November 1, 2020

There Should Be Far More Conservative Atheists

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Statistically speaking, atheists in the U.S. are more likely to be found on the left side of the left-right dimension of the political spectrum than on the right side. This does not mean that there aren't conservative atheists; it simply means that there are far more liberal atheists. Many liberal atheists have puzzled over the existence of conservative atheists, and this is especially evident when it comes to conservative atheists who usually vote Republican. Ever since the Republican party embraced evangelical fundamentalist Christianity, liberal atheists have expressed confusion over how any self-respecting atheist could vote Republican.

Given the disdain many evangelical fundamentalist Christians have for the separation of church and state, these reactions are understandable. Of course, I suspect that most conservative atheists who vote Republican are not doing so because they oppose secularism but because they do not consider it as high a priority as other issues on which they tend to agree with Republican candidates. This seems like an important idea for those of us who are liberal atheists to grasp if we want to understand conservative atheists.

In this post, I'd like to present one additional consideration that I haven't heard enough about. Instead of asking ourselves, "How could an atheist vote Republican?" I wonder if we should be asking ourselves, "How could a Republican not be an atheist?" Many liberal atheists seem to make the mistake of assuming that atheism is always one's primary consideration while political views are secondary. I've certainly made this mistake. But if politics is primary and atheism is secondary, conservative atheists suddenly seem to make more sense.

Conservatives (and Republicans) are not all the same. They have different opinions on a number of issues. Still, I think we could safely say that most tend to view government-run welfare programs for the poor at least somewhat negatively. Many believe that these programs are wasteful and foster unhealthy dependence, and they often want their elected officials to defund them. At the same time, many conservatives tend to place great value on private wealth. Wanting to reduce aid to the poor and valuing the accumulation of personal wealth are difficult to reconcile with liberal values, but it seems like they would be far more difficult to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament. For a conservative with these values, I would think that atheism might be a more appealing alternative.

Atheism has no "holy" book, prophet, or ethical system. Sure, there are secular ethical systems like humanism; however, they are distinct from atheism. Some atheists are humanists; some are not. It seems to me that one could easily embrace a number of conservative views and be an atheist. In fact, doing so strikes me as requiring fewer mental gymnastics than being a politically conservative Christian is likely to demand.

As a liberal atheist, it is easy for me to oppose the Republican party because I perceive it as a threat to the separation of church and state, secular public education, the environment, labor unions, reproductive rights, and all sorts of other things I care about. But while I have little reason to believe that a historical Jesus ever lived, I can and do find myself agreeing with some of the sentiments he allegedly expressed with regard to how the poor should be treated and how the wealthy should be regarded. For a conservative atheist, it seems like much of Jesus' message would be especially hard to swallow.

Could it be that there aren't more conservative atheists because many conservatives associate atheism with liberalism in much the same way many liberal atheists associate Christian extremism with conservatism? I'm not sure, but it seems like a possibility worth considering. I think it makes good sense to associate the Republican Party with Christian extremism. After all, they have made this association a point of pride at least since 1980. But not all conservatives are Republicans in much the same way not all liberals are Democrats. The presence of conservative atheists suggests that it may not always make sense to link conservatism with Christian extremism.