CJ Werleman has written an absolutely fabulous column over at Slate, Atheists Can’t Be Republicans. It is primarily an attack on what I call The Atheist Libertarian Connection. He notes, “I am acutely aware that a great number of atheists identify with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but this is comical.” He goes on from there to discuss how atheists claim to believe in things that have evidence, but there is no evidence for libertarianism. Unfortunately, I don’t think any atheist libertarians will be swayed by his claim.
Let me take a whack at it. The fundamental problem with libertarianism in this context is that it is a utopian ideology. It would be like believing in a communist utopia, but worse. In a communist utopia, all you need is for human psychology to be different. In the case of libertarianism, you have a system designed to appeal to the worst instincts of humans but expect that they will behave using the best instincts.
For example, libertarians claim that we don’t need environmental regulations because if someone pollutes on your land, you can sue them. But that won’t stop big companies from distorting the legal system to benefit themselves. But in the libertarian utopia, they would never do that! The courts would be perfect anyway. And come to think of it, given that the big companies would not try to distort the legal system, they would never pollute in the first place. So who needs the courts anyway? Libertarianism is perfect as long as it is theoretical, but the moment you try to implement even a small amount of it, it becomes a mess.
For the Ron Paul Libertarians, however, the situation is much worse. For one thing, do these people really think that if Ron Paul became president he would implement libertarian policies? As I learned rather quickly when I was a fellow traveler: vote libertarian and get conservative policy. When President Paul nominated someone to the Supreme Court, he would have to decide if he wanted someone who wanted to deprive women of the right to choose an abortion or someone who wanted to legalize drugs. There’s no doubt that we would end up with just another conservative judge. But this brings up an important point about Ron Paul: he’s as anti-choice as you can get. That isn’t a position that comes out libertarian first principles. It is reverse engineered from his Southern Baptist faith. I suspect that Paul would lose well over half the support he does have (which is small already) if he were pro-choice.
Werleman goes on to note that the Republican Party more generally is even more an anathema to atheist thinking, “The recent Values Voter Summit demonstrated that the likely 2016 GOP frontrunners and its base wish to transform America’s secular state into a tyrannical theocracy—a nirvana absent gays, liberals, immigrants, Muslims and science books.” But there are certain things that the atheist community shares with the Republican party. In general, it is white, male, and middle class or higher. That tends to make it economically conservative, having little understanding of what poor people go through in our society. And most sadly, it tends to make them raving kooks regarding Muslim fundamentalist violence while mostly ignoring both American aggression and Christian fundamentalist violence.
The last part of the article calls for atheists to see that they are really liberal and to decide to become a political force. But there is a major problem, I think, and that is the demographics of the movement. Werleman describes the atheist community very well as “white, middle class, intellectually smug and mostly apolitical.” Whether they know it or not, these are the winners in our society. They are having a good life and the only way they see to improve it is to allow themselves even more affluence and privilege. Hence: libertarianism. Sikivu Hutchinson perfectly explained the problem of the movement, “If mainstream freethought and humanism continue to reflect the narrow cultural interests of white elites who have disposable income to go to conferences then the secular movement is destined to remain marginal and insular.”
I’m actually a bit optimistic. I think that most atheists are pretty reasonable. The problem exists mostly in the “public” atheists—people like Penn Jillette, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. And of course, one of the most offensive public intellectuals of the 21st century: Christopher Hitchens. On the left side of this spectrum is Dawkins with his status quo apologetics and on the right side we have Sam Harris and his proto-fascist imperialism. Add to this that all these men know nothing of the religions they claim to despise and you have a recipe for a modestly successful, but irrelevant movement. But there are a lot of good thinkers in the movement and if they can shake off the bullshit of the likes of Penn Jillette, they might create something great.