Does Religion Lead to Arrogance?
Many of us know an arrogant person, whether it is the cousin who boasts about her education at family gatherings, the boss who constantly lists her professional accomplishments, the politician who presents himself as the nation’s savior, or the religious leader who looks down on those who do not follow his high standards.
Unfortunately, many of us have been particularly hurt by a religious person who thought that his lifestyle somehow made him superior to others. Why does it seem that so many people who are serious about their spiritual lives have an arrogant attitude? Does religion somehow lead to self-centeredness? Or—might religion, rightly understood, actually offer the greatest solution to the problem of arrogance?
Let us examine what a few religious writings have to say on the subject. Notably, these sources encourage humility and warn against the pitfall of arrogance. Pirke Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers”), one of the most well-known sections of the Mishnah, says, “One who makes his name great causes his name to be destroyed” (1:13).1 In other words, striving to make oneself famous often produces the opposite effect. Similarly, the Bible teaches that “when pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). An arrogant person may work hard to construct a certain image of himself, but sooner or later, his words will be revealed for what they are—empty boasting.
In the New Testament, Yeshua himself criticized religiously fueled egoism. For example, he told a story of two people, one a respected religious teacher and the other, a hated tax collector.2 When the first one prayed, he thanked God that, unlike many others, he was an upright man. In contrast, the tax collector acknowledged his wrongdoing and asked God for mercy. Yeshua then said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14). In other words, boasting about our good deeds and accomplishments may impress some, but it does not impress God, who knows us better than we know ourselves. It is far better to come to God with a sincere heart, humble and aware of our failure to love him and other people the way we ought (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18).
Nevertheless, there certainly are religious people who fail to practice what many religious sources teach about humility. This does not, however, mean that religion itself is the cause of their arrogance. Indeed, there are also many self-centered people who do not follow any particular religious tradition. After all, it is quite easy to fall into egoism when living in a competitive society where cultural pressure pushes us to boast about our accomplishments. For instance, we are taught to craft a winning resume to apply for jobs or schools and make a powerful first impression at the interview. Even in personal relationships, we naturally try to present a positive image of ourselves so that we come across as intelligent, good-looking, and successful.
This instinct, while not religious in origin, may easily flow into one’s spiritual life, manifesting itself as a desire to appear more ethical and devoted than others. Furthermore, religion does not instantly solve all personal issues. If someone already struggles with arrogance, it is not surprising that he would still do so after committing to a religious tradition. As the writings discussed above demonstrate, his attitude toward arrogance should certainly change, but this does not mean that he will never again act arrogantly.
Have you noticed that it is difficult to be arrogant and thankful at the same time? Thankfulness pushes us to think outside of ourselves and acknowledge that we would not be who we are if it were not for the contributions of others in our lives. There is no such thing as a truly “self-made” person, for all of us have people such as family, teachers, or close friends who have encouraged us and helped us along the way.
Above all, we should be thankful to God who created us and enables us to do anything of value (Deuteronomy 8:17–18, John 3:27), and has given us all of the people and opportunities we are afforded in life. A thankful heart is the antidote to arrogance and the source of genuine humility, which is best thought of as when we rightfully credit God as the source of all good things, including any good within us. Embodying that kind of religion—thankfulness to God, humility, and devotion—is what following Yeshua is all about.
- Philip S. Alexander, Editor and Translator, Textual Sources for the Study of Judaism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 58.
- William A. Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide (Peabody, MA: Baker Academic, 2008) 98–105. In first-century Israel, tax collectors were hated and despised for collaborating with the Romans, who controlled the region at the time. Moreover, they often collected more than was necessary and kept it for themselves.