Religious Legalism: Narcissism’s Petri Dish

Here’s something I’ve been chewing on lately. There is the possibility this will offend some folks out there, but as much as this may remind you of your own deeply held and cherished religious beliefs, I am going to try to stick with generalities – those things organized religious groups of every description have in common. I have friends of many faiths, and have come to believe that certain things transcend culture and religion, especially as practiced by its adherents – not necessarily what the doctrines and holy books present.

It is my position that much of the wisdom and guidance taught by most, if not all, of the major religions is priceless. Many of our society’s laws have their roots in religious principles; these religious principles also provide a framework for addressing conflict and disputes, and even how to identify and deal with evil. A society without the influence of overriding principles would be a society I would not want to be a part of. That said, religion can also contribute to a lot of society’s ills – in this post I will argue that narcissism is often aided and abetted by religion.

In my opinion, the principal link between religion and narcissism is religious legalism.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines legalism as:

strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code <the institutionalized legalism that restricts free choice>”
Where religious legalism flourishes, there are strong parallels to narcissistic family systems. To follow are some of the areas where I see the connection.
  1. Subjugation of a class or group of people (often but not necessarily women) is evident. In a narcissistic family system, you will often see the children having to submit or look after the needs of the parents in some way, or one spouse to the other, but this submission is rarely if ever reciprocated. The parental needs come first, and the children’s needs are secondary (if not off the radar altogether). In a legalistic religious situation, you may see separation (and exclusion) of people by caste, or stringent rules placed on how women are allowed to serve within the religious community or how they are allowed to live within society, to give only a couple of examples.
  2. Emotional manipulation is frequently used as a means of control. In a narcissistic family system, those in “control” frequently use intimidation, fear, guilt, bribery or even “love”, to get their needs met from others in the family (often the kids). In legalistic religious situations, the same occurs; those familiar with the expression “Catholic guilt” know exactly what I mean. Walk the walk, or pay a hefty emotional price; live in constant doubt of your worth as a member of your faith, or as a human being, and live in constant fear of eternal damnation.
  3. Keeping up appearances takes precedence over authenticity. Narcissistic family systems may look perfectly healthy to those on the outside, but the (often guardedly secret) reality is very different, and unimaginably toxic. What matters to those in “control” of the family system is how their children reflect on them. In legalistic religious situations, there are often many rules and traditions, and it is strongly frowned upon to break either of these – and if transgressions are made, they are dealt with in extremes; denial – swept under the rug or even minimized by way of a “loophole” or creative reinterpretation of holy books (typically way out of context), or making a public example of someone, such as stoning someone accused of sexual impropriety with only the word of two “witnesses” as proof. Another example would be coverups by the Catholic church of a priest’s sexual exploitation of members of the congregation (particularly children).
  4. Comparison with others is a common practice. Narcissistic family systems will often use comparison with others as a means of control. For example, some dysfunctional parents (mine, in this example) expect their children to outperform their peers in school – I was threatened with punishment if I achieved even average grades. “We don’t like C’s.” Particularly legalistic religious groups also use comparison as a means of control; they will go to great lengths to demonstrate why relatively unimportant differences between their sect’s beliefs and another’s make them “right” and the other sect “wrong”. Some religious groups also revere “prophets” or “saints” and present them to the faithful as perfect examples of “right living” – some of these stories are truly ridiculous, but to those who believe, they can be either a powerful motivator or a crippling weight.

There are plenty of other parallels out there, but my point is this: where religion is lacking in control, the narcissistic family system takes over, and vice versa. A combination of legalistic religious teachings and narcissistic family dynamics, like my family of origin, is nasty business. Both systems are about control of others, ultimately, often at the expense of the heart of the matter – genuine love and the authentic self.

4 comments on “Religious Legalism: Narcissism’s Petri Dish

  1. There’s a lot to work through if we were raised in narcissistic homes where religion reinforced onerous parental authority over the children. Religion reinforces familial dysfunction when narcissistic parents see themselves as gods and the children are forced to obey—or else……..!! (who’s afraid of going to hell when you’ve lived through hell on earth already?)

    Nice post…very interesting to ponder how religion and the narcissistic family maintain control at the expense of the individual. Of the four areas you listed, this was my experience:

    (1) Patriarchal subjugation of women; (2) manipulation via ‘illegitimate guilt’; (3) the preference of image over truth/reality; and (4) an unhealthy competition for superiority over others.

    All four things you mentioned destroy spirituality because they disconnect us from one another and from ourselves!


    • Thanks CZ – and I have finally posted a link to your blog on my site. (I’ve been following your blog for quite a while and thoroughly enjoy it.)

      I’ve definitely found myself in a spiritual wasteland between my upbringing and the dysfunction it set me up for… But I’ve come to believe that my current state of questioning everything I hear or have ever been taught, spiritually or otherwise, is far healthier than the alternative of blind acceptance.

      Narcissists and legalistic religious leaders kind of want the same thing – compliant sheep who do not ask too many questions.

  2. Thank you for linking my blog—it is a bit of an odd blog, just like the author. ha!

    You wrote: “I’ve come to believe that my current state of questioning everything I hear or have ever been taught, spiritually or otherwise, is far healthier than the alternative of blind acceptance.”

    I agree with you! At one point in my younger life, I was a true believer, never questioning my religion too deeply lest imprisoned dragons be unleashed. You know—those fire-breathing deliverers of certain death to fools who dare question authority. Authority meaning: patriarchal systems of domination whether in the home, in politics, at church. (Have you noticed how the family is a microcosm of the larger structures and that includes organized religion?)

    My most gut-wrenching and frightening revelations during two decades of ‘recovery work’ has involved challenging my unquestioned religious beliefs. For anyone who was not raised in a religiously narcissistic home, they may not be able to appreciate our anxiety questioning what we believe as individuals. I threw everything out at first. Everything—even God. Sometimes, a girl has to empty her entire suitcase and sort through random articles until she finds the ones she needs for the last half of her journey. ha!

    I applaud you for bringing up the topic of religion and the narcissistic family structure. It’s hard to be honest about our ‘religious’ experience without opening ourselves to attack. But if we do NOT question what we’ve been programmed to believe, we aren’t fully human—we might as well be robots with computer chips in our heads.


  3. fascinating analysis!!!!!!!

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