Conservative writer and CNN talking head S.E. Cupp recently put out a video describing how she has been welcomed among conservatives even though she is an atheist. This led Hot Air’s Allahpundit to chime in with his own experiences, citing myself and National Review‘s Charles Cooke as other examples of atheists on the right. And we’re not the only ones. There’s Heather Mac Donald and Walter Olson, and a whole website devoted to the issue. Among marquee names, there are a few famous agnostics/atheists like Charles Krauthammer and George Will.
When you start looking, we’re everywhere.
I pretty much agree with Cupp about not feeling excluded. Heck, The Federalist is even encouraging me to comment on the Bible from an unbeliever’s perspective. Yes, I get a fair number of readers who disagree with me, but as a general rule Christians tend to be annoyingly nice critics. Environmentalists will tell me they wish I would die; Christians tell me they’re praying for me. I try to return the favor by not demonizing Christians, so to speak, in the way that the Richard Dawkins “New Atheist” crowd does.
The real question is not about whether atheists are tolerated on the right, but about what atheists have to offer to the right.
S.E. Cupp implies she’s a better atheist than Bill Maher. Given that just about anybody is a better human being than Bill Maher—the guy makes a living insulting and offending people—that’s not exactly going out on a limb. But can we also be better at understanding and promoting the cause of the political right?
It can be a bit misleading to talk about atheists as a group. Saying you’re an atheist describes what you don’t believe in, but says nothing about what you do believe in. So atheists on the right hold a wide variety of personal philosophies. There is only one thing that they are all likely to have in common: an interest in seeking a secular foundation for the ideas of the right. Which turns out to be very important.
What I’m taking here as “the right” is a broad political persuasion that includes a belief in economic freedom, strong national defense, and the preservation of certain social institutions. Which institutions you want to preserve, and why, depends on what kind of atheist you are. I for one am an atheist with a burning passion for the value of marriage and children and what you might call “family values”—but, for example, I have no particular interest in fending off a largely irrelevant “threat” from a tiny number of gay marriages. Yet I sympathize with those who want to resist the far left’s mania for delegitimizing every aspect of private life independent of the state.
That leads me to what atheists have to offer to this agenda. One of the problems with citing a religious foundation for freedom and Americanism is that these arguments tend not to appeal to those who don’t share your faith. People will naturally assume that, in order to agree with you, they have to believe in the same particular religious creed that you have adopted. And given the vast range of religious belief, that’s a lot to ask for.
Every atheist has heard the old saw that it’s impossible to rely on a secular foundation for morality because if people are left to act on their own judgment, they will disagree about what is right and wrong and it will all be subjective. So we supposedly need a religious authority to settle the matter. But that doesn’t really work out in practice, does it? Ask yourself: is appealing to religion more likely to settle an issue, or inflame it? Even if you believe that God exists, when it comes to asking what God is and what He wants, you have to rely on the testimony and interpretations of human beings—who differ enormously on every detail. So you’re back to the same problem.
For those of us who don’t believe in a deity or supernatural power, the way we try to settle arguments is by pointing to observable facts. Do human beings flourish better under capitalism or socialism? Let’s look at the history of the two systems and see how they turned out. Will a welfare state eliminate poverty or perpetuate it for 50 years? It’s been 50 years, so let’s look at the result. And so on. The questions can get a lot more subtle, and the answers much deeper and philosophical, but you get the idea.
My point is not just that it is possible to offer a secular defense of free markets and liberty and the moral values that support them. My point that is these arguments have a power to persuade that cannot be matched just by quoting chapter and verse from the Bible. Now, I’m not saying that most conservatives do this. In fact, most of them are neck-deep in secular arguments for freedom, and I suspect that’s why we atheists don’t have too much difficulty finding a place for ourselves. We speak a language most people on the right are already speaking. But it also makes us ideally suited for reaching out to a wider audience and showing them that they can embrace free markets, for example, without having to embrace a conservative theology.
I have written before about how the advocacy of free markets has been racialized for the purpose of providing Democrats with a death-grip on the minority vote. In a similar way, free markets and national defense and especially issues like marriage have been theologized. The old conservative “fusionist” idea of using religion to provide a cultural foundation for the rest of the right’s agenda has backfired, associating the entire agenda of the right with a relatively narrow set of religious beliefs. So anyone not inclined to those religious beliefs, and particularly an educated person with an interest in science, is basically told by both sides that their ideological home is on the left.
So you get someone like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson setting himself up as a regular television guest for Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and that jerk Bill Maher, and filling the new “Cosmos” series with some tendentious history (along with a little questionable science). Why? Because it is taken for granted that if you’re a “science guy” you must endorse every item of the left’s political catechism.
Which is actually an absurdity, because there is very little that is “scientific” about the agenda of the left.
People on the left say they believe in “science,” but they really just believe in being sciencey—adopting the intellectual trappings of science as it suits them, to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. Most of them, in my experience, are liberal arts graduates whose actual exposure to science is that they watched “Cosmos” once. So in addition to gravitating to a bunch of hocus-pocus about Eastern philosophy and alternative medicine—you know, the kind of stuff where you can hurt water’s feelings—they also end up throwing out most of what is known and proven in the science of economics.
It reminds me of how I used to cringe every time in the “Star Trek” franchise when they talked about how they had evolved beyond the need for money. A complex, technologically advanced economy that runs without money, prices, and markets is like a starship powered by a perpetual motion machine. It’s an insult to science. In Star Trek, this is a gaffe you can ignore because it doesn’t come up very often. For the left, blatantly unscientific economic ideas and wish fulfillment fantasies about money are the cornerstones of their ideology.
As an atheist, one of my goals is to reclaim science from its exploitation as a talking point for the left, and to win over admirers of science to a political agenda that actually follows the lessons of history and economics, and which is devoted to setting the human mind free rather than smothering it under petty regulations and politically correct pieties.
To be sure, these secular arguments won’t accomplish everything that our more religious conservative friends might like. But it can accomplish every goal that is within the legitimate province of government—which, after all, is charged with safeguarding our material goals of liberty, security, and prosperity, rather than ensuring our spiritual enlightenment. When it comes to matters of the spirit, that is an area where government is not suited and, it should go without saying, cannot be trusted.
We atheists on the right, by virtue of our secular outlook, can help to give this cause a more solid and universal foundation in ideas and observations that hold up independent of an individual’s prior religious beliefs—and in defiance of the newfangled dogmas of the left.