Sunday, October 08, 2017

Does faith in God lead to lower or higher self-esteem?

Over at CADRE Comments, there has been some discussion of how religious beliefs may affect self-esteem based on academic studies which found a relationship between skepticism and low self-esteem. I thought the conversation interesting enough that I'd like to continue it here.


On the one hand, the question "What belief leads to highest self-esteem?" has some problems. It sounds as though we're trying to measure the health of faith in God (so far so good) by saying it will always lead to higher self-esteem. But what about narcissists? I've met a few. I expect that mental health would mean an increase in self-esteem for a self-loather, but a decrease in self-esteem for a narcissist. For a narcissist, I think the relaxed self-esteem would be more honest, less aggressive or defensive, more peaceful, and in the end healthier. So raising and lowering self-esteem, in isolation from any context, isn't a good measure of mental health, much less truth.

And then whether a belief system tends to raise or lower self-esteem would depend on what kind of view that belief system as a whole has on humanity, and the value of people. Consider two different belief systems: one teaches that humanity is in the image of God who loves us, and the other teaches that there is a god who is a flying spaghetti-monster (or might as well be) and has no particular bond with us. The stakes are about the nature of the Big Scheme of Things, about whether Reality has meaning and takes an interest in our well-being. So whether a belief system says that God made us in his image, or whether it teaches that any god might as well be a ridiculous monster, it necessarily leads to different views of the value of existing, and of being human.

The Skeptic's Perspective

A skeptic involved in the conversation presents these as sample messages from Christianity:
After all [and since I came from Christianity I will use that as an example], what type of messages does Religion send it's believers?

- I am not worthy of your love, Christ.
- Why do you love me?
- I'm a sinner.
- Jesus died to save my sins, therefore I deserve to burn in hell.
- I must humble myself before the Lord.
- Pride is a sin.
A Quick Point

Before I respond to the skeptic's list -- which really deserves a response -- I'll have to say: I have a suspicion of where our skeptic got those ideas. There are actually some Christians running around who practice self-loathing. Now, I think most Christians generally see the self-loathers as needing guidance, sometimes simply immature, though in worse cases it seems to be a bid for sympathy, hoping for someone to contradict them, which might happen more often if it weren't so manipulative or being used as bait for an argument. But they do their damage and it's more than just their own private form of self-harm.

This conversation started with a study showing that religious people generally have better self-esteem; it's because religious people generally have healthier messages than the ones shown above. But there are those who use religion like a cutter uses the blade in her purse, just a way to draw blood with another round of self-hatred -- and like a cutter can become addicted to the self-inflicted pain with its adrenalin rush. The self-loathers have the same relationship to self-love that an anorexic has to food, and will convince themselves that they have too much of the thing when they're starving for its lack. It's rare, but I think most of us have met a cutter, or an anorexic, or a self-loather. In gentleness (so that we don't make the problem worse) it's necessary that we are still firm when we tell a self-loather: it's not healthy, it's not spiritual, it's not Christ-like. We can show them a more excellent way.

The Bigger Picture

So when we get back to the skeptic, I'm going to work from the point-of-view that this person wants to make an honest argument, and isn't making a deliberate effort to distort Christianity, and may have even come by their distorted view honestly by meeting some self-loathers along the way. Regardless of how that view was formed, it's still a significantly distorted picture.

First let's take a general look at the things the skeptic mentions: they are a mixed collection, not all of them actually taught by Christianity. When it comes to that list, the best I can say is that, even when a particular point may be a message of Christianity, it is still distorted. For example: "Pride is a sin" sure: spend some time with someone who is arrogant and it's clear that pride is the enemy of love. But for the distortion, it omits the fact Christianity teaches that love is the foundation of all morality, that self-love is a good thing: "Love our neighbors as ourselves." We couldn't even begin on Christianity's basic moral teachings without self-love. Other items on the skeptic's list (e.g. "Why do you love me?") aren't teachings of Christianity in the first place. So the writer may have had some private context there, but not knowing that context I can't speak to it. The skeptic has selected things that show how Jesus' teachings lead us away from pride and towards humility, with an unspoken assumption that pride is the same thing as self-love, and that humility is the opposite of self-love. Those assumptions aren't true. We've already discussed pride. Humility is gentle by nature and isn't spiteful or harsh with anyone, least of all ourselves.

When it comes to the question, "Is that a distortion?", we see the most telling point when we compare the things that are mentioned against the big picture of what could and should have been mentioned:
  • "God so loved the world" (etc) is on the short list of most-quoted Christian teachings
  • He loves the whole world which includes each of us
  • We were made in the image of God
  • God considered us worthy of his friendship and compassion
  • Because we are his, we are from a source that is wholly good, and no matter the depths to which we sink, we are redeemable
  • There is joy in heaven over us when we reconcile with God
  • God's own Spirit lives within us
  • We living human beings become the living Temple of God
  • His love is greater than our sin
  • We will be holy and blameless in his sight
  • We will shine like stars in the universe
  • He will wipe every tear from our eyes
  • The point of the kingdom of God is for God to be with us, and us with him
It's tempting to keep expanding the list, but the size of the list isn't the point. The point is how impossible it is to separate the message of God's love from the message of Christianity.

A Distaste for Acknowledging Sin

That's still not the whole picture, though. It's not all about lists and counter-lists and big pictures. Here I speak as a perfectionist: it bothers me that I have any faults. There's a temptation to think that having any real fault makes me unworthy. And there's a tendency to be defensive, to see any suggestion that I have faults as an attack or a threat or a put-down. And it doesn't help that there are people who use it that way. But Jesus was very matter-of-fact about it: "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." If I replace pride with self-love, I can be healed.


Martin LaBar said...

An interesting discussion. Thanks.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for commenting.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF