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Social Narcissism
The variety and persistence of human self-deception

All Content © Copyright 2007, Paul LutusMessage Page

Introduction |  Individual Narcissism |  Social Narcissism |  The Symmetry Principle |  Religion
Natural Selection |  The Population Paradox |  Decoding Reality |  Conclusion |  References |  Feedback

(double-click any word to see its definition)


Nobody knows anything.

— Screenwriter William Goldman, about the problem of choosing successful movie ideas in Hollywood.

You won't hear this on the evening news, but Western democracies are in the grip of an epidemic of colossal proportions — an epidemic of narcissism. I'm not talking about individuals wallowing in irrational self-regard — that's ordinary narcissism, annoying but relatively harmless. I am speaking of the dangerous and malignant kind of narcissism that replaces reality-testing with grand, empty pronouncements about the value of one's own group, race or political party, and about the certainty of human knowledge.

This article examines the kind of narcissism that orders armies into combat before anyone bothers to think about possible outcomes, the kind of narcissism that seeks, and inevitably finds, a vindicating metaphysical authority whose gravity paradoxically increases with its distance from reality.

Social narcissism represents the dark side of intelligence and communication skills. As humans become more intelligent, as we improve our ability to communicate with others, our prospect for understanding reality increases, but our prospect for massive self-deception increases to the same degree.

We live in a time of great opportunity — we've built an intellectual framework suitable for exploring reality (science), we have the time and resources needed to support the investigation, but we're being held hostage by narcissism and narcissists, who seem inevitably to occupy society's positions of religious, legal and political power. The greatest fear these people have — what I call the "narcissistic panic" — is that science will discredit all conventional sources of authority, requiring everyone to think and choose, as individuals, based on imperfect information. This terrifying prospect is the motivating force behind most anti-scientific and anti-rational activism.

The narcissistic world view is that there is an overarching, transcendental authority that controls the universe, and the purpose of earthly existence is to ally oneself with this authority in order to achieve a position beyond error or reproach. This world view represents a retreat from intellectual freedom, a willing regression to the status of herd animals, of drones. One problem with the retreat is that someone will take charge of the sheep. Another problem is that the authority, the key to the entire system, doesn't exist.

Therefore it seems that narcissistic panic and retreat from freedom inevitably lead to the rise of tyrants. Each of history's tyrants is only one term in an equation that requires other terms — like ignorance, wishful thinking, irresponsibility, and mental laziness.

The antidote to widespread, malignant narcissism is a degree of sincere humility about personal and human knowledge consistent with what we actually know about reality, and what we can safely predict. This humility lies at the heart of science, where there are no absolute truths or laws, and where any theory might be overthrown tomorrow.

The cure for the present epidemic of narcissism is for us to stop lying to ourselves about what we think we know. This article adopts a scientific approach to the issue, not by presenting grand undiscovered truths, but by showing that most of our present knowledge base is constructed on a foundation of sand.

We must not base rational decision-making on mystical laws of universal applicability, because there are no such universal laws. Such "laws" are actually ad-hoc, common-sense choices seen through the distorting lens of narcissism. Our sole advantage over animals rests in our ability to make informed choices, and we should never replace real choice with bogus certainty.

Individual Narcissism

The social narcissism we see around us has its roots in individual narcissism, and because there are dynamic links between individual and social narcissism, we should spend a few minutes examining the individual variety.

Please remember I am not describing everyday narcissism, but a malignant, debilitating form that completely overwhelms an individual by offering escape from the uncertainties of reality. What is technically known as "malignant narcissism" is an infantile coping strategy meant to elevate a person above the kind of humility and susceptibility to error that characterizes any real interaction with nature.

Consider reality from the viewpoint of a budding narcissist. He can either (a) accept the fact that he is a mortal being with imperfect perceptions in an imperfect world and muddle through like a normal person, or (b) invent an imaginary superbeing that has chosen him to carry out a supernatural plan using gifts not shared by ordinary mortals. Guess which path the true narcissist chooses? And guess which human institution perfectly embodies the narcissist strategy? (answers: "b" and "religion")

Narcissists tend to be shallow and unevolved, with a limited grasp of most topics. This results from their unwillingness to ask sincere questions and change their views in response to new sources of information. There is an old saying about education — "The greatest obstacle to learning is the fear of appearing stupid." For a normal person, the discomfort of appearing stupid is more than made up for by the pleasure of learning something new. To a narcissist, mired in self-deception, there's nothing they need to learn, they already know everything, so the discomfort issue doesn't come up.

In the most fundamental way, narcissists are parasites, and like successful parasites in nature, they locate victims who are unable to either identify them or defend against them. In this way, the individual narcissist acquires a malignant social form.

Social Narcissism

At the social level, narcissists tend to be skilled manipulators who trigger and exploit narcissistic impulses in the people around them. Narcissists tend to be ruthless and lacking in empathy, and their dialogue with the rest of the world consists of endless, persuasive rationalizations for their belief system. Based on this game plan and over time, some narcissists make their way into positions of conventional authority — religious, legal, and political. They prefer positions where they can impose simple, inflexible systems of rules on others, and they avoid circumstances where accomplishments matter more than claims.

The primary purveyors of social narcissism are religion and government, and their game plans are trivial but effective. Religious narcissism pretends an association with an invisible superbeing and orders its followers about on the basis of that authority. Governmental narcissism's game plan is even simpler — it finds out what people are going to do anyway, orders them to do it, then takes credit for the result. This means government exists in a perpetual moral vacuum — if citizens think they have the right to to own slaves, government thinks that too. If citizens think women have no rights, that's official government policy.

Sometimes a person gets into government with twisted ideas about its role and limitations, then creates a program based on personal narcissism that conflicts with public sentiment. Such mistakes are common, but citizens quickly forget what such mistakes tell us about the nature of government:

  • Prohibition/Volstead Act (1919-1933). The archetype of narcissistic public programs, enacted with blatant disregard for the true relationship between citizens and government.
  • House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) (1938-1975). This infamous abandonment of democratic principles saw its greatest triumph in a single clinical narcissist named Joseph McCarthy, who managed to appeal to public narcissism and trigger public paranoia at once.
  • War on Drugs (1971-). A controversial program whose only non-controversial point is its complete ineffectiveness in curbing drug traffic, at great public cost. A classic triumph of narcissism over everyday reality.
  • Vietnam War (1965-1975). A war inspired by irrational fears, propelled by inaccurate assessments, and concluded with empty rationalizations. A perfect description of narcissism in public life.
  • Second Gulf War (Iraq II) (2003-). Reminiscent of Vietnam, this is a war initiated and sustained by a platform of outright lies.

If this list of policy failures were the essence of social narcissism, there would be no point to an article like this one. Unfortunately, the problem is not when social narcissism fails, but when it succeeds, when widespread, latent public narcissism sees perfect fulfillment in public policy.

There are many examples of "successful" social narcissism, but in order to make my point, I will focus on just one — the Holocaust (Ha-Shoa). Even though 60 years now separate us from the Holocaust, historians have scarcely begun to understand what the Holocaust reveals about government, about public policy, and about us.

In order to fully understand my point, I ask that my readers examine the Holocaust as separate from the other events of the era — the rise and defeat of Nazi Germany and the imagined triumph of democratic forces. I ask this because the Holocaust was only coincidentally associated with Nazi policies (who exploited public Antisemitism, but did not invent it), and it shouldn't be pictured as a simple crime punished by the defeat of Nazism. The Holocaust rises above these temporal associations and exposes truths about all people of all times.

Social narcissism's failures tell us that governmental policies cannot prevail against the common instincts of common people. But social narcissism's successes tell us something much more disturbing — that governments achieve their greatest power when they recognize and amplify the most uncivilized impulses we hold as individuals. Successful governments publicly appeal to our collective narcissism while privately acting at the tribal level people actually care about.

If the common Germans of the mid-1930s had realized what the new policies meant — that if a specific group could be targeted by government, then any group, their group, might be next — they might have acted against the new regime. But to realize this, the citizens would have to be willing to think critically, as individuals, as well as reject the overtly narcissistic appeal that was the Nazis' primary rhetorical device ("we're superior to everyone else"). In order to think critically, the citizens would have to be (a) educated, (b) perpetually skeptical of government's motives, and (c) immune to narcissistic overtures. None of these things was true.

The Symmetry Principle

There is a useful idea I call "The Symmetry Principle" (hereafter SP) that has deep roots in game theory and logic. SP has an illegitimate stepchild called "The Golden Rule", but this is a weak statement of SP that conceals more than it reveals. In the prior section I said that Germans could have realized a public policy targeting specific groups could be turned against any group including their own, and was therefore dangerous and should be resisted. Had this happend, it would have been an example of SP.

An everyday statement of SP might be, "Don't expect to be treated differently than you treat others." Doesn't that seem self-evident? Perhaps, but I cannot tell you how many people I've met who failed to grasp this basic idea and who suffered as a result. And the biggest group who seem congenitally unable to grasp this principle are ... you guessed it ... narcissists.

To gain some insight into potential real-world survival strategies, logicians and game theorists play computer games and even hold tournaments to compare strategies. One of the most successful strategies is called "benevolent tit-for-tat." In the strategy, a player begins by coöperating (being benevolent), then in subsequent turns he parrots the actions of his opponent — coöperation for coöperation, defection for defection. Surprisingly, in lengthy computer simulations this simple strategy reliably defeats much more complex game plans, and it appears to represent an optimal plan for interactions with others.

It turns out that "benevolent tit-for-tat" is a nearly perfect expression of SP. It's rare — and satisfying — to see a philosophical principle vindicated by scientific research.

I once presented the idea of SP to a man who (I thought) needed to be aware of it. His response was to say, "Life isn't fair." By saying this, he had obviously missed the point I was making, but was he right? Is life unfair? If we think more deeply, the real question is whether events in nature are so random that we can't choose a reasonable coping strategy. At that level, the answer is obvious: life exists. Life exists because conditions in nature are predictable enough to allow natural selection to work, to turn chemistry into biology, to turn biology into music. Faced with the bounty of nature and with the extraordinary fact of our existence, only one kind of person could claim life is unfair — a narcissist, someone for whom everything is unacceptable.

SP is not unique to humans. Examples that honor the Symmetry Principle are regularly found in nature. The article "How Animals Do Business" (Scientific American, April 2005) lists many examples among animals of coöperative behavior with the expectation of reciprocity.

I've introduced SP now because it's pivotal to the ideas expressed in this article, and it makes frequent appearances as we move forward. For those with a particular interest, I have also written a separate, more detailed article on the subject of SP.


The authority of religion, by which I mean conventional, revealed religion, derives in principle from its connection with an invisible superbeing. The authority of government (religion in a modern form) derives in principle from "the consent of the governed". I say "in principle" for both because there is no realistic prospect of proving the existence of an invisible superbeing or of public consent. Because the improbability of proof corresponds perfectly with the narcissist's game plan (alliance with an inaccessible, validating authority), both religion and government are natural habitats for narcissists.

In my prior article "On Believing", I addressed the appeal of religion in the U.S.. Here I will address more basic questions such as the existence of a superbeing and the roots of morality.


The question of God's existence would be easy to dispense with if people could evaluate religious issues without emotion. Absent emotion, the answer is obvious — the Holocaust proves there's no God of the sort most religious believers imagine. Consider the mental state of someone optimistically praying to God for a raise next week — to the same God who allowed six million people to be loaded into cattle cars, starved, and killed. Isn't it obvious that these two statements —

  1. "God allowed the Holocaust."
  2. "God doesn't exist."

— are equivalent and identical? I'm not saying "A, therefore B", I am saying "A and B have the same meaning."

I am sure a theologian somewhere will write and argue that God's allowing the Holocaust doesn't prove He doesn't exist. My answer is that, granted the merits of the argument, it proves He doesn't matter. A God who would allow the Holocaust isn't an active moral agent, and the question of His existence becomes moot.

It is important to point out that discussions of God's existence do not spring from legitimate debating points, because there is not any, nor has there ever been any, evidence for this theological fantasy. Notions of a superbeing spring entirely and solely from the needs of narcissists, people who find reality unacceptable.

This subsection is mercifully short only because the human race can be divided into two primary groups — those who already understand what the Holocaust means, and those who will never understand it. Oh, let's not forget the third group — narcissists — who, being narcissists, will rationalize the Holocaust as somehow fitting into God's mysterious plan.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager basically says it is safer to assume God exists than assume he doesn't. If you assume He exists and He does, he won't punish your infidelity, you've won. If you assume He doesn't exist and He does, He might smite you, or take away your first-born, you know, one of those Biblical punishments. If God doesn't exist, either way you decide, no outcome. So according to Pascal, considering the four possibilities, it's better to assume He exists.

The logic is fine as far as it goes, but it fails to take some things into account, like patiently expecting to be rescued by divine intervention instead of rescuing oneself (personal responsibility). In the Holocaust years, I wonder how many people, after hearing rumors or reports of death camps, waited too long, expecting God to come to their rescue instead of escaping in time (this is not meant to suggest that all Holocaust victims could have escaped).

In light of modern times and events, Pascal's argument deserves to be turned on its head — it's dangerous to assume God exists if He doesn't. It's even more dangerous to replace personal judgment with religious obedience. As I see it, this cancels the argument in favor of Pascal's Wager and leaves the issue open — not the issue of God's existence, for which there is only contrary evidence, but the issue of the wager.


Words like "Morality", "Good", "Evil", and a handful of others are emotionally charged terms meant to cloud our minds, keep us from realizing that moral standards were originally common-sense choices, based on group-interest and self-interest, that were later elevated to the standing of law.

It's perfectly fine to describe them as "moral standards," as long as we don't think of them as divine or immutable. After all, it was once held as a moral principle that a man could own a woman, and kill her if she displeased him. Given this kind of history, we might want to rename them "moral guidelines", but I think readers will see my point — there are no "moral standards" as that term is commonly understood. There are only choices, and the only remaining issue is who chooses.

This leads to a question. If there are no universal moral standards that emanate from divine authority and bind us together, what reason do people have to follow the community behavioral rules that go under that name? Well, the answer should be obvious — the Symmetry Principle, a reasonable expectation of benevolence and reciprocation. But I will go further and say it was always the Symmetry Principle that motivated compliance with community standards, e.g. "morals". The alternative religious explanation — that God's punishments make people obey — confronts human autonomy and is a transparent, narcissistic appeal to imaginary authority.

Natural Selection

When Charles Darwin first hit upon natural selection as an explanation for species diversity in nature, he worried that religious people would recognize its theological implications — that random changes, plus survival of the fittest, explained species diversity more simply than a divine hand — and crucify him. He was so concerned that he delayed publication for twenty years. Finally another scientist (Alfred Wallace) hit upon the same idea and intended to reveal it, which moved Darwin to publish.

No two people could have been more different in outlook. Darwin was a traditionalist, a respecter of authority, while Wallace was a lifelong rebel, indifferent to both tradition and authority. In retrospect it's easy to see which outlook was more prudent — Darwin won worldwide recognition, as well as some of the condemnation he feared, while Wallace (until recently) languished in obscurity.

For reasons lost to history, Darwin understood perfectly what sorts of people occupied (and occupy) positions of social authority. He realized how they would react to the sudden replacement of a top-down, authority-based, explanation of the natural order, with one that functioned at the lowest imaginable level — single cells throwing dice. Today, 150 years later, Darwin's caution is fully vindicated by the ongoing, sterile debate about the validity of his ideas.

The debate is sterile because True Believers can't get scientists to feel their narcissistic panic and loss of control, and scientists can't get True Believers to look at the copious evidence. Yes, it really is as simple as that. Here is a real-world biological issue as seen by True Believers, and by scientists:

The issue:

Antibiotics now exist that can kill bacteria. They are safe to administer and cheap to produce. They might be used to wipe out entire species of bacteria that have plagued mankind throughout history.

As seen by True Believers:

Antibiotics are a gift from God, meant to free us from a plague of infection. Let's apply antibiotics to our war against disease.

God has placed us in a special position with dominion over other creatures, bacteria are creatures, indeed they are the lowest kind of creatures and deserve to die. The prohibition against murder can't possibly apply to bacteria, they are evil pests, let's kill them and free ourselves from the scourge of bacterial infection. It's God's will.

Antibiotics are a good thing, more of a good thing must be better — so let's put antibiotics in hand soap, cattle feed, and diapers.

Let's do it!

As seen by scientists:

The risk in using antibiotics against bacteria widely, without careful controls, is that this will trigger a process of natural selection. According to the theory of natural selection, it will happen this way:

  1. The antibiotics will kill all the bacteria except a minority who are by chance resistant to the antibiotic.
  2. The resistant bacteria will survive, reproduce and eventually constitute the entire bacterial population.
  3. The new bacterial strain will prove to be completely immune to the antibiotic.
  4. This outcome will require us to choose a different antibiotic, the use of which will trigger another process of natural selection, which will breed another, even more robust survivor species of bacteria.
  5. Ad infinitum.

According to the theory of natural selection, all uses of antibiotics are potentially dangerous, and the most dangerous application is in small, weak doses that can only encourage the evolution of resistant bacterial strains. Either Darwin was wrong, or we are asking for big trouble by applying antibiotics to hand soap, cattle feed and diapers.

Let's be very careful!

The outcome:

The worst, most dire, predictions of the scientists are coming true.

  • Staph infections within hospitals and health care facilities are now officially out of control, cannot be halted by any existing antibiotics, and your risk from staph infection is now roughly equal to your risk from AIDS. This situation results directly from past efforts to control staph germs by widespread use of low-level antibiotics in hospital housekeeping, routine procedures and ... hand soap.
  • Drug-resistant TB (Tuberculosis) has returned TB to its historical place as a dangerous scourge, just as it was before the development of antibiotics. In this account, authorities are holding a man against his will to keep him from infecting others with his untreatable strain of TB. The widespread misuse of antibiotics, which produces resistant bacterial strains by way of the theory of natural selection, appears to be the culprit.
  • A recent report links the antibiotics in cattle feed to antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. An effort to stop feeding antibiotics to cattle has been resisted by (a) the cattle producers who want the 5% extra growth that results, and (b) people who won't accept evidence for the theory of natural selection.

Further reading: The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections (FDA)

Most debates between True Believers and scientists involve issues that aren't easily resolved, and that merely reveal the scientific ignorance of the believers, but with no real social harm done. About the theory of natural selection, however, this is false. It's false because believers may sit in positions of authority where their ignorance of the theory of natural selection and of general science may cause them to support dangerous public policies such as those described above.

This problem isn't going to get better. I predict it will get worse, because more and more public issues revolve around science and technology, disciplines where conflicts between science and scripture — between humility and narcissism — seem increasingly likely, and according to these statistics, the majority of society's decision-makers are True Believers.

About the word "theory"

Scientists and True Believers use the word "theory" in completely different ways, leading to a particularly empty debate. To a True Believer, there are only laws — theories are cocktail chatter, of no significance. This is because True Believers live in a top-down world, a world ruled from above, by a succession of higher and higher authorities, until, at the very top, is ... a vacuum (remember the Holocaust?).

Scientists, by contrast, live in a world ruled by evidence — persuasion derives from observation, not position. Because evidence rules, and because someone might uncover new evidence at any time, now and forever, there are no scientific laws, only theories. In science, to declare something a law is to show it the door — a law is immutable, therefore it has no place in science.

Scientists sometimes use the expression "scientific law", but this is a well-intentioned, desperate and unfortunate effort to bridge the wide gap between the scientific and everyday meanings of "theory" and "law". Those not trained in science need to understand that everything in science is a theory, regardless of how well-supported by evidence.

This, by the way, is one reason so few scientists possess strong religious belief. There are others:

  • Religion is authoritarian, but science rejects authority.
  • Religion is built on a foundation of narcissism, but because science requires humility, narcissism is fatal to it.
  • Religion demands faith and certainty, but science demands skepticism and doubt.
  • Religion proclaims, but science questions.
  • In religion, everything hinges on belief — you either believe or you don't. In science, nothing hinges on belief, everything hinges on evidence.

To those who say religion and science cannot coexist, I say nonsense — they can and must. To those who say there is no important distinction between religion and science, I say nice try, but no cigar for you.

The Population Paradox

This section throws a wide net, addressing narcissism, natural selection, parenting and a handful of other issues. For readers of childbearing age, I have a special request — please read the entire section, all the way to the bottom, before deciding what it means to you.

I am perpetually astonished at the choices made by parents, obviously including the choice to be parents. I can't think of a more thorough immersion in narcissism than to hear the rationalizations that lead to childbearing in an overcrowded world. But until recently I didn't understand the childbearing issue in any comprehensive way, only bits and pieces of the whole. My ignorance resulted from not grasping the role of natural selection in the decision-making process itself, apart from its biological connection.

At the height of my population activism, I actually tried to talk individual people out of having so many children. My position was perfectly reasonable, but naïve and logically flawed. That in turn resulted from another paradox (which I will try to avoid digressing into) about intelligent people — they tend to have narrower views than their intelligence might suggest, for the reason that no one in a typical circle of friends can argue as well as they can, leaving them smug and unchallenged on most issues. That's a fair self-criticism.

During that time I watched astonished as people pretended to be environmentalists about everything except population. Why "pretended"? Because population is the only true environmental issue — everything else depends on it. For example, if you achieve a glorious, unbelievable success in a conventional environmental program and make everyone use only half the natural resources they used before, in sixty years that victory will be wiped out by a doubling of the world's population (based on current estimates and the equations listed here).

As to their level of narcissism, I once watched a group of parents (who imagined themselves to be environmentalists) argue the relative merits of cloth versus paper diapers (there are reasonable arguments for both). But I was astonished that, in a large group of educated people during an hour of conversation, not one of them came close to suggesting that the occupant of the diaper might merit discussion as an environmental issue.

Since that day I've realized two things. One, today's human beings are the outcome of a brutal million-year contest for survival, against every other creature in the biosphere. You know — saber-tooth tigers, vicious snakes, crawly dark things, insurance salesmen — anything you can imagine. And they are the ones who survived, red in tooth and claw. So talking about childbearing with these survivors is a fool's errand: it is the one issue they are completely unreasonable about. They can and will rationalize their decision to have children with a glassy-eyed resolve that must be witnessed firsthand. It's narcissism in its purest form.

Second and more important, let's say for the sake of argument there is some point in talking to prospective parents about the population issue, some chance of reducing population by way of intelligent conversation. If this is true, if I meet a sufficiently sensitive, intelligent, reasonable person who might forgo the experience of parenting based on my appeal to intelligence ... what then? Doesn't this mean her biological place will be taken by a less sensitive, intelligent, reasonable person who would probably throw me out of her house on the strength of the same argument?

Because of natural selection, which I have only recently begun to think deeply about, any successes I (or others) might achieve with prospective parents through appeals to their intelligence must necessarily have the effect of reducing the average intelligence of the future population. That is the Population Paradox. It seems rather self-evident when stated this way, and I cannot believe it took me so long to realize it.

Is there any evidence that intelligent people preferentially respond to intelligent arguments against childbearing? Yes, there is — there's a strong, worldwide negative correlation between a woman's educational level and her fertility. I should add that this is a complex issue that addresses the rising status of women and their right to choose, factors apart from a woman's environmental sensitivity.

In concluding this section and with full awareness of the Population Paradox, I want to say yes, population is the only true environmental issue, but no, when thinking about childbearing, individuals shouldn't pay any particular attention to the argument. They should just choose, on their own, using whatever resources nature has given them. They shouldn't let anyone assert that there are better or worse biological sources — only nature can be trusted with that decision, and each of us has an equal right to her attention.

I still feel strongly that population is the only true environmental issue, but I no longer think it's a proper subject for individual appeals.

Decoding Reality

About Science

Science is successful for a number of reasons — it doubts, it reëxamines seemingly closed issues, it guards against hidden assumptions, it focuses on evidence and it ignores authority. But the key to understanding science is to notice that it imitates natural selection.

A successful species in nature is not a top-down form based on a divine blueprint (as religion believes) but a bottom-up form that simply survived when others did not, in an open-air, all-up test, with no preëxisting intention and no grand plan. In the same way, the most fruitful scientific investigations don't make observations to answer theories (top-down), but shape theories to answer observations (bottom-up). (read more here about the meaning of "top-down" and "bottom-up")

This description is somewhat oversimplified — typically, once a theory has been shaped to answer observations (bottom-up), further observations are made to reinforce or falsify the new theory (top-down). But it is rare for a worthwhile theory to appear without prior observations as a basis.

To summarize this point, science efficiently produces theories in much the same way that nature produces species — by linking up with natural processes, dispassionately, without judgment or preconception. Surely the worst form of science is to create a theory, then embark on an investigation focused on uncovering evidence for that theory. This also happens to be the approach that least resembles natural selection.

Everyday Scientists

If we humans were rational beings, science would not exist — what we call "science" would be our normal way of thinking. But at present we are more animals than thinking beings, and we spend only a small fraction of our time engaged in pure, efficient thought. This is why science exists — it's an intellectual crutch, a device to raise us up from a crawling posture. Science will help propel us down the evolutionary path at a speed faster than a crawl, to a point where we achieve the status of rational beings. We will then drop the crutch and walk away, fully ambulatory for the first time.

The greatest obstacle to rational thought is narcissism, the fantasy that we are the perfectly formed, dependent children of an invisible superbeing. We are nothing of the kind — what we are is much more interesting: we are free-willed moral agents in a morally neutral universe.

When we perform an altruistic act, religion tries to claim credit and say it was divine inspiration that made us act that way. But in truth, we entered into a social transaction with a reasonable expectation of reciprocity at a later date, based on the Symmetry Principle. We might get cheated on occasion, but statistically the system works and justifies our behavior, our altruism. No God, no grand system, no overseer, just reasonable behavior and reasonable rewards.

If a person should act selfishly, take more than he gives, he will suffer the consequence that his behavior will be noted and acted on by the other players in the game of life, again on the basis of the Symmetry Principle. As before, no God, no devil, no role for authority, just a human community acting naturally.

A community of human beings, the size of a small village, is perfectly able to regulate itself, reward coöperation and punish defection, without requiring a theological apparatus. But because we humans sit on a fence that separates animals and rational thinkers, visiting both worlds but at home in neither, we can be taken captive by narcissists who persuade us of a falsehood — that we are the offspring of an invisible perfect being who wants us to join Him after death — but at the moment, He needs some of our money.

I know this sounds fantastic, but people actually line up to hear this nonsense, recited by sanctimonious thieves in robes. Some of the victims abandon all common sense and carry out the instructions of the invisible perfect being — instructions delivered by way of His earthly representatives, of course. The most common instruction is some variation on "Kill everyone who doesn't think like us." This pattern is consistent with all that is known about clinical narcissists — they are dangerous people, and the more followers they have, the more dangerous they are.

Proof of the essential irrationality of human beings is that none of the followers stops and says, "Wait a minute, let me get this straight. The Supreme Being, Yahweh, Ruler of the Universe, shaper of mountains and continents, needs my five dollars?"

Religions gain influence by offering supernatural explanations for natural behavior. And like tobacco companies, religions understand the importance of hooking people when they're young. Imagine a parent taking his child into a tobacco shop for a few puffs. Now imagine a parent taking his child into a church for a few prayers. If one of these visits seems less scary than the other, something is seriously wrong, because both exposures leave the victim unable to breathe.

The Role of the Individual

On the one hand, the copious evidence for natural selection reveals that nature is a bottom-up system, a system guided by a handful of simple rules operating at the lowest level. It is also instructive to note that the majority of scientific and technical breakthroughs emanate from individuals, not committees.

On the other hand, advertisers would prefer us all to have the same wants at the same time because it simplifies mass marketing and mass production. Governments would like us to have more shared attitudes and beliefs than we actually have, because it's easier to herd sheep who are already walking in the same direction. Religion, even though it's rapidly falling out of fashion, would like to see more consistency in the stupidity of its followers, unfortunately stupidity doesn't work that way (there is some evidence that perfect stupidity is perfectly random).

I'm not taking sides here — people should do whatever pleases them, and nature appears to be morally neutral. But if we study history, we quickly realize something — people who succeed in leaving the world different than they found it, almost always do so by paying attention to individual pursuits, tastes and ideas.

As to sorting out reality, I obviously cannot say how to do this in a changing world, because any advice I offer will instantly be out of date, and there are no "Secrets of the Winners", no matter how many times people make this claim. I can only say what not to do, and that I can do with a reasonable degree of confidence. Don't let mass organs of public opinion tell you what to think. Don't join organizations that promise to introduce you to God for a modest fee to cover shipping and handling. Avoid people that want to show you how to belong to something, because anything worth belonging to isn't accessible in that way.

I know this will sound like validation of the American Cowboy myth, but the drama of life is played out between you and nature, not you and The Nature Channel. If you leave the world different than you found it, this will almost certainly result from your having personally discovered something in nature that you were able to understand and explain to others. It will almost certainly not result from your joining a mass movement or sitting on a committee.


One day, years ago, I was camped by a lake in Wyoming and a local family came by. As evening came on we got into a conversation about the topics in this article. It turned out the mother was a lifelong fundamentalist, and we got right into it. I explained how she had been kidnapped by narcissists at an early age, but her life, her choices, were her personal moral property, not that of the church (her husband shared my views and kept nodding his agreement during my tirade). It was rude and unwise of me, but this was years ago when I tended to be brutally up front about these topics, face to face. She absorbed what I said with a stunned look on her face, then began to cry. I must say I had never seen that particular reaction before. She said, "I realize you're right, and it means my life has no meaning!"

"No," I replied. "Your life has whatever meaning you choose for it. No experts, no leaders, no shrink-wrapped personalities. Just you and nature." Then I apologized for upsetting her, which I hadn't intended. But on seeing the speed with which she accepted my position, I realized she had already come to a spiritual tipping point and just needed a little push. And there I was, sitting by the lake.

The woman spent the evening wandering around camp, sorting out her life. Then it was time for them to leave. When she got in her husband's truck, she was smiling. As they drove away, I reflected that she had arrived as a citizen and left as a pilgrim.

And ... nobody knows anything.

The Symmetry Principle A deceptively simple idea we all need to understand.
On Believing A prior article on religion in the U.S..
On Being Perfect An earlier article that examines narcissism from a behavioral perspective.
Narcissism A general description (Wikipedia).
Narcissistic Personality Disorder A psychological description (Wikipedia).
Malignant Narcissism The specific variety that fuels religious and political narcissism (Wikipedia).
The Culture of Narcissism Christopher Lasch on the topic of pathological social narcissism (Wikipedia).
Social Narcissism Feedback

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