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Narcissus admires himself in a church window, representing spirituality and narcissism in contemporary society

How Narcissism is Fueling a Modern Gnostic Movement

Contemporary culture is fostering narcissism which is increasingly finding expression in new gnosticism, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle that can lead to pathological outcomes.

Part 2 in a 3 part series. Part 1 is “How Susceptible Are You to the Allure of Divergent Doctrines

Ancient concepts are making a comeback in today’s world. Narcissism and Gnosticism, two age-old ideas, have reemerged in contemporary society. But what happens when these ancient ideologies intersect? The outcome could be a powerful and potentially problematic presence within the realm of fringe religion. This fascinating connection between narcissism and spirituality within the context of Gnosticism warrants careful consideration.

Narcissism Explained

 Narcissism finds its origins in ancient Greek mythology, where the myth of Narcissus stands as a potent symbol of extreme self-love. Over time, this concept underwent further development through philosophical and psychological investigations into excessive self-love, self-identity, self-confidence, and self-awareness. Most current renditions of this concept have been coined as self-compassion, somewhat different and yet still focused on ideologies of the self. In recent years, narcissism has garnered substantial attention and has emerged as a prevalent personality trait in contemporary society. It is marked by an overwhelming self-focus, an inflated sense of self-esteem, an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and an insatiable craving for admiration and validation. In psychological terms, narcissism is also characterized by a tendency to prioritize one’s own needs and desires over those of others, often accompanied by a lack of empathy for the impact on others. While narcissism can be a bit of a “buzz” word in a therapeutic sense (i.e., it tends to be overused for people to describe estranged relatives and ex-spouses), it is important that we extrapolate what we actually mean when we are talking about trends of narcissism or narcissistic tendencies in our contemporary society. On a grand scale, we are using narcissism as a way to describe the general trends in culture that are focusing on the self and the very real consequences that have risen out of that focus.

Social media motivates individuals to seek validation.

This exploration into spirituality and narcissism highlights the modern context of these ancient ideas. The increasing prevalence of narcissistic behavior is significantly linked to the ubiquitous presence of social media. Social media platforms offer individuals a 24-hour virtual stage to present their lives, achievements, and curated images to a broad audience. The continuous validation through likes, comments, and shares contributes to an inflated sense of self-importance. Users tend to carefully manage their feeds, often prioritizing self-presentation over authenticity. In short, social media motivates individuals to seek validation and admiration from others by placing their self-image in the spotlight.

Empirical evidence of the connection between narcissistic tendencies and social media use emerged from a study involving Instagram users. The study revealed a strong link between the frequency and nature of posted content and narcissistic tendencies. Specifically, posts containing a higher number of selfies and attention-seeking content were associated with heightened narcissistic traits like increased perceptions of self-importance, exaggerated sense of entitlement, and focus on the next “social high” This data strongly supports the assertion that narcissism is not solely a psychological concept inherent to an individual but rather a social phenomenon that is developed and exacerbated in the era where it is popular to publicize our individual lives on a grander scale than previous generations. In other words, we’ve encouraged an entire generation to believe that the content of their lunch holds such substantial significance it must be shared with the world in addition to solidifying the notion that their importance is based on public receptivity of such menial aspects of their days.

Gnosticism Explained

Gnosticism emerged during the same era as early Christianity and had diverse origins that spanned Hellenistic, Jewish, and Christian influences. The root word “gnosis” refers to “knowledge.” However, this type of knowledge could only be known through individual experience of transcendence (or God) and was, specifically, an internal experience for an individual. It was believed to unveil insights into the divine, the human soul, and the structure of the universe. Gnostic teachings frequently challenged the established beliefs of the time and contributed to significant theological debates within early Christian communities.

A recent article explores a renewed influence of Gnostic tendencies within fringe beliefs of some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The author highlights the conflict between personal revelations and the authority of church leaders, emphasizing the importance of aligning personal revelation with prophetic teachings. This specific example highlights the notion that knowledge does not come from external sources but rather through individual experience with the divine. The author warns: “Our culture’s obsession with “authenticity” and personalized truth, along with confusion about scriptural principles of revelation, have made many vulnerable to detrimental ideas that weaken our faith and connection with God.”

These individuals present themselves as above the ordinary.

While Gnosticism primarily falls under the realm of religious and philosophical concepts, and narcissism pertains to psychological traits, it is intriguing to note that these two seemingly distinct ideas share common themes. These themes revolve around the longing for special knowledge, the questioning of established authority, and the influence of one’s ego. Examining these shared elements reveals a significant intersection, especially in the context of our contemporary Latter-day landscape.

The intersection of Gnosticism and narcissism may, at first glance, seem an unlikely pairing. However, upon closer examination, there are intriguing commonalities between these seemingly disparate phenomena. Both Gnostic beliefs and narcissistic tendencies share a desire for special knowledge, tend to challenge established authority, and manifest through ego and self-importance. A well-meaning person may take up what they perceive to be an important mantle for the gospel but instead, make it about what they personally know to be true rather than trusting established authorities like the prophet and apostles. In such cases, they are prioritizing themselves over everything else to enable and justify acting on personal enlightenment. Examples of this phenomenon tend to exist on a spectrum. More in the fringe (but increasingly moving towards more popular areas) would entail ideas surrounding spiritually elite knowledge, such as exclusive information about the timing of Christ’s return or enlightened insight into biblical prophecies and higher laws that exclude or dismiss prophetic leadership. Additional, more central examples of this can include individuals professing to have enlightenment about human sexuality that contradicts taught doctrines. Regardless of where a person exists on the spectrum, a common thread is that they are not shy about challenging religious authority, inspired hierarchy, and established doctrines, asserting a deeper and more personal relationship with the divine. Often, these individuals present themselves as above the ordinary, unique, and special; this inclination echoes a hallmark of narcissism rooted in gnostic foundations.

The impact of ego and self-importance is evident in contemporary society, where self-focused individuals exhibit this inflated sense of worth on social media and other available platforms. The manufactured attention and admiration blur lines between spiritual authority and personal ego, further accentuating the connection between Gnosticism and narcissism. On social media, YouTube, and within private Facebook groups, individuals prone to these tendencies may be drawn into the promised access that preys on vulnerabilities. There’s an allure to being part of a spiritually elite group, where hidden truths are revealed, which creates communities and media that promote such beliefs, finding validation, attention, and a sense of superiority in their association with these exclusive circles. It can become addictive and disruptive to relationships and healthy functioning. While seeking a place to belong can be incredibly valuable for a person, a key red flag for these types of detrimental groups can be their need to put others down in order to elevate their own sense of knowledge and power. This idea of “we know better than everyone else”.

There’s an allure to being part of a spiritually elite group.

The intriguing intersection of Gnostic tendencies and narcissism within the realm of religion offers a compelling perspective on the quest for specialized knowledge, the challenge to established spiritual authorities, and the manifestation of ego and self-importance. These two phenomena underscore the intricate interplay between spirituality, personal validation, and the modern digital age. The influence of this convergence becomes apparent in how individuals with narcissistic inclinations engage with Gnostic ideologies, seeking to satisfy their spiritual and psychological needs while projecting an image of exclusivity and self-importance. This intersection, though complex, provides a unique vantage point from which to explore the dynamics of belief and self within our ever-evolving religious landscape. Understanding these phenomena is vital, as they have the potential to significantly impact individuals and communities, potentially leading to various pathologies.

In examining the disconcerting headlines involving members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their involvement in criminal activities and juxtaposing it with the intersection of Gnostic tendencies and narcissism, a common theme emerges—the potential for distortion and deviation from the core principles of faith. These distortions reveal a delicate balance between genuine spirituality and a very real potential for individuals to develop narcissistic tendencies by which they can justify skirting known parameters for spiritual revelation and guiding doctrines.

 We have received extensive counsel on these matters, and in our next article, we will delve into potential remedies, addressing a need for constructive solutions.

 

About the authors

Carol Rice

Carol Rice is the president of Skyline Research Institute and the Director of Communications for Public Square Magazine, a joint project of the Elizabeth McCune and the John A. Widstoe Foundation. She earned a BA in marriage and family relations with an emphasis in family advocacy from BYU-I. Carol and her husband Scott live in Alpine, Utah.

Brianna Holmes

Brianna Holmes graduated with a degree in Marriage, Couples, and Family Counseling and is currently a practicing counselor in Utah. Her area of interest is how professionals can focus on the agentic nature of human beings in therapeutic practices. She and her husband are parents to four beautiful children.
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