Several years ago I attended a private function at a highly esteemed religious institution (neither the name nor the type of religion is relevant to this article). I was excited to meet face-to-face people who possessed an excellent reputation and were valued among the masses of their religion. The nature of the engagement allowed these leaders to be in a more natural environment where they could let their guard down. Unfortunately, the excitement was quickly squashed when the true nature of their character was revealed. The enthusiasm was instead replaced with disgust.
What did become apparent was a group mentality of narcissism. The dichotomous thinking was extreme: either you came from them and were 100% for them or you were neither. There was no middle ground, no grace for differing opinions, no real forgiveness for disloyal behavior, no tolerance for those who didn’t follow their rules, no mercy for the suffering (this is seen as a consequence of poor choices), and no allowance for individuality. Instead, there was a “groupthink” mentality and strict adherence to rules and order similar to the characterization of communism as satirized by George Orwell in his book 1984.
Here is a breakdown of narcissism seen ‘en masse’ in religious organizations:
- Divine Fantasies: In order to keep the masses in religion, religious leaders paint fantastic images of a better life now. As an example, they often refer to themselves as evidence that if a person does “right” they too will have a wonderful life free from the struggles and misfortunes of nonbelievers’ lives.
- Superior Humility: Just as some narcissists believe they possess superiority to others in intellect, beauty, success, or power, religious narcissists believe they are superior in humility. Meaning, they say something like, “I’m the worst of offenders,” in an effort to demonstrate how vast their humility is in comparison to others. Real humility requires no such show or demonstration.
- Sacrificial Admiration: The group mentioned above wanted to be known for their self-sacrificing behavior and be admired for it by others. In a weird game of oneupmanship, they tried to outdo one another’s martyrdom. But true sacrifice demands no attention and instead is quietly done preferring to remain silent.
- Untouchable Entitlement: Only those who are deemed worthy are able to speak to the religious elite much less have any type of real relationship. During the above engagement, I was treated as if invisible, even when speaking, because I did not come from their institution. This untouchable attitude is a form of mental abuse known as the silent treatment and is done to all outsiders.
- Exploitative of Faults: Narcissistic religious leaders do not exploit their own faults (although they may admit to minor infractions as a demonstration of how ‘real’ they are), but they are intolerant of other’s faults. Frequently, the sins of others, especially those in similar religious organizations, are exploited without regard for any harm that might come as a result. This is done to keep the masses in line with their thinking.
- Righteous Remorse: One of the major tenets of nearly every religion is a type of confession where a person acknowledges wrongdoing and seeks restitution. So while the masses can do wrong, the organization cannot. There might be a very infrequent apology for a misstep with an expectation of immediate forgiveness followed by little to no restitution. But it is nothing compared to the expectation and subsequent treatment of the sins of the masses.
- Conditional Empathy: There is no unconditional empathy from the spiritual elite to others who have had misfortune. Rather, conditional empathy is given if the person is deemed worthy of it. All too often, the hardships of others are seen as consequences for hidden sins or evidence of God’s disapproval of a person. The religious leaders sound like the friends of Job constantly looking for flaws to justify his tribulation.
- Covetous Envy: In order to remain in the position of authority, religious leaders covet the envy of the masses. For without it, there would be no reason for the masses to idolize the leader. So the leaders do and say things intentionally to spark envy among their people and maintain their following. This may be in the form of monetary benefit, untarnished reputation, ideal marriage, or perfect children.
- Arrogance by Association: This is the saddest category of all as even the masses fall into the trap of believing that because they associate with someone, their knowledge will be rubbed off onto them. This keeps a person from studying the tenets of their own faith for themselves and instead sets a person up to be greatly deceived.
To be fair, there are religious organizations and institutes that do not adhere to the above-listed description. Finding one can be a chore but is well worth the effort.