Several years ago, I attended a private function at a highly esteemed religious institution (neither the name of the organization nor the type of religion is relevant to this article). I was excited to meet people who possessed an excellent reputation for their excellent work and who were highly esteemed amongst their religious populace. The nature of the engagement allowed the leaders of this institution to be in a more natural environment where they could let their guard down and relax. Unfortunately, once I witnessed how they behaved at this opportunity, my excitement was quickly squashed. Instead, I was surprised to feel only disgusted by their lack of character.
It was immediately apparent that this was a group with a severe mentality of narcissism. The dichotomous thinking was extreme: either you came from them and were 100% for them, or you were neither and because of it, they regarded you as less of a person. There was no middle ground with them. They had no grace for differing opinions, no real forgiveness for disloyal behavior, no tolerance for those who didn’t follow their rules, no mercy for people who were suffering – which they viewed as a consequence of poor, unholy choices – and no allowance for individuality. Instead, there was only a “Groupthink” mentality and strict adherence to their rules, whether they be right or wrong. Appallingly, the institution had an order similar to the characterization of communism as satirized by George Orwell in his book 1984.
Unfortunately, after having many experiences similar to this one, it is not as uncommon as many believe. Here is a breakdown of the narcissism seen ‘en masse’ in religious organizations:
- Divine Fantasies: In order to keep believers invested in religion, religious leaders paint fantastical images of how by fully committing to their institution, followers have a quick and easy way to a better life. This is usually translated through a figurehead claiming to be a tried and tested witness. They frequently refer to themselves as evidence that if a person does “right” by the standards of the organization, they too will have a wonderful life free from the struggles and misfortunes of non-believer’s 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 can be heard saying something like, “I’m the worst of offenders,” in an effort to demonstrate how vast their humility is in comparison to those around them. Real humility requires no such show or demonstration and adding an element of competition to the character trait contradicts the trait itself.
- Sacrificial Admiration: The group I attended this function with wanted to be known for their self-sacrificing behavior, possessing some unnatural thirst to be admired for it by their brethren. In a weird game of one-upmanship, all of them were continually trying to outdo one another’s martyrdom. True sacrifice demands no attention and instead is quietly done preferring to remain silent, something this false exhibit left to be desired.
- Untouchable Entitlement: Only those who are deemed worthy by the institution can speak to the religious elite – without much hope of developing any type of real relationship. During the above engagement, I was treated as if I was invisible, even when speaking because I did not come from their original organization. This untouchable attitude is a form of mental abuse known as the silent treatment, which commonly greets all outsiders regardless of who they are.
- Exploitative of Faults: Narcissistic religious leaders are not exploitive of their own faults (although they may admit to minor infractions as a demonstration of how ‘real’ they are) but they are intolerable to the faults of others. Frequently, according to their judgment, the sins of others – especially those in similar or competing religious organizations – are exploited without regard for any harm that might befall the individual as a result. This is done to keep the masses in line with their organization’s standards.
- Righteous Remorse: One of the major tenants of nearly every religion is a type of confession where a person acknowledges wrong-doing and seeks restitution. Similarly, that was standard with this institution, although it was approached very differently. Here, any fault was the fault of the individual or body of believers alone, and the organization was incapable of ever doing anything incorrectly. 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 followers that are supposed to be encouraged by this process.
- Conditional Empathy: There is no unconditional empathy from the spiritual elite to others who have had misfortune. Instead, conditional empathy is given if the person is deemed worthy of such grace. 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 more like the friends of Job continually looking for flaws to justify his tribulation than representations of the love they claim to live by.
- Covetous Envy: In order to remain in a position of authority, religious leaders covet the envy of their followers. From their perspective, it provides them leverage to create a reason for the members of the institution to idolize them as a leader. These leaders will do and say things intentionally to spark envy in their people and maintain their religious influence. This may be in the form of monetary benefit, untarnished reputation, ideal marriage, or perfect children.
- Arrogance by Association: This is the most disappointing category of them all. With arrogance by association, even genuine believers fall into the trap of thinking that because they associate with someone, the knowledge of the “wiser” party 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 plenty of 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. It is crucial when searching for an establishment that is healthy and honest to stick to your beliefs and not be intoxicated by false pretenses and reputation alone. Stay true to your personal beliefs and use wise discretion, and these types of institutions can be avoided.