The Problem of Self-centeredness and the Paradox of Religion

Religious teachers have been battling egoicism for centuries.

Posted Feb 11, 2018

I started this blog ("Toward a Less Egoic World") to focus on two central themes – first, that many of the personal and social problems that plague human life are rooted in people's pervasive tendency to be excessively self-centered and, second, that we can minimize many of these problems by promoting a less egoic world. This is, of course, not a novel insight; people have been discussing the problem of self-preoccupation at least since the beginnings of recorded history, long before psychologists started adding their two cents to the discussion.

As evidence that people have recognized the problem of excessive egoicism for millennia is the fact all major religious traditions share the conviction that egoic preoccupation is a major impediment to moral living and admonish their followers to be less egoic. Various religions construe the problem differently, but they agree that excessive egoicism is a primary contributor to a wide array of antisocial behaviors, "sinful" actions, and social strife. And, they all maintain that their devotees should take steps to work on their self-centeredness.

This theme can be traced to the earliest written records in Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and indigenous religions probably held this view even earlier. The major religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have likewise confronted the problems that arise when people behave egoically.  Whatever one’s personal religious orientation – whether you are a theist, pantheist, atheist, or agnostic – the fact that religious visionaries throughout history have wrestled with the problems created by self-preoccupation is both intriguing and potentially informative.

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Most religions agree that egoicism creates two distinct problems. First, most religions link self-centeredness to sinful thoughts and behaviors. Being self-focused, self-centered, and selfish leads people to act without regard for the well-being of other people. In most religions, self-centeredness, selfishness, and pride are singled out as particularly evil attributes. And, conversely, most religions teach that the spiritual person is “selfless,” although they often aren’t clear on exactly what that means.  

Second, most religions teach that paying too much attention to oneself interferes with spiritual insight and connecting with the divine. Of course, various traditions construe spiritual insight in different ways, but most religions regard excessive self-focus as a hindrance to making contact with God and pursuing other spiritual goals. According to the teachers of almost all religions, spiritual truths are difficult to discern when people are excessively focused on themselves. 

Most religious and spiritual traditions not only view excessive self-preoccupation as an impediment to moral behavior and spiritual insight, but they also offer ways to counteract its negative effects. In fact, religion itself may have arisen, at least in part, as a system for counteracting the undesirable personal and social effects of excessive self-preoccupation.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam tend to confront these problems by admonishing believers to change the nature of who they are. Although differing in specifics, these traditions agree that people can transform their sinful selves through faith, rituals, divine intervention, or diligently following moral commandments. Western religions try to change people’s selfish nature so that they will obey moral directives and live ethically.

The major Eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, and Jainism – as well as many indigenous religions, tend to use a different approach. Rather than trying to change or control the person’s beliefs and behaviors directly as the Western religions do, these traditions generally try to reduce people’s self-preoccupation. These religions have moral precepts that should be followed, but the assumption is that quieting the egoic self will reduce self-centeredness and selfishness, leading the person to behave in a more moral and compassionate way.

Thus, Eastern traditions tend to use self-quieting practices such as meditation and yoga to minimize egoic thinking, leaving the mind clearer to perceive spiritual insights and removing the source of selfish behavior.  Other practices take the opposite approach.  Rather than calming the mind, believers subject themselves to sensory overload through chanting, drumming, dancing, or physically painful activities, all of which reduce the capacity for self-relevant thought. A person in the throes of ecstatic dancing, drumming, or chanting can not easily dwell on his or her  selfish desires.

Although most religious and spiritual traditions recognized the problems associated with egoic self-thought long before psychologists arrived on the scene, ironically, the institutions and dogma that accompanied the development of organized religion also created a new venue for egoic beliefs and actions.  Even while teaching about the evils of self-centeredness and urging their adherents to reduce self-preoccupation, organized religion often encouraged followers to view their own beliefs as superior to everyone else’s, to condemn those who did not share their views, to force their views and practices on others, and even to go to war against those who disagreed with them.  The fact that teachings and practices that initially arose to counteract the evils of egoic preoccupation led to systematic and widespread increases in egoic thought and action is undoubtedly one of the greatest paradoxes of human history.