The Accusation of Narcissism

One of the accusations that Sam Harris makes against Christian believers is that to believe that God is good based on our experience of God’s blessing is narcissistic:

This kind of faith is the perfection of narcissism.  “God loves me, don’t you know, he cured me of my eczema, he makes me feel so good while singing in church and just when we had given up hope he found a banker who was willing to reduce my mother’s mortgage.”  Given all this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, given the misery that is being imposed on some helpless child at this instant this kind of faith is obscene . . .

This argument needs to be broken down into two parts before we can address it effectively:

  1. How does Christianity explain the suffering of children?
  2. Is Christianity inherently narcissistic?

Now obviously the question of the suffering of children is a much more important question which we must address in an entirely different essay lest the accusation of narcissism be lost in the discussion of a much larger issue.  For this reason, we move on to the second issue.

Is Christianity inherently narcissistic?

It should be obvious that when we are asking this question we are asking it about Christianity in the ideal case where the correctly understood teachings of Christ are applied in the life of a believer who is doing his or her best to seek God’s will and live the life of faith that God desires.  Since hundreds of millions of people profess to be Christians, there will naturally be many professing Christians whose faith is tainted by narcissistic tendencies.  This fact does not make Christianity inherently narcissistic.  Racist ideologies have been based on the theory of evolution.  If Mr. Harris and other evolutionists are willing to accept responsibility for the Holocaust because some evolutionists are racists, then I will accept the notion that Christianity is inherently narcissistic because some Christians are narcissistic.  Because both of these propositions seem unreasonable to me on the same grounds, however, I dismiss them both.

But the accusation that Christianity is inherently narcissistic  has a far stronger basis than the narcissism of some professing Christians.  The statement, “God hears my prayer and blesses me, but God does not hear the prayer of that person and doesn’t bless them.” does seem to be narcissistic and it is a close facsimile to what most Christian believers profess to be the truth.  Does this make Christianity inherently narcissistic?  To see why my answer to this is no, let us consider a snippet of conversation overheard in a restaurant:

. . . I was obviously the center of attention.  I had no idea what to do so I decided to tell a knock-knock joke.

The person making this remark thinks that they were “obviously the center of attention”.  The comment certainly seems to be narcissistic.  Is this person a narcissist?  The answer to this question depends on the context.  Let us consider two possibilities:

Having just knocked over a waiter carrying fifty dishes, I was obviously the center of attention.  I had no idea what to do so I decided to tell a knock-knock joke.

Being the most intelligent, beautiful and educated person in the room, I was obviously the center of attention.  I had no idea what to do so I decided to tell a knock-knock joke.

As we can see, the charge of narcissism depends on the critical issue of why the person thinks they were the center of attention.  In just this same way, the charge of narcissism leveled against Christianity depends on why Christians think God answers our prayers and not the prayers of others.  Why does God save us and answer our prayers?  Let us consider the scripture:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.  (Ephesians 2: 8-9)

As this passage illustrates, the Bible does not encourage Christian believers to think we are loved by God because we are better than those who do not believe.  To the contrary, the Bible tells us that we have no cause to boast and that the blessings of God are the undeserved gift of God’s grace.  Christians are blessed more than other people because we believe God and accept his gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.  This is not a narcissistic belief because God commands us to go forth and offer this same salvation to all human beings without regard to ethnicity, gender or past transgressions:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mathew 28:19)

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Accusation of Narcissism

  1. I have to challenge you on numerous points, because I think you are dismissive of very crucial elements. Let me point out some gross absurdities and inconsistencies in your argument. “Christians are blessed more than other people because we believe God and accept his gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is not a narcissistic belief because God commands us to go forth and offer this same salvation to all human beings without regard to ETHNICITY, GENDER or PAST TRANSGRESSIONS…” Your remark about Christians being ‘more blessed’ than other people is patently narcissistic. Under what conditions are these ‘other people’ subjected to? Unfortunately for them, they currently exist outside of God’s grace unless of course they accept his offer of redemption and salvation. Please explain.

    In regards to ETHNICITY – there are warrants in the Bible that are explicitly recommending of genocide and slavery wherein God commands his people to slaughter all the neighboring tribes of Israel (Amalekites, Hittites, Canaanites, etc.), destroy all their property and enslave all their virgins. Just to cite one of many examples:

    “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” – 1 Samuel 15:3.

    On the subject of GENDER, the premise of Christianity is fundamentally rooted in the subjugation of women and there are many ways I can demonstrate this:

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over the man; she must be silent.” – 1 Timothy 2:12.

    “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” – 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

    There is also the Genesis story: Adam was made in God’s image and Eve was made in Adam’s image and is therefore a derivative of man. Or the mythology surrounding the Virgin Mary, whose virginity exemplifies Christianity’s distaste for menstrual blood and the female reproductive system.

    On PAST TRANSGRESSIONS, is original sin not a core principle of Christianity? Unless the author of this article belongs to a brand of Christianity that rejects this fundamental doctrine, it is ironic and self-contradictory to suggest that redemption and salvation is not affirmed on the basis of original sin or past transgressions.

    Christianity also appeals to our narcissism and solipsism in this way. Consider this: the Christian world-view was perfectly established and believed long before there was any knowledge about the Big Bang or of evolution; before we knew anything about incredible expanse of the universe, including the trillions of stars and their respective solar systems, most of which have already exploded and died out; before we knew about the possibility of life on other planets; before we knew anything about the millions of species that came before us and the horrible trials that our early ancestors had to endure before civilization was possible. Christians claim they are made in God’s image. But in whose image were the Cro-Magnons or Neanderthals made? And IF there is life on other planets, in whose image are they made?

    So the long and haphazard evolution and development of our species, spanning across thousands of years, happened just so that this one privileged mammalian species can exist and view itself as the center of creation and the special object of the cosmos?

    I really encourage you to reenforce these points. Not only have you not succeeded in defending Christianity against Harris’ accusations, but you have opened yourself up to a whole new platform for criticism.

    • Doulton,

      The remarks that Sam Harris made were very specific and my comments were made against those specific remarks. Sam Harris argued that Christianity was narcissistic because we believe that our prayers are answered and believers from other faiths are not. But in order to prove the charge of narcissism, more is required than merely to prove that Christians believe that they have God’s favor. The charge of narcissism requires that Christians believe that they have God’s favor because they are better people. This was the main point of what I was saying and I apologize if that was not clear. Your comments represent a broader accusation of narcissism then the one made by Harris in the YouTube video I cited. Your accusations deserve a more full treatment, but I will make a few comments here.

      As to ethnicity and the Old Testament, if you want to make an argument that being a believer in Old Testament Judaism requires a bit of narcissism, I daresay that it did. They were God’s “chosen people” and thought themselves above the divine judgment of God. As I argued in my recent posts (see “The Challenge Method of Teaching” and “Quantum Mechanics in Kindergarten”), the process of moral development is a slow and painful process and it is easy to laugh at the backwardness of those who have preceded us. Would you blame a child for living in a self-centered universe? I do not believe that current Christian thinking is biased with regards to ethnicity and I would reject and condemn the teaching of any Christian who taught that the gospel was only available to certain ethnicities.

      As to the teachings of Paul regarding women, there are three things that I would note:

      1. Paul never says that salvation or God’s favor is not available to women or that it is more available to men than women. He does argue that women ought not to teach, but he also teaches that “I am all things to all men that I might by all means save some” and says that he will do nothing to hinder the spread of the gospel. I myself would interpret his admonishment in this light and say that women should not have taught in that society because the patriarchal nature of that society would have meant that the participation of women in the teaching ministry would have net hindered the spread of the gospel.
      2. Paul differentiates between his own opinion and what he has been commanded by God in his epistles.
      3. Paul is not God and while his understanding represented the “cutting edge” understanding of first generation Christians, many Christians have moved beyond such an understanding in terms of his teaching on women.

      As to past transgression, my point was not that past transgression would have no consequences. A murderer who repents and comes to Christ will still spend the rest of his life in prison. My comment was that the invitation to join God in heaven is open to all people regardless of ethnic background, gender or sins in their past. None of your comments really refute this point, you just argue that distinctions between ethnicities, genders and transgressions are sometimes made in the Bible. I do not understand why distinctions that exist in the Bible lessen the fact that God’s invitation is open to all human beings?

      As to the argument you have made about solipsism and the size and age of the universe, I addressed this question in my essay, “Atheism with a Smiling Face”. I also address the issue peripherally in “Does Intelligence Require Complexity”. In those essays, I argue that human beings have some truly astonishing capabilities (consciousness, love, morality, choice . . .) that differentiate us from other mammalian species and truly do make us special. Other creatures share some of these astonishing capabilities with us to one degree or another, but this does not lessen our own giftedness? Does the fact that you are made in the image of God lessen the fact that I am? Does the fact that dog’s were created by God and share to some extent in his capabilities lessen the fact that we were made by God and share some of his abilities? Why?

      Finally, we do not know enough about neanderthals, cro-magnons or lifeforms on other planets to say anything about their giftedness one way or another. What we do know is that there are angels who were also created by God whose giftedness is greater than our own. (The Bible says that Jesus stripped himself down and made himself less than the angels to walk among us.) The fact, therefore, that other creatures exist and were created and blessed by God does not lessen the fact that human beings are special to God.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and have a great day.

  2. Pingback: Explaining the Ocean of Suffering | A Thoughtful Christian

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