Surprise, right-wing atheists do exist

The world, it seems, is waking up to the existence of politically right-wing atheists, who prove that you don’t have … Continued

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.

Susan Jacoby
Written by

  • WmarkW

    >you don’t have to believe in God to believe in the innate superiority of white and Asian brainsName anything first invented by the sub-Saharan Africans, more recent than clothing>the ruinous impact of immigration on American societyIllegal immigrants take jobs and depress the wages of the least skilled Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black. Income inequality has been getting worse for 30 years, and the continued importation of cheap labor is part of the reason.Also, the children of illegal immigrants are showing dissapointing educational attainment and are creating a second generation of unskilled laborers? Is that where a secular, scientific, feminist society is going to come from?>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 civilizationUntil recent centuries, people without food starved. It took less intelligence to gather food than it did to practice year-round agriculture, which took less than practicing seasonal agriculture. Guess what? The advancement of societies before mass migrations started 500 years ago, was almost precisely correlated with their food production techniques.I don’t worship markets nearly as much as other people who call themselves conservatives do. President Reagan passed an economic program based on Republican economic beliefs. President Clinton passed one based on the opposite assumptions. In both cases the economy expanded, so what do you make of that?Our immediate priority needs to be improving the quality of jobs. Neither the Repubs or Dems are going to get us there, because they’re too focused on transferring income to the rich who haven’t earned it, the poor who haven’t earned it, foreigners who take jobs or businesses that give them away. We need a middle-class workers revolt.However, jobs aren’t going to be improved as long as diversity and affirmative action requirements are in place, because businesses won’t create good jobs if they won’t be allowed to hire the best candidates for them.But I also don’t believe in current Republicanism. They talk about the years 1950-65 as an era when people had values, as evidenced by a record marriage rate and baby boom. They ignore the role played by the economic conditions of them time, when a family could make it on one income and people felt secure enough in their jobs to put down long-term roots in a community. The Repubs don’t understand the role their free-agent economy has played in free-agent family and community values.

  • wbthacker

    Ms. Jacoby, I consider myself a conservative atheist, and what you wrote in this essay is as bigoted and hateful as anything written by the social conservatives you detest.How can you bear to stereotype people like this? You’ve chosen the worst examples that can be labeled “conservative atheism”, and tarred us all with their stupidity. That’s rich irony, as it’s the same technique fundamentalists use to argue against teaching evolution — they link it to Social Darwinism, thence to Hitler.You conflate all these terms:- politically right-wing atheistsReally? You think these all describe the same set of people?Wake up to THIS reality: There are atheists who consider themselves conservative for reasons other than ignorant racism or a desire to uphold bronze-age social customs. Some of us identify with conservative economic principles; we think capitalism works better than socialism, or we think you don’t get out of debt by deficit spending. Some of us are essentially libertarians who want minimal government intrusion and we don’t support the ever-broadening government power sought by liberals. We don’t support conservatives’ social goals, but we don’t support liberals’ economic ideas either. We aren’t in lock step with either party.It used to be common to refer to someone as “socially conservative” versus “fiscally conservative”, recognizing that how a person feels about gay rights or abortion has nothing to do with what they think about economics. Is that too nuanced for you?And here’s a final bombshell: there are liberal atheists who are racists and believe in Social Darwinism, too.

  • wineought

    The above posters object to the description of conservative atheism as reliant on fragments of soft social science, but insist that their brand of conservatism is backed by economic and political theory.As for conflating so many (admittedly similar) groups of conservative atheists, it seems somewhat necessary to even discuss the topic. It is not a popular ideology, and it seems even more splintered than atheism in general (hard to believe, I know).

  • YEAL9

    Let us start with:Definitions of right wing :•right: those who support political or social or economic conservatism; those who believe that things are better left unchanged•rightist: believing in or supporting tenets of the political right•In politics, right-wing, rightist and the Right are generally used to describe support for a stratified society to promote or preserve social order or traditional values. …•Winger, in hockey, is a forward position of a player whose primary zone of play on the ice is along the outer playing area. They typically work by flanking the centre forward. Originally the name was given to forward players who went up and down the sides of the rink. …•of the more conservative or reactionary faction of a party etc•the more right-wing faction of a group or party; the right-hand side of a sports field; the offensive player who plays to the center’s right•Describes a group or person that supports the existing social and political order or longs for a return to an earlier time. Orthodox, reactionary, conservative. In US politics, usually associated with the Republican Party, and supportive of laissez-faire economic policies and a robust military. …

  • Grubbles

    “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”

  • WmarkW

    I’m a big fan of Heather MacDonald. (Heather and Susan are my point-counterpoint of how to think of many urban social problems.) Her statement about 9/11 was so much that she had discovered theodicy, but that it crystalized why religion-even-if-false-is-good-for-morals is wrong. I remember one On Faith panelist arguing that even if God doesn’t exist, we should act as if He does. Maybe, if you limit God to acting to punish wrong acts in afterlife, this is a harmless idea. But when God starts commanding you to act against the heathens who don’t share your beliefs, it’s time to abandon it.On MacDonald’s webpage, I couldn’t find anything specifically about Katrina; but I don’t think “experiencing bad luck is always the fault and consequences of bad decision-making” is necessarily every conservative’s manta. We have fire insurance because fire could happen to anyone.The issue then becomes “moral hazard.” Did too many people live in New Orleans in the first place, because they correctly believed America wouldn’t let them die of flood? It’s the same question about welfare, about which MacDonald writes often. If we knew that zero children additional would be born to unwed, uneducated teens by having welfare available, then we’d make sure it was. But what do we do when its availability starts empowering the birth rate?

  • kivahut

    “In search of a new age of reason.” Really?

  • jkarpf

    Don’t forget the conservative and libertarian atheists who refuse to support — or who even oppose — reproductive rights because they feel that the power of law that’s required to support it is an infringement of individual freedom, or is a threat to the social stability of political patriarchy.

  • goliah

    Atheism and secularism exist in direct response to the vacuous, impotent and nonsensical nature of religion passed on by history, theology and tradition. Any ‘new age of reason’ will only come about when this self evidently false paradigm of faith and empty hope is replaced by a religious conception meeting our Enlightenment criteria of testable scrutiny, demonstrable insight and evidence based results. It may already be happening!

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    When I was reading this, I was thinking of Wmarkw, and I was imagining the kind of comments he would post. And of course, he did.

  • NoSacredCow

    Ummm ever hear of Ayn Rand, the poster child of the Libertarians and the new right movement???Atheist.

  • SteveAhlquist

    The term conservative atheist is an oxymoron. Libertarians and objectivists still believe in things that can’t be proven and in fact are demonstrably false. They might as well believe in ghosts and fairies for all the logic and critical thinking they bring to a subject.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Now that we have high speed Internet, we are more informed with better chance of learning what is a lie or what is true. The existence of a supreme being is a lie and more and more people are realizing it. That is why there are atheists in any side of the political/social spectrum.

  • Rubak

    Hi, my name is J. Rubak and I’m a male conservative, atheistic, liberal, intellectually inquisitive, patriotic, American, Russian, German ex-Jew, non-drinking Irish, west-coast, left-wing, right-wing, heterosexual, son, grandson, brother, uncle, nephew, loving, caring, fiancee, father, city boy, nerdy, rock-n-rolling, break dancing, R&Bing, country, world music, top 40, sagittarian, boar, rock climbing, website designing, martial artist, philosopher, employee, manager, business owning, rags-to-riches, bankrupt, independent, libertarian, world-view, individualist, blaspheming, realistic, Mensa-level IQ, egotistical idiot.Or do you require more nouns and adjectives to properly classify me?

  • WmarkW

    Looks like the subject matter of this week’s column was too hot for On Faith to handle; they unlinked it from the Main Page after only a few hours, killing the commenting.The issue is not going away. America has exited the era in which a large baby boom workforce filled government coffers and financed educational experiments based on the theory that more resources would close achievement gaps. We’ve entered a period in which tough choices will have to be made about where to allocate resources for things like education. And if continued achievement gaps persist, faith-based egalitarian thinking is going to lead more and more dubious solutions along the lines of charter schools, parochial system vouchers and breaking teachers unions for failing to find the secret to unlocking their minds.

  • ki7wh1

    Oh, Susan. You, like all ideologues–right or left–see issues through the template of acceptable ideas and notions. When you deny IQ, or the concept of “g” for general intelligence, as real, you deny the notion of different abilities. You use “social science” to support this notion. But, social scientists are particularly guilty with respect to denial of what they consider unacceptable ideas under the guise of science. Even if you can’t force yourself to accept the superbly documented and argued “Bell Curve”, you can at least listen to the brilliant, top of his field psychologist (and atheist) Steven Pinker, who condemns the “social science” model in very strong and cogent terms.

  • softwarenerd

    Your ideas on Ayn Rand are straw-men.1. Rand did not write about genetic endowment, nor about any inborn ability. In fact, she insisted that man is born tabula rasa.2. Rand’s single essay on racism condemns it as tribal collectivism that she despised.3. Rand was an immigrant, and strongly for free immigration. A majority of Objectivists support open immigration. If welfare were to be dismantled, Objectivist would all be for open immigration of anyone except those who want to steal or wage war.Check your facts.

  • armandduncan83

    Susan, I don’t know how anyone who regularly reads your columns or your books could possibly peg you as a “sentimental woman.” Whatever tender emotions you may have possessed at one time have clearly been replaced by anger and hatred.Take that, you right-wing bastards.