‘Conservative Atheists’ 10

This fine essay by Heather Mac Donald (written in 2006?) has been much quoted.

We found it again on the website of Richard Dawkins, and quote it in our turn because we like it so much:

Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God’s solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland.

Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others—count me among them—feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases “a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions” on his belief in “the Almighty” and in the Almighty’s “great gifts” to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty’s actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless. True, when a potential tragedy is averted, believers decipher God’s beneficent intervention with ease. The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public’s prayers for her safe return. When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: “Thank you God, 9 for 9.” God’s mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.

But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God’s ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: “For God’s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?” Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.

The presumption of religious belief—not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it—does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith—nor do we need it to be conservative.

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or “natural law.” It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, “Washington’s God.” Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article.

I have heard it said in the last six years that what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith—as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted, as the cliché has it. I wonder whether religious conservatives can spot the atheists among them by their deeds or, for that matter, by their political positions. I very much doubt it. Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer’s. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.

It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today’s religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.

A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America’s antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too. As Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has advised, it should be possible for conservatives to unite on policy without agreeing on theology.

Posted under Atheism by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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This post has 10 comments.

  • “They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise
    stable, law-abiding children.”

    It was demonstrated that this “belief” (or “view” as you call it) is not supported by evidence.

    “They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.”

    Again, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that this works in a hypothetical text book example, but not in real life.  Even most (so-called) “private” charities rely on some sort of government subsidization in order to remain viable. (See the article Charitable Aid Cannot Replace Government Welfare by Fred Kammer).

    You say that conservative atheists “…are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it”. And that incites my own skepticism.

    Being atheist does not require one to be liberal anymore than being a theist requires one to be conservative; however, in light of actual evidence, I have to wonder how “skeptical” conservative atheists actually are, and how well-thought-out and challenged their (so-called) “conservative values” really are.

    • George

        Roland47 , there is indeed impirical evidence by various studies that do indeed support that the best well-rounded environment for raising a child is indeed in  a stable home being raised by both a mother and a father ( notice I say WELL ROUNDED ) , meaning that child can identify with having both parents present  and have the relation that is incorporated by having the presence of BOTH parents and have a well balanced identity with both. The studies indicated that yes, there are a number of  households whereby children  have been successfully raised in a single-parent ( usually mother only ) household , but the same studies have also indicated that overwhelmingly  it is often the case that such children often  turn to crime and are not overall well adjusted in society.  I have documented files on these studies and I will attempt to dig them out of storage which supports this by proven verification and substantiation.
                             As far as charity is concerned , charity is the voluntary giving of aid, money or assistance or supplies to the needy by the people directly.  Government welfare is not charity and does NOT come under that definition.  When politicians take tax payer money and give it away to poor people such as hurricane victims,  government welfare , etc . this is not CHARITY but a form of subsidized governmental socialized giveaway.  The tax paying citizens had no say in this money ( tax money) being distributed for the downtrodden. It therefore WAS NOT voluntary on the part of the taxpayer citizens but TAKEN and redistributed by political pundits without the consent of the taxpayer. This does NOT come under the definition of charity.
                           You’re right about being atheist does not require an atheist to be liberal. This is exactly the point we raise by those of us who have political views that lean toward conservative perspectives– such as lower taxes, personal responsibility, less government involvement in our personal lives and above all promoting a STRONG NATIONAL SECURITY.  A person can be an atheist and be either a liberal , moderate, conservative  or any other label. Personally I don’t like labels at all because I consider them to be divisive. I consider myself simply as an independent thinker but I have views that I have stated previously that are from a conservative perspective ( some , but not all ) . Having said this I have also found quite a number of faults among even  conservatives , as well as among  ALL respective groups and we are not all monolithic and we do not all think alike or for that manner –ACT alike.    

  • Bpd9227

    I am a conservative non-believer, and a gay man all at the same time. Since the anti-homosexual argument relies heavily on religious dogma, I often wonder how other conservative non-believers who happen to be heterosexual, feel about people like me. Comments?

    • Jillian Becker

      Bpd9227, welcome to our website. I hope you’ll stay with us.

      To answer your implied enquiry: We at The Atheist Conservative do not concern ourselves with, or have opinions on, sexual proclivities. We are interested in ideas, mostly in the fields of politics, religion/ideology, philosophy, economics, history, current affairs, science, humor … . If sex enters a discussion, we may have something to say or may not – it would depend on what exactly the discussion is about.

      We value freedom most highly, so any attitude aimed at limiting another person’s freedom of choice we regard as a menace.

      We cannot, of course, speak for our readers (some of whom we know are homosexual). Since we have not raised the topic of sex, we’ve had no comments to go by, as far as I can remember. I expect there’s quite a variety of views among them on this as on most other subjects. Like you, we’d be interested to hear them.

  • Hondolane

    I totally agree, I’m a Southern (born in Texas, dad from Alabama) who was raised Catholic, one of those Irish who immigrated to the South. My question is, why does Christianity get all the blame and everyone is afraid to mention Islam?? They are all over here

    • Jillian Becker

      Welcome, Hondolane!

      We have a lot about Islam, saying what a nasty ideology it is, and what a threat it is to the rest of the world.

  • it is an excellent post

  • David

    I am strongly religious. I am a Christian and believe in the gospel. I cannot argue however with the Republican party's need to separate itself from church. I wish the party would make themselves more accessible to nonbelievers, because with or without religion this country needs conservative values.

  • Bill

    Yes, excellant! In the 1960s when I was a child, I did not believe in any God. I also had a sense of patriotism since my father fought in WWII. When I discovered Republicans tended to be religious and conservative, I was bewildered. To me, I also thought a real skeptic must be politically conservative. By adding religion to “conservative,” it weakened the arguments by the mainstream Republicans.

    So when you write “Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it,” it is gratifying to have someone else say that besides myself.

  • philabor

    Excellent article. While I co-exist with lots of devout Christians, I don't understand why they don't see the inconsistencies. I actually heard someone crediting God for the life of someone who miraculously survived a many-stories fall during 9-11, but didn't see any irony that “he” “allowed” it to happen in the first place.
    It took centures or millenia, but religious leaders came up in Christianity with a belief system that couldn't be disproven, then converted enough belivers to make it self sustaining.