Prof. Sam Vaknin on Religion

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Prof. Shmuel “Sam” Vaknin (YouTubeTwitterInstagramFacebookAmazonLinkedInGoogle Scholar) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited (Amazon) and After the Rain: How the West Lost the East (Amazon) as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction. He was Senior Business Correspondent for United Press International (February, 2001 – April, 2003), CEO of Narcissus Publications (April, 1997 – April 2013), Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician (January, 2011 -), a columnist for PopMatters, eBookWeb, Bellaonline, and Central Europe Review, an editor for The Open Directory and Suite101 (Categories: Mental Health and Central East Europe), and a contributor to Middle East Times, a contributing writer to The American Chronicle Media Group, Columnist and Analyst for Nova MakedonijaFokus, and Kapital, Founding Analyst of The Analyst Network, former president of the Israeli chapter of the Unification Church‘s Professors for World Peace Academy, and served in the Israeli Defense Forces (1979-1982). He has been awarded Israel’s Council of Culture and Art Prize for Maiden Prose (1997), The Rotary Club Award for Social Studies (1976), and the Bilateral Relations Studies Award of the American Embassy in Israel (1978), among other awards. He is Visiting Professor of Psychology, Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don, Russia (September, 2017 to present), Professor of Finance and Psychology in SIAS-CIAPS (Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies) (April, 2012 to present), a Senior Correspondent for New York Daily Sun (January, 2015 – Present), and Columnist for Allied Newspapers Group (January, 2015 – Present). He lives in Skopje, North Macedonia with his wife, Lidija Rangelovska. Here we talk about religion.

*Previous interviews listed chronologically after interview.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Sorry for the delay, folks, and Prof. Vaknin, I had some equine (horsey) matters. For those who would like to see previous sessions with Prof. Vaknin, please see the links at the bottom of this session – 5th of 10 so far, the tedious sessions come in print with footnotes and references, so academic accoutrement; the more flowing, natural sessions come from readings by Prof. Vaknin on YouTube. He reads both interviewer and interviewee text, then interprets and interpolates for education and entertainment. Let’s start on a general question, what defines faith and religion? Lots of extant definitions.[1]

Prof. Shmuel “Sam” Vaknin:Religion is a sublimated (socially acceptable) form of delusional disorder whose contents include a supreme being or power which dictates a code of conduct and sanctions transgressors. Religion is the institutional manifestation of this mental illness, hijacked by psychopaths and narcissists for purposes of attaining power and riches.

Jacobsen: Why is the vast majority of the world beholden to religion or faith, attempts to connect with the so-called transcendent and metaphysical, trying to make their lives isomorphic with their ‘holy’ figures, and so on?

Vaknin:The vast majority of people are in a constant state of anxiety. Religion, mysticism, the occult and affiliated derangements are anxiolytic (mitigate anxiety). They are also forms of escapism from unbearable reality via self-imposed psychotic delusions.

On a deeper level, people use religion and its institutions to constrain evil, antisocial behaviors, and negative affectivity (such as anger and envy). Religion is a pillar of communality and the status quo. Historically, when it had failed in this mission, religion had witnessed the rise of belligerent reformers such as Jesus and Martin Luther.

Jacobsen: Similar to the previous question, though on a different track of thought, what is, and is not, practically useful in religious scriptures, the purported biographies of the lives of religious leaders, and traditional rituals in faiths?

Vaknin: Religion is a mental illness, both individual and collective. The content of its delusions had always been tailored by the elites to rein in the masses.

From the elites’s point of view, religion is, therefore, a useful tool of social control.

From the viewpoint of the masses, it guarantees protections against social unrest, malevolent misconduct, arbitrary subjugation, and injustice. It ameliorates the anxiety and fear that these pernicious social phenomena evoke in individuals and in their collectives.

Religion is indeed “opium for the masses”, but it has its utility in guaranteeing a structured order for all, founded on predictable and reliable ethics and codes of conduct.

Jacobsen: When metaphysicians, religious philosophers, and theologians opine about the existence and attributes of gods, what do these opinions, typically, state about their cognition and reality-testing abilities?

Vaknin: Even renowned scientists, thinkers, and intellectuals can be or become delusional. But it is not as simple as that.

To start with, “religion” is an all-inclusive umbrella term, a big tent. Even among the Abrahamic monotheistic religion, there are vast hermeneutic differences.

The three major monotheistic religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – can be placed on the two arms of a cross. Judaism would constitute the horizontal arm: eye to eye with God. The Jew believes that God is an interlocutor with whom one can reason and plead, argue and disagree. Mankind is complementary to the Divinity and fulfills important functions. God is incomplete without human activities such as prayer and obeying the Commandments. Thus, God and Man are on the same plane, collaborators in maintaining the Universe.

The vertical arm of the cross would be limned by the upward-oriented Christianity and the downward-looking Muslim. Jewish synagogues are horizontal affairs with divine artifacts and believers occupying more or less the same surface. Not so Christian churches in which God (or his image) are placed high above the congregation, skyward, striving towards heaven or descending from it. Indeed, Judaism lacks the very concept of “heaven”, or “paradise”, or, for that matter, “hell”. As opposed to both Islam and Christianity, Judaism is an earthly faith.

Islam posits a clear dichotomy between God and Man. The believer should minimize his physical presence by crumbling, forehead touching the ground, in a genuflection of subservience and acceptance (“islam”) of God’s greatness, omnipotence, omniscience, and just conduct. Thus, the Muslim, in his daily dealings with the divine, does not dare look up. The faithful’s role is merely to interpret God’s will (as communicated via Muhammad).

But the very concept of “god” – which is a narrative, an organizing principle, and an interpretative-explanatory tenet – is not necessarily incompatible with other dominant constructs, such as science. All human systems of thought rely on beliefs, implicit or explicit.

If neurons were capable of introspection and world-representation, would they have developed an idea of “Brain” (i.e., of God)? Would they have become aware that they are mere intertwined components of a larger whole? Would they have considered themselves agents of the Brain – or its masters? When a neuron fires, is it instructed to do so by the Brain or is the Brain an emergent phenomenon, the combined and rather accidental outcome of millions of individual neural actions and pathways?

There are many kinds of narratives and organizing principles. Science is driven by evidence gathered in experiments, and by the falsification of extant theories and their replacement with newer, asymptotically truer, ones. Other systems – religion, nationalism, paranoid ideation, or art – are based on personal experiences (faith, inspiration, paranoia, etc.).

Experiential narratives can and do interact with evidential narratives and vice versa.

For instance: belief in God inspires some scientists who regard science as a method to “sneak a peek at God’s cards” and to get closer to Him. Another example: the pursuit of scientific endeavors enhances one’s national pride and is motivated by it. Science is often corrupted in order to support nationalistic and racist claims.

The basic units of all narratives are known by their effects on the environment. God, in this sense, is no different from electrons, quarks, and black holes. All four constructs cannot be directly observed, but the fact of their existence is derived from their effects.

Granted, God’s effects are discernible only in the social and psychological (or psychopathological) realms. But this observed constraint doesn’t render Him less “real”. The hypothesized existence of God parsimoniously explains a myriad ostensibly unrelated phenomena and, therefore, conforms to the rules governing the formulation of scientific theories.

The locus of God’s hypothesized existence is, clearly and exclusively, in the minds of believers. But this again does not make Him less real. The contents of our minds are as real as anything “out there”. Actually, the very distinction between epistemology and ontology is blurred.

But is God’s existence “true” – or is He just a figment of our neediness and imagination?

Truth is the measure of the ability of our models to describe phenomena and predict them. God’s existence (in people’s minds) succeeds to do both. For instance, assuming that God exists allows us to predict many of the behaviors of people who profess to believe in Him. The existence of God is, therefore, undoubtedly true (in this formal and strict sense).

But does God exist outside people’s minds? Is He an objective entity, independent of what people may or may not think about Him? After all, if all sentient beings were to perish in a horrible calamity, the Sun would still be there, revolving as it has done from time immemorial.

If all sentient beings were to perish in a horrible calamity, would God still exist? If all sentient beings, including all humans, stop believing that there is God – would He survive this renunciation? Does God “out there” inspire the belief in God in religious folks’ minds?

Known things are independent of the existence of observers (although the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics disputes this). Believed things are dependent on the existence of believers.

We know that the Sun exists. We don’t know that God exists. We believe that God exists – but we don’t and cannot know it, in the scientific sense of the word.

We can design experiments to falsify (prove wrong) the existence of electrons, quarks, and black holes (and, thus, if all these experiments fail, prove that electrons, quarks, and black holes exist). We can also design experiments to prove that electrons, quarks, and black holes exist.

But we cannot design even one experiment to falsify the existence of a God who is outside the minds of believers (and, thus, if the experiment fails, prove that God exists “out there”). Additionally, we cannot design even one experiment to prove that God exists outside the minds of believers.

What about the “argument from design”? The universe is so complex and diverse that surely it entails the existence of a supreme intelligence, the world’s designer and creator, known by some as “God”. On the other hand, the world’s richness and variety can be fully accounted for using modern scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang. There is no need to introduce God into the equations.

Still, it is possible that God is responsible for it all. The problem is that we cannot design even one experiment to falsify this theory, that God created the Universe (and, thus, if the experiment fails, prove that God is, indeed, the world’s originator). Additionally, we cannot design even one experiment to prove that God created the world.

We can, however, design numerous experiments to falsify the scientific theories that explain the creation of the Universe (and, thus, if these experiments fail, lend these theories substantial support). We can also design experiments to prove the scientific theories that explain the creation of the Universe.

It does not mean that these theories are absolutely true and immutable. They are not. Our current scientific theories are partly true and are bound to change with new knowledge gained by experimentation. Our current scientific theories will be replaced by newer, truer theories. But any and all future scientific theories will be falsifiable and testable.

Knowledge and belief are like oil and water. They don’t mix. Knowledge doesn’t lead to belief and belief does not yield knowledge. Belief can yield conviction or strongly-felt opinions. But belief cannot result in knowledge.

Still, both known things and believed things exist. The former exist “out there” and the latter “in our minds” and only there. But they are no less real for that.

Jacobsen: Of the arguments for the existence of any god, what ones, in a principle of charity, seem the most reasonable? Of the arguments for the existence of any god, what ones, in ignoring the principle of charity, seem the most unreasonable?

Vaknin:Could God have failed to exist (especially considering His omnipotence)? Could He have been a contingent being rather than a necessary one? Would the World have existed without Him and, more importantly, would it have existed in the same way? For instance: would it have allowed for the existence of human beings?

To say that God is a necessary being means to accept that He exists (with His attributes intact) in every possible world. It is not enough to say that He exists only in our world: this kind of claim will render Him contingent (present in some worlds – possibly in none! – and absent in others).

We cannot conceive of the World without numbers, relations, and properties, for instance. These are necessary entities because without them the World as we known and perceive it would not exist. Is this equally true when we contemplate God? Can we conceive of a God-less World?

Moreover: numbers, relations, and properties are abstracts. Yet, God is often thought of as a concrete being. Can a concrete being, regardless of the properties imputed to it, ever be necessary? Is there a single concrete being – God – without which the Universe would have perished, or not existed in the first place? If so, what makes God a privileged concrete entity?

Additionally, numbers, relations, and properties depend for their existence (and utility) on other beings, entities, and quantities. Relations subsist between objects; properties are attributes of things; numbers are invariably either preceded by other numbers or followed by them.

Does God depend for His existence on other beings, entities, quantities, properties, or on the World as a whole? If He is a dependent entity, is He also a derivative one? If He is dependent and derivative, in which sense is He necessary?

Many philosophers confuse the issue of existence with that of necessity. Kant and, to some extent, Frege, argued that existence is not even a logical predicate (or at least not a first-order logical predicate). But, far more crucially, that something exists does not make it a necessary being. Thus, contingent beings exist, but they are not necessary (hence their “contingency”).

At best, ontological arguments deal with the question: does God necessarily exist? They fail to negotiate the more tricky: can God exist only as a Necessary Being (in all possible worlds)?

Modal ontological arguments even postulate as a premise that God is a necessary being and use that very assumption as a building block in proving that He exists! Even a rigorous logician like Gödel fell in this trap when he attempted to prove God’s necessity. In his posthumous ontological argument, he adopted several dubious definitions and axioms:

(1) God’s essential properties are all positive (Definition 1); (2) God necessarily exists if and only if every essence of His is necessarily exemplified (Definition 3); (3) The property of being God is positive (Axiom 3); (4) Necessary existence is positive (Axiom 5).

These led to highly-debatable outcomes:

(1) For God, the property of being God is essential (Theorem 2); (2) The property of being God is necessarily exemplified.

Gödel assumed that there is one universal closed set of essential positive properties, of which necessary existence is a member. He was wrong, of course. There may be many such sets (or none whatsoever) and necessary existence may not be a (positive) property (or a member of some of the sets) after all.

Worst of all, Gödel’s “proof” falls apart if God does not exist (Axiom 3’s veracity depends on the existence of a God-like creature). Plantinga has committed the very same error a decade earlier (1974). His ontological argument incredibly relies on the premise: “There is a possible world in which there is God!”

Veering away from these tautological forays, we can attempt to capture God’s alleged necessity by formulating this Axiom Number 1:

“God is necessary (i.e. necessarily exists in every possible world) if there are objects or entities that would not have existed in any possible world in His absence.”

We should complement Axiom 1 with Axiom Number 2:

“God is necessary (i.e. necessarily exists in every possible world) even if there are objects or entities that do not exist in any possible world (despite His existence).”

The reverse sentences would be:

Axiom Number 3: “God is not necessary (i.e. does not necessarily exist in every possible world) if there are objects or entities that exist in any possible world in His absence.”

Axiom Number 4: “God is not necessary (i.e. does not necessarily exist in every possible world) if there are no objects or entities that exist in any possible world (despite His existence).”

Now consider this sentence:

Axiom Number 5: “Objects and entities are necessary (i.e. necessarily exist in every possible world) if they exist in every possible world even in God’s absence.”

Consider abstracta, such as numbers. Does their existence depend on God’s? Not if we insist on the language above. Clearly, numbers are not dependent on the existence of God, let alone on His necessity.

Yet, because God is all-encompassing, surely it must incorporate all possible worlds as well as all impossible ones! What if we were to modify the language and recast the axioms thus:

Axiom Number 1:

“God is necessary (i.e. necessarily exists in every possible and impossible world) if there are objects or entities that would not have existed in any possible world in His absence.”

We should complement Axiom 1 with Axiom Number 2:

“God is necessary (i.e. necessarily exists in every possible and impossible world) even if there are objects or entities that do not exist in any possible world (despite His existence).”

The reverse sentences would be:

Axiom Number 3: “God is not necessary (i.e. does not necessarily exist in every possible and impossible world) if there are objects or entities that exist in any possible world in His absence.”

Axiom Number 4: “God is not necessary (i.e. does not necessarily exist in every possible and impossible world) if there are no objects or entities that exist in any possible world (despite His existence).”

Now consider this sentence:

Axiom Number 5: “Objects and entities are necessary (i.e. necessarily exist in every possible and impossible world) if they exist in every possible world even in God’s absence.”

According to the Vander Laan modification (2004) of the Lewis counterfactuals semantics, impossible worlds are worlds in which the number of propositions is maximal. Inevitably, in such worlds, propositions contradict each other (are inconsistent with each other). In impossible worlds, some counterpossibles (counterfactuals with a necessarily false antecedent) are true or non-trivially true. Put simply: with certain counterpossibles, even when the premise (the antecedent) is patently false, one can agree that the conditional is true because of the (true, formally correct) relationship between the antecedent and the consequent.

Thus, if we adopt an expansive view of God – one that covers all possibilities and impossibilities – we can argue that God’s existence is necessary.

What about ontological arguments regarding God’s existence?

As Lewis (In his book “Anselm and Actuality”, 1970) and Sobel (“Logic and Theism”, 2004) noted, philosophers and theologians who argued in favor of God’s existence have traditionally proffered tautological (question-begging) arguments to support their contentious contention (or are formally invalid). Thus, St. Anselm proposed (in his much-celebrated “Proslogion”, 1078) that since God is the Ultimate Being, it essentially and necessarily comprises all modes of perfection, including necessary existence (a form of perfection).

Anselm’s was a prototypical ontological argument: God must exist because we can conceive of a being than which no greater can be conceived. It is an “end-of-the-line” God. Descartes concurred: it is contradictory to conceive of a Supreme Being and then to question its very existence.

That we do not have to conceive of such a being is irrelevant. First: clearly, we have conceived of Him repeatedly and second, our ability to conceive is sufficient. That we fail to realize a potential act does not vitiate its existence.

But, how do we know that the God we conceive of is even possible? Can we conceive of impossible entities? For instance, can we conceive of a two-dimensional triangle whose interior angles amount to less than 180 degrees? Is the concept of a God that comprises all compossible perfections at all possible? Leibnitz said that we cannot prove that such a God is impossible because perfections are not amenable to analysis. But that hardly amounts to any kind of proof!

Is God an external object – or an internal one? Is He a mere voice in our heads – or is He out there? Psychosis occurs when we confuse and conflate our inner world with outer reality. In this sense, all religious prophecy is psychotic and all religious faiths are manifestations of psychosis.

Julian Jaynes (“The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, 1976) was the most forceful advocate of the idea of bicameralism and the bicameral mind: that supernatural revelation was merely how some people experienced a channel of communication between their cerebral hemispheres. Modern day ambient noise, information pollution, stress, and abnormal living conditions in cities served to suppress and extinguish this intracranial exchange, except in cases of schizophrenia. Instead, we developed compensatory introspection, self-awareness, and consciousness

There is, of course, the added problem of false prophecy: how to tell the ersatz from the echt. Most false prophets are not crooks: they sincerely believe in the authenticity of the provenance of their message and mission.

But does all this really matter? Whether these voices are mere hallucinatory neurological artifacts or the true Word of a god is immaterial as long as they affect the lives of millions, as they all too often do.

Jewish mysticism believes that humans have a major role: fixing the results of a cosmic catastrophe, the shattering of the divine vessels through which the infinite divine light poured forth to create our finite world. If Nature is determined to a predominant extent by its contained intelligences, then it may well be teleological.

Indeed, goal-orientated behaviour (or behavior that could be explained as goal-orientated) is Nature’s hallmark. The question whether automatic or intelligent mechanisms are at work, really deals with an underlying issue, that of consciousness. Are these mechanisms self-aware, introspective? Is intelligence possible without such self-awareness, without the internalized understanding of what it is doing?

Kant’s third and the fourth dynamic antinomies deal with this apparent duality: automatism versus intelligent acts.

The third thesis relates to causation which is the result of free will as opposed to causation which is the result of the laws of nature (nomic causation)

The antithesis is that freedom is an illusion and everything is pre-determined. So, the third antinomy is really about intelligence that is intrinsic to Nature (deterministic) versus intelligence that is extrinsic to it (free will)

The fourth thesis deals with a related subject: God, the ultimate intelligent creator. It states that there must exist, either as part of the world or as its cause a Necessary Being. There are compelling arguments to support both the theses and the antitheses of the antinomies.

Jacobsen: You have written on, or have been interviewed about, religion with references to atheism, anti-theism, and agnosticism.[2] In one interview[3], you identify as an agnostic. In an article, you identify as an anti-theist.[4] You defined atheism as a religion or another faith, too.[5] With agnosticism and anti-theism as self-identifications while atheism seen as another religion/faith, what is the current reasoning for agnosticism and anti-theism with more time passing from the words in the publications, if any?

Vaknin: “If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would strictly follow the teachings of the New, he would be insane”

(Robert Ingersoll)

In answer to your question, I would like to incorporate the full text of reference 4 in your question, amended to reflect my current views.

Is ours a post-religious world? Ask any born again Christian fundamentalist, militant Muslim, orthodox Jew, and nationalistic Hindu. Religion is on the rise, not on the wane. Eighteenth century enlightenment is besieged. Atheism, as a creed, is on the defensive.

First, we should get our terminology clear. Atheism is not the same as agnosticism which is not the same as anti-theism.

Atheism is a religion, yet another faith. It is founded on the improvable and unfalsifiable belief (universal negative) that there is no God. Agnosticism is about keeping an open mind: God may or may not exist. There is no convincing case either way.

Anti-theism is militant anti-clericalism. Anti-theists (such as myself) regard religion as an unmitigated evil that must be eradicated to make for a better world.

I am a militant agnostic when it comes to the question: “Does God exist?”. I have reached the conclusion that there is no way anyone could ever answer this question. The query, as posed, is unresolvable in principle. There is no procedure or theorem that could ever lead to its resolution one way or another.

But God is NOT the same thing as religion. Religion consists of an ensemble of rituals and institutions with a social agenda. I am dead set against it. I am a fundamentalist anti-theist, therefore, not only a militant agnostic.

Authors like Tremblay and even Dawkins label religion a swindle and mental terrorism – befitting epithets, fully validated by its gory history. There seems to be an inextricable link between the belief in the afterlife and immorality, rather than morality.

Many authors castigate religion’s intolerance coupled with its ever-shifting philosophical goalposts. Its dogmatism leads to a loss of experiential richness and to negative cognitive consequences to both the believer and his milieu.

Religion scams people with false promises of the hereafter, its texts are objectionable, it is unnatural, and it promotes falsities. In other words, it is a criminal enterprise.

Bogus arguments from design had been dealt with in the works of George Smith, Michael Martin, and Corey Washington: complexity and order do not a design make.

Still, we need to distinguish between established religions and cults or sects. Moreover, theocracy is not merely the rule of religion (lexically correct): in the real world, it is the misuse and abuse of religion by rulers and elites.

The purported existence of God has been scrutinized in a plethora of discoveries, theorems, hypotheses, and theories in the exact sciences and in formal logic.

Consider this example: it can be proven that God cannot and does not exist (“strong atheism”) because having a God leads to either meaninglessness or to contradictions or to both. But this is precisely the Gödel theorem: formal logical systems can be either complete or consistent, but never both.

As Freud correctly noted a century ago, religion is a mental pathology. You cannot rationally argue with people whose judgment and reason are suspended. Distinctions between personal and objective beliefs are lost on delusional fanatics.

Religious people have faith in a god because it fulfills basic and entrenched (and unhealthy) emotional needs – not because its existence can or has been proven. We all – even atheists – hold irrational beliefs to some extent. Religion just happens to be a particularly virulent and insidious strain of irrationality.

Jacobsen: If you survey the landscape, not of the traditionally defined as religious but, of the anti-theists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and the like, what seems like the status of them, e.g., growing and healthy, unhealthy and declining, on the assertive, on the defensive, etc.?

Vaknin:There are emerging battle lines between the regrouping forces of reason and the resurging Dark Ages. This is the real Armageddon that is upon us.

But religion is only one penumbral force which combats rationality and the scientific method. Conspiracy theories; the occult; philosophical schools like deconstruction; political correctness and woke movements; truthism (fake news and misinformation online); the virulent rejection of authority, intellect, and expertise (malignant egalitarianism) – I regard all these as far bigger threats.

Jacobsen: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, comprise the most significant religious populations in the world, in absolute numbers. Yet, social ideologies and political philosophies seem to metastasize into dogmas, as well. What social ideologies and political philosophies seem as if dogmas akin to religions/faiths, and why? These could include political leaders as religious leaders as part of the examples. You have written on Islam and Liberalism, as two examples in comparisonand contrast.[6]

Vaknin: All ideologies mutate into secular religions with their own churches, hagiography, and rituals. Religions are forms of victimhood movements (martyrology) and all social activism and woke movements tend to become dogmatic and exclusionary, with a claim on possessing a monopoly on the truth.

But there is an especially worrisome contemporary development: the confluence of narcissism, oligarchy, and religion.

I coined the neologism “theochlocracy” to describe the noxious mixture of theocracy and ochlocracy (mob-rule). Yet, as distinct from the former, in a theochlocracy, church and state are constitutionally separated. The power is not in the hands of the clergy, but, putatively, in the hands of the people and its representatives. Theochlocracies are often also democracies. Religion – in all its faux-manifestations – is imposed on non-believers and nonconformists by mobs and by populist collectives or organizations who claim to represent “public opinion”.

These self-appointed tribunals seek to enforce mores and values they deem to be “universal” and indisputable (usually by virtue of their divine and epiphanic origins.) Such is the threat implicit in these proceedings that they often result in self-censorship and self-denial on the part of their targets and victims. Bible – or Qur’an – thumping give rise to terror and to the suppression of free speech and unmitigated self-expression. The penalties for transgressors range from ostracism to physical harm.

On the level of individuals, theochlocracy is a form of malignant narcissism.

The narcissist is prone to magical thinking. He regards himself in terms of “being chosen” or of “being destined for greatness”. He believes that he has a “direct line” to God, even, perversely, that God “serves” him in certain junctions and conjunctures of his life, through divine intervention. He believes that his life is of such momentous importance, that it is micro-managed by God. The narcissist likes to play God to his human environment. In short, narcissism and religion go well together, because religion allows the narcissist to feel unique.

This is a private case of a more general phenomenon. The narcissist likes to belong to groups or to frameworks of allegiance. He derives easy and constantly available Narcissistic Supply from them. Within them and from their members he is certain to garner attention, to gain adulation, to be castigated or praised. His False Self is bound to be reflected by his colleagues, co-members, or fellows.

This is no mean feat and it cannot be guaranteed in other circumstances. Hence the narcissist’s fanatic and proud emphasis of his membership. If a military man, he shows off his impressive array of medals, his impeccably pressed uniform, the status symbols of his rank. If a clergyman, he is overly devout and orthodox and places great emphasis on the proper conduct of rites, rituals and ceremonies.

The narcissist develops a reverse (benign) form of paranoia: he feels constantly watched over by senior members of his group or frame of reference, the subject of permanent (avuncular) criticism, the centre of attention. If a religious man, he calls it divine providence. This self-centred perception also caters to the narcissist’s streak of grandiosity, proving that he is, indeed, worthy of such incessant and detailed attention, supervision and intervention.

From this mental junction, the way is short to entertaining the delusion that God (or the equivalent institutional authority) is an active participant in the narcissist’s life in which constant intervention by Him is a key feature. God is subsumed in a larger picture, that of the narcissist’s destiny and mission. God serves this cosmic plan by making it possible.

Indirectly, therefore, God is perceived by the narcissist to be at his service. Moreover, in a process of holographic appropriation, the narcissist views himself as a microcosm of his affiliation, of his group, or his frame of reference. The narcissist is likely to say that he IS the army, the nation, the people, the struggle, history, or (a part of) God.

As opposed to healthier people, the narcissist believes that he both represents and embodies his class, his people, his race, history, his God, his art – or anything else he feels a part of. This is why individual narcissists feel completely comfortable to assume roles usually reserved to groups of people or to some transcendental, divine (or other), authority.

This kind of “enlargement” or “inflation” also sits well with the narcissist’s all-pervasive feelings of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. In playing God, for instance, the narcissist is completely convinced that he is merely being himself. The narcissist does not hesitate to put people’s lives or fortunes at risk. He preserves his sense of infallibility in the face of mistakes and misjudgements by distorting the facts, by evoking mitigating or attenuating circumstances, by repressing memories, or by simply lying.

In the overall design of things, small setbacks and defeats matter little, says the narcissist. The narcissist is haunted by the feeling that he is possessed of a mission, of a destiny, that he is part of fate, of history. He is convinced that his uniqueness is purposeful, that he is meant to lead, to chart new ways, to innovate, to modernise, to reform, to set precedents, or to create from scratch.

Every act of the narcissist is perceived by him to be significant, every utterance of momentous consequence, every thought of revolutionary calibre. He feels part of a grand design, a world plan and the frame of affiliation, the group, of which he is a member, must be commensurately grand. Its proportions and properties must resonate with his. Its characteristics must justify his and its ideology must conform to his pre-conceived opinions and prejudices.

In short: the group must magnify the narcissist, echo and amplify his life, his views, his knowledge, and his personal history. This intertwining, this enmeshing of individual and collective, is what makes the narcissist the most devout and loyal of all its members.

The narcissist is always the most fanatical, the most extreme, the most dangerous adherent. At stake is never merely the preservation of his group – but his very own survival. As with other Narcissistic Supply Sources, once the group is no longer instrumental – the narcissist loses all interest in it, devalues it and ignores it.

In extreme cases, he might even wish to destroy it (as a punishment or revenge for its incompetence in securing his emotional needs). Narcissists switch groups and ideologies with ease (as they do partners, spouses and value systems). In this respect, narcissists are narcissists first and members of their groups only in the second place.

In short:

God is everything the narcissist ever wants to be: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, admired, much discussed, and awe inspiring. God is the narcissist’s wet dream, his ultimate grandiose fantasy. But God comes handy in other ways as well. 

The narcissist alternately idealizes and devalues figures of authority. 

In the idealization phase, he strives to emulate them, he admires them, imitate them (often ludicrously), and defends them. They cannot go wrong, or be wrong. The narcissist regards them as bigger than life, infallible, perfect, whole, and brilliant. But as the narcissist’s unrealistic and inflated expectations are inevitably frustrated, he begins to devalue his former idols. 

Now they are “human” (to the narcissist, a derogatory term). They are small, fragile, error-prone, pusillanimous, mean, dumb, and mediocre. The narcissist goes through the same cycle in his relationship with God, the quintessential authority figure. 

But often, even when disillusionment and iconoclastic despair have set in – the narcissist continues to pretend to love God and follow Him. The narcissist maintains this deception because his continued proximity to God confers on him authority. Priests, leaders of the congregation, preachers, evangelists, cultists, politicians, intellectuals – all derive authority from their allegedly privileged relationship with God. 

Religious authority allows the narcissist to indulge his sadistic urges and to exercise his misogynism freely and openly. Such a narcissist is likely to taunt and torment his followers, hector and chastise them, humiliate and berate them, abuse them spiritually, or even sexually. The narcissist whose source of authority is religious is looking for obedient and unquestioning slaves upon whom to exercise his capricious and wicked mastery. The narcissist transforms even the most innocuous and pure religious sentiments into a cultish ritual and a virulent hierarchy. He preys on the gullible. His flock become his hostages. 

Religious authority also secures the narcissist’s Narcissistic Supply. His coreligionists, members of his congregation, his parish, his constituency, his audience – are transformed into loyal and stable Sources of Narcissistic Supply. They obey his commands, heed his admonitions, follow his creed, admire his personality, applaud his personal traits, satisfy his needs (sometimes even his carnal desires), revere and idolize him. 

Moreover, being a part of a “bigger thing” is very gratifying narcissistically. Being a particle of God, being immersed in His grandeur, experiencing His power and blessings first hand, communing with him – are all Sources of unending Narcissistic Supply. The narcissist becomes God by observing His commandments, following His instructions, loving Him, obeying Him, succumbing to Him, merging with Him, communicating with Him – or even by defying him (the bigger the narcissist’s enemy – the more grandiosely important the narcissist feels). 

Like everything else in the narcissist’s life, he mutates God into a kind of inverted narcissist. God becomes his dominant Source of Supply. He forms a personal relationship with this overwhelming and overpowering entity – in order to overwhelm and overpower others. He becomes God vicariously, by the proxy of his relationship with Him. He idealizes God, then devalues Him, then abuses Him. This is the classic narcissistic pattern and even God himself cannot escape it. 

In a narcissistic culture or civilization, these warped relationships – between individuals, their God, and their institutional affiliation – are magnified. Nowhere is this more true – and is theochlocracy more evident – than in the United States of America (USA).

Jacobsen: As you have written on religion a lot, what needs to happen to religion/faith in a self-centered era for survival of the species?

Vaknin: Narcissism is the new religion. In an age of godlike technological self-sufficiency, everyone is rendered both a deity and a worshipper of themselves. This new religion is distributed: billions of equipotent divine nodes, one man or one woman cults and loci of worship.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Vaknin.

Vaknin: A pleasure as always.

References

Bishop, J. (2016, December 21). Faith. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=faith.

Psychology Today Staff. (2022). Religion. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/religion

Smashwords. (2014, October 19). Interview with Sam Vakninhttps://www.smashwords.com/interview/samvaknin.

Taliaferro, C. (2021, December 21). Philosophy of Religion. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=philosophy-religion

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017, June 16). faith. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/faith

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2021, February 2). religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/religion

Vaknin, S. (n.d.a). Atheism in a Post-Religious World: Book Review. samvak.tripod. https://samvak.tripod.com/atheism.html.

Vaknin, S. (2016, January 14). Islam and Liberalism: Total Ideologies. Medium. https://samvaknin.medium.com/islam-and-liberalism-total-ideologies-2eae7eaeb312

Vaknin, S. (n.d.b). Sam Vaknin’s Instagram Epigrams – Page 4. samvak.tripod. https://samvak.tripod.com/instagramvaknin4.html

Footnotes

[1] “religion” states:

religionhuman beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence. It is also commonly regarded as consisting of the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and their fate after death. In many traditions, this relation and these concerns are expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitude toward gods or spirits; in more humanistic or naturalistic forms of religion, they are expressed in terms of one’s relationship with or attitudes toward the broader human community or the natural world. In many religions, texts are deemed to have scriptural status, and people are esteemed to be invested with spiritual or moral authority. Believers and worshippers participate in and are often enjoined to perform devotional or contemplative practices such as prayermeditation, or particular ritualsWorship, moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions are among the constituent elements of the religious life.

See Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021).

“Religion” states:

Since the earliest humans walked the earth, individuals have wondered where they came from, why they’re here, and what it all means. Religion, by and large, represents society’s attempts to answer those questions. While it isn’t always able to achieve that goal, it often succeeds at providing followers with structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of purpose. The promise of an afterlife, a core tenet of most organized religions, is another key motivator for followers, as this belief serves an important psychological function.

See Psychology Today Staff (2022).

“Philosophy of Religion” states:

Ideally, a guide to the nature and history of philosophy of religion would begin with an analysis or definition of religion. Unfortunately, there is no current consensus on a precise identification of the necessary and sufficient conditions of what counts as a religion. We therefore currently lack a decisive criterion that would enable clear rulings whether some movements should count as religions (e.g., Scientology or Cargo cults of the Pacific islands). But while consensus in precise details is elusive, the following general depiction of what counts as a religion may be helpful:

A religion involves a communal, transmittable body of teachings and prescribed practices about an ultimate, sacred reality or state of being that calls for reverence or awe, a body which guides its practitioners into what it describes as a saving, illuminating or emancipatory relationship to this reality through a personally transformative life of prayer, ritualized meditation, and/or moral practices like repentance and personal regeneration. [This is a slightly modified definition of the one for “Religion” in the Dictionary of Philosophy of Religion, Taliaferro & Marty 2010: 196–197; 2018, 240.]

See Taliaferro (2021).

“Faith” states:

‘Faith’ is a broad term, appearing in locutions that express a range of different concepts. At its most general ‘faith’ means much the same as ‘trust’. This entry is specifically concerned, however, with the notion of religious faith—or, rather (and this qualification is important), the kind of faith exemplified in religious faith. Philosophical accounts are almost exclusively about theistic religious faith—faith in God—and they generally, though not exclusively, deal with faith as understood within the Christian branch of the Abrahamic traditions. But, although the theistic religious context settles what kind of faith is of interest, the question arises whether faith of that same general kind also belongs to other, non-theistic, religious contexts, or to contexts not usually thought of as religious at all. Arguably, it may be apt to speak of the faith of a humanist, or even an atheist, using the same general sense of ‘faith’ as applies to the theist case.

Bishop (2016).

“faith” states:

faith, inner attitude, conviction, or trust relating human beings to a supreme God or ultimate salvation. In religious traditions stressing divine grace, it is the inner certainty or attitude of love granted by God himself. In Christian theology, faith is the divinely inspired human response to God’s historical revelation through Jesus Christ and, consequently, is of crucial significance.

No definition allows for identification of “faith” with “religion.” Some inner attitude has its part in all religious traditions, but it is not always of central significance. For example, words in ancient Egypt or Vedic India that can be roughly rendered by the general term “religion” do not allow for “faith” as a translation but rather connote cultic duties and acts. In Hindu and Buddhist Yoga traditions, inner attitudes recommended are primarily attitudes of trust in the guru, or spiritual preceptor, and not, or not primarily, in God. Hindu and Buddhist concepts of devotion (Sanskrit bhakti) and love or compassion (Sanskrit karuna) are more comparable to the Christian notions of love (Greek agapēLatin caritas) than to faith. Devotional forms of Mahayana Buddhism and Vaishnavism show religious expressions not wholly dissimilar to faith in Christian and Jewish traditions.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2017). 

[2] See Vaknin (n.d.a) about differentiation between the terms and personal anti-theism, Smashwords (2014) about family and himself, and Vaknin (n.d.b) about Ghandi’s earlier life.

[3] “Interview with Sam Vaknin” (2014) states:

Q: What was your family’s attitude toward religion?

A: My parents vacillated between ridicule and disdain and bouts of devoutness. On the average, we were a mildly traditionalist family: selectively observed a few religious commandments and rites. Two of my brothers flirt with fundamentalist Judaism (more charitably known as Orthodoxy). I am agnostic. I do not waste my time on questions the answers to which are, in principle, unknowable.

See Smashwords (2014).

[4] “Atheism in a Post-Religious World: Book Review” (n.d.) states:

Is ours a post-religious world? Ask any born again Christian fundamentalist, militant Muslim, orthodox Jew, and nationalistic Hindu. Religion is on the rise, not on the wane. Eighteenth century enlightenment is besieged. As the author himself often admits, atheism, as a creed, is on the defensive.

First, we should get our terminology clear. Atheism is not the same as agnosticism which is not the same as anti-theism.

Atheism is a religion, yet another faith. It is founded on the improvable and unfalsifiable belief (universal negative) that there is no God. Agnosticism is about keeping an open mind: God may or may not exist. There is no convincing case either way.

Anti-theism is militant anti-clericalism. Anti-theists (such as Tremblay and myself) regard religion as an unmitigated evil that must be eradicated to make for a better world. This treasure of a book – it is incredible how much the author squeezed into 50 pages! – is about anti-theism.

See Vaknin (n.d.a).

[5] See Ibid.

[6] “Islam and Liberalism: Total Ideologies” states:

Islam is not merely a religion. It is also — and perhaps, foremost — a state ideology. It is all-pervasive and missionary. It permeates every aspect of social cooperation and culture. It is an organizing principle, a narrative, a philosophy, a value system, and a vade mecum. In this it resembles Confucianism and, to some extent, Hinduism. Total ideologies are both prescriptive and proscriptive: by prohibiting certain kinds of activities and types of conduct, they cohere the pent-up energies (“libido”) and narcissistic needs of their adherents and channel these forces towards predetermined goals, both constructive and disruptive (or destructive).

Judaism and its offspring, Christianity — though heavily involved in political affairs throughout the ages — have kept their dignified distance from such carnal matters. These are religions of “heaven” as opposed to Islam, a practical, pragmatic, hands-on, ubiquitous, “earthly” creed.

Secular religions — Democratic Liberalism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, Socialism and other isms — are more akin to Islam than to, let’s say, Buddhism. They are universal, prescriptive, and total. They provide recipes, rules, and norms regarding every aspect of existence — individual, social, cultural, moral, economic, political, military, and philosophical.

See Vaknin (2016). 

Previous Electronic ‘Print’ Interviews (Hyperlinks Active for Titles)

An Interview with Professor Sam Vaknin on Narcissistic Personality Disorder

(In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal: June 22, 2020)

Interview with Sam Vaknin and Christian Sorensen on Narcissism

(News Intervention: June 23, 2020)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on the Philosophy of Nothingness

(News Intervention: January 26, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Narcissism in General

(News Intervention: January 28, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Cold Therapy (New Treatment Modality)

(News Intervention: January 30, 2022)

Prof. Sam Vaknin on Giftedness and IQ

(News Intervention: February 2, 2022)

Previous Interviews Read by Prof. Vaknin (Hyperlinks Active for Titles)

How to Become the REAL YOU (Interview, News Intervention)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: January 26, 2022)

Insider View on Narcissism: What Makes Narcissist Tick (News Intervention)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: January 29, 2022)

Curing Your Narcissist (News Intervention Interview)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: January 31, 2022)

Genius or Gifted? IQ and Beyond (News Intervention Interview)

(Prof. Sam Vaknin: February 3, 2022)

Image Credit: Sam Vaknin.

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