The other day I got to watch a Christian speak with wide-eyed breathless earnestness about how he’d figured out how to follow Jesus in as Biblical a way as possible. Not stated but clearly implied was that everybody in the world who had some other idea was flat wrong about the subject. Oh, wait, no, he did actually clearly imply that, now that I think about it. And he was very proud of the fact that nobody really understood, much less agreed, with what he was trying to push.
“How lucky he is,” I said to myself. And really, if you think about it, he really is. Out of hundreds and even thousands of competing translations of the Bible’s words and even its contents over the past two thousand years, he’s managed to locate the one that God officially approved–oh, no? Oh. He’s just using the King James Version (KJV). Well, then how lucky that out of the tens of thousands of denominations that swear by the KJV but have radically different takes on the KJV’s infuriatingly vague words, he’s actually figured out just how that translation was meant to be follow–oh, no? No, he’s just figured out a fairly standard take on evangelicalism. Well, then.
But things get murkier the more you look at the waters. Just imagine. Humankind has existed in this form for many eons–but just in the last few thousand years did Yahweh/God/Jesus decide to take any sort of active interest in communicating its/his/their desires and threats to humankind. How lucky that today’s Christians just happened to live now, and not back before agriculture got invented when nobody had any idea who Yahweh even was, much less thousands of years ago before Jesus-olatry got popular. How lucky indeed that today’s Christians just happened to be born in a part of the world that just happened to be dominated by this particular religion, and in particular this take on that religion and not, say, Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Really, the best indicator one could possibly find of what religion a given person follows is what the dominant religion is in his/her homeland (as John Loftus wrote). But no, to modern Christians, they’re the incredibly discerning possessors of incredible good judgement who just happen to have chosen the one religion right in front of them–and by the most amazing fortune that one turned out to be the right one out of tens of thousands of denominations and thousands of religions–and it was right in their back yard, so to speak! Talk about stellar good luck!
Luck or an over-9000 level of sheer unadulterated egotism?
Today’s Christians are quick to rail against the narcissism of the modern age, but as the old saying goes, when you point a finger, your other three are pointing back at you. Here’s a good writeup of the general gist of what I’m saying. In terms of completely unwarranted self-esteem, you can’t beat Christianity for what it does to its followers’ heads. Let’s go through the signs one by one, shall we?
* The author of the entire universe cares deeply and passionately about where his followers eat lunch. That’s right: the person who created quarks and black holes, the being that put Planck’s Constant into motion, he’s especially and particularly paying special attention to whether or not his male followers stick their winkies into uh-oh places.
* The creator of, well, everything has a very special plan for each and every one of his followers that each was created from conception to fulfill, and nobody but that particular follower can possibly fulfill that plan. Each and every one is SOOO SPECIAL.
* Demons are after each and every one of this being’s followers. Yup, that’s right. They lurk around every single corner waiting to trip one of these very special children up and away from their Father. The world is filled with demons who conspire against the superlicious children of God–and every one of these demons is intently and desperately watching Christians for any single tiny sign of wavering.
* Each and every Christian was smart enough to realize what an incredible opportunity Christianity was– and to take advantage of it. Oh, us poor rubes who got tricked into leaving or who outright refuse the message! Poor little us! But Christians will laugh at us and drink margaritas by the shore as we scream forever in the lake of fire. Even a meth addict from the world’s (okay: Florida’s–you caught me) most hick-town trailer park can consider herself superior to the guy who owns Facebook–because she is a Christian and he is an atheist. (He is, by the way. On a very tangential note, did y’all know that the Westboro Church bigots use Apple products even though Apple is way pro-gay-marriage?)
* Worst of all, Christians who buy into this mindset are dead convinced that they know what’s best for all the rest of us. They follow the one true religion (well, their odd little take on an odd little branch of an odd little religion, at least), so they know better than all the rest of us how to live, how to conduct business, how to run a government, and how to handle life’s most intimate questions. If we disagree, they’re happy to force their whims and views upon us by any means possible (one pastor is even on the record as wanting to enslave non-believers to Christians who’ll know how to best direct their lives), to the extent that people who reject their religion often fear for their physical safety around God’s sweet children. When others reject their superiority and their message, Christians get downright riled and the true colors–and the ghastly threats–come out. How quickly Jesus turns from a Prince of Peace to a horrifically abusive spouse, in the hands of his Truest Followers! Most ex-Christians can attest how fast that change happens–it’s zero to sixty in my direct experience. First we’re told how loving and forgiving he is; when we decline the Christian’s gracious offer to “reconcile” ourselves, out come the disturbingly vivid threats.
* Oh, and I forgot: today’s Christians feel so breathtakingly self-important that their god will end the world in their lifetime. You heard me–Jesus couldn’t possibly end the party before they got there, and they can’t even imagine the party continuing after they’ve left. Globally, one survey found that 14% of the world’s citizens believed the end of the world would happen during their lifetime. But 58% of white American evangelicals believe Jesus Christ will return by 2050 (compared to 41% of Americans in general)–and the less education someone had had, the more likely that person was to put Jesus’ return as sooner rather than later, which I’m sure you’re all totally shocked to hear. It simply wouldn’t do for Christianity to put out the word that this generation is probably going to live and die and just be part of the long chain of believers all waiting for that “Any Day Now”™ promise Jesus made so foolishly unequivocally way back in the Gospels. I bet as the older generation (which believed the exact same thing, let’s not forget; I knew a number of elderly Pentecostals who were absolutely convinced they wouldn’t die) ages and dies, they’re feeling pretty shocked that no, actually, Jesus isn’t going to come rescue them from the agony of old age and death. And there’s no reason to suspect that this generation coming up will see any different treatment–or the one after them, or after them, or after them.
A number of cognitive biases feed into this mindset. One of the more powerful is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which happens when unskilled or unlearned people think they’re more skilled or smarter than they really are. Not only will they consistently rate themselves as better at the tasks or abilities in question, they won’t even realize the extent of their inadequacy–and will deny that inadequacy in those areas until they do gain the training and expertise to legitimately handle those areas. This bias right here alone might account for most people’s social problems. You see it in gaming, too, when the people who most want to play the ultra-high-end character concepts seem like the worst-suited to those roles. I’m thinking here of the many 007-style international spies, assassins, and top-end military officers I’ve run across who had no discipline whatsoever, knew nothing about any of these fields, and were categorically unsuited to wielding authority of any kind in their own lives.
It’s not a lot of fun to play opposite someone who wants to play a super-professional, hard-bitten mercenary captain but has no idea how to handle military discipline. But at least we were just roleplaying. Some people want this in real life so much they get attracted to groups that feed into their desire for acclaim, respect, and adoration–and nothing does the trick like religion. You don’t have to be able to do anything but talk a big game to become a big name very quickly in Christianity in general. Heck, most of the time nobody will even fact-check anything you claim.
But when you’ve got a Christian who is absolutely convinced that he’s a theological expert because Jesus has hand-picked him to be the herald of some new movement, you get people like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post who are absolutely convinced that they’ve figured out all the big questions that 2000 years’ worth of theologians couldn’t get right–and let me tell you, this guy was not happy about my challenge to his blathering. The worst part is that because Christians do rely on purely subjective concepts like “personal revelation,” it’s really hard for them to deny and disavow people who say lunatic things. Doing so would call into question how they know their god told them anything, after all, and how they came by their expertise. It’s fun to watch two Christians argue, though, may I be so bold as to say–it’s like watching two gamers arguing over something in the rules. This Christian I ran into who fancied himself the holder of a brand-new revelation especially did not appreciate my mentioning, perhaps more gleefully than was polite, that it was a major mark against Christianity in my eyes that so many differing theologies could be ascertained from one sourcebook, a fact which told me that its god certainly didn’t care overmuch about communicating clearly.
Here’s a big long list of biases, and I’m sure you can find a bunch that Christians fall prey to most especially. We’re going to be talking about them over time, so I hope you’ll check them out at some point. Narcissism itself isn’t one of those biases–it’s more of a psychological disorder, but the ones that point to its existence the most are worth considering. The illusion of asymmetric insight assures Christians that they know others better than others know them. Illusory superiority tells Christians that they are better than other people. The list goes on and on though. Check it out, it’s awfully fun to draw up checklists of which ones figure prominently in world religions. I’m planning to use it next time I design a game pantheon, personally.
It takes a humble heart to push all of that aside and say “I’m probably about on par with other people in most areas, and certainly no better than them.” It takes courage to reject the pure egocentrism required to think that the creator of the universe actually cares what we do with our lives, or even worse that such a creator actually cares where we eat lunch, or how we copulate and with whom and when. It takes humility to realize that whatever we think individually about what is best for everybody else, we haven’t got the slightest bit of proof we’re right–so it’s asinine and worse to try to dictate how others live their lives if they’re not causing direct harm to anybody else. It takes humanity to realize that the likelihood is vanishingly rare that this one translation of this one quirky little outgrowth of this one religion is the one true way to make an invisible, unverified, non-credible, untouchable, ineffable god happy with us.
But I live in MURKA, and if MURKA has shown me one thing over and over again, it’s that everybody who lives in it is above average.
Now that I’ve called out Christian narcissism a bit, I’m going to talk next about why Christian anecdotes are so uniquely non-compelling and then I’ll be making my usual wild speculations about why Christians seem to rely on these stories and urban legends so much and get so offended when these earnest tales don’t have the desired effect on skeptics. I hope to see y’all there.