I’ve had occasion to discuss narcissism with an old friend recently who’s also, like me, a former Christian Scientist. We speculated somewhat on whether or not Christian Science either (a) creates narcissists, or (b) attracts and/or fosters them. I’ve had some on-line discussions with other ex-Christian Scientists on the topic as well. Here are my thoughts on the subject. Please note that I am not a mental health professional, nor is anyone else I’ve discussed this subject with. What you read here are the musings of an educated layman.
What is narcissism and how does it relate to Christian Science and Christian Scientists?
There’s a lot of information out there on narcissism, clinically known as narcissistic personality disorder, so I encourage you to do your own research. It is also worth noting that any definitive diagnosis of this personality disorder is complex. However, I’ll offer a quick overview of narcissism:
“Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder generally believe that the world revolves around them. This condition is characterized by a lack of ability to empathize with others and a desire to keep the focus on themselves at all times.”
Some key symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder that especially relate to my experience with Christian Science and Christian Scientists include:2
- Reacts to criticism with anger, shame or humiliation.
- Christian Scientists are famously hostile towards any criticism of their faith and/or church. Books and other published material that are critical of Christian Science, no matter how well-researched they are, are routinely subjected to dismissive, insulting, and sometimes venomously angry denunciation. In the early 20th century, critical biographies of Mary Baker Eddy, the Church’s founder, were actively and sometimes successfully suppressed by the Church.
- Critics, especially those who were once Christian Scientists, are subjected to ridicule and character assassination.
- Exaggerates own importance.
- This is especially true of the Christian Science movement as a whole, as I will discuss later in this post (spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about the supposed ‘majesty’ of Christian Science a little later).
- Exaggerates achievements and talents…
Christian Science claims to be able to heal anything–even an ability to raise the dead! The Christian Science Church claims to have published thousands of ‘verified’* healings.
- Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy.
- Anyone who has left Christian Science will attest to the cold lack of empathy displayed by Christian Scientists in the face of human suffering, or grief, although this may be more a function of the teachings of Christian Science than a connection to narcissistic personality disorder.
Does Christian Science create narcissists or cause ‘narcissistic personality disorder’?
I don’t think Christian Science in and of itself is a narcissist factory. I just don’t see the evidence to convince me it is. However, if a person already has a propensity for narcissism, I definitely think Christian Science can nudge them over the edge. A central teaching of Christian Science is that we are all ‘perfect’ reflections of God. A phrase I often heard while growing up was that I was the “perfect child of God”. This whole idea is like catnip for narcissists: it’s all about ‘me’; I am ‘perfect’, I am infallible. Yes, I think Christian Science is probably quite capable of making someone a narcissist or at least nurturing those tendencies in some individuals, but does it do this on a large scale? For now, I’ll say ‘no’, as I don’t see evidence that convinces me it does so. On an individual basis, I’m sure it has turned some people into narcissists, but I suspect in most of those cases, there are other factors at work and/or a pre-existing tendency towards narcissistic personality disorder.
There are many factors at play in making a person a narcissist. What exactly makes a person a narcissist is still a matter of debate, and since I’m not a mental health professional, I’ll leave general discussion as to what makes a person narcissistic to the pros. For further discussion on what possibly causes narcissistic personality disorder, please click here and click on the link ‘Causes’.
Does Christian Science attract and/or foster narcissists?
I can’t offer annotated research to prove it one way or another, but from my observation, I can say that I think it does foster and perhaps attract those with narcissistic personality disorder. After all, it’s a faith that has at one of its cornerstones, the teaching that we are all perfect ‘reflections of God’. What could be more in line with a narcissistic world-view? On an anecdotal basis, I would say that Christian Science is a faith that would be very attractive to a narcissist, and I definitely think it nurtures narcissists. I believe it nurtured and validated the narcissistic tendencies of a close relative of a friend of mine who grew up in Christian Science.
A sub-question to this might be: do Christian Scientists tend to be narcissists? I think on some level, many are or at least display strong narcissistic tendencies. I’ll cite as an example my own Teacher of Christian Science. I recall a conversation I had with him many years ago. A classmate of mine, who had also been a friend of mine for several years, had left our Association and had left Christian Science. He expressed to me a deep sense of self-doubt, wondering why he had admitted her to Class in the first place. On the surface, it seems humble in a certain way for him to think this way. But, under the surface, and with the lens I look through now as a former Christian Scientist on the outside looking in, I feel now that the focus in his mind seemed more on him, and how this made him look, not on the greater issue of why my classmate had left, what she might have been feeling, or what she was going through that caused her shift in faith. In fact, I don’t recall that he expressed any concern at all for her or what may have driven her away. It was all about him. That part of it seemed irrelevant. In fact, none of that even entered the discussion. I’ve now had contact with her as a fellow escapee from Christian Science and she shared her departure story with me. I can tell you that it had very little to do with Mr. Teacher.
In another instance, I confronted my Teacher after the death of my father regarding some of his conduct towards me during the time my father’s health was rapidly declining (he had angrily accused me of, in his words, “betraying my father,” when I put him into the hospital to try to save his life). Instead of acknowledging the hurt I very plainly told him I had felt, he further tried to justify himself by implying that on some levels, he knew my father and what my father would have wanted better than I, his own son, did. Now, I had grown up very close to my Dad, and had many deep philosophical conversations with him over my lifetime, and can honestly say I had a pretty damn good idea where my father stood on most of the big issues in life. I had acted in accordance with what I had come to know over the years of what my father would have reasonably wanted. Instead of expressing even the slightest shred of empathy over how he had made me feel, let alone any real concern over Dad’s physical well-being, he continued to justify his actions, and to illustrate how ‘right’ he was. Narcissists tend not to care about how others feel. They only care about themselves, and I think by extension the things that are closest to them and that mean the most to them, and for the die-hard Christian Scientist, that’s two things: Christian Science, and the Christian Science Church. You could also add the practise of Christian Science as sort of a sub-category. All else, including the well-being of spouses, children, and others is usually secondary.
Narcissism of the Christian Science movement
I think almost all deeply devout Christian Scientists are on some level what I’ll call ‘religiously narcissistic’. By this, I mean that they are narcissistic about their religion–in a sense, the Christian Science ‘movement’ is narcissistic. Christian Scientists genuinely think Christian Science is the grandest thing ever given to humanity. While working at The Mother Church, I often heard members of the Christian Science Board of Directors refer to what they called the ‘majesty’ of Christian Science. Do a Google search on the term “majesty of Christian Science”, and you will get many references to official Christian Science Church websites. Mary Baker Eddy herself even spoke of what she called the “majesty of Christian Science” in a dedicatory message to First Church of Christ, Scientist, Atlanta, Georgia.3
The Church named its much-vaunted library in honour of Mary Baker Eddy the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity (emphasis added), although more recently, they’ve taken to calling it the Mary Baker Eddy Library, the original name remains ‘official’. You won’t find much more hubris than that in a small, obscure, and rapidly fading fringe religion, except for some truly fringe cults, although the Scientologists are probably just as bad or worse in the hubris department. It makes me wonder if Christian Science really is a cult. Christian Scientists try to downplay things like this, but the undercurrent is there. All you need to do is scratch the surface.
In testimony after testimony of healing that I heard while I was a Christian Scientist, effusive thanks was usually given to Christian Science and/or Mary Baker Eddy. Sometimes God got an honourable mention, more rarely, Jesus (upon whose teachings Christian Science is supposedly based, by the way). But, more often than not, the venerable Mrs. Eddy got top billing in my recollection.
As a whole, I think the Christian Science movement is in and of itself narcissistic. It has a grandiose notion of itself and its importance in the world that far exceeds its actual place in the world. It makes grandiose claims of its abilities, and it is acutely sensitive to any sort of criticism–answering critics with often withering scorn, and character assassinations. If you want credibility in my book, try countering your critics with facts, and leave smear to the tabloids.
Are Christian Scientists themselves narcissistic? Many I’ve known definitely are, or display such tendencies, I think. Many more are very kind, genuine, down-to-earth, and humble people. They are, for the most part however, narcissistic about their religion. So no, I would not generalize and say that Christian Scientists are narcissists. I think Christian Science can and does nurture narcissistic personality disorder, and if there are already narcissistic tendencies in a person, it will likely draw them out and refine them. I think it is a religion that would be very attractive to those with narcissistic personality disorder, and it definitely would not heal them of it. After all, in the Christian Science worldview, there is no such thing.
1 “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Psychology Today. 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
3 Eddy, Mary Baker G. “Dedicatory Address of Rev. Mary Baker G. Eddy.” Christian Science Sentinel. 6 Apr. 1899. Print. (from a PDF downloaded from Christian Science: Its “Clear, Correct Teaching” [http://christiansciencecct.org/] – downloaded 19 May 2015)
*The process for publication of testimonies of Christian Science healing includes verification of the testimony by three people who, “know you [the testifier] well and have either witnessed the healing or can vouch for your integrity in sharing it.” (from Christian Science JSH-Online “Testimony Guidelines – Verification”)