of a Personal Relationship
From 1994-2003, there was a hit show called, Touched by an Angel. Somewhere near the end of every episode one of the angels would present the line, “God loves you.” In fact, one gets the feeling that presenting that message was the only purpose of the show. It was hugely popular, and resonated with millions of TV viewing Americans for the better part of a decade. If there is one thing people love to hear, it is that they are special.
There are seven billion people on earth, each undifferentiated from the other. A single star is more interesting than all seven billion people, combined. Yet, seven billion stars pale in comparison to the 4×1011 stars in our galaxy, only one of 1.7×1011 galaxies we can observe. Compared to that, a single human life is immeasurably insignificant. How do you form a cult? Make each adherent feel that their insignificant life is the most important thing in the cosmos. Instant religion.
Christianity does this even better than Judaism. In Judaism, god mostly cared for people at the level of the state. Though god raised up particular individuals to do his will, he did so for the sake of nations and kingdoms. In a holy war, individual soldiers would die, but the nation would survive. That is what mattered.
The Christian god is personally concerned about the intimate details of the lives of each individual. He does not just offer general advice for living, but personal guidance to help you get through your day. He does not address famine, but makes sure that you, personally have enough food. He does not hear the groaning of a nation, but intently listens to every banal musing that comes to your mind. While the Christian god loves the whole world, the particular object of his love is you. The Jewish god had a national relationship. The Christian god offers you a personal relationship. And that personal touch makes all the difference.
The Narcissism of Thanksgiving
Understand, I am not referring to the November holiday, though that most certainly pertains. Rather, I am making reference to the very act of giving thanks to god for some, perceived blessing. Nowhere is this brand of narcissism more apparent than in sports.
When a winning athlete is interviewed immediately following a game, the religiously inclined among them never fail to thank god for their victory. Back up to just a moment before the game is decided, and it is impossible to tell who has the ear of god. Is it the players on the field? Is it a particular team? Is it a member of the audience? Is it the little boy with cancer who was sponsored by the Make A Wish foundation?
In a situation like this, is it some calculation based on the number of people praying for a particular team? Perhaps it is the team with the most devout fans. The one option that does not seem to be a possibility is that god simply does not care, or get involved with such trivial matters. One must come to that conclusion because the victorious interviewee is always insistent that god answered THEIR prayer. God helped the team in general, and them, personally, to achieve this great victory. Either god clearly cares about the outcome of all 182 possible games in a baseball season, or thanking god for his intervention that lead to victory is both delusional and, you guessed it, narcissistic.
These days, I am almost offended by the tradition of giving thanks before tucking into a lavish meal. Such thanksgiving presupposed that god moved heaven and earth to makes sure you had this meal as opposed to not having it. In doing so, he had to maneuver around close to a billion people who don’t have enough to eat, according to the UN World Food Program. That is 1 in 7 people who cannot offer a prayer of thanks for the bounty of food at their disposal. But because you are so beloved, god made sure that you had enough fine food for your meal that could have fed a whole family of the malnourished.
What’s worse, you didn’t even need it. You already had enough. God already blessed you with a sufficiently steady income so that you would never have to worry about starvation, or even truly understand the concept. If god never intervened on your behalf to provide you with another meal, you already have too much. Why do you believe god is blessing you with an even more succulent turkey than the one you had last year? That is even more delusional and narcissistic than the athlete who believes god propelled him and his team to yet another Superbowl.
By the way, happy birthday. According to the latest statistics I could find, about 57 million people didn’t have one this year. That means that out of the 157 thousand people who didn’t live to see another day, you woke up this morning to discover that you were not among them. Clearly, this is yet another reason to thank god.
But wait, 157 thousand people did not wake up with the ability to thank god for allowing them to see another day. Why did you? If you thanked god for letting you live to see another day, then you believe that god actively intervened on your behalf so that you would remain alive. It is as if we believe that god has a list of 7 billion names he mulls over every day. And every day, he marks off 157 thousand of them for an untimely death. Everyday, when he comes to your name, he decides, “I think he’s a pretty good fellow. I like him. Besides, he prayed that he be allowed to live to see another day.” So he skips over your name once again.
You have to believe that, or something very much like that in order to be moved to thank god for allowing you to keep on living, and with relatively good health. It must be because he wants you, personally, to be alive. 157 thousand people didn’t make the cut, but you did. This is no accident, because there is no reason to thank randomness for an accident in your favor. The drawing of your next breath is the express will of god. He must have something special for you to do, or is in a mood to reward you in particular.
A traffic accident occurs right in front of you. A truck driver and a family of six are dead in an instant. You drive away without even having to file an insurance claim. You drop to your knees, praising god, and thanking him for sparing you. At this moment, you are convinced that the author of the universe has differentiated you from the seven, innocent people who just lost their lives. The universe and all its glory, intentionally and intelligently selected you for survival that day. As a Christian, the one thing you can never consider is that your survival is a matter of random chance. Because you are the focus of the universe’s love, what happens to you is ordained, and matters. That, my friends, is mental illness.
The Narcissism of Salvation
I conclude with the granddaddy of all narcissistic tendencies: the belief that one has achieved salvation. Even within the context of an entirely Christian worldview, it takes a great deal of chutzpa to believe you are saved. Matthew records Jesus saying two things that should put doubt in the heart of anyone certain of their eternal destiny. First, he says that the gate to salvation is narrow, and only a few will go through it. Additionally, he says that many who are confident of their salvation will be tossed out from the presence of the judge with the words, “I never knew you!” Despite those warnings, virtually all believers are convinced that they are safely among the few who will be saved.
To make matters worse, this confidence comes without the consoling evidence of an outward sign. There is no magical mark on the forehead that makes the saved easily identifiable. Contrary to the opinions of the few who suffer a mental illness known as glossolalia, there is no special language for the saved. The saved are endowed with no special abilities. They cannot cure the common cold, let alone, raise the dead. All they have as assurance of their saved condition is an emotional, or otherwise, internal feeling of their eternal security. Complete atheists get the same feelings of euphoria from common, prescription drugs.
When we control for income and social status, there is no evidence that the Christian lives a measurably different life from the non-believer. They are subject to just as much sickness, depression, fornication, abortion, divorce, poverty, addiction, and untimely death as the atheist. Despite this lack of external evidence, the Christian is nauseatingly certain of her salvation. So deep runs the certainty, that in many cases, she is compelled to reach out in an attempt to bring others into her saved condition.
The act of evangelism requires one to subscribe to the notion that they have achieved a level of universal favor so high, that they are competent to rescue others who have not achieved the same level. In other words, to believe one is saved is to believe that others are lost. Evangelism requires you to believe that you are uniquely positioned to save someone else from their lost condition, despite the absence of any outward evidence that you are better off.
To be Christian is to suffer from the most severe form of religious narcissism. There is a pious arrogance to the do-gooder who believes their good deeds are being noticed, catalogued, and stored up for later payment by the creative, life-giving force of the universe. They strut about this world as if they owned it because of who they think their father is. They are convinced that the author of existence goes out of his way to makes sure their over-stuffed turkey is more succulent than the last, and that their mortgage payment represents a smaller percentage of income than does a single square meal for a person in Ethiopia.
What’s worse, I have no idea how to be a Christian without this type of narcissism. The simple act of praying means that you have the ear to the king of kings and lord of lords, anytime, anywhere, and for any reason. You must truly be special. To tell a person that you will pray for them is to suggest that your prayer will make a difference, over and beyond what their prayer would make. The simple act of offering god’s blessing to another person suggests his blessings are yours to command. How lucky of that person to have run into you, who was uniquely positioned to offer those blessings.
I cannot help but visualize a family in a great room. The father is at the head of the table. One fat son is gorging himself with the richest of fare. An eleven year old daughter is in a corner being sexually molested in plain sight of the others. Three other children are stationed around the chair of the fat one, lapping up the scraps that he occasionally tosses their way. The rest are eating their portion while going out of their way to thank the father, every few bites, for blessing them.
Everyone in the room, including the one in the corner being molested, is supposed to be vocally grateful and content with their portion, and praise the father for his kindness. The ones who are more blessed have actually convinced themselves that everyone in the room is equally loved and equally blessed.
That is what Sam Harris calls, the perfection of narcissism. I wholeheartedly agree.