I had an opportunity to read part of a fascinating book recently titled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. This book, authored by Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Keith Campbell, is not just a book about a psychological disorder, but often a sociological study as well.
What particularly interested me was the chapter in the book on religion and narcissism. In an age in which Hollywood, popular intellectuals and a growing number of average citizens have come to think of religion in general, and Churches especially, as the “root of all evil”, it is refreshing to see an objective approach to social and psychological problems that cite the decline of religion in society as a part of the problem instead of a process to be welcomed by all right-thinking people.
On p. 245, the authors state that “religion has traditionally put the breaks on narcissistic behaviors”, citing three reasons:
*Religion encourages people to live by a set of rules, religious and moral, instead of allowing people to simply develop their own rules (yes, imagine the horror).
*Religion brings people together as a community of believers, discouraging selfishness and encouraging cooperation.
*Perhaps most importantly, religion instills a belief in something greater than ourselves – and not just “something”, but a being to which we are held to account.
It is no surprise that the rise of narcissism coincides with the decline of religion, though I won’t speculate on which way the causal relationship works right now. If it was true that older societies put too much pressure on the individual to conform to the group, it is also true that modern society has unleashed not merely individual reason but individual lusts and desires. It has destroyed any need people once felt to give an account of their behavior, delivering the message instead that what we do is OK as long as it doesn’t “hurt anyone” – meaning direct physical harm, plus any sort of emotional or psychological harm to a protected minority group.
The authors then argue that narcissistic tendencies in our society have transformed religion itself. They write of the “spiritual marketplace” in which, in order to compete for followers or converts, religions are continually making themselves “more accessible”, or just easier to live with. Emphasis on those aspects of traditional religion cited above are downplayed or even assaulted by their modern versions, because the modern narcissist does not want to deal with the possibility that they might be doing something wrong, or worse yet, that they might actually have to do something to make it right.
Finally, what really struck me as fascinating is what the authors write on p.249, where the speak of the old religion that stressed “confession” and “repentance.” No one does these like the Catholic Church. And yet, this message is at odds not only with the social and economic forces I mentioned before, but also with what seems to me to be the main message of modern psychology as well. We are supposed to be “liberated” – not only from social constraints, but from our consciences as well. We are not supposed to feel guilt for self-indulgence, again, provided it generally conforms to the acceptable political line.
The consequences of narcissism as an epidemic are serious. As the authors argue,
Understanding the narcissism epidemic is important because its long-term consequences are destructive to society. American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality into the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.
Now, I do think some of these complaints themselves might be a bit-short sighted – social networking has uses and implications that go far beyond making “false friends”, and I don’t see why a YouTube celeb is any different than a movie star. That said, the points about sports, grade inflation, beauty, and especially the economic meltdown are well-taken. The economic individualism of the right and the sexual individualism of the left have spiraled out of control in recent years.
Rapid economic growth has not only come with a price tag of enviornmental degredation, but spiritual and cultural degradation as well. An economy unhinged from any sort of moral conscience, in which quantitative statistics are the most important or the only relevant factors, is an economy that is at odds with our very souls. The alternative is not the same old economy in which moral considerations are paid lip-service and then politely ignored. Multiply this imperative times 100 for anyone claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of his Church.