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Why the Right Needs More Atheism
Too many on the Right view wokeness as a product of atheism and the cure as a return to traditional religions.
If you were an atheist during the height of the New Atheist movement in the mid-2000’s, your place on the political Left seemed clear. The “Moral Majority” of the 80’s was still in recent memory, which had influenced an evangelical Right that aimed to remove evolution from schools, put prayer into it, and ban gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Left at least appeared to be on the side of science and reason.
Today, the place of those without faith is murkier. With the notable exception of abortion, the Religious Right’s battles from that decade were almost universally lost. And while the New Atheist movement’s most prominent figures haven’t gone on to become MAGA-hat wearing conservatives (as Sam Harris won’t let anyone forget), they have almost universally moved right-ward as the Left has made numerous attempts to cast them out over perceived secular heresies. Salon writer Émile Torres has meticulously documented how nearly all of the major New Atheists from Sam Harris to Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and more, have been supposedly “swallowed up” by the “prejudiced, racist, dogmatic, ethnocentric, closed-minded and authoritarian” far-Right.
As Reality’s Last Stand’s Founding Editor Colin Wright aptly illustrated in his viral cartoon, it’s unclear how much of that movement reflects a real ideological change by those individuals as opposed to the political environment shifting beneath their feet. But what is clear is that many New Atheists are aware of the phenomenon; Bill Maher, who mocked the Religious Right in his hit 2008 documentary Religulous, discussed his and Elon Musk’s affinity with the cartoon on his show earlier this year. The Left has similarly cast out Maher over his criticism of woke progressives.
Where this new class of politically homeless atheists should go to make common cause has been a difficult question. According to polling conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, the number of those who lack a religious affiliation tripled amongst Republicans between the height of the New Atheist movement in 2006 and 2022, but the Democratic Party nonetheless remains the clear favorite of the religiously unaffiliated, more than tripling their share of religiously unaffiliated party members in that same period for a total of 31 percent.
Why is this? Atheists generally attribute their worldview to valuing science and reason, and the contemporary Left’s increasing hostility to those values, at least in practice, has become transparently clear. Active denial of the reality of biological sex is driving policy in blue states, “noble lie” after lie was told about COVID in order to communicate a “very simple message,” entire academic fields have been conquered by activists willing to publish content with a literally comic lack of scientific merit so long as it forwards an ideological agenda, and those who question all this are being silenced and removed from the scientific process. The post-Trump era has seen a massive political realignment: neoconservatives have become the Democratic Party’s biggest boosters, corporate America has also moved Left in reaction to ESG incentives, and blue-collar workers and Hispanic-Americans have drifted towards a more populist Right. Atheists ought to be up for grabs as well.
But atheists can’t be won into a political coalition that still sees its victory as a necessarily religious victory and actively shuns non-believers. Instead, atheists ought to properly be viewed by the Right as natural allies in a culture war against a Left captured by, as John McWhorter has so eloquently explained, a new religion of “wokeness.” The religion of wokeness, more accurately labeled as Critical Social Justice, takes on blind faith the notion that all of society is socially constructed (including silly ideas like “biological sex”), people ought be defined by their membership in socially constructed groups (such as “whiteness”), all inequality is the result of the unjust exercise of power perpetrated by privileged groups against allegedly marginalized groups, these groups are perpetually at conflict, and revolutionary activism is the only proper ritual for repentance and achieving salvation. Wokeness is fundamentally a Left-wing religion because it holds the belief that hierarchies are solely the product of unjust exercises of power. The defense of the naturalness of hierarchies is the defining feature of the Right, although this does not necessarily mean endorsing any one particular hierarchy. Which hierarchies are proper remains the source of fierce dispute within the Right.
Sadly, too many on the Right view wokeness as a product of atheism and the cure as a return to traditional religions. It does seem plausible that the decline of religion led to a crisis of meaning that wokeness, long lying in wait in the darkest corners of academia, leveraged to grow. But the Religious Right has never provided a good reason for why atheism must lead to wokeness; in fact atheism regularly leads to worldviews such as Ayn Rand’s both fiercely atheistic and Right-wing Objectivism. The rise of woke churches and the many clergy members who participated in developing woke ideology also challenges the Religious Right’s position. While it's true that many atheists embraced woke ideology quickly (the rise of wokeness contributed to the collapse of the New Atheist movement), this reaction can be expected due to progressives lacking the psychological hesitancy towards change, which is a core feature of conservatism. Atheism and wokeness both represent major cultural changes. People need deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, and when religion fails to credibly provide those, they will search for alternatives. But blind faith isn’t the only way to find meaning; even perhaps New Atheism’s most prominent star Sam Harris has long understood the human need for spirituality and has focused his contemporary career on helping others find and experience it.
The gravely mistaken view that opposing atheism and opposing wokeness are one and the same dooms the Right to certain failure and ensures victory for the authoritarian woke. In order to win, the Right needs the growing demographic of non-believers in its coalition. To win over these non-believers and safeguard American culture, the Right needs to incorporate atheism more prominently into its philosophical outlook.
To be clear, while this position won’t satisfy those who prioritize proselytizing their faith over winning our political and culture war, it does not necessarily require one to denounce their faith or Judeo-Christianity’s purported role in forming American society. While Rand and her followers have argued compellingly that classical liberal values and the enlightenment from which they flowed were the consequence of a resurrection of atheistic Aristotelian ideas defeating the irrationalism of Abrahamic religion that had dominated the West for the millennia prior, the Religious Right doesn’t tend to see it that way. Their narrative is generally that the values instantiated in America’s system of government and historical culture were a direct result of the religious faith of its founders. But to argue that the Right needs more atheism doesn’t require picking a side in this debate. The Right can continue to acknowledge the role that religious faith has historically played in developing and spreading the dominant moral values held throughout Western society, while also recognizing that in today’s world something has clearly gone deeply awry in religion’s ability to continue to self-replicate. In order for the values within Christianity to survive the dire threat wokeness poses to them, those values need a new package that can successfully serve as their vehicle.
It’s not surprising that individuals still active in traditional religion would believe their faith can be persuasive to others en masse, but the evidence is squarely against them. While some data suggests that religious believers may increase as a percentage of the global population in the coming decades, this projection relies on expectations drawn from the higher birth rates within religious communities rather than religion maintaining any of the persuasive ability it had in centuries past. When measured by individuals rating the importance of god in their lives, religion is in decline not merely in America, but almost ubiquitously around the world.
There are multiple causes for this decreasing attachment to religion, but it seems impossible to reasonably deny the role that modern science has played not only in providing a means more credible than faith in ancient texts to explain the nature of existence, but in actively disproving numerous concrete claims made by traditional religions. It is simply harder to believe now.
To their credit, many churches and religious apologists have reinterpreted their doctrine to fit with modern scientific findings like evolution and the age of the universe (to name just two of many examples), but from the outside these repeated changes to get with the times appear to be a result of motivated reasoning. There is no shortage of deeply intelligent religious thinkers who have valued the tools of reason as demonstrated by figures such as Aquinas, Maimonides, and many modern religious scientists. However, when you reason down from an incorrect and unquestionable premise—an article of faith—you will ultimately squander your time and be unable to persuade those who do not share your faith-based assumption.
If not religion, what then can serve to spread Right-wing, classical liberal values to the masses? That vehicle still needs a lot of design work, but the first step to building it is to understand our need for it. Religious people regularly claim it’s impossible to have a grounding for morality without faith in god, but the mere existence of the philosophical field of metaethics proves them wrong, nevermind that using an entity whose existence and nature is disputed as moral grounding hardly seems like a route to convincing non-believers or members of competing faiths. Religious wars have been the typical historical result following such failed attempts at persuasion. Rand’s Objectivism was a brilliant and groundbreaking attempt at building this vehicle and deserves renewed attention, study, and advocacy. But perhaps due to her personality, intentionally provocative messaging, or hostility to even her most minor critics and attempts to build upon or change her work, its following has remained niche. An evolutionary or biological look at why our species has developed moral systems and how certain social values have led to our flourishing also deserves further development as a potential grounding.
Religion has dominated the West for most of recorded history, but so too did travel by horse. Progressives lack the conservative impulse to treat change with caution and carefully maintain that from our past which has enabled our flourishing. But religion is no longer working at protecting our society from a dangerous ideology that will lead to (and is already starting to cause) mass suffering. Continue to ride horses if you want to, but don’t expect our modern roads to work while congested by them.
Joseph (Jake) Klein is the Virginia State Director for Atheists for Liberty and Director of Media Production at the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. He served as an executive producer on the feature film No Safe Spaces and a producer on The Politically Incorrect Guide series. He is also the author of the upcoming book Redefining Racism: How Racism Became “Power + Prejudice.” Follow him on Twitter @josephjakeklein.
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