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.