Can Atheists Be Conservatives? Can Conservatives Be Atheists?

Sorry, Charlie.

That was what the Conservative Political Action Conference told the American Atheists recently when CPAC rescinded the atheists’ invitation to have a booth at the upcoming CPAC meeting.

The conservative planners apparently took offense to American Atheist leader David Silverman’s plans to shake up the meanings of American conservatism.  As Silverman told CNN,

Conservative isn’t a synonym for religious. . . .  I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.

Threatened or not, conservative Christian leaders objected to the atheists’ presence at the meeting, a gathering that plans to attract 10,000 conservative activists to Maryland next week.  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council crowed, if the atheists are welcomed, “they will have to pack up and put away the ‘C’ in CPAC!”

Other conservatives disagreed.  As the proudly atheist conservative Charles C. W. Cooke opined in the pages of National Review,

given the troubled waters into which American religious liberty has of late been pushed, it strikes me that conservatives ought to be courting atheists — not shunning them. I will happily take to the barricades for religious conscience rights, not least because my own security as a heretic is bound up with that of those who differ from me, and because a truly free country seeks to leave alone as many people as possible — however eccentric I might find their views or they might find mine. In my experience at least, it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious.

From an historic point of view, Cooke seems to have the better of this argument.  As Jennifer Burns has argued, the atheism of Ayn Rand has played a crucial formative role in post-war American conservatism.  Though some contemporaries such as William F. Buckley rejected Rand precisely because of her atheism and her aggressive moral embrace of capitalism, later conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan proudly claimed Rand’s influence.

But even when Ryan did so, he explicitly rejected the atheism at the heart of Rand’s thinking.  David Silverman is asking CPAC to do something much more difficult: welcome conservative atheists as atheists, not in spite of their atheism.



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1 Comment

  1. I can’t say that I quite see Cooke’s argument. I do think that atheism and conservatism are perfectly compatible. But claiming that secularists are more keen on abridging liberties than religious people seems rather silly after CPAC just explicitly excluded atheists. And how about the laws against atheists holding office in many states (even if they are unenforceable)? Isn’t that a restriction of liberties, supported by the religious right?

    If he believes that secular activists go too far in restricting religious liberty, I’d be open to hearing the argument, but one simply cannot turn a blind eye to the religious right’s abuses against liberties as well.

    Not to mention, as a queer person who feels a pretty strong brunt of discrimination from the religious right, it irritates me to see (presumably) non-queer secularists try to tell me that “it’s liberals that are doing the REAL oppression.” Sure, let’s see if you believe that after it is YOU who can be legally fired, evicted, or denied service in your state. Atheists benefit from the same religious protections that Christians do in regards to federal non-discrimination laws. LGBT people do not. So I’m utterly unconvinced that secular activists are the real enemy here when it comes to restricting liberties and opportunities. I lived as an (presumed straight/cisgender) Christian in the USA for 24 years and I never felt in fear for my job, safety, or housing because of that fact. Now, that insecurity is a constant presence. I think if he walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, he might have to change his tune. That’s my two cents anyway.


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