The Narcissism Of Small Differences: Freud's Accidental Diagnosis Of The Problem With Atheism Today

In the general public, there is an expectation when discussing the infighting amongst atheists, that there will never be a concrete movement away from God due to lack of cohesion. That because of atheists' insistence on individualism and no clear rank and file, atheism in itself, is a flawed logic doomed to go out of style.

Obviously, the only flawed logic being applied is the assumption that atheism needs a concise rank and file, that it is necessary to form some type of dogmatic guideline in order to succeed. For the gazillionth time, the general public is trying to automatically tie some type of philosophy into atheism, and unfortunately, leaders in atheism are doing so too.

This is the very large error that is the detriment to the atheism movement. Individualism is necessary to being an atheist because the only requirement to be an atheist is a non belief in deities. Everything else that one decides to do as a result of not believing in gods has nothing to do with being an atheist. It has to do with that individual's personal lifestyle choices.

But, the New Atheism and Atheism+ movements seek to tag on guidelines for being a proper atheist. And if you do not conform, you are ridiculed, ignored, or sometimes shunned. This type of behavior is very much puzzling to atheists around the globe, wondering why a difference of opinion on whether religion should be stamped out or permitted would preclude one from one form of atheism versus another. There is only one form of atheism!

The answer to that question was provided by Freud over a century ago. "A narcissism of small differences." This is what plagues the atheists of today.

Freud had coined this phrase after studying some earlier works of a British anthropologist by the name of Crawley. Freud recognized that there was a desire "to achieve a superficial sense of one's own uniqueness, an ersatz sense of otherness which is only a mask for an underlying uniformity and sameness'.

The term appeared in one of his later books entitled Civilization and its Discontents, where it demonstrated the relation to the use of the inborn aggression in man to ethnic conflicts. It should be said that this is a process still considered by Freud, at that point, as 'a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression'.

One would have to ask how harmless this satisfaction is in today's age, where seemingly small differences are tantamount to the rise and fall of a politician's career. Where a conflicting viewpoint entitles an individual to obscene amounts of negative backlash that remains available for public viewing until the internet evolves, yet again, into a different form of communication. Unlike the world of Freud's Victorian atmosphere, we live in an age where all we have are small issues to argue over. Globally, priorities are very much aligned on the same page now, leaving us with smaller conflicts to pick at in order to keep pursuing the ever desired individualism our ego craves.

For those unfamiliar with narcissism, here is a very bare bones definition:

noun: narcissism
  1. excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one's physical appearance.
    synonyms: vanity, self-love, self-admiration, self-absorption, self-obsession, conceit, self-centeredness, self-regard, egotism, egoism More
    "his emotional development was hindered by his mother's narcissism"
    antonyms: modesty
    • Psychology
      extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.
    • Psychoanalysis
      self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.
(Via Google Dictionary)
As a larger analysis, atheism is not inherently narcissistic. It is just a lack of belief. Period. The narcissism comes into play when those who classify as atheist then start applying philosophical and social practices to their identifier to further exemplify their statuses from others.
For some, to be atheist means to be materialist. For others, to be atheist means to be humanist. And even further than that, there are those who treat atheism as meaning to be anti religious. One atheist's crusade to stamp out religion would appear as inhumane to another. An atheist's embrace of evolution can appear as pseudo science to another.
These differences are perfectly acceptable. It is the overriding avarice to be standing out above the rest, and to attain notable recognition for that feat, that a trickier cliff of solidarity is being climbed, and one easily falls into alienation with a single misstep. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and even Dennet, have made the cliff the size of Mount Everest for those of us out there who do not want to reach the apex of such a precipice, but instead maintain a healthy respect for all aspects of secular living in the world while still showing our support.
Are we less atheists because we do not agree 100% with their philosophical or social causes? Of course not. To suggest otherwise diminishes their missions, but somehow, they do no seem to recognize this. Much like the religious, if you do not agree, they seek to convert your views to match their own, or relegate your significance to the larger spectrum of the atheism movement to nil.
Hitchens was frequently known for his abrasive attitude towards atheists who didn't support Israel, and his vitriol to anyone who supported the right to abort. He frequently interchanged humanism, secularism, and atheism, as being identical concepts, and this did the atheist community no favors when trying to garner further understanding in the global community.
There is a sense of moral absolutism brewing in the atheist community. Do we really need to divide our classification of lack of belief into further genus? Feminist atheists, humanist atheists, secular atheists, material atheists, etc.
What do these divisions accomplish? Atheists around the world have seen how divisive the genus of theists are. Shiites vs Sunnis. Catholics vs. Baptists. It goes on and on.
Can we not rise above such things? Be unified in our lack of belief, and quit giving the general public ammunition to tear us down by not allowing our representatives of atheism to conflate atheism with philosophical and moral absolutes. This is the key to help speed along the acceptance of atheism in more communities.
By allowing for such small differences to greatly divide us, our accidentally nominated spokesmen are making us appear as haphazard and disjointed as the very theistic cultures we set out to be apart from.
When will they do the right thing and cease applying extended humanities to a mere classification?

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Comment by Luara on August 14, 2014 at 7:57am

Being atheist does not equate to being pro reason.

One person I knew in college is a paranormally-inclined atheist.  He has contempt for religion, but he likes to entertain a belief in ghosts.  I don't know how seriously he takes it, though.

Comment by Future on August 14, 2014 at 7:48am
"There are those who do not hold belief in a deity, but at the same time acknowledge there could be gods out there - they simply refuse to be ruled by them at all costs."
The way I see it is that that's a form of agnosticism. The atheist does not acknowledge gods, period. The atheist is comfortable with the realization that their being wrong would have no personal consequence because such god(s) wouldn't be concerned with them or anyone else as individuals - but that does not constitute an acknowledgement that there "could be gods." Myself, I am 100% certain that gods do not exist, particularly in the eternal creator sense. If it ends up that our consciousness does survive our physical mortality, and ends up morphing into a 'Borg' or something, then I will admit that I was wrong about what my definition of death is, but that still does not constitute a god in the eternal creator sense.
Comment by Bluegrass Skeptic on August 14, 2014 at 5:57am

"accepting anything without sufficient evident is implicit in our non-belief."

It is not. By making it implicit, you alienate other atheists because sufficient evidence, in itself, is a debatable subject. There are those who do not hold belief in a deity, but at the same time acknowledge there could be gods out there - they simply refuse to be ruled by them at all costs.  Being atheist does not equate to being pro reason. Rationalism does so, but atheism is not the same as rationalism. Apples and oranges.

Comment by jacques lauperr on August 13, 2014 at 8:30pm

I would respond that while being an atheist does not mean we have to conform to anything in particular, it would seem logical to be against any moral dictums that can only be justified if the Abrahamic god does exist. As we atheists do not believe this then abortion, homophobia and accepting anything without sufficient evident is implicit in our non-belief. Unless people can come up with any other reasons to be anti-abortion, anti-gay and to simply believe. Being an atheist if you really think about it is to assert that you are pro-reason. So it is in fact a particular stance with a general world view.

Comment by Bertold Brautigan on August 12, 2014 at 5:04pm

One of the chief lies/misconceptions about us is that without religion, we have no moral grounding. As a result, maybe many of us feel pressure to air our moral philosophies as a sort of compensation or way of addressing that misconception. But there's no need for us to present a "united front" in this regard.

Comment by Bluegrass Skeptic on August 12, 2014 at 4:31pm
Holding certain philosophies while being an atheist and claiming your moral philosophies are atheism are very different things.
Comment by Luara on August 12, 2014 at 1:25pm

There is a pressure to conform to views in the higher ranks of New Atheism.

I've felt pressure to conform on A/N. 

What one can do is to question the comfortable assumptions involved in social conformity.  We are prone to delude ourselves to conform, it's part of the baggage of being human that we can help each other unload. 

If "herding atheists is like herding cats" then cats are more conformist than is generally supposed :(

Comment by Bluegrass Skeptic on August 12, 2014 at 1:12pm

The Flying Atheist - I feel you might have missed where my essay is coming from. Atheism really should not be automatically associated with philosophy. It is a classification. Much like someone is a theist, anti-theist, agnostic, or gnostic. 

Atheism is simply a label. Now when we start tagging philosophies and moralities to the label, we are dividing ourselves into separate genus, though these extras really have nothing to do with the label and separating the label is really unnecessary.

Your example using politics is interesting, but a bit off the mark. Republican clearly has philosophical implications. Atheism does not. It isn't a fair comparison really. Humanism is not innately atheistic either. There are plenty of religious humanists and vice versa. I think it is essential we do not lump philosophies and absolutes with a simple label. By doing so, we further the religious conflation that all atheists are materialists, all atheists want religion stamped out, all atheists trust science, etc. This is simply not true.

As far as conformation, Atheism+ and Hitchens were very strong in the "Us vs. Them" mentality. Hitchens tended to treat dissenters, even fellow atheists that did not agree with his approach, as lesser in intellect and comprehension. That is a type of shunning.

I deal with pressure daily, but I am mostly surrounded by atheists and humanists. Some have accused me of being feminist for my views on women's rights and misogyny, while others see me as a heartless materialist since I do not see human life as anymore precious than a blade of grass. There is a pressure to conform to views in the higher ranks of New Atheism. They are appealing to frustration and emotion, and yes, many folks do gravitate towards them, but many also do not share all of Dawkins' views on evolution, and many do not share in Hitchen's vitriol.

The Four Horsemen set the standard in the public eye. Their fan clubs push for conformity or you get pushed out of the circle. Of course you can still follow the Four Horsemen, but it is exceedingly difficult to be taken seriously when you disagree. It's these little differences that are costing us unity. The agree to disagree compromise is hard to find in these circles, and I feel many outspoken pioneers in today's atheism movement have lost sight of this. I think Tyson had mentioned how all the -ists and -isms end up doing all the thinking for a person, and honestly, some of the comments by Dawkins makes one wonder if they wouldn't prefer doing all the thinking on our behalf, and it would seem many are okay with that. Individuality is being lost in the ranks, and the media and religious groups are seeing this and using it as a further way to discount us. We need to keep philosophies separate from the classification. There are no absolutes in atheism other than lack of belief. Where does one go from there? Wherever they wish because it has nothing to do with atheism.

Comment by Luara on August 12, 2014 at 12:21pm

I said most of the rationale behind making consensual acts into crimes disappears without a divine Eye on people's private lives.  Not all of it.  You can always make arguments such as you did.  But those arguments are weak.  For example, prostitutes in legal brothels don't spread STD's because they get medical checkups.  Legalized prostitution is actually better for the prostitutes and their customers. 

Comment by The Flying Atheist on August 12, 2014 at 12:18pm

Amanda, thanks for the well-written essay.  I agree with the notion that atheism is just one concept - the absence of belief in a god or god.  However after that, where do we go from there?  I think it is a very natural inclination to follow a path with feels comfortable to each of us individually.  That is going to be different for everyone and that's where all these sub-groups come in handy. 

As in politics, if you are a Republican, are you "right-wing" conservative, Libertarian, or moderate?  If Progressive, are you a Democrat, Green, socially liberal but financially fiscal?  With atheism, we have the same types of sub-groups available:  Materialism, Humanism, New Atheism, Atheism+, Anti-theism, etc.  

I'm not sure I've witnessed a general outside force to strongly conform to one of these groups or another.  I have, however, seen some push-back from small groups of individuals who don't wish to be identified with any particular group whatsoever, and that indeed is their prerogative, but they are no means a majority.  Are they feeling pressured to associate with one of the aforementioned groups?  I don't fully know as I don't personally identify as one of those people. 

You mention the Four Horsemen as possible perpetrators who are advancing this notion of compliance.  I actually see the situation in reverse.  Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and Harris are very much in the public eye and outspoken, but I see atheists gravitating toward them instead of being pulled into their circle via recruitment.  An atheist will hear, say,  Dawkins speak and think, "Yes, I agree with him.  He speaks for me.  That's an ideology I agree with."  I personally identify as a secular-humanist and an anti-theist, but have at no time felt I was pressured into those labels.  I also identify as a Feminist, despite being a single, gay man with no children.      


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