The narcissistic revolution

Building on two thousand years of Christian thinking and philosophy, conservative columnist and priest Sørine Gotfredsen has written a bestseller about how narcissism is tearing society apart. The answer, she says, is returning to God

So powerful was the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus that it’s known around the world – the story of a beautiful young hunter who became so obsessively in love with his own reflection that he lost the will to live and ultimately starved to death.

It is a story that has resonated with people since it was first written down in 8 AD. Despite its old age, Sørine Gotfredsen believes its relevance to contemporary readers is more significant than ever before.

“I am convinced narcissism has gotten worse. We live in a world where it has become perfectly acceptable to just focus on the self and, like in fact I do, to live alone. We no longer feel it is necessary to start families, to have children. That it is acceptable to live a solo life.”

In her new book Løft blikket – nåde i narcissismens tid (Look Up – Grace in the age of narcissism), Gotfredsen draws on great thinkers from Martin Luther to Søren Kierkegaard and Descartes to show the reader how questions about the self have been a fundamental part of our philosophical heritage. Luther focused on the personal relationship between the individual and God, the French and American revolutions stressed the need for individual self-determination in politics, while human rights conventions outlined particular universal rights that all individuals should be entitled to.

“This individual age we live in has been coming for a long time. Some would say you can trace it all the way back to Augustine of Hippo, but I started by looking at Descartes, because his philosophy placed individual thinking at its centre and that we must measure and understand the world from that personal perspective.”

Gotfredsen is not opposed to individual thinking, and argues that looking inward is still important. The problem arises when the constant focus on the self becomes a harmful obsession.

“When we are constantly just dealing with ourselves and our needs, our whole life becomes too focused on the self and that makes us less available and present for others. We end up constructing a box that separates us from others and from God. When we get stuck within ourselves we become lonely, unhappy and blind to the needs of others.”

A psychological problem
The book is written in the first person, with Gotfredsen referencing her own experiences. At first glance, this approach seems problematic in a book critical of narcissism. But she claims that was exactly the point.

“Writing about narcissism in that style risks being tragicomic, but I felt it was important for people to understand that I’m also impacted by the illness. We are stuck in this world, no matter how hard it can be. I’m no better than everyone else and I wanted to show that. From the response I’ve received from people that seems to have come across.”

Despite its roots in Greek mythology, narcissism was first popularized as a psychological term through Sigmund Freud’s 1914 essay On Narcissism. In 1968 the term narcissistic personality disorder, was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. The most widely used measure of narcissism, The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), was developed in 1979 by American psychologists, Robert N Raskin and Calvin S. Hall and has been used to test a random sample of US college students since the 1980s.

According to the 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement the results of these tests supports Gotfredsen’s fears – 70 percent of students in college today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than their counterparts in the 1980s.

The book’s author, Professor Jean Twenge, has said in interviews that the rise in narcissism is something we ought to be worried about, as people who score high in narcissism tend to have trouble in their relationships. Furthermore, focus has been shifting from the group to individual rewards, with Twenge claiming that young people today are far more likely to say being well off financially is an important life goal than they were thirty years ago.

God is dead
But while Gotfredsen and the psychiatric establishment agree with the diagnosis of an increasingly narcissistic society and the problems it poses, she doesn’t think the answer lies in psychotherapy. The modern person, she argues, spends too much time enjoying life and its pleasures. Therefore, the problem is not that people don’t know how to live up to their potential and find happiness, but rather the modern person’s inability and unwilingness to identify and take on their responsibilities and duties.

Her solution to tackling the problems faced by the “pleasure-seeking person”, is by reasserting the position of the disciplinarian and authoritarian Christian God.

“We live in a world in which we have abolished God and this has made us lose our sense of duty, this is a lot of what my book is about. Most Danes will say that religion doesn’t matter, but most Danes will also say that there might be a God somewhere, but it is a relationship without any meaning, because it demands nothing, it is just a nice thought.”

She argues that this view of the “lax” God, actually lies in Christianity following the Reformation when the Church adopted a less stringent view on matters of faith, which absolved the individual from the demands that faith had previously placed on them.

“Christianity is not a religion of laws as such. There are no demands for praying a certain amount of times a day. There is only one law in Christianity and that is love thy neighbour.”

Gotfredsen believes that the best way to combat and eliminate our narcissistic tendencies is by understanding our need for a relationship with the Christian God and the law Jesus placed upon us. She wants us to abandon the morality of “convenience”, where decisions are made based on instant gratification, and replace it with a morality of principle, based on Jesus.

Inherent evil
“I have a very black view of humanity. I don’t believe in people’s ability to control themselves, I believe we are fundamentally sinful, in that we are too lead by our need for self preservation and in that lies our potential for evil. Therefore, if we don’t have a universal and higher measurement of what is good, I fear we will move further and further towards selfishness. Then evil will take over.”

Should Gotfredsen’s assertion about the importance of religion to our morality be true, then Denmark is heading for trouble. A Gallup poll this year found that 52% of Danes say they are not religious. However, some evidence suggests that religious curiosity might not be so important. A study published this year in the scientific journal Current Biology showed that children raised in religious homes were less altruistic than children brought up in non-religious homes. Such findings might explain why atheist Scandinavia – 76% of Swedes identify as non-religious – consistently ranks so highly on the Global Peace Index.

Gotfredsen, however, dismisses the idea that morality can come entirely from within, rather than from a higher power – we do not know a world where Christianity and its morals have never existed, she argues.

“We will need God in the future. It is true that we live in a very peaceful part of the world where we have a high standard of living. A part of that is our tradition of criticising religion. Religion is one of the most dangerous things in the world, because it can keep people ignorant and lead to wars and bloodshed, but now that criticism has gone too far.”

The clash with Islam
Gotfredsen fears for the future of Danish society without religion to keep it grounded. We risk losing sight of true meaning in existence and, in the process, become vulnerable to outside influence. Islamic immigration, for example, could completely transform Europe unless Europeans reaffirm the basis of their Christian values, she argues.

It seems highly absurd to think that the Muslim population of Europe – which makes up just six percent of its total population – could ever take over the continent, but it’s a future some right-wing writers have come to believe is a real possibility. In the 2015 novel Submission, by French writer Michel Houellebecq, Islam has taken over French society in 2022, forcing women to wear veils, the Quran has become mandatory curriculum and polygamy has been legalised.

While the work was widely branded as Islamophobic, Gotfredsen says she fears the future he presents – a future where people in the West have become so obsessed with the pursuit of individual pleasures, that they are unable to resist the influence of a more spiritual people.

“In the book, people become so spiritually weak through their love of alcohol, good food and sex, that in the end the French convert to Islam to regain peace. It is like he writes at the end of the novel, it will always be spirituality and existential questions that humans fight over.”

Unsurprisingly, Gotfredsen is highly critical of multiculturalism, arguing that we can’t predict how immigration from non-Western countries will affect Denmark. That when cultures with radically different worldviews are forced to coexist, the result can only be conflict and violence, According to her worldview it is only naiveté that makes us believe that we can create a happy society based around moral and cultural relativism.

“We are different. We need our different roots and to feel that there is something worth fighting for. If I don’t have that, I feel empty. So to the atheist I would ask, do you think it is realistic to drop languages, cultures, and religions? Just look around the world and tell me if you think that works. Our societies have become more vulnerable and our common beliefs are becoming smaller. We have forgotten what our values are.”

Gotfredsen and her book provide important and critical input into a discussion we need to be having. But, ultimately, her position seems frustratingly based on personal bias and nostalgia for a world that was arguably far worse than what we have today. She might not provide us with the answers, but she has raised the questions. M

Features, News

By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson elias@murmur.dk

Facebook comments