Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Where are the progressive atheists? Right here.

I can't believe I actually have to work at an argument FOR the idea that atheists tend to be liberal, but I had to respond to this ridiculous article from an Australian columnist commenting on the supposed prominence of "right wing war-mongerers" in the atheist movement.

I would post this on the Atheist Experience blog, but we don't officially support a political persuasion in the group, and this is easier to discuss on my personal blog.

This is how I replied:

Hi Jeff, I'm a progressive atheist from Austin, Texas, one of the hosts of a show called "The Atheist Experience."

Your question about where all the progressive atheists have gone is a little odd to me. I can't speak to the situation in your country, but here in the United States, "godless liberal" is a term frequently tossed about as an insult by the far right wing, who are inextricably wrapped up in the religious right. Among people who claimed no religion in exit polls in our last two elections, 67% voted for John Kerry over George Bush in 2004, and 75% voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In both cases, this makes up a significantly higher proportion for the Democratic candidate than the general public. I'm willing to bet you'd find similar majorities in your own elections if you go by statistics rather than anecdotes.

In fact, I hope you don't mind my saying so, but your own penetrating analysis showing that atheists are right wing fascists seems to rely heavily on cherry picking a couple of individuals and assuming that they represent the entire group. There are two other atheists prominently featured at your link, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both very strong liberal voices. Dawkins can be seen here calling for votes for the Liberal Democrat party in England. Gregory S. Paul recently wrote in the Washington Post, not only in defense of atheism, but also in favor of important progressive ethics such as civil rights, environmentalism, and opposition to US torture policies. Peter Singer, a prominent atheist philosopher from your country, is also generally considered extremely left wing. PZ Myers, one of the most popular atheist bloggers, is regularly attacked by the right wing for his outspoken liberal views.

To the extent that atheists could in any way be described as "anti-Islam," by and large we don't favor blanket military actions against them based on their religion, nor do we want to stop them from freely practicing their religion as they choose. Rather, atheists argue with the doctrines of fundamentalist Islam in exactly the same terms that we oppose the doctrines of fundamentalist Christianity: we don't want to see the curtailing of freedom of speech, or gender equality, and we think that nobody should fear a threat on their life for speaking out against harmful religious practices.

Christopher Hitchens is actually quite liberal in many other areas outside his foreign policy beliefs, describing himself as a "Marxist" as recently as 2006, and joining with the American Civil Liberties Union in the same year to oppose the Bush Administration's warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. His views on the Iraq invasion, while they have been as you describe, are by no means in the mainstream among the majority of atheists.

Where are the progressive atheists? Anywhere you find atheists, there they are.


  1. Oh no! Not someone wrong on the internet! They must be schooled.

  2. What the hell is that bloke on about? Too many right wing atheists?

    Well that's a new one. "Conservative" practically means "Christian religious nutjob" in England.

  3. @hannanibal:

    I would say that Conservative means that in the USA far more than it does in England. I agree that Cameron (David, not Kirk) pays too much attention to Christian values, but on the whole the majority of conservatives I've come across tend to be pretty secular, even if they do put "C of E" on their census form.

  4. There are conservative atheists, just like there is a religious left. But it is difficult to find a place in a political ideology that is now pretty much dominated by religious people (at least in the US and Canada).

    But yeah, that article is a piece of crap. And your reply was spot on.

  5. Necriarch4:30 PM

    I wouldn't pay too much attention to this Jeff Sparrow. He's either a religious nut or someone with a personal beef agains Christopher Hitchens, as he would only have to look as far as our own prime minister Julia Gillard, who is an atheist and leader of the left wing labor party.

  6. Honestly, I've met quite a few conservative Atheists and I'm always shocked to find that they disagree with me on . . . well, anything. There is a decidedly anti-Islam slant to certain Atheistic writing that I feel needs to be addressed. We need to remind ourselves that a)each religion is as invalid as the next and b)if we ever find ourselves AGREEING with Conservative Christians, we need to re-think our approach.

  7. I would think that atheists would tend to be libertarian, not liberal, but I have no real evidence to back that up beyond my personal collection of friends who are atheist. Although I suppose the strong atheist support for Gary Johnson would also be evidence of a trend among atheists to be libertarian (but again, because I'm part of that group, my view point is biased to see more of a trend).

    Anyone know if there is actual data out there pointing a common trend of political beliefs among atheists?

  8. John,

    According to this survey:

    * 37% of atheists are Democrats, and an additional 28% "lean Democrat", for a total of 65%.
    * 10% are Republicans and an additional 5% lean Republican, for a total of 15%.
    * 13% describe themselves as Independent, which I presume includes Libertarians.
    * the remaining 7% don't know or won't say.

    So, about 70% of atheists who have a party identification trend towards being Democrats, and among the remaining group, there are fewer Independents than Republican-leaning voters.

    I'm not familiar with the strong atheist support of Gary Johnson you mentioned. Got numbers?

  9. So, 'indigenousatheist'... presumably you think that we should disagree that the planet we live on is called 'Earth', because conservative Christians mustn't agree with us? Our approach must therefore be wrong?

    What an odd comment. Just because conservative Christians think something is true doesn't make them automatically wrong. There's probably plenty of things I agree with them on, and I'd consider myself nothing like a conservative.

    As for you being surprised that conservative atheists disagree with you on things... why? The only thing you are guaranteed to agree with them about is that you haven't been convinced a god exists. I'd be very surprised if I met a single atheists that agreed with me on everything.

    Interestingly, many people - maybe even most - who I come across that are labelled 'anti-Islam' claim that it is the people that criticise them that don't treat all religions equally. They claim, that people like you have forgotten (a).

    (Some of them have a point, I think, others don't.)

    Of course, it is hard for me to comment without you giving specific examples. You may be thinking of people of whom that is justified - and not the people I am thinking of that I feel are wrongly accused.