When Personality Flaws Hide Behind Religion

When Personality Flaws Hide Behind Religion June 28, 2014

boy-hiding-eyesI asked Deanna to share her thoughts about narcissism over the last few days because I knew she would do a good job of putting her finger on something that I’ve been learning lately.  What I’ve been slowly coming to see is that much of what I’ve always attributed to religion and/or bad theology in reality traces back to personality flaws already present within the person adhering to those ideologies.  Granted, certain ideologies lend themselves to “character impairments” more than others, so it’s not an either/or thing.  I see abusive theologies and dysfunctional personalities as inherently connected, feeding one another in a continuous loop until it’s virtually impossible to distinguish cause from effect.  I guess that’s simple enough to understand, but as a student of theology I’ve always tended to see the ideology as prior, the font from which the problems spring.  But I’m beginning to grasp how these peculiar theologies are really just masking personality flaws which would be there with or without the attending ideologies.  I’d like to explore this dynamic between ideology and personality and explain how religion can both mask and validate character flaws so that they become untouchable, above reproach.

Chris Mooney has done a laudable job of investigating the intriguing connection between people’s personalities and their political views.  His research has demonstrated how many who are drawn to politically conservative ideologies also exhibit a natural predilection for resisting change and preselecting sources of information which will not challenge previously held beliefs and opinions.  It would be naturally tempting to assume that people “on both sides of the aisle” suffer equally from the same malady, except that generally speaking it appears that it afflicts conservatives far more profoundly than it does their liberal counterparts.

We all like to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, right?  Sure we do.  But some of us fight that tendency much harder than others.  And generally speaking, people with liberal social and political views make a habit of exposing themselves to a variety of opinions and perspectives while those with conservative views do not.  Some, in fact, adopt explicitly exclusivist ways of thinking and talking about issues, demonizing alternative viewpoints and surrounding them with critical epithets and morally-charged descriptors.  Mooney doesn’t argue that these natural tendencies created the corresponding political views; he only points out how birds of a feather flock together, and how neurological and psychological factors could contribute to a person’s willingness to adopt political and social viewpoints which correspond to his natural disposition.

I think religion works the same way.  People tend to gravitate toward those variations of religion which reflect something in their own natural wiring so that these two things—ideology and temperament—feed and reinforce one another in a continuous feedback loop.  You certainly can’t control what tradition you were born into, but as you mature into an adult it eventually falls to you to decide which tradition will be yours to pass on to your children.  Once you say it out loud, it seems like a no-brainer that people will gravitate to those subcultures which fit their natural tendencies.  But admittedly real life is a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?  Sometimes people fall into traditions which are greatly at odds with their natural penchants.  For example, sometimes super sweet people find their way into Calvinism, which is a harsh and brutal theological system in which every line of questioning ends with “Shut up you maggot, who are you to question the Almighty?”  That’s the Reader’s Digest version but you get the picture.  There are exceptions to every rule, and religion of all things follows its own non-rational path so that it isn’t always easy to explain in logical terms.  But the pattern still holds true in general terms.  Whether they realize it or not, people’s personality traits inform their theology and vice versa.

When Theology Masks Something Darker

What makes this a bad thing where I live is that religion still enjoys a privileged position in society so that you’re not allowed to openly challenge any belief or practice that flies the faith flag.  It’s off limits.  Propriety dictates that it’s not okay to criticize someone’s religion to his face (the internet is often a different story) so that any quirks or personality flaws which match or mirror a person’s religion go unchecked perhaps for the duration of his entire life.  They’re camouflaged, surrounded by the matching textures and colors of whatever ideology nurtured and amplified those flaws until they became the well-dressed monster they are today. Put differently, a neurosis is just as likely to wear a sanctuary choir robe as it is to wear the tattered clothes of a homeless person, but the drifter’s flaws are obvious; the baritone’s not so much.

Let’s take a look at four dysfunctional personality traits which wear a religious mask and see how each of them slides past our notice because they hide behind the vicarious legitimacy of religion.

1) Narcissism.  Deanna Boudov dedicated two posts to exposing how her mother’s narcissism hides behind her Christianity, and I don’t have much to add to that here.  Because both religion in general and Christianity in particular so easily lend themselves to a performance mentality, narcissists can hide out indefinitely in that subculture without anyone ever noticing.  Church culture especially remains obsessed with maintaining appearances, which suits the narcissist just fine.  Previously, that manifested as the clean–cut, super white smile with the perfect family, the well-behaved 2.5 kids and a dog (aka “the traditional family”).  Nowadays it’s just as likely to don a more hipster look, with a three-day beard growth, chabby chic clothes, and a just-fell-out-of-bed hairstyle that in reality took three products and ten minutes in front of a mirror to perfect.  They’ll be sure to hit just the right notes of humility, openness, and piety as they pursue their goal of personal perfection, feigning Jesus-motivated affection toward you.  Don’t you feel special?  The point is that regardless of which substrain of religion the narcissist chooses, there’s a place for him where his maladaptations will be reinforced and validated.

2) Obsessive-Compulsion.  Very much like narcissism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies thrive within the Christian faith because the religious impulse itself seems to spring from this desire for personal perfection and purity.  While the narcissist usually feeds off of public praise, the OC Christian only needs her own personal conscience free from stain or blemish in order to feel that all is right in her world.  I believe that the Christian obsession with “purity” flows directly from the same place where Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder* originates, and neither can ever be completely satiated.  Just as for the OCD person there can be no end to the number of things that make your hands “dirty,” there can be no end to the number of things in “the world” which a Christian must avoid in order to stay pure.  These Siamese-twin impulses dominate the lives of millions, but only one of them gets recognized as a legitimate problem requiring treatment.  And therein lies the essence of my point  The man who has to open a new bar of soap every time he washes his hands will be recognized as “unhealthy” and needing treatment, but the parents who won’t let their children watch My Little Pony or read Harry Potter books because they might defile their children get a free pass.  They might even be praised for their vigilance.  Like the people with OCPD, they are certain they are right, but these folks have the reinforcement of their whole religious community to remain exactly as they are.

In other words, it’s not just that neurotic tendencies can sublimate into religious preoccupations and hide out there indefinitely. It’s far worse than that.  Religion often exacerbates, reinforces, amplifies, and validates these impairments, making it impossible to treat them for what they really are.  They’re off limits now because they wear the mask of holiness.  Even if it occurs to you that something is wrong you can’t speak out against it now because that would be critiquing their religion and everybody knows you’re not supposed to do that, for some reason.  And if you try, rather than meeting with a shrug of self-awareness, you will encounter vehement and passionate opposition because unlike the OCD person (and on occasion the OCPD person as well), the “spiritually” obsessive-compulsive person is convinced that he is precisely as he is supposed to be, and anyone who tries to change that is seen as an enemy, not a friend.  You may even be working for the devil.  Good luck talking them down out of their obsession if that’s how they see it.

3) Bigotry.  Bigotry has many masks, none so brilliant and crafty as religion.  As much as I hate to admit it (for I am a humanist, and humanists hope and work toward seeing and bringing out the best in people), bigotry is rooted in our natural tribalism, affecting all of us whether we realize it or not.  Perhaps it comes to us from our evolutionary past.  Perhaps natural selection taught us to look out for “our own kind,” privileging them over “the other” as a mechanism of self-preservation.  But now that we have stepped out of our primal past into civilization building, it behooves us to overcome our instincts toward favoring our own “in order to build a more perfect union.”  In a modern democratic society we must learn to recognize the validity and value of people who are different from ourselves, and this doesn’t always come easily.  It’s a constant fight for a growing awareness of the differences between different types of people, learning to accept them for who they are, treating them as whole people worthy of all the same things as ourselves.

But religion often impedes this process, especially those religions based on the notion of divine revelation.  For example, if you believe that God once dictated that same-sex relations are an abomination, it would take an equally authoritative divine revelation to counter that pronouncement.  Absent a direct declaration to the contrary, adherents to the Bible must set themselves against same-sex relationships because their religion has now codified and immortalized that cultural bias for all time.  For them, letting up on the gays would be forsaking their faith.  Thus a form of bigotry (for that’s what this is) becomes validated and fused into their worldview from this point forward, disabling their ability to empathize with a whole class of people who are simply different from them.

The same holds true for other forms of bigotry like misogyny and chauvinism.  Women began as property in the early parts of the Bible and by the close of the book they had been upgraded to second-class citizens.  Modern Christians make much of the fact that women are presented as the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and yet none of them ever reach the importance of “The Twelve.”  The early church remained a predominantly male-run outfit imposing all kinds of rules on the women which they never imposed on the men (e.g. they should keep silent in church and ask their husbands their questions when they get home).  One verse in Titus even spells out that the woman’s place is in the home, not out in the work force.  And so we find that two thousand years later in a largely egalitarian society we have high-profile ministers and politicians (but I repeat myself) subtly working with a rhetoric which asserts that women shouldn’t be given the same roles and responsibilities as men.  Two thousand years later!  How can that be?  It’s because religion can take a prejudice and etch it in stone for all time, making a people unable to grow and learn and evolve out of the tribalistic urge to denigrate “the other.”

A century and a half ago my country had to decide if slavery was a legitimate industry, and when the voice of progress spoke in favor of the enslaved people the religious voices which chimed in predominantly argued for slavery’s legitimacy.  It was never spoken against in the Bible (no, not even in Philemon); in fact, it seemed a normal social stratification in the mind of the biblical writers.  In the end it took a bloody war waged by a superior army to force the South to give up its slave industry, and Southerners today still seem sore about it.  Old bigotries die hard, and religion can keep them on life support indefinitely.

4) Codependency.  This is the one I struggle with personally.  Codependency can mean a lot of things, but in my case it means that I like to feel needed.  No, I need to feel needed.  It’s a fundamental psychological hunger for me, and I will perform superhuman feats to ensure that my worth is established and felt by those whom I love.  At 40 I’m just now beginning to see how this condition results from deep insecurities and low self-esteem.  I’ve written before about how I believe my Evangelical background primed me for self-esteem issues, and it clearly struck a nerve with a lot of people.  A low sense of self-worth creates an ideal environment for codependency to develop because what better way to alleviate a low sense of personal value than to make yourself supremely valuable to others?

On the surface that may sound like a healthy coping mechanism but in practice it leads to interpersonal and intrapersonal problems.  For some, it makes them controlling types who compulsively dictate what others do in order to ensure that everyone behaves as the controller feels they should.  But in others like myself, it leads to a negligence of my own needs in the interest of taking care of the needs of others until I’m totally depleted.  At that point, I’ve accustomed those around me to look to me instead of to themselves to meet their own emotional, physical, and psychological needs.  I like being a savior to people because it makes me feel valuable in the world.  If I stop being a savior, what will be left to make me feel valuable as a person?

[Side note:  This is where my Christian friends, sensing a moment of vulnerability, will jump in and patronize me, telling me that God values me and that I have intrinsic worth because I am created in his image.  Let me just stop you right there.  That’s a beautiful spin to put on the biblical view of humanity, but underneath that rosy varnish there lies a horrifying counter-message which says I am fit for the furnace and that any worth I have as a person derives from a source other than myself.  Christianity teaches that our worth is derivative, not intrinsic.  Saying we are valuable either because we are made in someone else’s image or because of something someone else did for us are flimsy attempts at hard-selling the backloaded condemnation that soon follows.  Even the Christian message about personal growth and maturity revolves around dependence on God because “apart from me you can do nothing.”  That sentence right there will trigger strong feelings from anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship.  So give me some credit for having already considered what the Christian faith does with the concept of self-worth.  Except of course yours is uniquely free from all the errors of those lesser forms of the faith, right?]

When you think about it, the Christian faith is ideal for creating and reinforcing codependent personalities.  In the first place it creates the right environment for those traits to form by teaching you that you deserve to be punished forever just because of who you are, and it teaches you that your worth is derived from something other than yourself (e.g. “what Jesus did for you”).  Then it proceeds to teach you that you can be a blessing to others by putting the needs of others above your own, even to the negligence of your own needs (Jesus called it “hating even your own life” for his sake).  “Take up your own cross,” it tells you, and die to yourself.  Whaaaaaat?  I learned to see this talk as normal.  It was deep.  It was true.  It was counterintuitive and I was cool with that because I liked how against the grain of human nature it sounded.  But it’s very unhealthy.  At its core, the Evangelical Christian faith is anti-humanistic, and it produced in me a need to be needed, a need to know that I am loving people so well that I can ignore my own needs in the interest of taking care of others.  Perfect environment for codependency to develop.

One more side note before I’m done.  Invariably someone will hear all this dysfunctional talk and say that it’s not fair to accuse their faith of making any of these things happen.  “If only you had done it right, or believed the right things,” they will say. “If only you had grown up in the right version of the Christian faith, this wouldn’t have happened.  Not all Christians are this way.”

I know that.  But I think we’ve learned over the last few weeks that #notallwhatevers is often a way of dismissing something with which you can’t identify as if it’s not worthy of your attention (or anyone else’s) because it wasn’t your experience.  But that’s a careless response which, as Deanna points out in the responses to her posts, lacks empathy.  Beyond that, however, I am arguing that while personality disorders and character flaws don’t need religion in order to exist, they remain unremedied—in fact they become untouchable—under the borrowed capital of religion.  Narcissism, bigotry, codependency, and obsessive-compulsion gain unwarranted respectability through stowing away inside religious tradition until they become normalized, which is the worst thing that could ever happen.  Religion is the Great Enabler which validates our personality flaws, amplifying and reinforcing them, making them respectable so that you look like the bad guy for calling them out.  “Shame on you, who do you think you are?”

I’m not buying that tactic anymore.  Once the thin varnish of religious authority is removed, these dysfunctions can be seen for what they are.  They never should have gotten a free pass, but we know better now.


*Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder typically indicate different things, although they both illustrate aspects of what I’m trying to describe.  The former usually stems from neurological peculiarities and is typically a result of nature, not nurture.  The opposite is true for OCPD.  For the sake of precision, I should probably clarify that the kind of impairments I am indicating here correspond to the personality disorder more than the neurologically based OCD.  But again, they both help illustrate what I’m discussing.


Browse Our Archives