Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Religion, Hatred, and Narcissism

I recently watched a wonderful documentary about Fred Phelps, his family, and their well-known "Church" (hate group), the Westboro Baptist Church.  It was called Fall From Grace.  Virtually everyone has heard of the Westboro Baptist Church and their protests by now.  They are world famous for demonstrating at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan claiming that the deaths of these soldiers are god's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuals.

Homophobia is a form of "overcompensation" used by some males to quell their insecurities about their masculinity.  It is often hypothesized that those who are rabidly anti-gay are themselves repressed homosexuals whose false identities are threatened by the presence of gay people.  It is assumed that such people feel that they must express hatred in order to send a message to the world at large that they themselves are not gay and to vent their fear over the secret temptation they feel.  In addition, they are often thought to be expressing their own self-loathing by focusing it on those who remind them of their secret internal conflict.

All of these things may well be true of Fred Phelps.  Other sources certainly hint at such psychological conflicts within him.  The film doesn't touch on these commonly expressed theories about Mr. Phelps, however.  Instead it presents Mr. Phelps and the Church in a new light.

It seems that Phelps isn't just hostile toward homosexuals; he is hostile toward the whole world and seems to believe that the whole world feels that way toward him.  While it certainly is true that much of the world does feel that way toward him now after his exceptionally offensive campaign of picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers claiming their deaths represent god's vengeance on America for tolerating homosexuals, it seems that Mr. Phelps does not see the connection.

A revealing insight is provided by Fred Phelps' estranged son, Nate, in a telephone interview, when he says that he thinks that his father is addicted to adrenaline--anger induced adrenaline.  He said his father isn't happy until he has had a chance to lose his temper and fly into a rage.  Such an addiction requires a constant supply of enemies to rage against, which pastor Phelps can readily find in the world at large by holding hate filled public demonstrations on an almost daily basis.

Some narcissists feed their need for attention by attracting large amounts of negative attention.  If positive attention isn't readily available, the narcissist is satisfied with negative attention.  Mr. Phelps seems to be just such a person.  An indiscriminate need for attention, whether positive or negative, is not only a classic sign of narcissism, it is also one of the things that makes narcissism pathological in extreme cases.  Sufferers will do things that are harmful to themselves or others in order to get negative attention if that is the only kind they can get.

Even more revealing in general about the narcissism of the religious mindset are the statements of Mr. Phelps and one of his granddaughters concerning their view that the IED's killing America's soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are retaliation by god against American society for a small homemade bomb that some local young men exploded on Westboro Baptist Church's property.  In other words, they see these deaths of soldiers they have never met as being retribution by their good friend and ally, god, against the society they live in for a personal affront to them.

The most important point is that they see god as their personal ally, their supernatural friend who uses his supernatural powers to punish their enemies.  This is hubris on a colossal, pathological scale.

What I find particularly gratifying is that the film documents this phenomenon so well.  This is a mindset that I have encountered many times, yet it often remains hidden.  As a result, many apologists for religion (and even some non-believers) deny that it exists.  My personal experience tells me that it not only exists but is widespread amongst the religious.

The most revelatory portion begins at the 46:22 mark of the video with Phelps' granddaughter, Jael, speaking to an interested onlooker.

Jael:  IED's are the main thing that is killing American soldiers.

Onlooker:  So why are we thanking god for IED's?...

Jael:  Ten years ago the fags set off an IED at our church.  And it says in the bible, the lord says "vengeance is mine.  I shall repay."  Ten years later, you think it's a coincidence that these American soldiers are getting blown up by IED's?  No.  No it's not.  It's not a coincidence, because when you start messing with the servants of the most high god, god is gonna kick your ass.  Period.

To Jael, her fellow church members, and many other religious people, god is simply their scary, psycho friend that they can count on to attack their enemies.  Maintaining this delusion is so important that the facts are stretched to the point where somehow young men and women who have never met, or perhaps even heard of, any of the members of Westboro Baptist are to be punished for something a few young men from Kansas did years ago that frightened the members of the church.

I have seen this sort of insane linkage on numerous occasions when observing or interacting with religious people.  It speaks volumes about the emotional motivation of the religious and their way of thinking.  They have been driven insane by fear.  Fear of death, fear of "others" who aren't like them, fear of the authority figure's disapproval, and so forth.  Yet, when I try to point this out, I am often met with disbelief.  I am glad to have such an explicit example caught on film to use as evidence in the future. 

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