“The Psychopath Test” applied to evangelical Christianity

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Kai Winn is an amazing villain

Kai Winn is an amazing villain

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating book

The Psychopath Test is worth the time to read. Jon Ronson, the author, took Hare’s standardised test (Hare, 1991) comprised of 20 questions, each scored from 0–2, and applied this test to a number of corporate CEO’s and other such leaders. The prevalence of psychopathy is around 1% in the general population (Coid, 2009), but since psychopaths tend to be very goal-driven and often very successful, they show up at even higher rates in the upper echelons of business or politics or other such endeavours.

The author’s idea was that a lot of the bad things that happen in the world are due to a lot of greedy, power-hungry, scary people, and these people suffer from psychopathy. And this becomes apparent when they end up in places like CEO’s offices at major financial institutions, bankrupt them, break the law and yet still demand large bonuses, for example.

This dovetails nicely with some of the things that I’ve recently read in a couple of other books. I just finished reading Harperland (a book about the rise and consolidation of power in Canada under the Harper regime) and The End of Wall Street (a book about the people and policies that brought about the 2008 financial crisis), and I’ll let you make your own guesses about who I suspect of psychopathy now.

Psychopathy and religion and Deep Space Nine

While reading through the book, one of my first reactions (after the obligatory, “I hope I’m not a psychopath!” response) to the descriptions of the psychopaths was that they reminded me of Kai Winn. My apologies for making an obscure Star Trek reference, but Kai Winn is one of the best recurring characters in Deep Space Nine. She’s a power-hungry hypocrite of a religious leader. What’s great about her, is that she’s not a typical villain—there are shades of grey in her character—she can charm and manipulate you at times into thinking she is not the bad guy. But in the end, she’s a pathological liar with a grandiose sense of self-worth, who has no ability to empathise with others or feel remorse or guilt. When she lashes out at her political enemies, it’s not out of the passion of emotion. It’s cold. Calculated. She’s just very good at mimicking certain behaviours to benefit her own self-interest.

Modern evangelicalism would make a great hiding place for a psychopath

I think that psychopaths like Kai Winn exist in real churches in real life. Evangelical Christianity would be a great place for a psychopath to “hide out,” especially at the top of a modern evangelical mega-church. Let me explain.

Item 1 on the psychopath checklist (PCL) is “glibness or superficial charm.” Psychopaths, when you meet them, are very like-able. They have an ability to ape the emotions of normal people, and they are often very successful at speaking publicly and in very endearing ways. They are good at telling jokes and influencing other people. The pulpit would be very attractive to certain psychopaths.

Item 2 on the PCL is “grandiose sense of self-worth.” What better place to have your ego stroked for your entire life than in a church where you can be taken seriously when you say things like, “God placed it on my heart to tell you …” or “God gave me a vision that …” Evangelicals eat that stuff up. Even if it’s ridiculous, if you say something like that at a prayer meeting or Bible study, you’ll never hear anyone say, “God didn’t tell you that. You made that up.” I guarantee it.

In this way, a psychopath could claim the authority of God Himself and it wouldn’t even seem strange to anyone else there. I know I have personally witnessed a great many people saying things like that (none of whom I would suspect to be psychopaths), but many examples of such behaviour I would have called manipulative (which turns out to be item 5 on the PCL). Even stranger claims—that God has given explicit instructions, foresight or the like—have been made by evangelical Christians in high positions of leadership, and sometimes more famously (e.g. Harold Camping) and sometimes less famously, these turn out to be lies. (Pathological lying is item 4 on the PCL.)

Item 13 is “lack of realistic long-term goals.” A psychopath who said that he wanted to “change the world for Christ,” or that he was “sent by God to call the nation back to Him” would not raise any eyebrows among evangelicals.

Item 6 is “lack of remorse or guilt,” item 7 is “shallow affect,” and item 16 is “failure to accept responsibility for own actions.” If you want a good excuse for not feeling remorse or guilt and for not taking responsibility, you can hardly do better than “Jesus died for my sins, so I shouldn’t feel guilty about them.” A spiritual leader who skips over his own personal failures without missing a beat could attribute it all to the grace of God, and this wouldn’t raise suspicion in the slightest.

Item 8 is “callous / lack of empathy.” You might not think this would go very well with Christianity, but modern evangelical Christianity can have a very pronounced mean streak. Just talk to one of today’s neo-Calvinists—a disciple of Piper’s or Driscoll’s—and I can guarantee you that they will all-too-gladly be able to explain why it is very good news that a literal physical hell of eternal conscious torment awaits those who do not accept Christ. Or think about the drive to “win” people through evangelism—it is highly praised among evangelical Christians. Imagine a psychopath who goes around telling complete strangers that they’re going to hell unless they say a prayer, and more-or-less treats them as objects to be collected and scared into submission, in a display of a complete lack of empathy. If the psychopath was able to do it with the requisite amount of charm and sophistication, this person would likely become a superstar in a local evangelical church in short order.

Item 9 is “parasitic lifestyle.” Among young evangelical males looking for a potential wife, one of the most often cited criteria is that the wife must have “a servant’s heart.” When you ask most evangelicals what they mean by that, they usually don’t have anything quite as misogynist as this initially sounds like it would mean. That said, if there was a psychopath hiding among evangelicals, he could honestly say, “I want a wife who has a servant’s heart,” and mean that he plans to take advantage of her for her entire life.

Item 11 is “promiscuous sexual behaviour”, item 17 is “many short-term marital relationships,” item 12 is “early behaviour problems,” item 18 is “juvenile delinquency,” and item 20 is “criminal versatility.” These four might seem difficult for a psychopath hiding among Christians to mask, but then there’s nothing an evangelical likes more than a shocking conversion story. Evangelicals teach their children from a young age to polish and prepare their “testimonials” (story of how one became a Christian), and visiting guest speakers at a church often begin their testimonials by waxing eloquent over the depths of their depravity before their conversion. What this means is that for an evangelical, a history of sin and evil can be spun into the mark of a great dispensation of the grace of God. A clever psychopath could very easily convert a fairly clear mark of their mental illness, “early behavioural problems,” into a compelling part of his conversion story.

All you have to do is find a person who has all the character traits I described above, and you’re already at a score of 28 out of 40 on the PCL. Generally speaking, 30 is the “cut-off” that’s generally used for research purposes to say that someone is likely to be a psychopath, although pretty much everyone agrees that psychopathy occurs along a spectrum, and every case is, of course unique. But it’s remarkable to think that a person could not only get away with having all these classic marks of psychopathy, but actually use them to his advantage and rise to considerable influence within a church because of them.

An exercise for the reader

  1. Choose a public figure. Here’s a few suggestions:
    • Steve Jobs
    • Mark Driscoll
    • Mitt Romney
  2. Look up Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (it’s on Wikipedia, I think)
  3. Using quotes from the figure you choose, make your best argument that the public figure in question is, in fact, a psychopath
  4. Post what you find in the comments, if you like!
  5. For bonus points: what are the dangers/downsides that might be associated with using a psychopathy checklist to decide who is a psychopath and who isn’t?

Weird thing about the copy of The Psychopath Test that I borrowed from the Bibliothèque Nationale

The ebook was formatted weirdly. I think that every single page in the book was an image—a picture of the published book, rather than a text file. I couldn’t increase the font size, and I couldn’t select text on the page, which would make sense if it was actually just a series of images of text. It was a little hard to read on the Kobo due to the tiny font, but zooming in on every page on my Kobo was a frustrating and terrible prospect, so I just sucked it up and read the tiny text on each page.

Just weird is all.

Works cited

  • Ronson, Jon (2011). The Psychopath Test. United Kingdom: Picador.
  • Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.
  • Coid, Jeremy et al (2009). Prevalence and correlates of psychopathic traits in the household population of Great Britain. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 32:2, pp.. 65–73.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2013-3288,
    title = {“The Psychopath Test” applied to evangelical Christianity},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2013-03-6,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/03/06/the-psychopath-test-applied-to-evangelical-christianity/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "“The Psychopath Test” applied to evangelical Christianity" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 06 Mar 2013. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/03/06/the-psychopath-test-applied-to-evangelical-christianity/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2013, Mar 06). “The Psychopath Test” applied to evangelical Christianity [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/03/06/the-psychopath-test-applied-to-evangelical-christianity/

When is a Christian not a Christian?

by

Breivik

Breivik

In the wake of the attacks in Norway on July 22, a lot of ink has been spilled with regard to how we should think about Breivik. Is he a terrorist or is he just a mass-murderer? Is he a madman or is he a responsible for his actions? Further, it is a matter of great debate how we should think of his right-wing political views and how we should think about his profession of Christianity. I have read a number of articleseditorials and tweets that all say the same thing: Breivik is not a Christian.

I’m not going to enter the debate about whether he’s a Christian, or to chide us all for the hypocrisy of associating terrorism done by Muslims with Islam, while letting Christianity “off the hook” for terrorism done by Christians, as pertinent as such debates are, and as much as I find commentary on latent racism in news media interesting. (I have honestly never seen so much news coverage regarding a person’s hair colour and eye colour before in my life!)

More interesting to me is another question that has been raised in my mind by this crisis and the scramble to distance Breivik from Christianity. Namely, When is it acceptable to unilaterally declare that another person is not a Christian? I’m not talking about cases where a person says of herself, “I am not a Christian.” I’m talking about when another person sees someone who has claimed to be a Christian at some point in her history, and makes a judgement based on her actions or words that she is not a Christian, in spite of the person’s profession of faith.

Without loss of generality, and hoping not to get bogged down in a debate about this particular person, let’s take Breivik as our exemplar case. As far as I know, the term “Christian” has been applied to him on the basis of his blond hair, blue eyes, a Facebook profile attributed to him, and possibly the contents of a manifesto he left behind before his attacks. So, we could say that, on some level, he has claimed to be a Christian.

Let’s imagine for the sake of argument that Breivik believed that Christ died for his sins, and that by trusting in Jesus’ name, he would be in right relationship with God, and yet he still committed these terrible attacks. I think we would still have the same sort of “he’s not a real Christian” reaction even if he could articulate the gospel as clearly as Billy Graham.

But is it acceptable for someone to assess Breivik by his actions, say “This does not accord with Christianity,” and then unilaterally judge him to be outside of God’s elect?

In an effort to figure out what Christians would take as justifying a judgement that someone is not a Christian, regardless of that person’s profession of faith, I have composed a table of putative sins, whether they are non-controversially wrong, and whether or not I think Christians would be comfortable with unilaterally assessing a person guilty of that sin as being a non-Christian.

This is admittedly not very scientific, as I am relying on only my own personal experience and anecdotal evidence here, and you may have different experiences of Christians. That said, I think the first 7 rows are fairly non-controversial, and the others could be defended.

Putative sin Moral status Moral status according to agent Would a Christian be comfortable with a unilateral judgement that the agent is not a Christian?
Compulsive lying Wrong Wrong No
Gossiping Wrong Wrong No
Selfishness Wrong Wrong No
Cheating on taxes Wrong Wrong No
Rudeness Wrong Wrong No
Failure to help the poor Wrong Depends No
Alcoholism Wrong Wrong No
Left-wing politics Debatable* Right Sometimes
Right-wing politics Debatable* Right Sometimes
Homosexuality Debatable* Acceptable Yes
Abortion Debatable* Depends Yes
Belief in evolution Debatable* Right Yes
Divorce Debatable* Depends Yes
Breivik’s attacks Wrong** Necessary Yes

* I have indicated these as “debatable,” because there is a significant proportion of Christians on either side of the debate. I do not indicate whether I believe the debate is legitimate or not.

** I have indicated Breivik’s actions as “wrong” here despite Breivik’s claim that his actions were necessary because I can think of no one besides Breivik who would argue that his actions can be morally defended in any way.

What is interesting here is that it is the “sins” that are most political and in which we arguably have the least amount of consensus on what is right that Christians are most comfortable with unilaterally declaring a person to be not a Christian. In cases like selfishness, gossiping, or tax evasion, even though everyone, including the sinner, agrees that it’s wrong, we have a hard time saying, “you aren’t a Christian.”

You would think that if a sin is non-controversially wrong, regardless of the size of the sin, if a person is living in that sin unrepentantly, that would make Christians very comfortable with unilaterally judging such a person to be a non-Christian, regardless of their profession of faith. (Note that I’m not talking about people who have committed an offence and have repented and are now trying to live better lives. I’m talking about people who are currently living in their sin, whether they admit it’s wrong or not.) But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

So then, you might think that it’s the “bigger” sins that make us more likely to reject someone as a Christian: Sins like abortion or Breivik’s attacks end lives, and that’s why we reject such sinners as Christians at all—if they were real Christians, the Holy Spirit would have stopped them from committing those sins in the first place, right? But then that doesn’t explain why I have seen people rejected as being a Christian just for voting Liberal or why just the endorsement of homosexuality or the belief in evolution—regardless of any action at all—is enough to make people question one’s position before God.

Further, failure to help the poor is a terrible sin in Christianity. It was enough to make God destroy the city of Sodom. (Ezekiel 16:49) It’s also hard to sustain the notion that alcoholism is a “small” sin. And yet I think Christians would be very uncomfortable publicly tweeting that a person who throws out a request from a charity for a donation to the poor was not a Christian, or that an alcoholic is not a Christian.

I think the difference between the “Yes” and the “No” sins in my table is not the enormity of the sin, or certainty regarding the person’s salvation or anything like that. Rather it’s whether the issue is one where Christians feel like they need to draw a strong “us” vs. “them” boundary either because there is genuine moral uncertainty, or because of the politics of a particular issue.

When it’s just a matter of personal morality, we just don’t talk like that. After all, it isn’t constructive toward actually helping a person get over his selfishness to tell her, “You are not a Christian. You’re too selfish.”

I think the “genuine moral uncertainty” thing is not a necessary condition for the “he’s not a Christian” reaction, but I think it’s important to note. We don’t have to worry about anyone actually coming out as having a pro-selfishness position. Some moral positions are intuitively clear, and so we don’t have to haul out the “big guns.” Other moral issues, like homosexuality, abortion, divorce, etc. are ones that could generate genuine moral uncertainty, and so we need people to be afraid to come down on the wrong side of the issue. If your belief in evolution becomes a salvation issue—if you know that people will tell you that you’re going to hell for it—then you will think long and hard before you come out as an evolutionist.

The attacks by Breivik were non-controversially wrong—there was no moral uncertainty—but I think that the “he’s not a Christian” reaction happened because the issue was political, and Christians felt a need to draw an “us” vs. “them” line that excluded him. Perhaps Christians were rightly afraid that they might be treated the way they treated Muslims for the last ten years.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-1996,
    title = {When is a Christian not a Christian?},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-07-29,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/07/29/when-is-a-christian-not-a-christian/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "When is a Christian not a Christian?" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 29 Jul 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/07/29/when-is-a-christian-not-a-christian/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Jul 29). When is a Christian not a Christian? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/07/29/when-is-a-christian-not-a-christian/

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