The Religious Selfie

One of the basic underpinnings of religion, almost any religion, is the worship of something or some deity bigger than oneself, and the overt acknowledgment that the individual worshipper is less than the deity worshipped. Some religions even incorporate that acknowledgment as part of liturgy and/or ritual. Such acknowledgments can also be part of “secular religions,” such as Nazism, Fascism, and Communism.

Today, however, there’s a totally different secular religion on the rise, with many of the old trappings in a new form, which might be called the “New Narcissism,” the elevation and exaltation of the individual, or the “self,” to the point where all other beliefs and deities are secondary.

Exaggeration? Not necessarily. What one believes in is reflected in the altars before which one prostrates oneself. Throughout history the altars of the faithful have either held images of a deity, perhaps accompanied by those of less deity, or no images whatsoever. While images of private individuals have also existed throughout history, those images or sculptures were created for posterity, of for the afterlife, so that others would have something to remember them by… or to allow them to remember themselves as they were. At one point in time, only the wealthy or the powerful could afford such images. Even until very recently, obtaining an image of one’s self required either the cooperation of others or special tools not particularly convenient to use. This tended to restrict the proliferation of self-images.

The combination of the personal communicator/camera/ computer and the internet has changed all that. Using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the internet, now each individual has the ability to create themselves as a virtual deity – and tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people are doing just that, with post after post, selfie after selfie, proclaiming their presence, image, and power to the universe [with all three possibly altered for the best effect].

It’s the triumph of “pure” self. One no longer has to accomplish something for this presence and recognition. One can just proclaim it, just the way the prophets of the past proclaimed their deity. And given what positions and in how many ways people have prostrated themselves before their portable communications devices in order to obtain yet another selfie, another image of self, it does seem to resemble old-fashioned religious prostration.

Of course, one major problem with a culture obsessed with self and selfies is that such narcissism effectively means self is bigger than anything, including a deity or a country, and I have to wonder if and when organized religions will see this threat to their deity and belief system.

Another problem is that selfies have to be current; so everyone involved in the selfie culture is continually updating and taking more selfies, almost as if yesterday’s selfie has vanished [which it likely has] and that mere memory of the past and past actions mean nothing. All that counts is the latest moment and selfie. That, in turn, can easily foster an attitude of impermanence, and that attitude makes it hard for a society to build for the future when so many people’s attention is so focused on the present, with little understanding of the past and less interest in building the future… and more in scrambling for the next selfie.

All hail Narcissus, near-forgotten prophet of our multi-mirrored, selfie-dominated present.

10 thoughts on “The Religious Selfie”

  1. D Archerd says:

    Interesting, and goes a long way to explain the inexplicable rise of a presidential candidate who epitomizes self-aggrandizement.

  2. R. Hamilton. says:

    Try feeding google

    idolatry selfie

    and you’ll find that at least some of your concerns have been anticipated for a couple years or more now. Selfies aside, self as idol has been warned about for probably millennia.

    1. It’s been warned about for millennia, as exemplified by Narcissus, but only in recent years have such powerful tools of self-worship been cheaply and easily accessible to tens, if not hundreds of millions of people (not that most of them have ever heard of the myth of Narcissus), and that array of cheap tools, as Frost said in a much different context, “has made all the difference.”

  3. Sam says:

    Is it self-worship or self-expression?

    It’s not something I practice myself but I feel like it’s just something people do because it’s the thing that people do.

    If you are young and all your friends are taking and sharing selfies then you participate. It becomes part of your routine like shaving or brushing your teeth.

    In some cases it’s the modern way of documenting your life in the same way people used to write diaries. When I was a kid every time I tried to start a diary I always gave up because I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write. How many diaries over the years have contained inane entries? Things like “brushed my teeth this morning”.

    1. R. Hamilton. says:

      I was wondering that myself – how much is self-aggrandizement, and how much is just a way to keep in touch with people who probably want to know how you’re doing, without necessarily having to spend half an hour on the phone with them?

      Certainly, with public figures, there’s an element of self-promotion (something they more or less have to do, esp. if they’re independent rather than contracted to a studio or label). Some of the crazies do cross the line into wild bursts of ego of course, but there is also legitimate use.

      A more straightforward concern might be that selfies and quick illiterate text messages or social media posts contribute to the dumbing down of communications, and the increasing lack of analytic thinking on the part of the electorate/public.

      People at work often find themselves spending entirely too much time reading and answering emails (not that it can’t be an efficient tool, but that it usually isn’t). Some workplaces also support internal messaging applications. Perhaps the levels of empty content are often just a response to an overload of other people’s expectations for immediate gratification?

  4. Joe says:

    Yesterday, every piece of software had the names of those who wrote it in its “About” box. Scientific progress was made by small teams, each of member of which had a known name and role.

    Today, corporations prefer nameless teams working together towards the same goal, thereby killing any possibility for the individual to shine. The only names of which we hear of belong to those that did nothing, CEOs, bankers, managers and politicians.

    Yet at the very same time, corporations state they only want “superstars” to work for them. What you did five years ago is now “ancient history”, no longer relevant, ridiculous when true mastery of a craft takes decades.

    Perhaps this is just another way for people to release the stresses of our currently insane civilization… The world cannot abide contradictions.

    1. D Archerd says:

      In my experience, the world is nothing if not continuous abiding of contradictions.

      1. Joe says:

        My reading of history suggests there are fewer when civilizations are rising and more when civilizations are falling. In Physics, and in Nature other than humans, there are very few: contradictions or disequilibria take energy to maintain. That is why we have expressions like the world cannot tolerate a vacuum.

        I am not disputing your experience though: we have rather short lives, and the last 70 years in the West has been peaceful. Like a forest that accumulates dead wood, this has its downsides.

    2. JimEwins says:

      If one’s job is for example writing code, and one would hope that one enjoys his job as worth doing and perfecting…it is then in the production of good code one could take as accomplishment, not in measuring your work with another. Acclaim is often given by those without the ability to judge the value of the work….making acclaim worthless.

      1. Joe says:

        In theory you are right. In practice, ignoramuses do affect one’s life for the worse.

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