Libertarianism Incompatible With Atheism

CJ WerlemanCJ 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.

17 thoughts on “Libertarianism Incompatible With Atheism

  1. I liked this post, but I thought the conclusion was maybe coming on a little strong and perhaps wrong. I don’t know what you mean by Dawkins’ "status quo apologetics" or Harris’s "proto-fascist imperialism". I did read The God Delusion and almost all of Harris’s books…

    I’m a new reader of your blog. Do you have any posts or links that elaborate on these themes in their work?

  2. Most libertarians seem to be trying to construct an alternate theory of conservatism that is not a simple appeal to tradition and authority. But conservative, or merely right wing outcomes are always the end. I am an atheist, and a liberal. I suppose Penn Jillette counts as a libertarian atheist, but I can’t think of another. Nor have I encountered one on the internet. They invariably use some sort of states rights/local control argument as a poor camouflage for the white patriarchy agenda they bring to the party. I must disagree with the assertion that Hitch, Sam Harris, et all know nothing of the religions they criticize. I find their critiques sound. I agree that Sam and Hitch have a lopsided focus on Islam. If one is concerned with apocalyptic loons controlling the means of conventional or nuclear war, one’s first concern must be the United States. I’ve read one of Sam’s books, and many articles by him. He likes to be a contrarian, and sometimes that is just annoying or inappropriate. But it is a pleasure to watch him use William Lane Craig for a punching bag on youtube.

  3. Good points. Let me see if I can clarify. I haven’t written much about Dawkins, but he has consistently overlooked bad things that done by the liberal democracies and focused on those done by Muslims in far away places. That is very much apologetics. This isn’t to say I dislike him. I’m damned fond of the liberal democracies myself. But I don’t pretend that they aren’t supported by some very problematic foreign policies that only bolster fundamentalism elsewhere.

    Harris? I suppose I throw around the term proto-fascist too much. He is imperialistic. There seems to be no war he does not endorse. But more to the point, his attitude is that we have the right culture and they don’t so grab your gun. It is exactly the same thing as this:

    [url=""%5DAyn Rand and Indians[/url]

    As to the assertion that most atheists know little of the religions they criticize, I don’t see how that can be questioned. I think you’re assuming that I think they know nothing. That’s not it at all. But in the end, their arguments are not against great religious thinkers, but against fundamentalist idiots. It isn’t enough to wade into the religious books. Just like with the Constitution, a religion is a history.

    Now I am well aware that most protestants think that their religion is just written right there in the Bible. But that’s nonsense. There is no such thing as [i]the[/i] fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Most people just get their readings from their preachers, which they got from theirs, and so on. Over 700 years ago, Thomas Aquinas argued that a fertilized human egg did [i]not[/i] have a soul. Yet most Christian today just know that the Bible tells them that a zygote has a soul.

    My point is that you don’t disprove a religion by pointing out contradictions in the Bible and moving on. Serious religious scholars are well aware of this and they have the arguments that ought to be addressed. That is, if we feel the need to address them, which I don’t.

    I enjoy all these writers, except for Jillette who is just awful. And things like [i]Letter to a Christian Nation[/i] are a lot of fun because they allows us atheists to feel like someone understands us. But neither it nor any of the other books are really intended to change minds. And I can’t think of anyone in the atheist movement who thinks seriously about religious issues. Mostly it is the same old stuff. I agree with it, but so what?

    William Lane Craig annoys me so much I simply can’t listen to him anymore. I did write this the last time I made that mistake:

    [url=""%5DInfinity is Not a Number[/url]

    You can get some idea of what I think on these issues by searching for [url=]atheist[/url] and [url=]libertarian[/url] in the box on the right. Or you can click on the [url=]Spirituality[/url] link towards the top on the right.

    I find myself in the uncomfortable position of understanding and being keenly interested in the questions that religion is [i]supposed[/i] to answer. It is sad to see so many theists accept clearly useless answers to the great existential questions. But I also get roiled by atheists who dismiss such questions. Nonetheless, my experience is that atheists have a better grasp of the big questions than theists. Because there are no answers, only better questions. And the theists believe they have found answers. So they look for no better questions.

    Check out a new site I’m helping with:

    [url=]Nice Atheist Girl[/url]

  4. There is so much ridiculousness in this article & in the completely moronic comments, that you’ve provided me with a great night of lulz. Thank you.

  5. @Sage – I so wish you had pointed out even a small part of my ridiculousness so that I could see the error of my ways. Without that, I can only assume you are an ideologue who is offended whenever anyone disagrees with you. I don’t believe you were laughing; I believe you were outraged but had nothing to add. Thus you can mock the content anonymously without ever explaining what you’re talking about. You are a coward. Ante up or leave the table.

  6. I’m always amused when I see the criticism of libertarianism based on it supposedly being a "utopian philosophy" – expressed, of course, by someone who wants to expand government in order to, ahem, promote utopian ideas of their philosophy.

    The criticism is self-contradictory.

    But besides that, it’s is just wrong. What part of ‘free to try to do things the way you want to do them, with people who work with you voluntarily, without forcing people to support you who don’t want to support you’ do you not understand? Far from being utopian, it is a fundamental basis of most economic transactions as well as the manner in which we deal with other people most of the time, in everything from church membership, to buying corn in the grocery store, to dancing with someone at a local bar.

    But when someone makes a remark like saying that atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens "know nothing of the religions they claim to despise" I know for a fact I’m dealing with someone who really does apparently know nothing.

  7. @Steve Greene – There is a huge difference between working toward a more perfect union and trying to create a perfect union. The only reason you think this criticism is self-contradictory is that, like many libertarians, you assume that "some" government implies "total" government. Liberals are no more proto-communists than they are proto-libertarians. Although they are more the latter than the former.

    Your description of libertarianism is exactly how I described it when I was a follower. The problem is that it is entirely theoretical. Drill down into policy and it unravels. In addition, the assumption is always that freedom can only be hindered by the government, which might have been true 500 years ago, but isn’t any more. I’ve written at length about this and much else here. Just search for "libertarian" in the box above.

    As for your insult related to Harris et al, it is just a fact that they are extremely limited in their knowledge. As far as countering the small minded thinking of religious fundamentalists, they are fine. But that’s a low bar.

  8. I think this article is a great example of a straw man argument.

    You call Libertarianism a utopian ideology and attack it on those grounds.

    A libertarian government limited to protecting private property rights (including the environment), enforcing contracts, and prosecuting fraud and coercion is completely reasonable and compatible with atheism and human nature.

    I haven’t seen any studies on it but I would guess there is a very high correlation between atheism and libertarianism, due to the pragmatic, reasonable way both groups think.

  9. @John Farr – Let me see if I’ve got this straight. I’ve made a straw man argument because I say that libertarianism is a utopian ideology and you say it isn’t. And your argument is simply to state that it isn’t. Forgive me if I’m underwhelmed.

    I suggest you read my voluminous other writings on libertarianism. I’m not going to go into it here. But let me just state that a sure sign that an ideology is utopian is that it can’t be refuted. As we’ve seen with every major libertarian writer, libertarianism never fails, it is only failed. There is no gradual path to libertarianism; or rather, libertarian policies lead to a far worse economic environment, which is only fixed with a "Poof!" when we arrive at the promised land of libertarianism.

    But just on a practical level, what you’ve written makes no sense. You are asking for a government that will be at least somewhat good at enforcing contracts and prosecuting fraud. But in our current system, the rich are able to distort matters to their benefit. So how exactly is your minimalist government going to do a better job? As I said, I’ve written about libertarianism from most every angle. And I can tell you what you would end up with: a neo-feudalism where the rich were effectively above the law. The apologetics from libertarians sound depressingly similar to communist apologists in the 1930s.

    Werleman and I are very much aware of the atheist-libertarian connection. If you look at the first paragraph of this article, you will see that I linked to an article of mine with that very title. The issue is that we both think there should [i]not[/i] be such a connection because libertarianism [i]is[/i] a utopian ideology. Believing in it requires that believers never look closely at what economics, political science, and much else helps explain the way that societies actually function. And I haven’t even brought up money supply and the farcical belief that the gold standard (or other similar systems) will save us all. Look at the economic history of the last 500 years and you’ll see.

    Libertarians are pragmatic?! That’s a howler! I don’t know why I waste time on some people.

  10. That was the first time I ever posted anything in a "comments section". I was suprised it went through and posted.

    I was also suprised you devoted as much time to my submission as you did. It must have been a good one.

    You’re welcome.

    I see your point.

  11. @John Farr – I try to respond to all comments. This is getting harder as the site gets more popular. But I don’t understand bloggers who don’t take the time to respond–especially on sites with far less traffic than Frankly Curious. Commenters add value to a blog. And I want people around here who disagree with me, even though I my think they are totally wrong, and say so with my typical forcefulness.

    As for the length, well, writing concisely requires much more time. But also, having once been a libertarian, this is a subject I feel strongly about.

    I hope you comment more. I’m sure we will even find things we agree about.

  12. There is only one requirement for being an atheist and one requirement only-you do not believe in a god. That is it. Anything else is just a No True Scotsman fallacy and, in the case of this PoS article, a No True Scotsman fallacy perpetuated by an intolerant partisan hack demanding that atheists give their unquestioning allegiance to a political movement or else risk having their imaginary atheist membership revoked.

    • I didn’t say libertarians aren’t atheists. I said their ideology went against it. It is truly taxing to have to respond to people like you who don’t read what I write but instead read what they want to hear so they can complain.

      At no time did I say that libertarians were not atheists. Not once! I simply said that they didn’t understand what their atheism implied. That’s not “No True Scotsman.” That’s just argumentation. You aren’t making any sense. And it sounds very much like you didn’t understand what I wrote — assuming you even read it.

      • “I didn’t say libertarians aren’t atheists. I said their ideology went against it.”

        IOW: you’re saying libertarians can’t be atheists. The above quote is just semantics.

        “I don’t have six in my hand. I have a half-dozen.”

        There’s nothing in libertarianism that is either sectarian or anti-atheist. If anything, the more religious a person is, the less libertarian they are since religious fundamentalists tend to lean towards authoritarianism, which is diametrically opposed to libertarianism.

      • I was going to respond to this, but what’s the point. If, God help you, you honestly believe that libertarianism and atheism make you significantly cleverer than anyone who’s ever asked “why are we here” or “why do corporations have so much power,” then … feel clever, I guess. “Because we are” and “because they must” are the deep-thinking answers, apparently.

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