For many people, the idea of a conservative atheist seems like an oxymoron. One explanation could be that we mostly see popular atheist activists speaking out politically over progressive issues like marriage equality or abortion rights for women. Opponents of these issues, who generally identify as conservative, tend to use religious arguments to back their positions. Plus, conservatism is associated with authoritarianism and dogmatic tradition while atheism certainly is not. In any case, the term “atheist” has been politicized over the years, when in fact, it describes a philosophy that has nothing to do with partisan politics.
It’s certainly true that atheists tend to be more liberal and identify with the Democratic Party more naturally. However, that doesn’t mean that conservatives can’t occupy a place within this movement as well.
This debate surged in the past week after the group American Atheists was disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). According to The Christian Post, the atheist group said, “We want to bring the message to CPAC that there are millions of conservatives out there who are turned off and alienated by the conservative movement’s close ties to dogmatic religious beliefs.”
While the numbers to back this claim are not staggering, there is some truth to the statement. According to a recent Pew Forum survey, 19 percent of conservatives are unaffiliated with any particular religion, and 14 percent of atheists identify as conservative.
It’s obvious that atheist and freethinking groups are making efforts to reach out to those not typically affiliated with the movement, but conservatives are apparently not willing to do the same which was made abundantly clear by the actions of CPAC.
All hope is not lost, however. One day, conservatives will be more open to accepting individuals with diverse religious beliefs. In the past few years we have seen more and more popular conservative commentators and political pundits coming out about their lack of belief in a personal god or in tenets of organized religions.
In an interview with The Daily Caller, conservative commentator and Fox News political analyst Charles Krauthammer talked about his religious beliefs: “There was once a philosopher who said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I fear him greatly.’ That’s about where I am,” Krauthammer told the outlet. “I’ve had a fairly difficult and complicated notion of the deity.”
In a recent essay written for National Affairs titled “Religion and the American Republic,” fellow Fox News political analyst and longtime conservative pundit George Will wrote, “I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority. I am a member of a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the ‘nones.’ Today, when Americans are asked their religious affiliation, 20 percent—a large and growing portion—say ‘none.’”
Will actually went on to defend nonbelievers, arguing that “an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God.”
The sentiments of Will and Krauthammer are shared by other conservative writers, bloggers, and pundits such as S.E. Cupp, Anthony Daniels, Heather MacDonald, James Taranto, Charles C.W. Cooke, and, of course, the late Christopher Hitchens.
The principles of limited government, individual responsibility, and an open marketplace are not grounded in religious beliefs, and they are not anathema to atheism. From a humanist perspective, discussions of identity, ideology, or belief must be prefaced by mutual respect. Liberals have to do a better job to not view those who are religious with disdain and animosity, and conservatives must do a better job to not demonize those who don’t share their religious beliefs. In the end, a secular government is the only way to ensure that these values are respected and that the rights of all Americans are protected.