Conceit by proxy

This morning I thought I’d take some time to look at the phenomenon of conceit by proxy, one of the major “benefits” with which religions reward their followers. Lo and behold, as if in anticipation of my topic, the always-reliable Chuck Colson has already posted a very nice example of this process in action.

Conceit by proxy is a simple 1-2-3 process. First, you take your own values, beliefs, and agenda, and ascribe them to someone else. God works best for this purpose, both because of His assumed authority and because He never spoils things for you by showing up in real life to express an independent opinion.

Second, you swap roles: instead of admitting that you are ascribing your worldview to God, you claim that you are merely obtaining it from God. Finally, you praise God for having such a really, really swell worldview. Of course, this implies that people (such as yourself) who share this worldview are also really really great, BUT you’re not bragging. Oh no, you’re humbly submitting yourself to God and giving God the glory. So even though you’re really bragging about your own values, beliefs and agenda, you’re doing it in a way that allows you to pose as being humbly submissive.

Chuck Colson gives us a good example of this, in a post on, ostensibly sharing an inspiring story of Jacob DeShazer, an American ex-POW from WWII who became a missionary and went back to “share the Gospel” with his former captors in Japan.

He remembers, “suddenly . . . when I looked at the enemy officers and guards . . ., I realized that … if Christ is not in a heart, it is natural to be cruel. . . . [M]y bitter hatred . . . changed to loving pity.”…

Learning to love our enemies is so important, something every Christian must strive for. But when we’re fighting deadly enemies, as our nation is today at war, doing so is a miracle—a miracle of restoration and healing that can come only through faith in Christ.

Did you catch that? Jesus, the “divine” proxy for Colson’s own beliefs, values, and agenda, is the sole source of things that Colson admires, like loving your enemies and forgiving them. Those who do not have Jesus in their heart (i.e. those who do not share the same proxy) are naturally evil, cruel, and likely to torture the innocent. Jesus (Colson’s proxy) is purely good, and thus those who embrace the beliefs and values Colson projects onto Jesus are, by implication, good also. And anyone who fails to share the worldview Colson projects onto Christ is by nature bad, cruel, etc.

This is conceit, plain and simple. Other religions preach and practice forgiveness too. Nor does “having Christ in your heart” mean you can’t or won’t be cruel. One of the tortures used by the Japanese against American POW’s, for instance, was waterboarding, an extremely nasty practice that conservative Christian leaders have been curiously reluctant to acknowledge as torture, let alone denounce. Or read Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World for a sample of some of the things Christians used to do to “test” old women suspected of being witches. Was Jesus not in people’s hearts back then? Plus, how many Christian leaders have you heard lately who’ve been inspired by Jesus to proclaim their love for Osama and their forgiveness of 9/11?

Colson’s bragging is just that: bragging. Christians are no more (or less) forgiving than any other group, and like most people they are far more likely to forgive their own (e.g. conservatives) than those they oppose (e.g. liberals). Nor does “having Christ in your heart” make you any more or less cruel than any other group. It just means that when you are cruel, other Christians will claim that you’re not really a Christian. Colson talks as though the “saved” were better than other people, but it’s simple conceit, nothing more–conceit by proxy.

It feels good to boast. It’s very satisfying to stand up and say “My ideals and my opinions are the best there is, and anyone who disagrees with me sucks.” But there’s a social cost for boasting: people look down on you if you openly expose your own conceit. By projecting their beliefs onto an absent-but-still-“authoritative” God, believers get to have their cake and eat it too: they get to boast about their own views, while claiming to act out of pure humility. Plus they get the added benefit of being able to claim that anyone who disagrees with them is not denouncing believers, but God! Small wonder, then, that religion remains popular no matter what science learns about the real world.

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