How common are godless liberals?

By Razib Khan | February 24, 2012 7:43 am


I’m going to be speaking at the Moving Secularism Forward conference in Orlando next week. They invited me because I’m a conservative atheist public intellectual, and the three other conservative atheist public intellectuals in the United States were presumably busy. In any case, going over what I’m going to talk about I was double-checking political breakdowns by atheist & agnostic proportions and ideology in the General Social Survey for after the year 2000.

I used the “GOD” variable, which asks people about their belief in God. Those who did not believe, or said there was no way to find out, I classed as “atheists & agnostics.” This means that the total percentages in the population are higher than self-reports; that’s because the word atheism in particular has a negative connotation (I recall that Julia Sweeney’s parents were tolerant of the fact that she did not believe in God, but were aghast that she was an atheist!). “POLVIEWS” what the variable which I crossed “GOD” with. It has seven responses, from very liberal to very conservative, and I just put all liberals and conservatives into one category.

The first table displays what proportion in the whole society atheist & agnostic liberals (or conservatives) are. Since the total proportion of atheists & agnostics is small, naturally these percentages are small. The two subsequent tables just display what percentage of atheists & agnostics are liberal, or what percentage of liberals are atheist & agnostic.


All cells combined = 100%
Atheist and agnosticNot atheist or agnostic

Rows = 100%
Atheist and agnostic49.7%30.6%19.7%
Not atheist or agnostic24.7%39.0%36.3%

Rows = 100%
Atheist and agnosticNot atheist or agnostic

When I see these results I’m always surprised by the proportions of atheists & agnostics who define themselves as conservative. It seems way too high. I think this is due to libertarians who check the conservative option.

MORE ABOUT: Atheism, Religion

Comments (18)

  1. marcel

    A question for RK that is perhaps too personal:

    … libertarians who check the conservative option.

    Doesn’t this describe you?

    I am a traditionalist and I suspect that my grandparents (had they been buried) would turn over in their graves if I did not follow family traditions. Therefore, I am among the unwashed horde in the A&A/liberal cell.

  2. Too bad the political data isn’t broken down into “leftist vs. rightist” and “libertarian vs. authoritarian”.

  3. Clark

    Could be economic conservatives. Of course there are some social conservative atheists of the Straussian variety. However libertarians like Penn Jillette clearly throw the categories out.

    Don’t know how significant it was but doing RELIGID vs PARTYID gives a more evened out perspective with only the “Strong Republican” being low for the Nones. (With Ind being highest)

    BTW – I liked was the ARIS report did. Ask if you have no religion. Avoids the stigma of atheist or agnostic. I personally suspect there are more atheists than normally reported precisely because of the stigma. And, as I’ve noted before, at a certain point it’s pretty hard to distinguish deists from atheists anyway.

  4. Jeff

    So you’re telling me you’re an atheist and you’re socially conservative? I don’t believe it for a second. There is no way an atheist can say “homosexuality is wrong” “birth control is wrong” etc.

    You’re not a conservative, you’re a *fiscal* conservative.

  5. Zephyr

    And what about those libertarians who opt for “liberal”? After all, the word “liberal” is misleading used in the US, the accurate expression should be “social liberal”, “social democrat”, “progressive”, or simply “socialist”. For instance, in the UK the Liberal Party has nothing to do with what in America is referred to as “liberal”

  6. Clark

    Jeff, Straussians sometimes think such things are useful for the masses but don’t apply to the elites. It’s not a view I personally espouse but it’s not at all uncommon. (You can find similar views going back to Voltaire) A lot of conservatives – especially amongst the pundit class – will preach moral rules they don’t accept for a moment. One can get a misleading view of the so-called “intellectual elite” of conservatism if one doesn’t recognize this aspect of the movement though. BTW – very few moral conservatives see birth control as wrong (not even most Catholics) although some may see giving birth control to teens as encouraging dangerous behavior.

    Zephyr, there aren’t very many libertarians who identify as liberals in my experience. There was a movement to start encouraging that during the last election cycle. (I seem to recall Wil Wilkerson encouraging liberaltarian for instance) Seems to me you typically end up with two groups: libertarians who hate both parties and libertarians who find conservatives the lesser of two evils and think they can get more done there. There are social libertarians who see that as the most important issue of course and can stomach heavy government regulation. (And let’s be honest, despite the rhetoric, it’s not like Republicans really hate government when they are in charge)

    Note: I’m neither a social conservative nor a libertarian. Lest anyone get any ideas.

  7. There is no way an atheist can say “homosexuality is wrong” “birth control is wrong” etc.

    Jeff, please enlighten us. It seems you view belief in God as mandatory for making those types of moral judgments. I disagree. Seems to me an atheist could have secular reasons for making those statements, e.g., some atheist might think human fecundity is the highest good, another might think maintaining the traditional values of one’s culture/society/ethnicity is the highest good, etc.

  8. bender

    marcel, how in the world can you be traditionalist and be a liberal? I understand being agnostic or atheist, but liberalism and traditionalism do not mix.

    Unless of course, we are using different definitions.

  9. Jacob Roberson

    Illiberal, moralizing atheism -> look at Stalinism. (Biggest example, although there are others.)

  10. So you’re telling me you’re an atheist and you’re socially conservative?

    i didn’t say anything like that. if you restate what i say in your own words like that again, i’ll ban you. and don’t be a retard on this thread people, or i’ll close it.

  11. DK

    I think the key is to distinguish between economic and social conservatism. While obviously connected, the two are not necessarily overlapping.

  12. Moshe

    You don’t need to believe in a diety to prefer traditional ways of living. It’s upsetting that even at a blog of this intellectual caliber there are commentators who can’t wrap their heads around the possibility of someone not subscribing to the God Hypothesis while also not being under the sway of the radical social agenda that seeks to overturn how most human beings have organized their lives and emotions since time immemorial.

    Only Razib can speakk for himself (and has, to great confusuion among the commentariot), but one can see a place for light governmental regulation and safety netting combined with some appreciation for traditional approaches to social structuring (aka: conservativism) without being driven to that opinion by some sacred text.

  13. Ddraig werdd

    Well, I am an atheist and I’m also socially conservative. So it’s possible. Maybe you should get out more. Of course, not being American I don’t have identical concerns with social conservatives in the US

  14. dave chamberlin

    I think a lot of intelligent open minded people define themselves as liberal or conservative from their original simplistic viewpoint, not from their evolved complex one. I consider myself a liberal but I found it a bit ironic I couldn’t disagree with even one point of Razib’s political ideology that he went into detail a while back, and he defines himself as conservative. Tis a sad and disheartening world where wonder ceases and simple answers to complex questions are all that people want or need. For the life of me I can’t fathom, I can’t begin to understand those that have surrendered their humble honesty of what they don’t know for slogans, for emotions, for fear.

  15. You’ll have a hard time separating social conservatism from religious convictions in the American context. I understand the Straussian perspective of conservatism, which places a rather high burden of proof on the merits of “progressive” social ideas. And I see how neo-conservatives often preach a different sermon to the masses than to themselves. But social conservatism in America is thoroughly intertwined with church doctrines, which oftentimes are used in politics to serve no secular purpose whatsoever (e.g. the anti-birth control movement, the anti-stem cell research movement, climate change deniers, anti-gay politics, “Intelligent Design,” National Prayer Day, etc.).

    Some “progressive” ideas that social conservatives earnestly resist unambiguously meet the burden of proof required by hesitant Straussians, as these ideas serve the basic principles of the Enlightenment far better than the reactionary opposition. An atheist may value human fecundity, but cannot consider it an absolute good in principle. Similarly, atheists are incapable of considering abortion or homosexuality inherently “evil,” as they do not believe in evil in the first place. Any negative aspects that an atheist may see in gays and abortion must be balanced with the positive implications of gay rights and abortion rights. Religious people use absolutes to make their moral judgments (good vs. evil, in many cases). Atheists have no “divine” compass to conveniently make ethical decisions for them, and therefore are more inclined to consider evidence and reason when making moral judgments. The anti-gay sentiments don’t hold up under such scrutiny. And the backlash against the gay rights movement is a huge part of social conservatism in the U.S. (one of the two hallmarks of the religious right, according to Robert Putnam’s newest book “American Grace”).

    Until someone explains it to me better, I cannot understand how an atheists’ secularly-derived social priorities could possibly overlap so heavily with the religious right that the atheist considers herself a social conservative. If you wish to enlighten me, please consider the two central political issues of the religious right: abortion rights and gay marriage.

  16. Similarly, atheists are incapable of considering abortion or homosexuality inherently “evil,” as they do not believe in evil in the first place.

    that’s kind of retarded.

  17. Wow, Razib, thanks for contributing such keen insight.

  18. Plonk

    I have a hard time right now understanding what all those labels really mean to people anymore. It all made more sense even five years ago. Maybe I’m just getting old. Everything looks fuzzier than it did.

    Is homosexuality wrong? Not in my book. I think the argument that gay marriage *might* undermine traditional marriage is pretty weak. Looks to me like a natural outgrowth of the idea that marriage is a freely-chosen union of two individuals. I quite like that idea, don’t care to go back to the more institutional view that was so bound up in rigid gender roles.

    But do I want any of my kids to be gay? Well, no, not really.

    And then I find myself in the odd position of been a pronatalist pro-choicer too.

    Are big families great, even if they are pretty poor? Sure!
    Should anyone be forced into giving birth just because they had sex? Lord, no.
    Do I think single/poor parents should be entitled to some level of state support for their kids? Yes!
    Do I think single women of limited means should probably have abortions instead of babies? Yes! (hey, nothing stifles your options on the job AND the marriage market like a rugrat. I’d drive my daughter halfway across the country for an abortion if needed. But I’d prefer not to have to.)

    Economically, I disregard anything that comes out of anyone’s mouth if it’s proceded with “The country’s going bankrupt! The Chinese own us now!” Especially if you also tell me that we are printing money like mad. One of those things may be true, but I don’t see how they can both be.

    I don’t believe in God, at least, not a God who is much fussed about us on anything resembling an individual level, have respect for the traditions of my elders but recognize that those traditions arose out of circumstances that aren’t necessarily ours, and generally oppose attempts to preserve their superstitions in amber.


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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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