The strange land of atheist politicians

By Razib Khan | April 20, 2010 6:48 pm

There is some interest in the upcoming British election, and the renaissance of the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg. See this article in The New York Times about the rise of the Liberal Democrats at the expense of the two traditional parties of power, Labour and the Tories. One interesting fact from an American perspective is that Nick Clegg is an admitted atheist, though his children are being raised Roman Catholic by his wife. Of course the lack of faith of British politicians isn’t that new, two Prime Ministers were not even nominal believers, Clement Attlee was an agnostic and James Callaghan was an atheist.

This is of course in sharp contrast with the United States where all politicians operationally have to avow a religious affiliation, and the higher that a politician ascends up the ladder of achievement the more vocal and thorough the assertions of sincere faith have to become. And yet it is Britain which has an established church, where the head of state is the head of the church, and, religiously oriented schools receive public funding.

There are many models rooted in history one could propose, but the facts as they are would probably be unlikely to be inferred from prior axioms. It’s a reminder that human social affairs are the outcome of messy dynamics, and observation is often far easier than deep analysis. In 1800 one would reasonably have expected that it was in the United States where “infidel” politicians would flourish, and yet that has not been so.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Politics
  • Curt Cameron

    An “admitted atheist”?

    Would you say that JFK was an “admitted Catholic”?

  • Razib Khan

    chill out torquemada. you’re going to hell anyway! :-)

  • bioIgnoramus

    “Two” established churches, if you please. Though I’ll grant you that the Church of Scotland has taken to describing itself as the “National” rather than the “Established” Church, presumably to emphasise its tradition of separation of government of Church and State. (A tradition that, to be sure, was once keener on the state having no role in the government of the church than the church having no role in the government of the state.)

  • Ross

    “And yet it is Britain which has an established church”

    Religion works like any other industry, when it’s nationalised it becomes useless and unresponsive to ‘customer’ needs.

  • Razib Khan

    Religion works like any other industry, when it’s nationalised it becomes useless and unresponsive to ‘customer’ needs.

    no. this is way too simple. i’m aware of the supply-side model/rational choice model whereby religious denominations are like firms (i’ve read a lot of stark & iannacone).

    1) this has been falsified as a cross-cultural generality (more specifically, predictions of the model were falsified after the fall of communism)

    2) a cursory examination of cross-cultural facts would tell you this (though #1 has been statistically validated)

    you should read more and be careful about asserting about things which you don’t know much about. that’s a good general rule for readers.

  • Agnotio

    I think this apparent paradox can be resolved by thinking about individualism. Religion generally thrives in backwater areas where people rely on themselves, of which America certainly has a lot more. But more importantly, cultural individualism is rampant in the U.S., where everyone is entitled to the “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. I’ve heard the argument before that this form of individualism needs a countervailing force if people are to overcome anomie and alienation, and that is the collectivism provided by religion.

    The British are much more moderate in their religion simply because they don’t need to be extreme: the social support system is already in place in a well-grounded culture that is not all about the individual. Similarly, athiesm rates are probably so high in Asian because of their cultural collectivism. They simply don’t require religion to bind people together.

  • MattXIV

    My hypothesis is that the lack of a state church may have a causitive relationship with public religious expression in politics by setting social norms about public discussion of religious affiliation.

    In a society with a state church, the overwhelming majority will be members of that particular church and since there is normally some punitive aspect of non-membership, those who dissent will either avoid the question or claim to be part of the church anyway, so there isn’t much public discussion of religious affliation. In a society without an established church, the various sects will be publicly competing for membership, so public discussion of religious affliation becomes a social norm.

    Religion will be outside the normal realm of political discussion in the former case, so politicians with minority views are unlikely to be challenged on them while the society without establishment may be more tolerant of diversity in individual practice but politicans will be able to gain an electoral advantage by making identity politics appeals to the most common beliefs, so the expression of sufficiently broadly held beliefs will become necessary to remain competitive in politics.

  • David

    “Religion will be outside the normal realm of political discussion in the former case, so politicians with minority views are unlikely to be challenged on them” – I’m still not entirely convinced of why this should be so. Couldn’t we imagine a hypothetic state with an established religion where those who are not members are publicly shamed?

  • Gav

    Might also be possible to test Ross’ idea by comparing church attendance, membership trends in England and Wales since disestablishment in the 1920’s. Although there are lots of confounding factors like the relatively high rates of non-conformism in Wales which actually led to disestablishment. Nice little paper for somebody – no shortage of data.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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