Gaslighting for God, Part 6
Narcissism in post-Church Communities
Graphic Credit: BG
In 2007, I was asked by what was then the "edgy" imprint of the world's largest Christian publisher to pen a book satirizing the New Atheists. I hesitated. After all, my beat had been critiquing abuses within Americana Christianity (with an increasing focus on my tribe which was the more progressive mainline church and Episcopalianism in particular). Should I venture out of my lane by satirizing this newly branded anti-God movement?
My initial hunch was to say no. But then I thought back to a recent experience I had at Book Expo when I caught Christopher Hitchens bellowing in all his drunken splendor (I'm being kind here. This event was held at 4pm on a Saturday, the hour when book publishers host their happy hours hoping to get folks sloshed enough to make sales I suppose. And clearly the Hitch got more hammered than most.) Watching the formerly faithful flock praise one of the Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse for saving them from their former fundy faith, I felt like I was watching a reason revival on par with the Christian circuses I had been covering for well over a decade.
So maybe, just maybe there might be something to satirizing the rise of the New Atheists. Also, with The Wittenburg Door closing down, and not enough other offerings on the table that would allow me to do things like pay rent and eat, I said yes to writing this book.
My initial reservations proved to be on spot on. Without going into details, the publication of this book was a nightmare in large part because the publisher who signed me failed to mention he would be leaving said "edgy" book imprint before the book came out to form his own literary agency. Not only was my book left out in the cold and I was published by an publisher that no longer fit with my values, but the subsequent blowback I got from the atheist community told me I should have stayed in my own lane.
Without reliving the past, suffice to say that in my coverage of the rise of secular spiritual communities, I am by no means the only one cyberbullied by those ex-evangelicals who have become transformed into ardent atheists. Along those lines, as reported by outlets such as The Humanist, the growing atheist and humanist movement has its own #metoo movements replete with the types of abuses uncovered by the growing #churchtoo movement.
However, the ongoing media coverage focusing the rise of the "nones" coupled with the growth of humanist chaplaincies, atheist ministers and books focusing on how to live ethically outside of the bounds of institutionalized religious systems, told me there was also something positive to this trend of people seeking to living good without God to quote Greg Epstein, Chaplain at Harvard University. So I continued my quest seeking out signs of secular spirituality, a journey I documented in my book Roger Williams's Little Book of Virtues.
Granted, some ventures appealing to ex-evangelicals such as The Sunday Assembly might not have been to my personal liking. (I tend to prefer communal rituals over the more hierarchical preacher centric events). But with a few exceptions when the local leadership group ran a bit off the rails, I found these gatherings offered healthy alternatives for those who wanted to have a spiritual life sans the Jesus junk or anti-God rhetoric promoted by those on both extremes of this ungodly debate. Among those grassroots-y voices I've been watching in 2022 include Neil Carter, James Croft and Jim Palmer. (Yes, my list is male and white, a sign that tells me there's work to be done within the post-Christian community to lift up diverse voices.)
During a recent phone conversation with Tom Krattenmaker, author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, I asked if he's observed signs of spiritual narcissism among those humanist communities where he's participated in for over a decade. The short answer was, "no." When I asked him to elaborate on his response, Krattenmaker offered this observation. "If you saw some of these grassroots humanist groups, the thought of them becoming narcissistic would be laughable. They're so humble it's not even something that would pop into your head, or that could ever happen."
Having said that, he added there's probably a correlation between the size of the community and the likelihood that spiritual narcissism would develop. After all, there's a desire for any organization to become self-sustaining by growing their membership and hosting events with a good turnout. Given we live in a celebrity driven culture, there's a natural tendency for people to be drawn to those events featuring those with national name recognition. But as Krattenmaker asks,"How much are they willing to sacrifice to grow their organization?"
Before joining any community, Krattenmaker suggests you should look carefully at whether the organization's behavior matches up with its stated principles. "Following a leader is not bad or wrong in and of itself. But I think it becomes very problematic when it's a blind following where people suspend their faculties and their ability to engage in critical thinking. Instead, they're willing to throw aside their principles for the sake of the leader or for the sake of expediency."
While any guru can demonstrate narcissistic traits when given the media spotlight, I've found these tendencies to be especially true among those who promote themselves as a spiritual gurus offering work in sacred sexual healing, tantra, mindfulness meditation, and other practices that connect body to heart. They promote the enticing promise of a new and elevated way of being as long as you subscribes to their particular form of groupthink. Hence, I'd encourage those wishing to play in any community to be mindful of the signs a particular leader is a spiritual narcissist that I illuminated in Part 5 of this series.
In the Gaslighting for God series' final post, I will address signs you've found a healthy secular spiritual community. But before you enter into another community, I'd like to offer some reflections from regarding how you can heal from spiritual traumas caused by those communities led by spiritual narcissists.
To be continued ...
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