The Conservative Atheists

Coming out as an atheist in America presents difficulties regardless of one’s political beliefs. According to polls by Gallup in 2012 and Pew Research Center in 2014, presidential candidates face more opposition from voters if they are atheists than if they used marijuana, had an extramarital affair, or had never held office. According to another study by the Brookings Institution, almost four times as many Americans think atheists are changing this country for the worse than believe they are changing it for the better.
Speaking to the HPR under a pseudonym to protect her privacy, Emily, a politically active University of Missouri student, said that she identified as both a conservative and an atheist. “The first reaction is virtually always surprise, whether I’m telling a fellow atheist I’m a conservative or a fellow conservative I’m an atheist,” she explained. “I wasn’t raised to be particularly religious, and I never really considered myself a religious adherent anyway.”
While the idea of a conservative atheist might seem unusual at first, according to a 2012 Pew poll, Emily is not alone. Thirteen percent of atheists and agnostics self-identify as conservative—a number that indicates a growing group on the right that does not believe in a god. Yet many atheists say they don’t have an outlet within the conservative movement, and for politically active conservatives like Emily, the reactions to be expected from fellow atheists are halfhearted indifference or dazed confusion.
Emily’s challenge stems from the difficulty conservative atheists have fitting into each of the two component movements. Many conservatives assume that their peers are religious, while many atheists take fellow unbelievers to be politically liberal. Emily repudiates these assumptions about the overlap between political and religious beliefs, describing her conservatism and atheism as two forces that work together, informing her opinions and guiding her political involvement. “Atheism and conservatism are both about self-reliance, so they work well together,” she explained, adding that working for conservative causes does not conflict with her atheism, but rather reinforces the ideals of free thought and inquiry that ground her morality and prompt her political activism.
Traditional outlooks are changing, though. According to Emily, “Most people, even if they don’t understand [my position], are happy to accept different views.” The atheist and conservative movements are beginning to evolve at the national and grassroots levels. The increasing presence of dissenters from the norm offers a window into the future of both movements.
The Atheist Response
On the atheist side, conservative atheists face complications that stem from the assumed tension between conservative and atheist values. According to Emily, the puzzled reaction among fellow atheists is due to the misperception that one cannot believe in atheism and still be conservative.. “I’m socially fairly liberal, so [atheists are] very accepting because of that,” she said. “Still, they are initially very confused.” In her experience, atheists have assumed that the political views of their peers are exclusively liberal and diametrically opposed to conservative values.
S.E. Cupp, a conservative atheist and CNN contributor, has recently stated the problem stems from prominent liberal atheists perpetuating the idea that they are “somehow disenfranchised or left out of the political process. I’m a conservative atheist and I’ve felt very welcome by [the Republican] Party. In fact, I’d go so far as to say conservatism is far more intellectually honest and respectful of atheism than liberalism has been.”
For Cupp, atheism’s association with liberalism is due to media coverage, but is not inherent in the two ideologies. Rather, she believes that atheism and conservatism are both about personal respect, autonomy, and liberty, and the unwarranted association between religion and politics illustrates the need for atheists to confront diversity within their own ranks.
The Conservative Response
From the conservative side, the Republican Party has also had difficulty incorporating atheist voices. The uproar from the religious right and a smattering of zealous conservative pundits hinder those who would support secular or atheistic values. Often the far-right wing shapes conservative dialogue, suppressing atheists before they have a chance to be heard.
For instance, at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the largest annual conservative convention in the country, an atheist civil liberties organization called the American Atheists tried to participate but faced heavy opposition. That year, the American Atheists applied and received booth space, paid the booth fee, made travel and lodging arrangements, had materials printed, and even had planned for organizers to discuss how conservative politicians could better find common ground with atheist voters.
The American Atheists then distributed a press release announcing their exhibit at the conference. Then, following resistance from religious conservatives, CPAC organizers pulled the group’s exhibition table from the conference.
Instances like this show that conservative atheists have not yet achieved total acceptance within the GOP. However, events at CPAC 2015 reveal signs of increased tolerance within the conservative movement. This year, the American Atheists were invited to have a booth and even a speaker at the event.
Jamila Bey, a journalist from the D.C. area, gave the first speech by a known atheist about atheist issues in CPAC history this year. In her speech, she called for the right to embrace a younger generation increasingly disenchanted with Washington and religion and urged them to welcome atheists who care deeply about conservative values. “Embrace me,” she said, “Let me vote for GOP candidates. You can’t cast me out for my different private beliefs.”
While Bey’s appearance at CPAC doesn’t prove the entire conservative movement has accepted atheists and the issues they care about, it may herald more inclusion and diversity. At least one CPAC attendee, Steve Piotrowski, a self-identified Christian, seemed welcoming towards the atheists. “I didn’t want to go over there and be confrontational,” he said of visiting the American Atheist booth. “I just wanted to see why [they were] here. I’m a Christian, I believe in the teachings of our Savior. But they do have a right to be here.”
Piotrowski and Bey both touched on another message too: limiting the conservative ideology to the religious can have negative electoral consequences for Republicans. As Bey warned, “[Atheists] are an essential component of our growing electorate. We ignore them to our peril.”
Looking Forward
The 2012 Pew report indicated that the number of American adults who are religiously unaffiliated rose from 15 percent to 20 percent between 2007 and 2012, including nearly 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics. They compose roughly six percent of the U.S. voting public, and are estimated to outnumber other prominent minorities, such as the LGBT community and the Muslim-American community.
According to Maggie Ardiente, the American Humanist Association’s director of development and communications, the increase in self-proclaimed atheists comes from atheists who publicly express their views and the media’s growing interest in them. In an interview with the HPR, she said, “A lot of this [the increase] has to do with national organizations like the American Humanist Association and others that have really tried to put out the message that you can be good without a god. … The more we do that, the more people are out about their atheism and humanism, the more people are likely to be accepting of those viewpoints.” Ardiente was optimistic that the voices of atheists—even conservative ones—across the country would continue to grow more prominent as more atheists come out publicly.
And while it may seem that the modern conservative movement mandates religious adherence, Emily explained that most of those with whom she has interacted on the political right, while confused at first, are accepting of differing viewpoints. “There have been people taken aback [who try] to distance themselves from me,” Emily said. “But I would say the larger movement of conservatism is fairly accepting, especially on the grassroots level.”
She explained that the nature of grassroots work fosters a close working relationship that requires teamwork and cohesion—there isn’t room for dissidence. At the grassroots level, there is a common understanding that everyone who cares about the conservative cause is welcome, and while others may disagree with her religious views, they understand the need for diversity within the cause.
The future of conservative atheism depends on more than just expanding bases and reminding those within both movements that a diversity of opinions can benefit atheists and conservatives alike—it also depends upon a new recognition that beliefs do not define the entirety a person. As Emily noted, “First and foremost, atheism is not a defining characteristic. … It doesn’t govern all my choices and certainly doesn’t determine my political values, just as [conservatism] doesn’t determine my religious beliefs.”
Image source: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

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