By Thomas O’Rourke
President of the Philosophy Club
Rutgers University Class of ’13 

I had intended to finish this article in the beginning of September, but my health took a turn for the worse and then midterms came and before I knew it September was October and three presidential debates had come and gone.

With the election days away, what I have to say is more pressing than ever.

I thought that for my first blog post, I would comment on an important issue facing the secular community, which I discussed with David Silverman during our last meeting in February. For those who don’t remember the feel of the community back then, politics came to the forefront with the rise of the Atheist Party. A cursory examination of their platform reveals them to be a (refreshingly) more honestly liberal version of the Democrats.

This prompted me to ask “What is the role of politically right-leaning nonbelievers in our movement?”

I am not here to argue politics. I want to acknowledge the existence and the contribution of conservative nonbelievers, and the important implications they have for the goal of unifying nonbelievers, which has been the most pressing problem facing the movement to date.

So as to not labor under false premises, in full disclosure I am one such conservative nonbeliever. On issues of civil rights and military and domestic spending, I am decidedly libertarian. On economics more generally I’m a Distributivist, and I’m a Nationalist on foreign policy, all traditionally right-wing positions.

In short, when I say “Humanist organizations alienate right-wing nonbelievers,” I mean precisely “I, Thomas O’Rourke, want to help, but your left-wing tendency is off-putting to me. In joining you, will I have to advocate positions I don’t support?”

A rough survey of leading libertarian advocates reveals a large swath of nonbelievers (Ayn Rand, Penn and Teller, John Stossel, Anarcho-Capitalist Stephan Molyneaux, to name a few). Among these, Ayn Rand in particular (despite whatever else one may say about her) is indisputably both one of the most influential right-wing thinkers of the 20th century, and an avowed atheist.

These people and their followers, I am sure, would vociferously defend the rights of nonbelievers and be happy to join that cause. Libertarians do not, however, support the Welfare Liberalism advocated by many leaders of the community. We risk losing such powerful support at our own peril.

The question will undoubtedly be raised here by liberal humanists about ideological purity. “How can you claim to be a humanist,” you might ask “when you advocate eviscerating the welfare state?” As I said I won’t defend any political position here, but I had better defend logical consistency. It begs the question to suppose the welfare state is in the best interest of humanity.

Libertarian humanist would contend that the economic and political freedom they espouse is of more benefit to humanity than the welfare state.

“Ok,” the reader may be saying “maybe we can accept libertarians, but surely there is no way social conservatives can support their views from a secular humanist positions.” Indeed, in Silverman’s response to me he articulated that some positions, such as gay marriage, are nonnegotiable from a secular perspective. I respectfully disagree, mostly because libertarians are opposed to the state recognition of all marriage, but also because there are other secular moral philosophies beside utilitarianism (Kantianism, Eudaimonism, etc.).

Philosophically savvy readers will recall that Kant famously was opposed to masturbation. To argue that Kantian ethics is not rooted in humanism is to gravely (though fairly, given his abysmal skill at being relatable or intelligable) misunderstand Kant. We cannot, therefore (as Sam Harris has recently suggested) discount anyone from our movement because of their moral position if they are firmly committed to the rights of nonbelievers and the plight of all mankind.

I would lastly like to turn to the question of respect for people of faith.

I like many religions and many religious people, and it is worth mentioning (in my forthcoming post On Alchemy: the Occult History of Science) that the religious impulse is fundamental to the human experience. I am sure that I am not alone in finding the constant jokes at the expense of the religious, though funny when directed at some of the absolutely abhorrent fundamentalists, an annoyance. We become off putting to potential allies if every humanist meeting has anti-religious jokes.

So what is the final lesson the movement needs to learn from this?

There are non-believing humanists who are on the political right (including a sizable number of libertarians), and who can be so in a logically consistent manner. Their numbers and shared voices are resources we can’t afford to lose, but we are losing them by entwining advocacy for the rights of nonbelievers with advocacy for progressivism, by being quick to conflate people with serious doubts about the morality of our libertine sexual culture with homophobes and misogynists, and in its complacency with mocking the religious.

This is somewhat ironic considering the plight of today’s nonbelievers has much to do with the association with far-left politics and a perceived inability to reach across the aisle, and that, in a movement so fervently advocating tolerance, our intolerance of those we disagree with politically will be our doom.

How can we create an integrated movement that unites all nonbelievers? Simple. Atheist groups must unite around and advocate for the core principle of religious liberty. Period.

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  1. Daniel Schiff says:

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I think you’re right that the umbrella atheist/secular movement must embrace a wide berth of political views. There is a sizable libertarian atheist population, as you have noted. There is also a serious connection between anti-right wing reactionary atheism and the growing secular movement today. As perhaps the minority of the group, I am glad to hear you defending principles of inclusion and tolerance.

    I do think that some atheists, the welfare liberals, as you said, are interested in promoting particular social and political outcomes that libertarians may not entirely share. For this reason, there are some groups, like Atheism+ and various humanist groups that emphasize values less appealing to libertarians. The trick is finding the groups that share your values, and not all will. It seems no problem to me that the umbrella movement can accommodate these differing views.

    As for the philosophy itself, I would agree that libertarianism could be conceived of as caring about the benefit of humanity (as you seem to do), though I think there is also a sizable Randian selfish streak can be suggestive of viewpoints that do not embrace the flourishing of others as primary compared to the so-called virtue of selfishness. As Sam Harris might argue and you have also suggested, I agree that deontology can be seen as reducing to a version of consequentialism. What is the purpose of protecting duties, freedoms, and rights if these are not done to increase the wellbeing of sentient creatures? In terms of the political philosophy then, that would come to a disagreement about whether the libertarian approach cutting various social services would indeed prove beneficial. As a liberal, I indeed do disagree that the libertarian night-watchman state would be good for society – but I am glad that you are willing to defend your viewpoints and those of your peers within the context of the secular movement.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Jimmy says:

    So Thomas I think you miss, or omit, the most important part in the atheism and politics debate. The fact is Humanism, Atheism, and Secularism are positions which may not follow from another they, as promoted, should follow from a same set of principles, Skepticism. When a progressive atheist or a social conservative atheist come up to me and tell me why I must believe that certain policies are the best solution for a problem which they think exists the most important question for them is where is the evidences for such claims. I think it is difficult to get past, on an individual basis, these differences while still promoting skepticism but to say that in order to be more inviting to atheistic conservatives one must let their skeptic guard down is asking for loud idealist to take charge of a rational pragmatic approach.

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