Atheist conservatives and libertarians are not rare

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2012 11:45 pm

A generous definition of rare I would think is 10% or less (you might argue for a more stringent threshold, but let’s work with 10%). So what are the politics of atheists? I bring this up because someone named Bridget Gaudette is looking for conservative and libertarian atheists to ask them about their views (so naturally I came up), but prefaced her inquiry to me by the assertion that “conservative/Republican” and “Libertarian” individuals in the “Atheist community” are rare. I don’t think this is empirically valid, depending on how you define the atheist community (e.g., atheist activists are probably to the Left of the median atheist). But even among the types who are motivated enough to attend secularist conferences, a substantial minority are non-liberals. I know because many people approached me after I spoke about my conservatism at the Moving Secularism Forward event last spring, and expressed their libertarianism, or specific conservative heterodoxies. Many of the young male atheists who I encountered in particular tended to be libertarians. Genuine self-identified conservatives are moderately rare, to be fair.

Nevertheless, to probe this question let’s look at the GSS. The variable GOD has a category which includes those who frankly state they “don’t believe” in God. These are by any definition atheists. I limited the data set to 1992 and later so as to take into account the reality that American politics have become more polarized over the past generation along religious lines (I would have used 2000, but the sample sizes started to get small for atheists).

As we’d expect atheists lean liberal and Democrat. But >20% of atheists in this data set identify as Republicans or conservatives. I think the conservative identification is somewhat misleading. Many of the “conservatives” are actually libertarian. That’s obvious because though atheists are diverse in relation to fiscal issues, they tend to be liberal on social issues. To give an example, let’s look at the difference between atheists and those who “know God exists” in the GSS on a social and fiscal issue.

Atheists are to the Left on fiscal issues, but only very slightly. Rather, where they are distinctive is their strong social liberalism. In some ways they are an appropriate comparison with black Americans. On social issues black Americans are diverse, with a median in the middle of the distribution. But on fiscal issues they tend to be more liberal (and skeptical of free market policies, which include free trade). Both atheists and blacks are strongly Democratic leaning constituencies, but for somewhat different reasons.

Another aspect of the atheist/freethought “community” which perplexes me is that despite their commitment to a diversity of viewpoints (barring their agreement on the God hypothesis), some seem awfully unaware of the radical atheist origins of much of the modern libertarian movement. I bring this up because a few years back I was privy to a conversation among people sympathetic to the skeptic movement who were shocked and somewhat dismayed that Michael Shermer is an avowed libertarian. One of the participants explained that many, perhaps most, strongly identified libertarians were actually not religious, to the obvious surprise and curiosity of the others, who had assumed that all skeptics would tend toward their politics.

Any libertarian with a consciousness of the lineage of their political tradition is aware of this. Ayn Rand was famously a militant atheist, but so was the famed curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s irreligion is widely known, but less so his Old Right politics which prefigured post-World War 2 libertarianism. Other libertarian thinkers of note, such as F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, may not have been militant in their lack of religion, but they were not religious individuals. More relevantly to the contemporary scene, prominent skeptics Penn and Teller are libertarians. From what I can gather they don’t hide their politics.

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  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    The polls seem to show a bias against modifiers (e.g. “strong”, “lean”).

  • http://www.astraean.com/borderwars Christopher@BorderWars

    I’ve noticed that many in the skeptic community treat secular humanism like a religion. AronRa comes to mind as someone who uses reason and logic to argue against Creationism but then resorts to specious logic in confronting libertarian thought.

  • jd

    Can’t say that I’m surprised. What your data shows is that individuals cannot be pigeonholed with a single label. “Liberal” and “Conservative” outside of the context of a particular, narrowly defined issue are fairly meaningless. But don’t most people who put any thought into it at all try to teach their kids that stereotyping individuals based on one’s perception of their inclusion of a large, heterogeneous group wrong? That is all this is, evidence that judging individuals based on large group stereotupes is invalid. That’s why I get irritated whenever I hear people say “Liberals” are like this and “Conservatives” are like that. It’s bunk. I have no problem with people saying the majority of people in a particular group can be expected to believe or act a certain way, but most people usually forget that “majority” part, even though they claim to mean that when they don’t say it. Time we paid more attention to what we are taught as children and act like we actually believe what we tell our kids. Yes, I know this statement can be shot through when details and everything is considered, I am talking about the really big things we intentionally try to teach our kids, not the idiocies we unintentionally or actually teach them. Don’t lie, don’t judge someone by the color of their skin, the Golden Rule, think before you act, etc.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    While I don’t dispute your central point, I’ve always been surprised at the number of atheist libertarians I’ve known who believe in inherent rights. By that I mean saying things like “there is no right to take a right away” to explain why, for example, redistribution of wealth is morally wrong.

    This always has me flummoxed, because IMHO materialism pretty much requires utilitarianism. You can certainly make utilitarian, data-based arguments in favor of libertarianism, but any absolutist arguments about rights just don’t pack the same punch if you don’t believe there is a deity which bestows those rights. Certainly you could argue that negative feelings like suffering, oppression, and frustration at control are universals across human societies, but the triggers which cause these feelings to arise will be different depending upon how the concept of “rights” has been socially defined.

    Generally though, I’ve found those libertarians to be people who have essentially (like many Marxists) basically accepted politics as a religion substitute. Thus they suck to have political discussions with in general, because they are arguing values, not data, and a consensus on values (except in a self-selected group) can never be achieved.

  • Chris_T_T

    Generally though, I’ve found those libertarians to be people who have essentially (like many Marxists) basically accepted politics as a religion substitute. Thus they suck to have political discussions with in general, because they are arguing values, not data, and a consensus on values (except in a self-selected group) can never be achieved.

    I’ve actually found this to be quite common among declared non-religious. A perusal of the ‘skeptic’ and atheist sites out there reveals this quite quickly.

    Chesterton’s statement, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything”, is disturbingly close to the mark.

  • Adriana

    Hi Razib, I have a question about the GSS data you used. You started it in 1992 because if you took only 2000 and on, the atheists would be too small. Since the numbers of atheists or at least “non-religious” have been growing in the US in the past few years, this led me to believe that going back to 1992 helps mainly because simply more people have been surveyed, cumulatively, and that’s how you end up with a bigger sample size for atheists than if you look at 2000 and on. Is that the case? If so, I personally think it is still interesting to look at 2000 and on and compare with 1992 on, it could indicate some trends; I would love it if you showed us the graphs even if the sample size was smaller, in any case you are not showing error bars so the graphs would be helpful to see trends, if not statistically significant numbers. The reason why I think the comparison would be interesting is that since conservative atheists seem to be mostly socially liberal, and since 2000, conservatism in the US has become more tied to more radically conservative attitudes, for example, anti-gay or anti-women’s rights, if the trend is towards conservatism losing ground in the atheist “community” in the US, this would mean that for atheists, social issues matter more than fiscal ones. If the opposite is true, if the ranks of conservative atheists have swollen since 2000, then it could mean that fiscal concerns trump social ones in this group of atheists.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    , “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything”, is disturbingly close to the mark.

    i don’t think it’s close to the mark. i thought chesterton’s point was that irreligion leads to all sorts of weird beliefs? that’s how moderns who roll that out (e.g., some catholics) portray it. surprisingly that doesn’t seem to be the case. people don’t start believing in elves and astrology that much more. and atheists in particular have a narrow set of clear and distinct beliefs which they think are entailed (too many i think; see atheism+).

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Since the numbers of atheists or at least “non-religious” have been growing in the US in the past few year

    the “non-religious” is a much bigger set that atheists. i would have gone with 2000. in fact, i exclude agnostics, colloquially understood, from the above analysis. the person say ‘atheist,’ so i went with that. i’ll check the data tonight, though the gss really isn’t that hard to query. variable GOD. POLVIEWS and PARTYID would help. use YEAR as the control.

  • Mark Plus

    @ Razib:

    >i don’t think it’s close to the mark. i thought chesterton’s point was that irreligion leads to all sorts of weird beliefs? that’s how moderns who roll that out (e.g., some catholics) portray it.

    Chesterton died before we had large numbers of atheists to study, and as you point out, the empirical evidence doesn’t support his opinion. For another example, consider the traditional christian belief in atheists’ alleged promiscuity, again dating from the time before we had large numbers of atheists to observe. Funny how that stereotype has changed since last year.

  • Chad

    Its a very dangerous thing to take “soundbites” from Chesterton without knowing the context. Not many read him anymore, but he loves to take arguments and flip them on their head and few people really bother to understand his unique views.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #10, clarify the context in this specific case please.

    (and of course, i tends to be his admirers who interject chesterton into discussions; he’s pretty obscure to everyone else)

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    just double-checked GK’s life. says he had a fascination with the occult as a young person. that definitely gives some context as to his intuitions.

  • Adriana

    Thanks for the tips on how to query, Razib, will try to run a query later today.

  • http://eggheaded.bannedatheists.us Joseph8th

    As I wrote in more detail here, tell us progressive atheists something we don’t know.

    Fact is, many atheists — especially women, homosexuals, and racial minorities — have been targeted by these same libertarian and conservative “young male atheists” for constant harassment and abuse. Like most libertarians and male conservatives, there’s a slymepit full of know-it-alls who come unhinged like Ron Paul supporters at the vaguest whiff of the idea that they’re not right and in charge all of the time.

    So, yeah, there’s libertarian and conservative atheists — and too many of them would rather destroy the movement than let it lean left.

  • T

    Joseph8th, please reread your posts here and on your blog. Perhaps you will recognize yourself in your caricature of others. Your baseless and hate-filled accusations don’t contribute to this discussion.

    I further ask you to consider that there is no more need for an atheist movement than there is for a round-earth society. Scientific facts don’t need to be crusaded for.

  • Chris_T_T

    I understand the context of Chesterton’s remark; the statement itself is what I was referring too. Very few people are able to consciously separate their values from objective fact. Combine that with the general human desire for some kind of driving purpose in life and you often end up with ideologies and doctrines that just happen not to include a deity (Atheism+ is an obvious example).

    Irrationality is human, being an atheist does not protect you from it.

  • abb3w

    I think your model of “atheism” is slightly too simple. Some studies by the Pew Forum identify a sizable contingent of unbelievers with religious affiliation, who are functionally-only atheists. While I’d agree that the “Nones” are a much broader category, I’d suggest defining “atheists” (probably with a composite recode variable) as those who are both GOD(1) and RELIG(4). This is still less exact than Pew’s method, but yields similar levels to the results from their 2008 Religious Landscapes Survey.

    I’ll note, there’s apparently what I’d consider non-trivial differences between GOD(1)RELIG(4) and GOD(1)RELIG(1-3,5-13) types.

    That said, I’d tend to agree with the basic thesis: in aggregate, conservative, Republican, and libertarian leaning may be a minority of self-identified atheists, but much like blacks are a minority of the overall population, and not (in aggregate) “rare”. I also suspect that the libertarian-leaning may be disproportionate among “activist atheists” relative to self-identified atheists overall.

  • Philippe Desrameaux

    Libertarian Gang! Jhonson/Gray 2012. No more robots in the white house. Get rid of the cyb0rgz!

  • Chad

    Razib, in this case, the quote is actually a misattributed to Chesterton. It actually comes from Cammaerts in his book “The laughing prophet: the Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton”. Cammaerts is commenting on Chesterton’s book “The Oracle of the Dog”.

    And I don’t think you understand the context Chris_T_T as its not a Chesterton quote.

    As for Chesterton, he has very unique views that can be hard to get a grasp on. For instance, he would argue that fairy tales can be more true than non-fiction. Not because they are real, but because they convey deeper truths that reality cannot.

  • Chad

    Honestly, I would think Libertarianism or Classical Liberalism to be the natural political home of atheists as these are political ideologies that emphasize individuality and non-conformity.

    I do think that socialism and its nicer twin progressivism are naturally hostile to Religion as it is competition for the heart and mind of the individual. So rather than being atheists first lefitsts second, it has always seemed to me that for left leaning atheists, progressivism comes first and atheism second. I have no data to back this up ;) just my anecdotal observation.

  • http://eggheaded.bannedatheists.us Joseph8th

    Hate-filled huh? Is that what it’s called when we stand up for ourselves? I think the unhinged hate-mail that Jen McCreight is getting speaks volumes about my supposed mischaracterization of the right-wing MRA crowd in the atheist movement.

  • Chris_T_T

    Chad – I stand corrected on the quote’s origin.

    Still, I find the quote more accurate than I like, perhaps not in the way it may have originally been intended. Religion is but one way for justifying our norms and existence.

  • vonk

    This is such an American-centric focus. In Western Europe, the most secularized region in the world, you’ll find scores of rightwing (conservative, free market liberal), nonreligious political parties and millions of right-leaning, secular/atheist voters. What is the big deal?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    In Western Europe, the most secularized region in the world,

    stop being so eurocentric.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/11/most-atheists-are-not-white/

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    oh, the original person who made the comment has clarified that she meant her friends as the “atheist community.” weird way to use english, but i assume it was innocent.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #15, i do find it amusing that the person you speak of is pissed about assholes, and so behaves as an asshole himself.

  • http://jaymans.wordpress.com/ JayMan
  • Chad

    Again I am reminded of the two part South Park Go God Go episode:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_God_Go#Richard_Dawkins.27_response

  • http://urbanastro.org Justin

    I would be curious to know what people cite as the reasons for their atheism, or what could be extrapolated from their answers. Intuitively, I would say that:

    Progressive atheists come to atheism either due to scientific legitimacy over superstition, as well as/or due to abandoning religion when realizing how many (Judeo-Christian-Muslim for ex) are steeped in ancient conservative traditions that due not jive with today.

    Conservtives/Libertarians, while also may be receptive to science over superstition, hold personal freedom above systems that hold people down and religion, like an over-reaching government, is just another system that binds people and tells them what to do.

    But that’s just a guess. Someone should delve deeper in to the driving forces at work here. While the same conclusion may be reached – there is no god – it could be approached by completely different avenues.

  • Steve

    Joseph8th

    Your ranting is painting with broad strokes and making baseless accusations. Not very reasonable nor skeptical of you…

    Might some “conservative and libertarian atheists” be misogynistic. Sure. Then again there are prog atheists that are as well since there are people like this in every human sub-category.

    You are not a special, perfect snowflake who gets to judge others in great swaths without even a remote hint of what they are like. Throwing terms around like “MRA” for everyone who doesn’t fit your mold of the proper atheist is a baseless ad hominem. Congrats, you’re no better than anyone else.

    ps-you represent the A+ crowd well.

  • someguy

    “judge others in great swaths without even a remote hint of what they are like. ”

    Don’t think he’s done anything that hasn’t been done before in the comment section, to be honest; it usually goes without criticism because the people don’t really care about the particular opinion or agree with it already. The data are out there, it’s easy to see what holds true “on average” in this case too.

    I think it’s easy to see a major common reason for minorities (atheists being a particularly distrusted one) leaning left and voting dem.

  • Scott

    I’m late to the party, but it should be pointed out that contra Razib, Atheism + boosters don’t believe their values are entailed by their atheism. Atheismplus.com has a FAQ up that explains this in pretty clear terms.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Atheismplus.com has a FAQ up that explains this in pretty clear terms.

    i saw that. obviously there’s no doctrine or dogma, but their original words, which i quoted in the old post you probably allude to they (and some readers bothered not to read) actually used the word “logic.” the atheismplus.com FAQ is inoffensive and banal. you would never infer from it the weird and aggressive behavior that some of its practitioners seem to engage in (e.g., richard carrier). i mean, i didn’t even know what ‘MRA’ was until i googled it, but that asshole up there is basically accusing people of MRAs.

  • Scott

    Fair enough. Had no idea about the old post – I was only referring to #7 above. There are obviously some dumb progressive atheists out there, but the FAQ represents my original impression of Atheism+’s self-understanding pretty well. Fantastic blog btw.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan
  • Scott

    I’ve seen it now, but thanks. Definitely a lapse on McCreight’s part.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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