If you’re old enough to remember the explosion of interest in all things spiritual in the 1970s, you will also remember the countless corruption stories that came with that explosion: sex scandals, money laundering, abuses of power, etc. Several lists of these scandals have been published, and the phenomena did not restrict itself to just one religious tradition. These stories of religious organizations compromising themselves ethically continue to emerge(the drip feed of child abuse scandals in the Catholic church is the most prominent example), which is one way things get normalized: if you hear something over and over again, you tend to take it for granted as an “established fact” which, of course, it seems to have become.
The same thing has happened in regards to narcissistic character traits in society. We have had so much news, for so long, of so many people willing to act in a shameless, entitled, manipulative, aggressive, self-advancing fashion that it’s not news any more: it’s become the norm.
The consequences of the normalization of forces destroying society is incredibly important. One step in understanding and, hopefully, reversing that process is to recognize how many intersections there are between these destructive societal trends, i.e. what does the rise, and normalization, of faith-based religious fervor have in common with acceptance of narcissistic behavior? Why do so many people interested in religious life also seem to act so narcissistically, as this recent study contends? Isn’t a big part of the spiritual life meant to move our focus onto the well being of others? If so, why do so many religious leaders get consumed by a sense of entitlement, a sense of privilege, a belief that they hold the key to everyone’s liberation?
The surprising aspect of how many narcissistic people there are in institutions ostensively focused on compassion, charity, open-heartedness and love is how successful the ideology of those institutions disguises the behavior of its members. Narcissistic traits of shamelessness, envy, and entitlement - traits that result in manipulation, corruption and violence - have successfully hidden behind the beautiful words and rituals of their ideological tenants. Faith, which uses those words and rituals as inspiration for a person’s individual spiritual advancement, then turns a blind eye to actions taken in the name of those ideologies. As powerful as faith may be in spiritualizing an individual life, it is totally incapable - on its’ own, at any rate - of stopping or even significantly impacting the grinding juggernaut of real world, machiavellian power being exercised by far too many religious and spiritual authorities.
Once this “blind eye” has been turned by a religious devotee, he becomes susceptible to the same narcissism that motivates his leaders: inward reflection, so important to spiritual insight, can easily transmute into self-absorption if a person has not done the psychological work of solidifying his own identity, including the work of strengthening and employing his own critical thinking capacities. This is a particularly difficult task to achieve if either the leader of the spiritual group or any of its followers has had a genuine mystical experience. Such experiences have an extraordinary impact on human personality. That impact plays out when those leaders, or anyone having such an experience, has to return to the “ordinariness” of daily life after his “moment of enlightenment” (and enlightenment is always a moment, never a permanent condition). This transition ranks among the most difficult a human being can face. Why? Because when a person has had the smallness of their personality exposed; when they have been shown a much bigger and qualitatively more powerful perspective - they cannot forget it. And the most dramatic way they remember it is through the contrast of that experience to the mundane quality of the daily life they have returned to. Anthony Storr explores this in his fascinating book, Feet of Clay. He details how self-proclaimed spiritual leaders such as Rudolf Steiner, Rajneesh, Carl Jung, Gurdjieff and St. Ignatius all sought to solve the drudgery of daily life after illumination by deploying the power of their personalities. How did they deploy that power? Towards the conversion of others.
Conversion efforts usually stem from a sincere desire to share insights gained from elevated moments. But those needs frequently arise from a fractured psychological identity: either an identity that has not been fully formed before the illuminating moment, or an identity that gets “exploded” by the experience and, Humpty-Dumpty like, cannot be put back together again. Identity in the conventional sense of a strong and solid ego and the self-possession that accompanies it gets replaced by the grandiosity of the illumination and, just as importantly, the passionate desire to foist it onto others. There is extraordinary power is this - particularly the compelling charismatic power such individuals often possess, power that is capable of convincing many others to “follow” their lead rather than discover life’s truths directly. This leads easily - and often very quickly - to a narcissistic sense of specialness on the part of both leaders and followers: a specialness that seeks to avoid the drudgery of daily life, replacing it with beautiful ideologies prescribing in detail how that life should be lived.
Narcissism in spiritual and religious groups can also gain a foothold a second way in the minds of the faithful: through the modern day focus of such groups on belief rather than on the more traditional function religions have always served: assisting others, as best as one can, to face life’s mysteries. Belief simplifies life, which leads to considerable relief - but at the cost of dividing people into tribal factions who view others not having similar beliefs as adversaries.
This leads to a third factor that allows narcissistic behavior to sabotage the faithful: an insistence within ideological groups that relationships be based on like-mindedness rather than on engagement and contact. People with an active narcissistic injury are always recruiting people to their perspective. They do this largely because they cannot tolerate difference of opinion or, heaven forbid, the possibility that they could be wrong. They will employ charm and reason to their persuasive efforts, but also force if need be. If you buy into what they are selling, it’s easy to think you’ve formed a friendship with them based on mutual respect and love. In fact, what has happened is a relationship based on shared belief - one that will become increasingly conflict-averse over time.
For a person to navigate away from narcissism when his faith is strong requires he not overlook the much less glamorous work of building a solid, reliable, trustworthy identity in his day-to-day interactions. An identity that can see mystical experience in the appropriate light: something that gives a glimpse of a bigger world, but doesn’t absolve anyone of living better in their smaller one. A personality that can tolerate - and even occasionally be persuaded by - differences in belief. An ego strong enough to not resort to tribalism. This is a task the majority of people fail at in today’s world.
These glimpses of the way forward are based on genuine interaction, a willingness to admit error, a capacity to be flexible, and, ironically, a dose of faith itself: in the capacity of human beings to do these things without drowning in dogma.