Yes, Atheism and Conservatism Are Compatible

by Charles C. W. Cooke
You needn’t believe in God to believe in the American constitutional order.

Yesterday, in response to one of the many brouhahas that CPAC seems always to invite, Brent Bozell issued the following statement:

The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles. It is an attack on God Himself. American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God. How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?

The particular merits of the American Atheists group to one side, this is a rather astounding thing for Bozell to have said. In just 63 words, he confuses disbelief in God for “hatred” for God — a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there); he condemns an entire conference on the basis of one participant — not a good look for a struggling movement, I’m afraid; and, most alarmingly perhaps, he insinuates that one cannot simultaneously be a conservative and an atheist. I reject this idea — and with force.

If atheism and conservatism are incompatible, then I am not a conservative. And nor, I am given to understand, are George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Daniels, Walter Olson, Heather Mac Donald, James Taranto, Allahpundit, or S. E. Cupp. There is no getting around this — no splitting the difference: I don’t believe there is a God. It’s not that I’m “not sure” or that I haven’t ever bothered to think about it; it’s that I actively think there isn’t a God — much as I think there are no fairies or unicorns or elves. The degree to which I’m confident in this view works on a scale, certainly: I’m much surer, for example, that the claims of particular religions are untrue and that there is no power intervening in the affairs of man than I am that there was no prime mover of any sort. But, when it comes down to it, I don’t believe in any of those propositions. Am I to be excommunicated from the Right?

One of the problems we have when thinking about atheism in the modern era is that the word has been hijacked and turned into a political position when it is no such thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an “atheist” as someone who exhibits “disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.” That’s me right there — and that really is the extent of it. No, I don’t dislike anyone who does believe that there is a God; no, with a few obvious exceptions, I am not angry at the religious; and no, I do not believe the devout to be in any way worse or less intelligent than myself. Insofar as the question inspires irritation in me at all it is largely reserved for the sneering, smarmy, and incomprehensibly self-satisfied New Atheist movement, which has turned the worthwhile writings of some extremely smart people into an organized means by which a cabal of semi-educated twentysomethings might berate the vast majority of the human population and then congratulate one another as to how clever they are. (For some startling examples of this, see Reddit.)

Which is to say that, philosophically speaking, I couldn’t really care less (my friend Andrew Kirell suggests this makes me an “Apatheist”) and practically speaking I am actually pretty warm toward religion — at least as it is practiced in America. True or false, American religion plays a vital and welcome role in civil society, has provided a number of indispensable insights into the human condition, acts as a remarkably effective and necessary check on the ambitions of government and central social-planners, is worthy of respect and measured inquiry on the Burkean grounds that it has endured for this long and been adopted by so many, and has been instrumental in making the United States what it is today. “To regret religion,” my fellow Brit, conservative, and atheist, Anthony Daniels, writes correctly, “is to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.” I do not regret our civilization, its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And I do not regret religion either.

Constitutionally and legally, America is a secular state, and the principle that the government should be strictly prohibited from making distinctions between myself (an atheist) and my fiancée (a Catholic) is one for which I would fight to the death. (David Barton and his brazen historical revisionism can go hang: This is a republic, dammit.) But nations are not made by laws alone. Suppose we were to run two simulations. In one, America develops full of mostly Protestant Christians; in the other, it develops full of atheists or Communists or devotees of Spinoza. Are we honestly to believe that the country would have come out the same in each case? Of course not. For all the mistakes that are made in religion’s name, I am familiar enough with the various attempts to run societies on allegedly “modern” grounds to worry that the latter options would have been much less pretty indeed.

None of this, however, excuses the manner in which conservatives often treat atheists such as myself. George H. W. Bush, who was more usually reticent on such topics, is reported to have said that he didn’t “know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic.” “This,” Bush allegedly told Robert I. Sherman, “is one nation under God.” Whether Bush ever uttered these words or not, this sentiment has been expressed by others elsewhere. It is a significant mistake. What “this nation” is, in fact, is one nation under the Constitution — a document that precedes the “under God” reference in the Gettysburg Address by more than seven decades and the inclusion of the phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance by 165 years. (“In God We Trust,” too, was a modern addition, replacing “E Pluribus Unum” as the national motto in 1956 after 174 years.)

Indeed, 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. That I do not share the convictions of the religious by no means implies that I wish for the state to reach into their lives. Nevertheless, religious conservatives will find themselves without many friends if they allow figures such as Mr. Bozell to shoo away the few atheists who are sympathetic to their broader cause.

As it happens, not only do I reject the claim that the two positions are antagonistic, but I’d venture that much of what informs my atheism informs my conservatism also. I am possessed of a latent skepticism of pretty much everything, a hostility toward the notion that one should believe things because they are a nice idea, a fear of holistic philosophies, a dislike of authority and of dogma, a strong belief in the Enlightenment as interpreted and experienced by the British and not the French, and a rather tenacious refusal to join groups. Occasionally, I’m asked why I “believe there is no God,” which is a reasonable question in a vacuum but which nonetheless rather seems to invert the traditional order of things. After all, that’s not typically how we make our inquiries on the right, is it? Instead, we ask what evidence there is that something is true. Think, perhaps, of how we approach new gun-control measures and inevitably bristle at the question, “Why don’t you want to do this?”

A great deal of the friction between atheists and conservatives seems to derive from a reasonable question. “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God given’ liberties,” I am often asked, “don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or of the one-time whims of transient majorities?” Well, no, not really. As far as I can see, the American settlement can thrive perfectly well within my worldview. God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural-law case for them stands nicely on its own. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration, was not a religious man in any broad sense but a Deist, and his use of the term “Nature’s God” in laying out the framework for the new country was no accident. Jefferson was by no means an “atheist” — at least not in any modern sense: He believed in the moral teachings of Jesus; his work owed a great debt to the culture of toleration that English Protestantism had fostered; and, like almost all 18th-century thinkers, he believed in a prime mover. Nevertheless, he ultimately rejected the truth claims of revealed religion (and the Divine Right of Kings that he believed such a position inevitably yielded) and he relied instead on a “Creator” who looked like the God of Deism and not of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

As David J. Voelker has convincingly argued, Jefferson

rejected revealed religion because revealed religion suggests a violation of the laws of nature. For revelation or any miracle to occur, the laws of nature would necessarily be broken. Jefferson did not accept this violation of natural laws. He attributed to God only such qualities as reason suggested.

“Of the nature of this being,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1817, “we know nothing.” Neither do I. Indeed, I do not believe that there is a “being” at all. And yet one can reasonably easily take Jefferson’s example and, without having to have an answer as to what created the world, merely rely upon the same sources as he did — upon Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own human reason. From this, one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership, that this self-ownership yields certain rights that should be held to be unalienable, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. After all, that’s what we’re all fighting for. Right?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.