On Tuesday, American Atheists President David Silverman received a phone call from American Conservative Union Executive Director Dan Schneider informing him that the ACU board is breaking its agreement to permit American Atheists to host an information booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), March 6-8.

According to Silverman, Schneider cited “the tone” in the quote “The Christian right should be threatened by us.”, which was in a Tuesday CNN article, as the reason for the revocation. This reversal came just hours after a press release from American Atheists announcing the booth, one week before the conference…

“Continuing to conflate religion and conservatism is not a viable strategy; this was apparently too scary for CPAC attendees to hear,” Silverman said. “America’s religious conservatives can deny it all they want, but soon they’re going to realize that ignoring the growing number of atheist constituents is a losing proposition.”


Why did you want a booth at CPAC?

To raise the awareness of the fact that 20 percent of America’s conservatives are non-religious people — they never pray, according to Pew …

And they should include the non-religious in their talks … They should acknowledge the non-religious. And they should rethink the conservative marriage with Christianity …

Conservatism is declining, obviously … And the reason that they are suffering is because they are doing the wrong thing, by taking the fastest growing … religious demographic in the country — the fastest-growing in all 50 states — and shoving it off to the side for the sake of Jesus …

What CPAC has done is effectively bury its head in the sand, and is pretending that things aren’t changing. They are pretending that atheists aren’t relevant. And they are pretending that Christianity still holds water in American society.


Although the many conservatives are uncomfortable with atheists, it’s not clear that the atheist movement is necessarily much more comfortable with conservatives. When Edwina Rogers, who had previously worked for Senator Trent Lott and President George W. Bush, was tapped as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America, Greta Christina, a popular atheist writer, said that her work as a Republican was “a real problem” and that the aims of the GOP were “diametrically opposed to those of the atheist and secular community.” Christina subsequently resigned her membership in the SCA, when she felt that Rogers did not adequately address these concerns.


Before the 1990s, Republicans won as much as 43 percent of non-religious voters, but suddenly began losing them by a 2 to 1 margin just as the group began to grow. By 2008, voters with no religion had grown to 12 percent of the electorate – more than Hispanics – and Barack Obama won them in 2008 and 2012 with wider margins than any previous Democrat. Mitt Romney narrowed the gap in 2012, though at 44 points he was hardly competitive. It’s important to note that most of these voters are not full-on atheists espousing intense opposition to religion on principle, but agnostic or “nothing in particular.”*

Why did this shift happen? In their book American Grace, sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam argue that the rising number of “nones” and their increasing Democratic tilt are a reaction to the Republican Party’s tightening alignment with Christian conservatives since the 1980s. In one recent example, a 2012 Pew Research Center poll found two in three religiously unaffiliated Americans agreeing that religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party.


According to CPAC’s spokeswoman, Meghan Snyder, Silverman, in a conversation with her about his comments, pledged to attack the very idea that Christianity is an important element of conservatism. Snyder adds: “People of any faith tradition should not be attacked for their beliefs, especially at our conference. He has left us with no choice but to return his money.”

So what exactly is the controversy here? Why should the country’s chief conservative conference welcome a group that is not conservative and is antagonistic towards many conservatives’ belief systems? And as for the idea of an embracing “big tent,” should CPAC open up shop to gun-control groups, too, under that big tent?

America is grappling to define conservatism. In a movement that once combated “amnesty, abortion, and acid,” nowadays (a) one cannot throw a rock without hitting a GOP politico pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants, (b) a not-insignificant chunk of conservatives in private shrug over abortion, and (c) drug legalization makes immense headway. So while a big-tent philosophy welcoming of respectful atheists and agnostics is certainly the right course, make no mistake: If no tenet of conservatism will survive the night, let the movement at least — while welcoming non-believers — treasure and respect the faithful.


Many CPAC attendees believe in God. Inviting a non-conservative group that thinks the God-believers are all idiots in need of “enlightenment” makes little sense to me. Put it this way. Most conservatives believe in limited government. Some believe in big government. I think such people are wrong but should be allowed to make their case — because they share a common desire to advance the conservative cause. But there are lots of non-conservatives who also believe in big government to advance the liberal cause. Should they be allowed to attend CPAC, just because their belief in big government is shared by a few conservatives? Should there be a Fabian Socialist booth?

As for Charlie’s position, this is a very old argument on the right and around here. I think it was Bill Buckley who said — amidst a discussion of Ayn Rand — that one didn’t need to be religious or a believer to be conservative, but one needed to have respect for the religious or “the transcendent.” I can’t find the exact quote. This standard put Rand outside the ranks of conservatism, by Bill’s lights. But it leaves plenty of room for people like Charlie, I think. I know plenty of good conservatives who are atheists or agnostics. But because they are conservatives, they understand that simply throwing the bleach of militant atheism on culture, custom, and tradition to dissolve any hint of God or religion would be folly.


Here is an eye-opener for you: Some people wonder more about the First Mover than you or I do. Some people find scientific explanations implausible or unsatisfying.

This does not make them fools; it makes them of a different personality type than you or I.

Now, you will say they’re wrong about what they believe; I’ll say I agree with you.

But you are essentially doing the same thing a gay-hater does when he knocks him for being gay. The religious were born with a quixotic nature, a need to look beyond the tangible and mundane.

You and I weren’t.

We should no more be “proud” of this than we’re proud of our sexualities or our eye color.


Indeed, given the troubled waters into which American religious liberty has of late been pushed, it strikes me that conservatives ought to be courting atheists — not shunning them. I will happily take to the barricades for religious conscience rights, not least because my own security as a heretic is bound up with that of those who differ from me, and because a truly free country seeks to leave alone as many people as possible — however eccentric I might find their views or they might find mine. In my experience at least, it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious. That I do not share the convictions of the religious by no means implies that I wish for the state to reach into their lives. Nevertheless, religious conservatives will find themselves without many friends if they allow figures such as Mr. Bozell to shoo away the few atheists who are sympathetic to their broader cause…

A great deal of the friction between atheists and conservatives seems to derive from a reasonable question. “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God given’ liberties,” I am often asked, “don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or of the one-time whims of transient majorities?” Well, no, not really. As far as I can see, the American settlement can thrive perfectly well within my worldview. God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural law case for them stands nicely on its own. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration, was not a religious man in any broad sense but a Deist, and his use of the term “Nature’s God” in laying out the framework for the new country was no accident. Jefferson was by no means an “atheist” — at least not in any modern sense: He believed in the moral teachings of Jesus; his work owed a great debt to the culture of toleration that English Protestantism had fostered; and, like almost all 18th-century thinkers, he believed in a prime mover. Nevertheless, he ultimately rejected the truth claims of revealed religion (and the Divine Right of Kings that he believed such a position inevitably yielded) and he relied instead on a “Creator” who looked like the God of Deism and not of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…

“Of the nature of this being,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1817, “we know nothing.” Neither do I. Indeed, I do not believe that there is a “being” at all. And yet one can reasonably easily take Jefferson’s example and, without having to have an answer as to what created the world, merely rely upon the same sources as he did — upon Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own human reason. From this, one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership, that this self-ownership yields certain rights that should be held to be unalienable, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. After all, that’s what we’re all fighting for. Right?


From September 2013.