As Christmas is celebrated this year, thousands of Christians over the world will be offering praise to Christ. But the act of ‘praise’ or ‘worship’, so central to all religions, is something which can make modern, Western minds extremely uncomfortable. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of the central ones is that we feel that any god who demands praise must be a narcissistic tool. In 2009, Catherine Deveny wrote this (pretty entertaining) piece of New Atheist rhetoric where she suggested that the God of ‘monotheistic religion’ suffers from an acute case of narcissistic personality disorder: “a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves (source).” Deveny argues that God’s behaviour is typical of an NPD sufferer (NPD for short):
“[NPDs] expect the best but give very little. They cannot love and have no empathy. But they are emotionally needy and crave attention so hone their skills to attract love, admiration and attention to fill a hole inside them that will never be filled. NPDs don’t feel they exist without an adoring fan club …”
An NPD’s chief fault is that he has a pathological need for praise, because it temporarily numbs a (false and rather tragic) sense of inferiority. So they amass wealth and resources (e.g. political or military power, wealth, fame) and then share out benefits in small amounts to anyone willing to exchange them for some praise or adoration. The practice is distasteful because it’s all entirely self-serving on both sides; the NPD cares nothing for the people around them in themselves because he only wants their adoration. And his followers provide him with praise, not because he deserves it, but because they want what he can give them. Both sides are ultimately in it for themselves and neither of them are being honest about their motivations.
So is this rather sad situation analogous to Christians and their worship of God? Regardless of what some individual Christians think in their private prayer lives, Christianity’s early history reveals a very explicit rejection of the idea that God needs our praise, or that we could receive benefits from Him in return for the praise we offer Him. Why? Because both those ideas were central beliefs of paganism. Pagans, unlike Christians, believed the gods had no innate care for the human race; they were certainly not gods of ‘love’ in the Christian sense of giving without expecting to receive in return. Historian Everett Ferguson says, “There was a common idea in the ancient world that the deities needed the food and drink sacrificed to them. This was especially so in Rome. Sacrifice was thought of as increasing their supply of numen, which would be used up in helping people.” In other words, the pagan gods would (and could) only give you something if you gave them something in return. Pagan prayers were very explicitly aimed at ‘sealing the deal’; a pagan called Valerius Maximus (1st century CE) described the basic principle behind pagan prayers as follows: “By ancient practice, attention is paid to the divine: through prayer when anything requires entrusting to the gods; through a vow when a favour is requested; through a ceremony of thanksgiving when a vow is to be paid …” All pagan prayer is offered with reference to some favour the god has performed. Continue reading