Monday, April 11, 2016

Christianity and Narcissism

Last year, with my colleague Katharine Massam, I taught a new unit, Culture, Beliefs and Theology. The unit is designed as an introduction to the tasks and skills of theology. Unlike other introductory courses, however, this unit is less focused on classic texts and debates. Instead, it jumps right in to the conversations happening in Australia about God, Jesus, the Bible. More specifically, the conversations happening outside the church or at least at the edge of the church. We engaged agnostics, atheists, politicians, comedians, academics, novelists, historians, mainstream Christians, and self-designated 'fellow travellers'.

Again, unlike conventional apologetics, the aim was not to work  out what Christians could say that would 'answer' the various accounts (positive and negative) of faith located amongst this diverse range of peers, critics, and friends. Rather, the concern was to listen to them and to discern in what we heard what might or might not resonate with us. Were there things to learn? Were there things to resist? And having eavesdropped on these conversations, what theological skills, wisdom and ideas would be needed to enter the conversation?

One of the critics we studied was Tamas Pataki, specifically the argument of his 2007 book Against Religion. I included Pataki for several reasons. Firstly, Against Religion is a small book which includes a good introductory overview of the standard criticisms of religion. Secondly, he is a local; he teaches at Melbourne University and therefore is helping to shape perceptions of and approaches to Christianity amongst the current generation of tertiary students. Thirdly, he has a particular take on the persistence of religious belief. He does more than offer yet another recital of the standard arguments against religion. Pataki is especially focused on a very particular question: Why do people persist in religious belief when such powerful arguments have intellectually deconstructed all religious belief? In other words, he does not simply focus on the arguments against religion, but on why - despite the power of those seemingly well-established reasons - people go on believing.  His answer: narcissism.

Building on an 'economy of narcissism' characteristic of infancy and which involves the infant's construction of a world of 'omnibenevolence', Pataki argues that religious belief is the continuation of this desire to think that the world is constructed around oneself. Religious belief is a psychologically-driven strategy for being able to continue to live in this world beyond infancy and to 'bask in the radiance' of unlimited and unfettered devotion and affection.

Religious teachings about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness are particularly fitted to reinvigorate desires and to gratify them for these are the very properties the child is striving more or less desperately to retain or retrieve. So, once again, he may attempt to establish a relationship in phantasy with the ideal figures, this time supernatural ones…and bask in their radiance.

It is tempting to pick holes in Pataki's argument. (At the very least it's a pretty reductionist view of why people believe what they do; and if belief can be explained away with a psychological explanation, why shouldn't unbelief be similarly explained away?) Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that that we Christians manage to provide a fair bit of justification for Pataki's argument. After all, the church's scriptural and liturgical language is rich with claims about the intense focus of God's love for, and interventions on behalf of, individuals or communities which trust him (e.g., Psalm 33:18-19; Lam 3:22-25; Rom 8:28, etc). Such claims are, of course, set within larger narratives about the people of God being set apart to be oriented to the world rather than themselves.

Often, however, that larger narrative is suppressed in the piety of the church. Let me give an example. One Sunday, last year, I  happened (largely by accident) to worship in a church whose character and style reflected  very different theological convictions to my own. It was in a major Asian city; the very large congregation was mostly expatriate Europeans, Africans and Americans. Many of them were students or lecturers at a nearby university. It was difficult to reconcile this particular demographic with the very low level of theological reflection evident in the songs, prayers and sermon. What was most disturbing, however, was the word of benediction: "Remember! God has organised the week for you."

There was no word of mission. No exhortation to serve the poor. No encouragement to care for the sick or comfort the bereaved. No reminder of the command to love our neighbours. No direction to pray for our enemies. Just an indulgent claim that God had organised the week for us. If you were looking for a connection between faith and narcissism, there it was - front and centre in the life of the church itself.

This is far from a stand-alone example. A recent feature article on one of Australia's highest-profile churches included reference to this exhortation from the chief pastor:  "Speak your faith, start seeing miracles ... Owner of your first home! Best-selling author ... Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Your brother's salvation, your sister's healing ... Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Amen!" Even if this is more explicitly an example of prosperity doctrine, it's not hard to see how such a view would feed the link between faith and narcissism. (And you can watch the particular address here; go to the 36min mark.)

So, Tamas Pataki is not without insight into the connection between faith and narcissism, even if he over-reaches himself in using it as an exhaustive explanation of why everyone who  believes does so. Being aware of his critique can, however, encourage Christians to ask ourselves why we do believe in the first place, and to realise that there are indeed elements of the Christian faith which, if isolated from others, can easily feed the narcissistic propensities that seem to weave their way through the human condition which we all share.

In eavesdropping on contemporary conversations about God, Jesus and faith, we Christians will often hear things that are little more than cheap shots. But we will also hear things that rightly and properly prompt us to self-examination. Tamas Pataki's comments on faith and narcissism are a case in point.

1 comment:

Brendan Byrne said...

Excellent post, Geoff. And, of course, what Pataki identifies as the narcissism of religion is precisely what Nietzsche identified as the "religion of comfortableness": that is, the tendency in some religious people to reduce faith to an extension of our wish-fulfilment and our insecurities. I myself have written blog posts in the past in which I made reference to what I call "Christian self-helpism" and of the need for Christians to hold (following on from Socrates) what I call an "examined faith". Of course, the mega-church movement and the "theology of prosperity" which it frequently embodies is a prime example of this narcissistic phenomenon.

But I would offer two points in rebuttal. Firstly, God's love for us, properly understood, is not narcissistic but covenantal: it is not about us being the "sole" focus of God's love (Jesus is my boyfriend) but about God's love drawing us into relationship - with God and with one another. Secondly, Pataki, like other critics of religious belief, makes no account of how God loving us actually makes life more difficult, precisely because God's love makes demands of us - it simply refuses to allow us to treat with God the way we treat with one another, or to take the kinds of short-cuts or make the kinds of evasions humans tend to in their dealings with each other. Being the focus of God's love (as the Hebrew Scriptures warrant) is an often bruising experience, precisely because we cannot encounter the utter otherness of God and not be changed, sometimes painfully.

None of which invalidates Pataki's arguments in so far as they go. It only highlights yet again that all such explanations as to why religious belief "persists" (the underlying assumption being that such persistence is both illogical and harmful) are only ever, at best, partial - and only ever apply to the most obvious or the most egregious examples of religious practice.