Should We Reach Out to Conservative Atheists?

Last month, American Atheists sought to rent a booth at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Surprisingly, CPAC accepted their money at first, only to change their mind at the last minute.

That entirely foreseeable outcome would have been more than sufficient as free publicity, but American Atheists president Dave Silverman decided to attend as an individual. While he was there, he gave several interviews asserting that atheism should have a bigger place among conservatives. One comment in particular ignited a firestorm, when Silverman (who, to be fair, says he’s pro-choice himself) appeared to suggest that there’d be room for anti-abortion conservatives in an atheist big tent:

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

As a matter of simple fact, I’d say Silverman is just wrong about that. I’ve pointed out before that the non-religious are by far the most pro-choice demographic in America, which provides straightforward evidence that anti-abortion views are fundamentally religious. (See also my friend Sarah Moglia’s post on Skepchick about “secular” arguments against abortion.)

Now, I’m a liberal and a progressive, and I want an atheist movement that reflects my values. Secularism is an important value to uphold – by fighting creationism in public schools, by defeating blasphemy laws, by ending government endorsement of religion. But I also want an atheist movement that doesn’t concern itself solely with church-state separation, but one that advocates all the moral values that flow from a rationalist and humanist worldview. I want an atheist movement that defends reproductive choice, marriage equality and freedom in dying; that lobbies for better and more accessible public education and a stronger social safety net; that fights climate change and backs expanded public support for pure science.

On the other hand, America has two national parties, and I can’t expect that the one I favor will always win elections. While I want the atheist movement to reflect my values, I recognize that the movement is bigger than just me and my preferences, and I don’t want its fortunes to be tied to whoever’s in the White House. It would be better if there were secular voices in both parties, so that at least some of the values I stand for would do well no matter who was in power.

The current situation, where religious fundamentalists and secularists have more or less sorted themselves by political party, is bad for America. It’s bad for America if one party is dominated by its religious maximalist wing, because it means they can wield influence unopposed whenever that party’s in power; and it’s bad for us as a movement if the other party believes they can take our votes for granted, because it means they’ll do only the minimum to cater to our wishes.

For this reason, I’d welcome a serious effort to foster atheism and secularism among American conservatives. No doubt I’d disagree fiercely with most of their ideas, but if they stood any chance of diluting the influence of the religious right, it would still be a welcome development. So, in principle, I think Silverman’s outreach plan could be a good idea.

That said: CPAC? Really?

As I said on Twitter, there may be conservative atheists worth reaching out to, but you’re not going to find them at CPAC. The attendees of that conference are the people who’ve bought most deeply into the ideology of the Republican Party in its current incarnation: a fever swamp of militant theocrats, resentful bigotry, willful anti-intellectualism, and wild conspiracy theories. All the usual ones were on full display at CPAC: that President Obama is a secret Muslim, that gay marriage is a sinister plot to undermine our moral fiber, that Christians are a cruelly oppressed minority in America, and so on and so on. (There was also some out-and-out anti-Semitism correction: this didn’t occur at CPAC.) I’d say that the atheist conservatives worth reaching out to are precisely the ones who aren’t at CPAC, the ones who’ve left the party in disgust.

You could, of course, argue that there are so few of these, or that they’re so hard to find, that it’s not worth spending the time and energy on outreach, and that we’d be better off directing our PR campaigns toward groups who are friendlier to us. You could also argue that the overwhelmingly older, white and male conservative movement is a demographic dead end, and we should focus more on building an atheist movement that looks like America: younger, more woman-friendly, more ethnically diverse. Whatever good we hope to do by reaching out to conservatives, it ought to be carefully weighed against these considerations.

Image credit: stanhua

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://pandarogue.blogspot.com/ Yǒuhǎo Huǒ Māo

    Good points Adam. The outreach itself is not a bad idea (though I’m annoyed with Silverman’s waffling on women’s rights) but CPAC is not the place to do it.

  • ahermit

    That was exactly my reaction…CPAC??????? REALLY????

    Why would anyone think there was value in sucking up to the most radical anti-science (not to mention anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-woman…) wing of the Republican Party?

    http://climatechangepsychology.blogspot.com/2014/03/cpacclimatepanelstackedwithserialdeniers.html

  • http://www.nowhere-fast.net Tom

    A lot of college-age Republicans attend CPAC, for one thing. As much as it may be a clearing house for the GOP crazies it’s also a political reality that any Republican who wants to get elected has to face so having an atheist presence is worthwhile even if it’s just increasing visibility. Really, why not CPAC?

    Attendance isn’t endorsement and ignoring a massive and important GOP event isn’t going to make it any less relevant. Directly engaging someone (or a convention of someones) you disagree with is a great way to begin finding common ground, and common ground between the right and the left is something that has been sorely lacking in the past decade.

    We’ve reached a point where we’re all accustomed to someone somewhere else shouting about how wrong we are and then sticking their fingers in their ears. Everyone involved in that convention would be braced for that, so why not, instead, stand in the middle of their echo chamber and say, “I disagree with one of your most deeply held beliefs. Let’s talk about it.”?

  • SecularPatriot

    Wing? Name a GOP president that failed to win the CPAC straw poll at least once.

    This IS the GOP. It’s not a wing of the GOP.

  • Azkyroth

    Well, I don’t know…how has “reaching out to conservatives” gone for the pro-humanity side so far?

  • ahermit

    Good point. But we could picture the GOP as a bird with one big wing…on it’s right side. CPAC would be near the tip of that wing.

  • Azkyroth

    so why not, instead, stand in the middle of their echo chamber and say, “I disagree with one of your most deeply held beliefs. Let’s talk about it.”?

    “BANG!”

    These are right-wingers we’re talking about here.

  • busterggi

    “I want an atheist movement that defends reproductive choice, marriage equality and freedom in dying; that lobbies for better and more accessible public education and a stronger social safety net; that fights climate change and backs expanded public support for pure science.”

    Then you don’t want conservative atheists after all.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    So, in principle, I think Silverman’s outreach plan could be a good idea.

    That said: CPAC? Really?

    ^This pretty much sums up one of my initial reactions when I heard about this story.

    There’s also the matter, as you mentioned, of what a person values, what they think it’s important for a movement they’re a part of to do. Each person has issues that they give priority to, that they’re really passionate about, and perhaps for David Silverman, atheism is his cause, his thing. It would make sense, given he’s President of American Atheists.

    And so the question becomes: Where’s the line between being really passionate about your issue and working together on that issue with those you disagree with on other things vs. crossing the line into being dismissive of other important issues and being willing to sacrifice other equal rights issues due to thinking that your one issue is The Most Important? Clearly, some people think Silverman crossed that line. And I think it shows because of his comments.

    On the issue of religious vs. secular arguments, I basically think that there can be a secular and religious argument for just about anything. (I like Sarah Moglia’s article you linked to and the definition of what we mean by secular arguments, whether we mean just a feeling or something that’s actually evidence-based.) Of course, not all arguments are equally good. Personally I don’t find the religious arguments convincing (whether it’s for something I agree with or not). Another element is that people can combine religious and secular arguments, and the rest of society can be influenced by religion and vice versa. I have noticed, for instance, that even people who don’t really follow their religion very strictly (like going to prayers, etc.) still hold the prejudiced views against other that they were taught via their religion. And the society they grew up in held a lot of those same prejudices.

    Re: Silverman’s quote about reproductive rights, school prayer, right to die, gay marriage, etc., I’ve seen this type of statement several times now from atheists, and I’ve started to feel that people put whatever *they’re* passionate about in the category of being Very Relevant to the atheist movement and stuff they personally aren’t as passionate about in the category Not As Relevant to the atheist movement. Almost every time, people put science education or opposing mandatory school prayer in the Very Relevant Category, but for other issues (LGBT rights, reproductive rights, economic justice, etc.) it seems to depend on whether they themselves are really passionate about it or not, whether they think it’s important enough for the atheist movement to spend time on it. Rather than deciding to spend time on it because it’s an important secularism issue, they seem to decide it is/isn’t an important secular issue depending on whether they want to spend time on it due to their views.

    What I feel towards David Silverman regarding this event is kind of what I often feel towards the US Democratic party. Due to the religious privilege in our society, and the fact that this religious privilege is supported by certain influential portions of the population, some people and organizations assume that secular liberal, progressive, etc. people will automatically be on their side (since they have no/few other options). They take our support as a given, while making attempts (sometimes good, sometimes bad) to reach out to the “other side” (usually conservatives). But because they take our support for granted, they don’t feel that they have to think before they speak/act. They feel free to say stuff that’s insulting towards us. And it becomes this one-sided thing where they tell liberals to be more open-minded towards accepting conservatives into the group, but don’t ask conservatives to question their views on social issues. That Silverman doesn’t understand liberals and progressives shows in a comment he made about his own political views, that he considers the Democrats too liberal. He’s trying to reach out to the other side, but doesn’t even understand the side that gives his organization the most support.

  • GabeS

    I do not think we would get far with a Republican atheist movement.

    However, as to the comment about “a secular argument against abortion.” I am 100% atheist and I am for the legality of abortion, but I can’t say that I don’t find it to be immoral in certain situations, i.e. when a woman has had multiple abortions or when the fetus is beyond a certain stage of development. Nothing to do with any Gods, but it does give me a negative feeling (in these situations). Do I think it should be punished or made illegal? No, but it does make me think lowly of the woman (and the man). In these cases, I am only relieved by knowing that the child won’t be born to such parents.

    So, my overall point is that while I would consider myself pro-choice, this doesn’t mean that I support unlimited abortion. From a legal standpoint, maybe. But from a moral standpoint, no. This is a totally secular argument.

  • Bernadette

    Being an atheists and political beliefs are two different things. I am very grateful for the safe place that atheists groups have provided me as I struggled with coming out and I would hope we allow that for all atheists and don’t require a political test in order to be welcomed.

  • Tova Rischi

    As a leftie I feel a certain schadenfreude with the idea of the right alienating a rapidly growing demographics and destroying itself the more it insists on monolithic ideology, but there’s a certain pragma that I’m afraid of.

    The more one side in a two-sided system insists on dogma, the further the dividing lines grow sharp. While I think social progressivism, democratic socialism etc are the bodies of thought whose formulae of the future are going to prove best at increasing prosperity, we’ve been ripping ourselves apart the last few years with the A+ stuff. While I find it admirable to want that, I think the sad fact through history is that civil rights and protections have never been won by insisting on progress on all fields; the slaves didn’t get their freedom fighting for women’s suffrage, women didn’t get suffrage insisting on ending segregation, the CRM didn’t win what they did insisting gays be treated equal, gays aren’t winning the ground they are arguing for secularism, women, or even transrights etc. The more we get alienated, the more these ideologizing “cake and eat it too” trends get legitimized. If they get too dominate, we begin to alienate would-be-comrades and we begin to lose.

    It seems like the only options for rightists are to cluster around the few libertarian atheists – which makes for problems if they think there’s a secular basis for their social conservatism. I don’t think forcing them anywhere they don’t want to be is the winning strategy.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

    As I said on Twitter, there may be conservative atheists worth reaching out to, but you’re not going to find them at CPAC. The attendees of that conference are the people who’ve bought most deeply into the ideology of the Republican Party in its current incarnation: a fever swamp of militant theocrats, resentful bigotry, willful anti-intellectualism, and wild conspiracy theories. All the usual ones were on full display at CPAC: that President Obama is a secret Muslim, that gay marriage is a sinister plot to undermine our moral fiber, that Christians are a cruelly oppressed minority in America, and so on and so on. (There was also some out-and-out anti-Semitism.) I’d say that the atheist conservatives worth reaching out to are precisely the ones who aren’t at CPAC, the ones who’ve left the party in disgust.

    Actually, if Leah Libresco is to be believed, this year’s CPAC showed a lot of signs that the theocrats are rapidly losing their hold on the Republican party. It’s obvious that that would have to happen eventually, with changing demographics and swings in views of gay marriage.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I have to wonder who *exactly* these athiest Republicans could be. I’m thinking most, if not all, of them, are Objectivists or people who have been influenced by Objectivism.

  • Azkyroth

    I don’t know; whether you (general) want to help people, or hurt them, seems like a relevant standard to me.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multigrain

    I couldn’t disagree with your more. A big part of the reason why civil rights have had to be achieved in fits in starts over such a long period of time is precisely because of this “I’ve got mine” impulse to pull the ladder up after oneself. It’s much better if we all look out for each others’ rights as well as our own.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    I don’t actually see an argument there; you’re just saying you don’t like it. You don’t actually NEED an argument to dislike something. If you dislike it, you dislike it. In a discussion of policy “against abortion” generally means “against legal access to abortion”, though, which is not your position, and it’s people who are taking that position who need to justify it with a secular argument.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    George H. W. Bush. What do I win? Also, John McCain wasn’t president but won the nomination without winning the straw poll.

    Not that your point isn’t well taken, but… challenge accepted.

  • Tova Rischi

    It’s ethical behavior yes but when it’s policy enforced over others it doesn’t work. Think of it like making a coalition – if we deign to unite with nonprogs for secularism, we’ll have a more effective and powerful voting bloc when secularism is up for vote. This principle is why most of the world’s successful green parties have moved to liberal (economically) positions and centrist values; so they act more like “big-tent” parties instead of cannibalizing each other until the scraps left over appear as credible as PETA. Remember also – the enemy of the enemy is our friend. And our enemies know that as well, and are more than happy to use that to their advantage (e.g. SE Cupp). If we face a coalition defined by it’s conservatism, when secularism comes up to vote the secular conservatives are going to vote against religious freedom in the name of economics or social restraint.

    That doesn’t mean those committed to justice can’t fight for justice on their own platform, but asking for 100% unity in a community defined by secularism and not gay rights or feminism is going to lead to us only having partners who think 100% like us, something that won’t make for great numbers.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

    I’m torn on this one. My first thought is that it’s ridiculous for us to try to have a presence at CPAC, that it’s a waste of time. But I also originally thought that Bill Nye should not do the debate at the creation facility, but i changed my mind about that and now think he made a good decision. He reached people who otherwise never would have listened to him. Can we reach a new audience by going to CPAC? Maybe.

    I also think about why I sometimes make thoughtful replies to trolls in comment threads. It’s not for the benefit of the troll, it’s for the benefit of the lurkers, who need to see someone standing up to the nonsense. Are there any “lurkers”, as it were, at CPAC? Or that are reading the reports about CPAC? Perhaps the spouses or children of the wingnuts, who are being dragged to those events but aren’t actually totally devoted to it?

    And I think showing up to events like this is a part of the effort of trying to remove the stigma from non-belief, to make it safe for someone to be an open atheist, even in the heart of right wingnut territory. And maybe also to make it safer to them to admit to themselves that they don’t really believe. I’m all for that. And I’ve also noticed a pattern amongst the recently de-converted – their politics often take a shift to the left, once they realize that they can’t justify a position by claiming that it’s “what god wants”. Every step one of these guys takes from the extreme right toward the center is a win for us.

    So yeah, maybe I’m OK with us having a presence of CPAC.

  • Guest

    This was Silverman we’re talking about. He’s a sell-out who cares more about appearing on Fox and getting publicity for him-self than he does about any ‘atheist movement’ (I such a thing exists.) If he felt going to CPAC accomplished something for the atheist community, ok, but it’s reminiscent of his defense of the whole billboard tactic. Nobody cares in the end!

  • Plutosdad

    I watched the PBS series on Prohibition, and one thing that struck me was one lobbyist who was most responsible for getting prohibition passed (I forget his name and can’t find it on the net). He made deals with and worked with everyone. Many prohibition groups told him he shouldn’t work with so-and-so because that politician drinks, works with this other group, etc. He ignored them and continued working on getting the Volstead act passed until eventually it was. He didn’t care about making deals with devils, he just did it.

    As the old adage about politics and sausage goes, I don’t think we can eliminate people we don’t like when it comes to getting votes, not if we want to get anything passed.

    I think there is room for a group like American Atheists to focus only on secular issues and not on Humanism, and for them to work with the likes of libertarians at CPAC on common goals. There is also room for other Humanist focused groups to work with American Atheists, NOW, Planned Parenthood, etc, to get common goals passed. The groups can be seperate and work on different things, and we can donate to one or many of them as we see fit.

    Having different groups willing to work together on causes where they intersect can make us stronger. But having groups splinter off and refuse to work together can only make us weaker. that is a pretty fine distinction but I think it is important.

    I’m in the DC office of my non profit now, I’m still in IT, but everyone else here is a lobbyist or lawyer, so I’m learning a lot on how they think just having lunch with these people. They have to work with both sides. There are people we work with that may be angry behind the scenes that we are not angry enough and insulting one side of the aisle enough – but that won’t help us get votes we need. To burn bridges and play slash and burn over one bill won’t help us on the next bill.

  • Plutosdad

    Until the past few years I felt that way about the Democrat party’s treatment of the LGBT community. It seemed to me they just assumed they’d get the votes, say “we won’t help you but at least we don’t hate you” as if that were enough. Even during his first campaign Obama would not even admit he supported marriage equality. Only in the past few years I feel Democrat support has really increased and resulted in actual votes.

    A few years ago CPAC even let GOProud have a booth, and I wonder if that was actually part of the increase in Democrat support – i.e. that some gay people were moving to the Republican party, realizing the libertarians would support them. And also at the time I read articles that a few “big” donors wanted the GOP to stop fighting gay rights. (Of course that has changed now and CPAC won’t let either GOProud or Log Cabins have a booth)

    I don’t know i am just hypothesizing

  • Science Avenger

    [raises hand] Pretty much. The GOP is populated basically by two groups of ideologues: Christians, and free-marketeers/Objectivists. What drove me from the party was the increasing dominance of the former (plus a lot of science reading).

    Until this changes, which IMO won’t be until the GOP becomes a permanent minority party, any atheist outreach will be a complete waste of time short of PR goals (which my money says was Silverman’s agenda all along).

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    No… atheist reactionaries exist too.

  • weareallhypocrites

    I agree in principal. Politics and religious beliefs should be separate, but the reality of the political landscape paints a different reality. The conservative wing of our country is dominated by figures that base political thought and action on issues on biblical beliefs. I would like to think atheists are somewhat better, but I will concede that too many get caught up in the same dogma driven behavior as the religious.

  • silentsanta

    Just a minor correction – Boykin’s anti-semitic comments weren’t at CPAC itself according to your linked source.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    Actually, it looks like a rather significant correction to me.

    Boykin’s remarks were captured after an online broadcast of a panel at
    the National Security Action Summit. The SPLC reported that the event is
    held as a counter to the Conservative Political Action Conference
    (CPAC), and features speakers who, like Boykin, have not been allowed to
    participate there.

    So, that was at a convention for people perhaps too radical even for CPAC! That’s a rather scary thought.

  • eyelessgame

    It’s hard to talk about “reaching out” – what form it would take – that wouldn’t involve some amount of consideration of what strategic effect such reaching out would have on the odd coalition that is represented by conservatism in the US. In particular, I think conservative atheists are told to keep their mouths shut – and most do keep them shut voluntarily – because if the religious conservatives aren’t constantly reassured that establishing their religion is intrinsic to the Republican movement, they’ll quit voting, and without the religious conservatives you couldn’t elect a Republican as dogcatcher.

    So I suspect conservative atheists don’t want us reaching out to them. They don’t, I suspect, particularly want to be seen to have anything to do with non-conservative atheists, or even to have their atheism pointed out in anything but the quietest of voices.

    Which doesn’t at all reach a conclusion as to whether we *ought* to reach out anyway, but it might inform the debate a bit.

  • eyelessgame

    There are atheists who are either sexist (MRAs, often camouflaged as libertarians ‘no government money for birth control’/’no interference with the free market for equal pay laws’) or racist (camouflaged as ‘no interference with the free market for civil rights laws’ or ‘Islam is the most awful religion ever, we must shoot all the brown people who follow it’), without being out-and-out libertarian per se. But I agree the least odious of conservative atheists are the libertarians.

  • Azkyroth

    That doesn’t mean those committed to justice can’t fight for justice on their own platform

    And what is it that you think the A+ers are doing?

  • Tova Rischi

    Fighting for justice for all under the title atheists.

    Look, I’m not against progressivism even in some of the most radical forms – but when it comes to reality there are certain political strategies you have to adhere to. If you’re a feminist, that’s perfectly good – please, we need more feminists – but don’t let people think atheism and feminism are part of some monolith, that’s a losing strategy. Please don’t say “I’m an Atheist” when you fight for feminism, say “I’m a Feminist”; likewise, please say don’t say “I’m a Feminist” when fighting for atheism, say “I’m an Atheist”. It’s a numbers game, I’m sorry.

    Put this in perspective: I’m a communist. You know what would happen if prominent Atheists hung out around me? The guilt by association is already barely tolerable with their lumping of Stalin, Polpot, Hitler or Mao in with everyone – we’d lose all credibility in any crowd.

    Or how about this – imagine if there’s a political party nominating a presidential candidate who happens to be an atheist. Good, right? Now imagine if they pulled what Peace and Freedom did back in the day and nominate the atheist analogue of Roseanne Barr – say, TJ (the Amazing Atheist) for example.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Whoops. You’re right – thanks for the correction. I’ll change the post.

  • GCT

    …we’ve been ripping ourselves apart the last few years with the A+ stuff.

    What, because misogyny in the atheist movement wasn’t doing that? Fighting for inclusion of minority voices isn’t ripping us apart, unless you count the debris from bigoted assholes being left out. Personally, I think we’ll gain more from inclusion of minority voices than we’ll lose from those bigoted assholes.

  • gimpi1

    I think a conservative case can be made for most of these points. Reproductive choice, marriage-equity and choice in dying are all issues of personal freedom. Better public education used to be supported by all, as a way of helping everyone to be better informed and more productive. Supporting climate-change action and pure scientific research are important for societal stability and business profitability, issues of importance to conservatives. A strong social safety net is the hardest case to make, but the reduced governmental costs in policing, incarceration and the criminal-justice system can make some conservatives support many aspects of a strong social safety net.

    The problem I see right now is that the conservative position generally does not appear to be a thoughtful one. It seems to me that people consider themselves conservative either out of habit (I’ve always voted Republican) or fear (The world is changing too fast! Make it stop!) Habit and fear don’t make for thoughtful decision-making or debate.

  • pennyroyal

    late term abortions are very few and are done for the most extreme of reasons (to save the life of the woman is most common). I think it’s wrong for us (bystanders) or for any politician, priest, clergy, judge or anyone else so substitute their judgement for the woman and her doctor. Substitutionary judgment is not just wrong, it’s unethical.

  • pennyroyal

    yes, but did Silverman throw women under the bus on abortion rights to further his ends?


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