Liberal Atheists

Liberal Atheists June 8, 2012

Adam Lee over at Daylight Atheism considers that fact that so many atheists are liberals.

All these data points show that, while there’s no necessary connection between atheism and progressive political views, in practice it usually does work out that way. I leave it up to you, readers, to weigh in on why that is. Are these the correct views, and atheists, being the most rational people around, are more likely to hit on them? (That’s obviously the most self-serving possibility.) Are we driven by an instinctive rejection of the political views that have most commonly been supported by religion? Absent a belief in heaven, do we put greater emphasis on compassion and fairness in this life? Or is there another explanation I haven’t considered?

I tend to think that the connection between atheism and liberalism is a product of our history. I think it’s telling that when we look back at American history, we see freethinkers, agnostics and atheists becoming most prominent during moments of great religious conservatism. The Freethinkers – call it the first wave of atheism – showed up during the Second Great Awakening. Frances Wright, Abner Kneeland and the rest argued for women’s equality and abolition as much as they argued against religion.

The second wave, with folks like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Robert Ingersoll, came during the retrenchment of conservatism following the shock of the Civil War. We shouldn’t forget that Ingersoll did speeches for the radical Republicans as well as speeches against Christianity, and Stanton is one of the more interesting thinkers in America’s liberal tradition.

And of course this current wave, if I can call it that, could be a reaction to the rise of the Religious Right.

It seems to me that it takes something to get atheists to join together and shout. The lack of a belief in God is not enough to rally the troops. It’s when religion is being used to perpetuate inequality that you really start to see some pushback.

American Christianity has been used to underwrite the status quo, with all of its little hierarchies and inequalities. As Corey Robin has pointed out, the preservation of these hierarchies has been the role of the people we call conservatives. As he put it in the NTY Review of Books:

Conservatism is a moral vision in which excellence depends upon hierarchy. Inequality is the means, not the end—that is a belief, I show, shared by everyone from Burke to Ayn Rand, the slaveholders to Ludwig von Mises.

It is not always true that, as Ophelia suggests, “god stands for hierarchy and obedience.” There have been radical egalitarian versions of Christianity. But it is true that the conservatives have generally carried the argument in Western society.

With Christianity being combined with conservatism, it’s not surprising that a rejection of religion should sometimes come alongside a rejection of conservatism. I suppose the rejection of both is part of the grand tradition of American freethought. It’s a tradition we continue as we fight for women’s equality and equality in marriage.

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