Some weeks back, Robert Tracinski wrote an essay on “What Atheism Can Offer the Right,” in which he suggested some contributions atheists can make to the political right. Conservatives are known to have a generally friendly relationship with organized religion, but Tracinski believes this fact leaves some openings for conservative atheists to make unique contributions, especially in crafting arguments on the basis of natural (as opposed to revealed) facts, which can appeal to a broader range of audiences than theologically-based arguments. Atheists can especially help the cause, he thinks, by showing conservatism is not hostile to the natural sciences.
I agree atheists can do all of these things. But I don’t agree they are uniquely equipped to do these things. As I argued elsewhere, Tracinski errs in failing to recognize that atheism (that is, the belief there is no God) is a metaphysical stance, just as theism is. That means it is just as relevant (and just as irrelevant) to natural-fact-based arguments as Christianity or Judaism.
Atheists can of course contribute to the natural sciences, and to political or sociological debates. But there’s no reason to think they have an edge on the rest of us. An argument that happens not to mention God is not for that reason “atheistic”; most of the debates that interest Tracinski simply are not metaphysical in nature. Does he really suppose believers have to “switch off” their faith in order to communicate intelligibly on non-theological subjects? Although I don’t believe this was his intention, Tracinski ends up perpetuating the prejudice that religious believers are reality-challenged.
Nevertheless, Tracinski is right: There are some unique contributions atheists can make to the Right. I will suggest three.
1) Conservative atheists can show it is possible to interact respectfully with believers, even without sharing their faith.
I do find it heartening that intelligent atheists can find a comfortable place on the political right. Among other things, I like listing them for people who try to claim (absurdly) that conservatism is “dominated by the religious Right.”
This isn’t just about lists, however. More and more, the secular world is coming around to the idea that religious belief just doesn’t merit respectful treatment. It’s too deranged and too hateful. Faith is irrational, and people’s attachment to their religious bodies is basically tribal, so there’s no use trying to discuss it with them. Better just to push religion to the margins as much as possible so it can’t do any harm.
Conservative atheists are in a unique position to undermine this aggressive secularism, simply through their willingness to engage religious people as intelligent human beings who deserve to be taken seriously. It’s good for Americans to see that it’s the political right that truly respects diversity.
2) Atheists can help demonstrate that conservatives take belief seriously.
A few months back, Peter Beinart of The Atlantic wrote a rather amusing piece, in which he argued the much-decried “war on religion” is a myth. Here’s his evidence in a nutshell: on phone surveys, liberals like to lie by claiming that they go to church.
Conservatives do this too, a little bit. But since conservatives actually go to church in higher numbers, they aren’t as likely to lie about it. Beinart’s point is that churchgoing is still widely viewed as a social positive, which constitutes clear evidence (he thinks) that Americans like religion, regardless of their political views.
Beinart has put his finger on the tie that binds us together here on the Right. Whether believers or non-believers, we take faith seriously. That’s what progressive liberals really hate, and that’s why conservative believers and atheists alike can enjoy the withering scorn of our mainstream culture.
You see, Beinart is right in a way. Mainstream liberals do like religion, so long as it’s squishy, hypocritical, and cheerfully prepared to adapt itself to modern ideas and mores. They are charmed by the idea of communities of people coming together on Sunday morning to celebrate peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Unfortunately (as recently noted here on The Federalist), most people can’t be bothered to roll out of bed on a Sunday morning just to sing a few hymns to Goodness, Niceness, and Secular Tolerance. Churches that follow this route just tend to die. But liberals are still a little embarrassed about that, which is why they lie on phone surveys and pretend to go to church.
I want people to know that among conservatives, beliefs matter. We don’t lie about them for social reasons, and we don’t paper over our disagreements by pushing dissenters to the margins. Here on the Right, we accept that pluralism can be uncomfortable, but we work it out like the morally serious grown-ups that we are.
I genuinely admire atheists for openly proclaiming their godlessness. They can help enormously in perpetuating the message that belief is a serious business.
3) Atheists can help us to have more meaningful conversations about morality and the ethical foundations of our society.
These are deep waters for a political conversation. I’m going to mention them anyway, because it does actually offend me that our society is so totally awash in unserious atheists.
If you understand anything about the history of Western thought, you know that Judeo-Christian religion is stamped into it on a very deep level. Of course, most modern people are quite oblivious to the history of Western thought. So they genuinely don’t appreciate that in rejecting religion, they are cutting themselves off from the primary source that gave life to their moral views. They are attacking the roots of their own most cherished ideals.
Everyone knows non-religious people who seem to live very good lives. But the most self-aware among them realize the precariousness of their position. If your moral views are significantly downstream from revealed religion, and you reject that religion, can you consistently affirm the importance of liberty, or insist that persons must be respected? Are there non-theistic grounds on which meaningful moral arguments can be built?
Of course, I won’t attempt to answer those questions in a paragraph. But I will say this: respectable atheists take them seriously. And our culture could benefit in all sorts of ways from a more serious and extended discussion of these matters. Every atheist should be offended by the way in which Richard Dawkins (and others of his ilk) give atheism a bad name with a flippant dismissal of serious moral concerns. To any atheist who wants to deepen his unbelief, I recommend tossing Richard Dawkins in the recycling bin, and reading Friedrich Nietzsche instead.
As strange as it may sound, atheists and theists are natural allies in a world full of squishy, unserious humanism, and ten-cent spirituality. It’s good to have some intelligent atheists here on the Right. In order to fulfill their potential, however, they need to take their atheism as seriously as religious people take their theism. Let’s make sure that conservatism is home to true, committed godlessness, and not just the cheap and shallow substitute.