Should atheist groups try to appeal to conservatives? Not for the first time, the American Atheists are at the centre of a controversy over their appearance at the conservative conference CPAC.
I intend to leave aside the question of how bad the CPAC conservatives are (I’m not American and so I’m relatively unfamiliar). Nevertheless, it is worth noting that they are a mainstream political group, with speakers including US Presidents and other leading politicians. We’re not talking about a fringe far-right group, even if some or many of its attendees have questionable political stances.
While I don’t always agree with them, I think the American Atheists’ approach here is the correct one, for two reasons. First, that we non-conservatives would benefit from conservatives being more accepting of atheists, and second, that we have no right to demand that the American Atheists only advocate for “progressive” atheists.
The only way I can imagine engaging with conservatives will hurt progressives is that it might strengthen the conservatives by making their politics appeal to more people. Suppose you’re an atheist that would vote for a conservative political candidate but for their lack of tolerance and respect for atheists. If they were to change their ways and be more accepting of atheists, you would probably vote for them rather than their progressive opposition. Multiply that by the number of atheists in that situation, and conservatives become a much more legitimate option for many atheist voters, and that’s bad for progressive political candidates.
Another way to consider it is that the more extreme and exclusive a political group is, the weaker they are when it comes to attracting votes. If you want the conservatives to be as weak as possible, then don’t try to make them more inclusive!
On the flip side is that sowing the seed of acceptance among conservatives at CPAC might start a slow shift of the Overton window regarding the public perception of atheists in America. As a life-long British atheist, I’ve not had any trouble at all on account of my atheism. I can’t think of a single moment in my life where I’ve had to think about hiding it. Two of our three main political party leaders positively identify as atheists, and though they might still be a bit iffy about it, the Conservative Party have had their fair share of atheists (Antony Flew was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, for example). Atheism in the UK is not really a “Left vs Right” issue, and I suspect that is a large part of what has made it so easy for us here.
Would it not be better if both parties were more accepting of atheists? One complaint about appealing to CPAC conservatives is that many of them have regressive views regarding homosexuality and abortion (say). If being an atheist conservative was seen as more acceptable, then such views (even though they aren’t necessarily predicated on religious worldviews) would surely meet with more resistance from within the party. That has to be a good thing.
I think that outweighs the worry that a greater tolerance of atheists may make the conservatives more appealing. It would be a stronger but better party, and shift the Overton window at least a little to the left. I think anyone genuinely committed to progressive ideal would want this, rather than keeping around useful bogeymen just to scare people into action.
The American Atheists’ website summarises their mission:
Since 1963, American Atheists has been the premier organization fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.
I see no justification for the American Atheists to exclude atheists who hold any particular political view – after all, those atheists are entitled to the same protection qua atheists whatever their other views happen to be. The demand that the American Atheists actively* ignore CPAC and other right-wing groups is to demand such an exclusion, and we have no right to do so.
This does not mean every atheist group should remain apolitical. There’s nothing wrong with having progressive, left-wing secular humanist groups. But the mission of the American Atheists is to advocate for atheists** whatever their other views, just as it is the mission of Amnesty International to advocate for the human rights of everyone; not just those who hold mainstream political opinions. It is important for such a group to exist, and I think the American Atheists are the closest thing to it. I admire them for not allowing themselves to be pressured into letting that mission slip.
* Yes, they can’t campaign at every political conference, and must use their time wisely. But that isn’t the complaint they’ve been receiving, and wouldn’t even go through if it was, given the popularity of CPAC.
** Though I do think this is their mission, I don’t think they always get it right. For example, I think they often alienate those who are friendly or “accommodationist” towards religion. I think David Silverman (and other senior figures) often represent the American Atheists as being anti-religion, rather than just pro-secularism and the rights of atheists, but that’s another story.