The world, it seems, is waking up to the existence of politically right-wing atheists, who prove that you don’t have to believe in God to believe in the innate superiority of white and Asian brains; the ruinous impact of immigration on American society (unless the immigrants have white or Asian brains); the infallibility and supremacy of that deity of conservatism, the market; and the idea that the poor are poor only because they are lazy and stupid.
It wounds me that members of the national media find the existence of right-wing atheists a surprising phenomenon, because it means they haven’t been reading the comments on this blog, where angry, godless right-wing men regularly take me to task for being a sentimental woman who won’t accept the junk science, directly descended from 19th-century social Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”, which maintains that the wretched of the earth deserve their wretchedness and the rich are rich because they are truly “the fittest.” In this world view, environment means almost nothing: we are who and what we are by virtue of our genetic endowment at birth.
In its weekly “Beliefs” column, The New York Times discovered the anomalous (to their columnist Mark Oppenheimer) existence of conservative atheists who differ from their godly Christian right counterparts only because the former do not believe in God. The column quotes several contributors to the blog Secular Right, described as “part of a small faction on the right: conservatives with no use for religion.”
Heather Mac Donald, a contributor to Secular Right, is quoted as an original thinker because she has written, “I am puzzled by the logic of a John Ashcroft saying that while the wonderful people at the Justice Department contributed to keeping America safe, that really the ultimate gratitude is due to God. If that is true, why did God leave us vulnerable on 9/11?” This is brilliant, original thought? I asked the same question when, at age 7, I saw a friend’s brother, stricken with polio, in an iron lung. It is is called the theodicy problem–the question of how a merciful, all-knowing God can allow evil to occur in his world–and it is the reason why most atheists became atheists in the first place regardless of their views on politics. So Mac Donald presumably did not view Hurricane Katrina as God’s judgment on America for homosexuality. And I’ll bet–just guessing–she didn’t think the government should spend a dime to help people in New Orleans. The difference between the secular left and the secular right is that the secular left asks the same question about why God allows some children to be born into hopeless poverty and violence–say, in Sudan–and some into families and nations rich with opportunity. The secular right’s basic answer is that children born into poverty are simply the culmination of generations of breeding by the genetically unfit.
I took a look at Secular Right to see how its regular contributors reacted to the new-found fame of the blog in the Times. Not surprisingly, bloggers who weren’t quoted were miffed at the bloggers who were. Blogger Dan Riehl called the Times article “hogwash” because it it focused on belief in God. “Saying one has to be a social conservative to be conservative is not the same as saying one must believe in God,” he noted. “Social conservatism is an appreciation of what will happen to society in the face of a collapse of traditional institutions and values. Invariably, the society declines. We see it in single mothers, otherwise broken families, crime, and individual unwilling to take responsibility for themselves and elsewhere [sic].” I rather admire the bloggers at Secular Right for being willing to voice their views under their own names and take responsibility for what they say (and for their bad grammar). And Riehl has a point: there is no particular reason, except in an America that assumes all religion is invariably good and there can be no morality without faith in God, why atheism should lead to social liberalism rather than social conservatism.
In the United States, though, the vast majority of people who describe themselves as secularists or atheists are politically liberal. But this generalization does not apply to other countries, and it is not true historically. While political conservatives have upheld state religions as a reinforcer of social order, they have not always upheld religious faith in general–much less religious liberty for all. The Roman Stoic philosophers, who certainly did not believe in a personal God in anything like the modern evangelical sense, upheld state polytheistic religion simply because they considered it part of civil order. Objections to Jews and Christians in the late Roman empire were based not on the Jews’ and Christians’ belief in their own deity but on their refusal to pay the proper respect due to Roman deities in public. In similar fashion, the horror of English conservatives like Edmund Burke at the French Revolution’s attack on the Roman Catholic church was based not on any love for Catholicism but on the breakdown of social order represented by assault on a state religion.
Secular social conservatives today tend to replace religion with science (that is, conservatively skewed social science) as a justification for their vision of social order. Most of these conservatives have a touching faith in the capacity of IQ tests to measure “innate” intellectual ability rather than the normative knowledge of a particular culture. Mainstream social science (what conservatives would call liberal social science) generally accepts that IQ tests measure what a culture has already taught its small children rather than innate potential. And all scientists know that intellectual differences among individuals within a group are far greater than intellectual differences, regardless of how they are measured, between large groups.. Would the children of the “Tiger Mother” have learned how to play the piano had they been raised by parents who thought music was a waste of time? Not unless they were musical geniuses in the first place, and probably not even if they were.
I see little difference between right-wing atheists today and the right-wing social Darwinists of the 19th century (most of whom were also atheists), who distorted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection in a state of nature and applied natural selection to man in a state of civilization. If the poor are truly fitted by nature only to be poor, then of course there is no point in government intervention, or any social intervention, to provide them with opportunities not conferred on them at birth. It is worth noting that social Darwinists in the 19th century were saying exactly the same thing about the burden that East European and Russian Jewish immigrants would impose on American society as the political right (both secular and religious) is saying about immigrants today. Those dirty, smelly immigrants from the shtetls in Poland and Russia–how could they be anything but a drag on forward-looking, dynamic, 19th-century America? And Asians–well, they were only good for the dangerous job of building the railroads. Who knew that they were actually smarter than Anglo-Saxons? Oh, if only there had been a standardized IQ test in the 19th century, we’d never have wasted the brains of the Chinese immigrants who laid the rails.
Atheists uneasily wedded to the political right rely only on the fragments of science–most of them soft social science rather than hard science–that lend support to their already-cherished beliefs. Liberals, both secular and religious, can of course be charged with the same unwillingness to face facts that do not support their already-held conclusions. But the tendency of some atheists to react with the same irrationality as the religious when confronted by evidence that contradicts their beliefs ought to provide a dose of humility for those who see all atheists as the embodiment of reason.
I have a hunch–and it is only a hunch, because opinion polls suggest otherwise–that there are more atheists among social and economic conservatives than Americans realize. The religious right has done such a good job of equating secularism with liberalism that some of its own most vociferous adherents don’t realize how many of their supporters worship no God but the God of the market, where no one is his brother’s keeper.