Thomas Swan has a PhD in experimental psychology. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.
Many world religions feature a loving god, a pleasant afterlife, and a worthy human purpose. These rewards entice people into faith and, once converted, believers typically choose to forge humankind in their image. They venture into the world to make the rest of us more like they are, and contend that all who resist deserve eternal punishment. Yet, if humanity needs to be bettered by becoming more like the believer, are all nonbelievers somehow inferior? Could the myriad superficial rewards of religion also imbue believers with a sense of superiority over those who reject their faith?
Natural selection has provided humankind with a desire for dominance over our peers, and a disposition to compete with them for this honor. As a consequence, our minds are attracted to belief systems that fulfill our wish for dominance. Political as well as religious belief systems can satiate this need, and both have been used to justify genocide against racial or religious groups deemed inferior.
Religion and Social Desirability
Research has shown that religious people are more likely than non-religious people to display the psychological trait known as social desirability, which is a desire to be viewed favorably by others. The social desirability scale includes such questions as "would you ever lie?", "would you ever laugh at a dirty joke?", and "do you always practice what you preach?". There are between 20 and 40 questions of this kind, and the meta-analysis (cited above) of several sets of results found a consistent relationship between high scorers and religiosity.
In addition, a study found that religious people score higher for the "better than average effect" in which individuals rate themselves as above or below average on a number of desirable traits. A further study found that religious believers also considered themselves more generous and moral than non-believers.
The scientific evidence suggests that religious people consider themselves to be more moral, generous, and above average on commendable traits. This may be why they feel justified in converting the masses to be more like they are. Whether this can be defined as religious narcissism is for the reader to decide. However, narcissistic behavior does include a "willingness to emphasize and exaggerate traits or achievements that may prove to be reputationally beneficial" and there is a capacity for it to become embedded in supernatural beliefs that set one apart from others.
Can a Christian be a Narcissist?
Given the scientific evidence outlined above, the answer is probably yes. However, it's worth exploring how and why this can occur.
A typical way to establish dominance is to build alliances with strong, intelligent individuals. Naturally, Christians believe they're allied with the most powerful and knowledgeable entity in the universe. As such, Christianity appears to tap into a desire for powerful allies, boosting the self-image of believers. A strong ally can also be used to intimidate inferiors, such as by telling them God will punish them for not believing. Indeed, if a believer is convinced of divine protection, others may be reluctant to test the belief. Narcissism is consistent with such delusions of power, dominance, and the capacity to intimidate.
A second way to establish superiority is to associate oneself with perfection, or compare oneself with a perfect being. Evolution has left us with a disposition to replicate the behavior of those who demonstrate strength and prestige because those without this disposition would simply have died out. A number of popular religions hold up a prophet, or incarnated god, as the human ideal. Christianity presents us with Jesus, but there are others such as Muhammad, Buddha, and Moses. Through imitation of a perfect human ideal, people will naturally become `better' than their fellow humans. Thus, Christianity allows believers to think they're moving towards the level of perfection demanded by their God; leaving the infidel in their wake.
A third way to establish superiority is to believe you're more moral and righteous than your peers. As we've already seen, psychological experiments support this characterization of believers, but it's worth explaining why it occurs. Christians believe morality and love are sent from the heavens; a piece of God to assimilate and make our own. In so doing, we naturally become more like God; we share his ideals, feel his love, are able to communicate with him, and ultimately ascend to heaven by his special choosing. This morphing of divine attributes into man supposedly elevates our position above the beasts of the Earth, but only if they're accepted. Thus, once again, the believer is made unequal to the unbeliever.
The final method for domination replicates a rather chilling argument used by Nazi eugenicists: that some people are just born superior. As Christians believe God is omniscient, many also believe that he predestined who would ultimately choose to become believers. Thus, it becomes apparent that some of us were never chosen to enjoy the rewards of faith. Indeed, if atheists die as atheists, then God decided this would be the case. Equally, if believers are chosen to succeed, then their superiority is dictated before birth, replicating a powerful "birthright" argument used by many racist societies throughout history. (Note - This emerged in discussion with a Christian religious group, although one must wonder how it agrees with "free will".)
Our hunger for superiority fuels our desire for that which can separate us from inferiority. The myriad rewards of religion provide an excuse for this distinction. Christian belief grants us an afterlife, a purpose, a caring god, an answer to the deep philosophical questions of existence, a means to moral righteousness, and a means for growth towards perfection.
Those with the greatest desire to feel superior will be those who have most reason to feel inferior. This includes the young, ill, poor, grieving, depressed, unintelligent, worrisome, and vulnerable. Is it any wonder that conversion typically occurs in schools, hospitals, prisons, help groups, and third world countries? Or that religious belief is so often precipitated by near death experiences, grief, addiction, and depression? Christianity superficially reverses the inequality felt as a result of pain or vulnerability.
Christians Censor Billboard
Christians and Muslims try to Censor Music
Censorship Can Work Both Ways
The Consequences of Religious Narcissism
The most blatant effects of religious narcissism are those which contravene religious teachings, because there can be no excuse for the behavior other than narcissism.
In the New Testament, there is a story in which Jesus encountered Satan in the desert. Satan tried to tempt Jesus, but Jesus resisted. However, Jesus didn't kill the Devil, censor the Devil, or try to eliminate the temptation. In modern Christianity, though, it seems this philosophy has been abandoned and exchanged for the satisfaction reaped through the moral instruction of censorship. Believers have decided they're sufficiently righteous to dictate the temptations that exist in the world. Whether this is music with explicit lyrics, films, books, or sexual images, nearly all censorship campaigns are headed by religious groups. Believers reinforce their superiority by telling others how to think, and the pleasure this brings appears to be intoxicating enough to ignore scripture.
Whether it's the persecution of Galileo and other `heretics', protestation over the music of Marilyn Manson, or fatwas against Salman Rushdie, there is a disposition for censorship that spans numerous religions over several centuries. To ensure their dictum is heard, believers are able to draw on the cultural association between religion and morality. Religion is often seen as the origin or protector of morality, and the pervasiveness of this view allows believers to popularize their wish for censorship. Furthermore, the human need to position oneself on the moral high-ground finds an easy ally in those wishing to dictate where the high-ground resides. Our herd instinct forces us to band together against whatever is declared to be the party at fault, and this gives influence to those making the loudest furor.
Our scrambling for moral rectitude often leads to the view that pornography and violence produces rapists and killers. However, would watching a sexual film produce a rapist, or would a potential rapist be drawn to watching the film? Our moral compulsion removes the need to establish cause and effect.
The ascetic tendencies of believers appear to play a large part in the type of censorship desired. While hedonism can be ruinous, pleasure is an inherently beneficial state of mind; it's the incentive to keep performing acts that benefit our survival. Pain and displeasure provide an incentive to avoid further contact with dangerous objects. Our survival depends on our happiness because in a world of anger and hatred survival is more difficult.
The superiority imagined in the religious mind would emerge in any political system valuing divine instruction. A hierarchy would develop, with believers trumped only by the clergy and those proclaiming to be special messengers of the gods. Leaders would be those who can fool others of their piety the most. As with every religious institution in the world, this state of affairs always ends in dictatorship. Religions that instill a sense of superiority are alien to democracy because the exemplar of faith is always the embodiment of ambition.
The lasting effects of religious narcissism are always the same: prejudice, discrimination, oppression, and finally genocide. Unless we conquer our evolved disposition for wanting to feel superior, we'll always succumb to religious and political belief systems that grant our wish. Unless we understand our psychology, we'll never control our craving for religion.
Criticism of Religious Narcissism
The desire to feel superior is a selfish and "ungodly" reason to form a religious belief. If, however, this is the norm, then all good deeds could be seen as self-serving. For example, charity may be little more than earning brownie points with a deity. Perhaps, to weed out selfish believers, God tells all deceased people that hell is their destination and bases his real decision on the reaction this statement receives.
It's possible that all religions misrepresent the gods and corrupt their intentions. In the parable where Satan tempts Jesus with power and wealth (Matthew 4:1), could the final temptation have been to become the savior of mankind? Perhaps Satan understood that man corrupts all attempts at collectivism, all religions, with his individual will to power.
Whatever the cause for an atheist's rejection of faith, believers must downplay the validity of the criticism, calling it a `rebellion against God’. While no-one can rebel against something they don’t believe to exist, there is reason behind the madness. First, it's comforting to think heretics believe there's a God to rebel against. This undermines the totality of their criticism, turning the atheist from skeptic to scorner. Second, it places the atheist further from God than they otherwise would have been. They are now enemies of God by rebelling against him. This extends and reinforces the theist’s belief in their own superiority.
Religious believers respond to these claims by citing man’s equal inferiority to God. This defense is as irrelevant as stating all ants are equally inferior to the anteater. The anteater makes no distinction between soldier ants and worker ants. Our hunger for superiority is borne out of our evolutionary drive to compete with our fellow man, not with the deities we create. In Christianity, the original sin serves to level the playing field; removing and belittling the innate and nurtured strengths of others, and providing a clean slate on which to build dominance and inequality through religion.
Religions are a sum of their parts, a collective of followers; and regardless of how they soften the blow, rejection will always damage their position. Just as the narcissist treasures his manufactured reality and fights off those who threaten it, so the believer undermines and misrepresents the critics of his religion. One man alone would be locked up in an asylum for living in a dreamworld, but a billion followers force some level of acceptance. Indeed, when beliefs survive the asylum, they become foundations for religion. This appears to be the only difference between every day narcissism and religious narcissism.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 30, 2015:
Thanks for commenting letstalkabouteduc! You've raised a good point about intellectual superiority. I think there are plenty of atheists, for example, who've just replaced one form of pride with another. They think that because they share the opinions of Hawking, Dawkins, or deGrasse Tyson, they can belittle people who disagree with them. However, this form of superiority is limited to the knowledge their possess, rather than a belief in being fundamentally superior through divine choosing. That makes it less dangerous in my book!
McKenna Meyers on August 29, 2015:
Growing up attending Catholic schools, we certainly felt superior because of our religious beliefs. Being Catholic was a huge chunk of our identity. Now, rearing my two boys who attend public schools, I see their belief in science makes them feel superior. They're tolerant of religious beliefs but don't find them admirable. Most of their friends seem the same. Interesting hub!
manatita44 from london on June 29, 2013:
Thought-provoking ideas. Well put. Peace.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 20, 2013:
I agree grand old lady, there are always narcissists. Religion gives them an avenue to satisfy their desires in the same way Naziism does for fascists. Even patriotism can serve the same purpose. If someone is proud to be born in a particular country, then they're also glad they weren't born elsewhere. How then does this extend to their opinion of people who were born elsewhere? It's a dangerous way of thinking, and in my opinion, patriotism is just a more acceptable word for nationalism. I suppose it all comes down to pride; our weakness for needing to feel good about ourselves, and the belief systems that co-opt this need.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on January 20, 2013:
In my personal experience I find that some people who use religion to feel superior are narcissists, and if not religion they would find some other reason to feel superior.