Republicans, Don't Alienate the Atheists
As the Left undergoes an ideological purity spiral, the Right has a golden opportunity to give these godless political wanderers a home.
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Earlier this week, conservative commentator Charlie Kirk had Fox News host Tucker Carlson on his show, The Charlie Kirk Show, to discuss morality and values, faith, God and godlessness, and their relationship to politics. At one point in the show, the discussion narrowed down specifically to their thoughts on atheism, about which Carlson said:
My tolerance for atheism has really dwindled to nothing at this point. My tolerance for people who are agnostic, or aren’t really sure, or seeking… [Carlson nods in approval] But the idea that people who are completely certain as a matter of religious faith that there’s no God, I just find it hilarious and like so childish I just can’t take it seriously.
Halfway through Carlson’s statement, Kirk interjects, “I totally agree with this.”
Firstly, it would behoove Carlson to understand what most people who don the “atheist” label actually believe, as you would be hard-pressed to find one who describes their views as being “completely certain…that there’s no God.” This is a mischaracterization that self-described atheists have been trying to correct for a long time, apparently to no avail. In reality, most atheists define “atheism” as simply “the lack of belief in a god or gods.” There is a world of difference between merely lacking a belief in something and being “completely certain” that something does not exist. The vast majority of atheists I have ever met—and I have met a lot—would never say they are certain that God does not exist.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Carlson’s statement that his “tolerance for atheism has really dwindled to nothing at this point” is a divisive blunder at a time when the Right can’t electorally afford it. There are many atheists—myself included—who have been alienated from the Left by the religious dogmatism of woke ideology, who have serious reservations about the Right, and yet are still poised to vote Republican for the first time ever in the next election. Making this group feel even more alienated and politically homeless than they currently do is a major misstep.
The Left’s historic appeal in the United States has largely rested on their ability to form a coalition of voters across a wide swath of diverse Americans by speaking to kitchen table and civil rights issues. But over the last decade that model has been increasingly abandoned. The Left’s adoption of woke ideologies has resulted in the complete desertion of their commitments to free speech and ideological diversity in favor of censorship and the superficial appearance of diversity rooted in skin color and an ever-expanding list purportedly “oppressed” intersecting identities.
For a long time, the atheist movement was nearly synonymous with the freethought movement. The Venn diagram of attendees at nominally “atheist” versus “freethought” conferences in the late 2000s and early 2010s was practically a single circle, and so the authoritarian woke insurgency that took over the atheist movement caused enormous tensions and rifts within. As a result of the dogmatic purity spiral overtaking the movement, many atheists simply left or were ran out altogether. But where are these disaffected and free speech loving atheists to go?
Now that the Left is becoming mired in ideological purity tests, thereby betraying their longstanding principles of diversity and inclusivity, the Right has a golden opportunity to give these godless political wanderers a home. But godless doesn’t mean morally depleted—a view that many on the Right appear to take joy in perpetuating. No, these are good people with a robust commitment to the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and bold truth seeking. The Right would be prudent to welcome them.
You can be religious. You can wish more people were religious. You can proselytize and try to convert people to your religion. But you can’t show intolerance toward non-belief if you want to form an effective coalition and win elections. Atheism has been steadily on the rise for decades, and demographic data indicates that it isn’t going away any time soon.
The atheist movement, while undeniably rabidly woke, wasn’t always that way. Though some individual atheists did undergo an ideological shift, most of the non-woke atheists such as myself simply left. And if we tried to return, their immune response would attack us. Unfortunately, many on the Right now look at the atheist movement and assume that it represents atheists as a whole. But it doesn’t.
While some non-woke atheists have set up new atheist organizations, such as Thomas Sheedy who founded Atheists for Liberty (for which I am an advisor), many of us who were active in the atheist movement feel that illiberal woke ideologies now pose a larger threat to society than theistic religions, and so we put most of our time and effort on that battlefront. But this requires forming alliances with those we had once quarreled with.
To be fair, many on the Right have welcomed atheists. I am one of them, and crossing enemy lines (so to speak) has for me debunked many prejudices about religious conservatives that I previously held. It has been an enormously humanizing experience, and has given me a new understanding of, and deep appreciation for, the many values we do share. While we may not always agree on how we arrived at those values, that’s a conversation for a different day. And this could very well be the experience for many more atheists, if those on the Right, like Charlie Kirk and Tucker Carlson, would begin debunking their own prejudices about secular atheists.
In the current moment, we need to be clear on where we choose to draw the lines that divide or unite us. Princeton professor Robert P. George said it beautifully in response to my criticisms of Carlson and Kirk on Twitter:
The fundamental divide in contemporary intellectual and political life is between those, be they religious or secular, who are determined truth-seekers and bold truth-speakers, and those who are not—the liars, the dissimulators, the dogmatists, the ideologues, the cowards.
Kirk’s and Carlson’s statements will not influence my vote. I’ve stated openly that I plan to vote Republican in the next election. But that may not be the case for many centrist atheists searching for a political home.
Let them in.