Narcissistic Religion

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

Perhaps the ultimate expression of the narcissistic message is what we could call “narcissistic religion.” Narcissistic individuals are usually such because of choices made in early life. Narcissistic organizations come about because of narcissists or people with narcissistic values. Narcissistic churches may simply be led by narcissists and suffer the same dynamics as other organizations. But a narcissistic religion reaches deeper than any of these and has more power.

You see, exclusivity is just part of religion. It simply means that we believe our way is different. It means that people on the outside are not of us. Call it elitism or separatism or whatever, but it sets people apart and helps us to feel connected. It might be doctrine, or style, or location, but something allows the followers to think of themselves as in and others as out. Some people don’t like the idea, but we have many relationships (family, nationality, clubs and organizations, work) that share the same kind of exclusivity or separation. This is normal and not necessarily evil.

Exclusivity is part of marketing. Our brand is better than that of the competition. Our store or organization will meet customers’ needs better. If you come here, you don’t have to go there. Brand rivalry is actually something we enjoy, and one could argue that we benefit from it as well. We have favorite restaurants and grocers and drug stores and churches. We see nothing wrong with that type of categorization.

So, separatism and exclusivity do not define narcissistic religion. Depersonalization is the key to narcissism on every level. It is one thing to believe your faith is better than others. For most people, that simply means that we try to bring others into the truth. It is quite another thing to believe that those outside your faith are non-persons. Even favoritism, preferring one group of people over another, is understandable and normal. But believing that those who disagree or are not “in” are of no value as persons, that’s evil.

Depersonalization is a cumbersome word. There is a better word, but few people would equate the two. To strip a man or woman or child of all that gives independent value, to deny someone the intrinsic worth that comes with being human and alive, is to take away personhood, to depersonalize. And to depersonalize is to hate.

Throughout history, there have been times when certain people were not seen as human or persons. With almost casual cruelty some people have killed others or stripped them of what was needed to survive. They have taken away land or freedom or possessions or children without regard to the pain and suffering they cause. Beings without personhood have no rights, and those who mistreat them do so with neither regret nor consequence. This is depersonalization. This is hate.

We usually think of hate as connected to anger. Love, we say, can turn to hate because of an offense. Under the influence of anger all kinds of cruelty have been committed. Anger is accepted as a type of insanity in some legal cases. It is the offender who has become less a person, rather than the victim. Seeing the victim as an outlet for anger or as the cause of anger is a symptom of being irrational. That, of course, is hate, but hate can also be cold and calculated. The leaders who initiate the extermination of a people group and the servants who carry out the task reveal something more than anger; their detached brutality allows them to commit atrocities without apology. Perhaps even hatred is too small a word.

There are religions in the world that routinely and callously kill anyone not of their faith. Some consider the death of outsiders to be a cleansing process. Those outsiders are not people. Removal of them simply makes way for those who are people. Seeing others from this perspective is narcissistic.

But civilization almost universally marks murder as something not good for society. Murderers are tried and punished, even if they argue religious principles. In most cultures, wanton annihilation is not practiced. What is more likely, is narcissistic religion that allows the marginalization of certain people. Ignoring some, using some, abandoning some. From the story of the Good Samaritan to the stories from the streets today, religious people have been able to walk past needs and pain of marginalized others while thinking of themselves as clean and superior. There is no welcome in certain churches for some people. There is no concern for those on the outside.

The narcissistic message, at its core, says:

“You are not real to me. You do not exist except as you interact with me. Your value hinges on how you affect me.”

Narcissistic religion creeps into certain churches and is preached from certain pulpits. Outsiders are not welcome, not trusted, not important. Truth is found only with “us.” Value comes only to those who belong to us. Others threaten those who belong. They must be pushed away, whether family or friends or neighbors. Members are called to isolation, separation from the world and its people.

Narcissism twists truth. It breeds hate and breaks relationships.

The Bible does present a call to separation from the world, but from the ideas and values of the world, rather than the people. In fact, James wrote:

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. James 1:27

Caring for those with needs, even if they are not part of your church or faith, is what is asked of us. The love that God has for all the people must be reflected in the hearts of true believers. It is possible to love and still not adopt the philosophies of the world. Those who are the most serious about their faith, their own relationship with their Lord, should be the most loving.

Perhaps the most potent form of depersonalization in religion is when some are seen as categorically unclean. When we consider someone unclean we are able to accept pushing that person away in spite of need or pain. To marginalize a group or a sufferer so that you don’t get “defiled” by association has nothing to do with Christian faith. Preachers who promote anger in their people, under the guise of separation, actually spread hate. Whenever a certain group, even unbelievers, is marginalized as unimportant or unclean, hate wins. Shunning the unclean was an active part of the religious culture, and it certainly can be found among us today.

Even here, where we talk freely about the evil of narcissism and the cruelty of those called narcissists, we cannot dismiss the narcissist by categorizing him/her as unworthy or unclean. We may have to maintain distance. We may not be able to offer what they need. But we desire the change that will make a difference in their lives—for their sake. Our pain might be remembered and our anger might be fresh, but we believe narcissists are still people, people Jesus loves. They may even have become our enemies—and Jesus still tells us to love them. Maintaining boundaries and avoiding entanglements is not hate.

We are not defiled by other people. The only thing that has ever defiled us is the evil in our own hearts, and that has been cleansed by Jesus. We are free to care for and love even those who don’t agree with us. We defeat narcissism by caring, rather than agreeing.  Taking the time to listen because you value the other person.  Valuing their ideas and opinions because they are real people who matter.  Ministering to their needs even when you disagree with their ideas or goals.  These are the acts of love we receive and give in Jesus.  

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How about a Christmas idea? 

I haven’t advertised the Walk with Me book for a while, so this seems like a good time.  

I have copied an excerpt below, and here are the links for purchasing:

“Take a walk with me.  Let me show you a reality you may not have expected.  Prepare yourself to experience something new, something that will lift your heart. Life is not barren or regimented, especially in relationship with the Lord.  You know what your heart needs.  You need a friend.  You need someone who truly cares about you.  Wouldn’t it be great to know someone who is good and right, but not uptight and judgmental?  Someone who will understand you and your dreams and not put you down?  You need to meet the real Jesus.

I want to show you a Jesus who laughs, who loves children, who wants you to succeed.  This is the Jesus of the Bible.  This is the Jesus who went to the cross with joy—because He knew it was the way to you.  This is the Jesus who doesn’t think of sin when He sees you.  God in human flesh, come to set His people free.

I want to teach you about grace.  Not “book grace” or “theological grace,” but the grace found in a Person who can do anything and has done everything you and I will ever need.  You see, I have come to understand that the love of God toward us is so great it could not be expressed strongly enough in words or ideas.  The love of God became a Person.  The deepest mystery of our faith is the amazing fact that the Lord God Almighty took on humanity and gave Himself for us.  There is no story that touches the sensitive area of the heart like the true story of the love of God for us.  Your heart needs a real connection with the real and living God.  Jesus is God’s grace for your heart!”      (Excerpt from pp.3-4 of Walk with Me by David Orrison)

Now, for those who have read this far, I have a quiet announcement: the new book “When Narcissism Comes to Church” is complete and almost through final editing.  I hope to have it listed with Amazon before the end of the year!

4 Comments

Filed under Narcissism, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Narcissistic Religion

  1. Mark

    This was my former denomination. They held a set of distinctives in theology and practice that made them very visibly different from other churches, and those who came in from the outside who did not hold those were treated as lesser, lest they sway those on the inside. It was also abusive, but that was again, masked by the concept of worth. Those who left presumably because of abuse were assumed to have left because they couldn’t keep the pure life required and were finding a church that would accommodate their sinfully tainted lifestyle.

    But, the other thing that was intriguing in a narcissist sense was a dichotomy between the members and the leaders. The members were reminded over and over of their worthlessness, and the need for godly leaders to guide them. They were assured that those who were chosen as leaders were God’s choice, and worthy men (due to the theology and practice). So, for men to have value, there was a pretty constant striving to be seen as leader material and not one of the worthless rabble. Once leadership was obtained, these men were somehow assured of their value and encouraged to root out sin in the congregation.

  2. Cookie

    Dave – this is your best post ever! This is such a good reminder for those of us who are struggling to deal with someone in our life that behaves in a narcissistic way. When we are hurting, we spend a lot of time focused on what is going outside our ourselves – what that person is doing to me. This post reminds me to look inside of myself and to be very careful. None of us are immune to depersonalizing others that we so easily point out in our difficult relationships. But we can also, sometimes, depersonalize others, especially when our interactions with them make us uncomfortable and may require us to actually do something to help.

  3. Elizabeth

    Excellent post! It is a hallmark of a narcissist. I don’t know how you keep hitting it out of the park. I’ve been a reader for several years and am very greatful for your wisdom. Congratulations on your new book. I look forward to reading it soon.

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