What Makes Conservatives More Religious Than Liberals?

September 9, 2020

The following article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 edition of The American Rationalist.

The American Rationalist was published by the Center for Inquiry. The Center for Inquiry looks back at its extensive publication history to offer readers critical perspectives on the separation of church and state, science, religion, applied philosophy, and skepticism.

It is a curious circumstance of our time that, especially in America, the great majority of political conservatives are markedly religious, Christian in particular, and that (in my experience at least) most irreligious people tend to be politically liberal.

Let me use myself as a counterexample to the near-universality of this trend. As an atheist with some conservative bones in my body (economic more than social—a distrust of big government and its involvement in the marketplace, a high valuation of personal responsibility and of free enterprise), if I took the traditional bundling together of religion and politics to heart, I would have to feel like a walking paradox who must run the risk of offending just about everybody in one way or another.

After all, the way things tend to stand, I offend almost all conservatives because I’m an atheist. I offend many liberals because I’m conservative on a number of economic issues. Naturally I offend almost all religionists because I’m irreligious and annoy them as well if they have conservative views that I may share without sharing their belief in God. And I offend some fellow atheists because I’m not more liberal. My combination of personal attitudes runs counter to statistical norms.

But why should this be the case? What makes conservatives any more religious than their liberal counterparts? Surely favoring the notion of very little government-regulated market has nothing in particular to do with the philosophical question of God. If the traditional premise is that a conservative person should be religious, then one may readily “embarrass the implication” (entertaining the premise without the conclusion) by pointing out that if one were to test conservative and other economic principles by examining various economic systems to determine how well or poorly they provide people with employment and contentment and a healthy social order, one could certainly do this, whatever the results, in a godless universe and with no reference to anyone’s religious beliefs. One asks an economist or a historian about these matters, not a priest.

Similarly, and contrapositively, if the premise is that an irreligious person should be politically liberal, then again one may “embarrass the implication” by saying that however sedulously one constructs arguments against the existence of God (as Richard Dawkins and others have certainly done to good effect on the basis of cosmology and the theory of probability), one may propound these arguments without any reference to the economic system in which one does so, or outside of which one does so. Just as one generally does not consult a priest about economic questions, one does not ordinarily consult an economist about philosophical questions regarding religion.

The flawed notion that a conviction that we live in a godless universe has something to do with capitalism versus socialism is most colorfully (and ludicrously) entertained by radio talk-show hosts and conservatives of the halfwit variety who prattle endlessly about “godless communism,” as if atheism and Marxism were necessary and sufficient conditions for each other, which they decidedly are not. Decades ago, I was asked, growing up in stultifyingly evangelical West Texas, “If you don’t believe in God, why don’t you move to Russia?” But then that should scarcely be surprising, given that much more recently no less prominent a personage than U.S. President George H. W. Bush declared that he didn’t think atheists should be considered American citizens.

Such a remark reveals, of course, the real danger in having such formulaic blends of religion and politics as we so often see on the far right, among the lunatic-fringe types not content to limit their pronouncements to economics and social policy. Make no mistake—there are countless people out there who would be perfectly delighted to watch the United States become, in defiance of all constitutional principles, a rigid and uncompromising theocracy complete with foreign and domestic policies dictated by fundamentalist end-times theology, something straight out of the Dark Ages. One gathers that at least some religious conservatives would not object to even the most repressive religious power-system regime, so long as it was based on their own religious stance and therefore did not mean that they themselves would be among the repressed.

This is all especially vexing when one considers that, as I have pointed out, religiosity and political conservatism in no way imply each other’s propriety. Actually, though, one might make a case explaining, if not logically justifying, a certain connection between the two.

It is possible to argue, whether to the satisfaction of this or that viewpoint on socioeconomics or not, that political conservatism and religious belief have a sort of temporal relation. As human beings we forever like to take pride in the belief that we are progressing from a cruder and more ignorant to a more refined and enlightened state. Proponents of more left-leaning economic systems (be they perhaps only the “soft socialism” of a mixed economy) may see the evolution of the American economy from the practically unregulated milieu of the nineteenth-century industrial marketplace to the significantly more governmentally constrained conditions of the twenty-first-century economy as a progression from darker to happier times, though obviously conservative economists would not concur. In any case, given the fact that (despite the annoying tenacity of organized religion as practiced by right-wing extremists) society has tended to distance itself somewhat from the effects of religion, it is possible that some people view public attitudes toward both religion and economics as having marched together from a less enlightened to a more enlightened age.

Ironically, conservatives who see the evolution of the American economy (from a less regulated to a more regulated form) as a change in the wrong direction will also see the slipping of the religious yoke as an unhappy rather than a happy development, so that observers both on the left and on the right may then see conservative economics and religion as belonging together, and declining together, though one group cheers and the other laments.

But if religiosity and political conservatism belong together in terms of temporal progression, one may argue that they belong together in no other important way. Indeed, there is one exceedingly important respect in which they are mutually inconsistent.

Conservatives traditionally make much of the whole notion of independence and personal responsibility, of the idea that people who can take care of themselves should do so and not depend on the government or society, that people should employ no excuses to shirk their responsibility for themselves and for the conduct of their own lives. Yet most conservatives believe in a God who is the very essence of excuse-making and avoidance of responsibility for oneself!

One sees this paradox in the idiocy of such a bumper-sticker slogan as “Let go and let God,” an encapsulation of the idea that you need not take your own affairs too firmly in hand, after all, because God will do that for you. And you need not own up to things that you do if it was God whispering in your ear that made you do them. History is replete with tragic examples of crimes committed but not acknowledged because they purportedly were not really the doing of the perpetrator but rather the “will of God.”

One would think that a conservative, valuing independence of spirit and the primacy of private responsibility, would recognize that the notion of God runs against the grain of that whole cherished group of concepts. That is, one would think that conservatives would readily and gladly abandon the whole idea of God.

Many liberals have done this, and conservatives could well afford to do so as well and still be true to their other principles. It is more than reasonable to expect people to understand by now that God should enjoy no comfortable niche anywhere on the political spectrum, whether right or left or in between.

Donald R. Burleson is a mathematician, semi-retired professor, widely published writer, and outspoken atheist. He wrote the article on Richard Dawkins for the volume Icons of Unbelief (Greenwood Press).