Do atheists lean left?

Adam Lee asks a question.

All these data points show that, while there’s no necessary connection between atheism and progressive political views, in practice it usually does work out that way. I leave it up to you, readers, to weigh in on why that is.

That’s an interesting question, and one that I think about sometimes. Maybe I should make that my talk at TAM. Or maybe I should make my talk at TAM be about sexism in the skeptic/secularist/atheist community. Or is there something even more guaranteed to be annoying that I could talk about? Locker rooms, gossip, naming names, evidence, slut-blaming, feminist-blaming, women-blaming, the economy and its relationship to registration for skeptic cons?

It’s between talking about the most guaranteed to be annoying thing I can think of, and just not going. I can’t make up my mind. Given that the head of the organization that invited me has recently gone out of his way to make me feel (to use the technical language) “unwelcome,” it has to be one of those.

Here’s what I think is one answer to Adam’s question: atheism is the rejection of god, and god stands for hierarchy and obedience. Atheism is inherently opposed to arbitrary hierarchy and demands for obedience. That by itself makes atheism tend progressive.

You can say “but libertarianism.” True. But then libertarianism is partly progressive.


  1. Aratina Cage says

    Given that the head of the organization that invited me has recently gone out of his way to make me feel (to use the technical language) “unwelcome,” it has to be one of those.

    Given that DJ defended the person behind the trolling spree aimed at Greta, I’m not the least bit surprised.

  2. MichaelD says

    Given how often you see conservatives decide that the solution to policy that isn’t working is to strengthen that policy. It could just be that a progressive frame of mind leads to more questioning of religion.

  3. jamessweet says

    When atheists do swing conservative, they tend to be libertarian, so I think there’s at least some truth in Adam’s analysis. But there’s clearly more to it than that…

  4. says

    You could talk about stupid but often made “arguments” and complaints and misrepresentations from the religious people, but have a parallel PowerPoint presentation (or something like that) using similar “arguments” and complaints and misrepresentations from the sexism debates in the atheist/skeptic communities.

    You know, for the lulz because sometimes they are so similar and super smart skeptics don’t realize it.

  5. says

    Please see “Actually, we ARE mostly Democrats” –

    Philosophy and political preference aren’t always the same, but Secular Census registrants (at least) do strongly favor the Democratic party in voting, party affiliation, and donations. The usual assumption about conservative atheists is that they swing Libertarian, but whether this is true or not our results suggest that they are a tiny minority. The Census has only been online since November, but as it’s never been promoted in political circles, it seems unlikely to be falsely skewed on that front. (Still, disclaimer: this is just a snapshot, as all analysis is until we reach larger numbers.)

  6. Sastra says

    I think that having more women speakers at TAM does more for ‘women in skepticism’ than having the women speakers withdraw and leaving the field male-dominated — but of course I’m no doubt prejudiced by my desire to finally meet you so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. As for going and deliberately rubbing salt in JREF wounds, that is a fine and revered tradition in skepticism/atheism, so I say “go for it” (I remember Sam Harris explaining that as his reasoning when he gave his first (and I think only) speech at the Atheist Alliance International convention in Washington DC: “Why We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves ‘Atheists’ and Meeting in Hotel Ballrooms.”)

    Additional controversial topics can include “Should We Really Be Happy to Have More ‘Religious Diversity’ at TAM? and “Libertarians Are Irrational Fundamentalists: A Brief Discussion.”

  7. Robert (SeraphymC) says

    I used to call myself a social libertarian (or a liberaltarian).

    But then libertarian economic policy is so heinous that I cannot bring myself to associate in any way with them.

    If you go to TAM, you should totally talk about feminism meets atheism (and why more atheists need to be feminists).

  8. MichaelD says


    Of course if you compare the democrats internationally they tend to be moderately conservative themselves ;P. So I’m not sure how much those statistics help the atheists are mostly progressives arguement.

  9. says

    You can say “but libertarianism.” True. But then libertarianism is partly progressive.

    That’s why it’s useful to refer to a multi-axis political spectrum than to simple left-right opposition. Something like the Political Compass or the Nolan chart of economic freedom + personal freedom. The three axis-variant, which adds positive liberty, may be more difficult to visualise, but it does a better job of sorting political ideas and policies in the real world.

  10. 'Tis Himself says

    irenedelse #10

    Something like the Political Compass or the Nolan chart of economic freedom + personal freedom.

    Mike Huben discusses the Nolan Test:

    This libertarian quiz asks a set of leading questions to tempt you to proclaim yourself a libertarian. The big trick is that if you answer yes to each question, you are a macho SELF GOVERNOR: there is an unspoken sneer to those who would answer anything else. It is an ideological litmus test.

    The most obvious criticism of this quiz is that it tries to graph the range of politics onto only 2 axes, as if they were the only two that mattered, rather than the two libertarians want the most change in. For example, if socialists were to create such a test, they would use a different set of axes.

    The second obvious criticism is typical of polls taken to show false levels of support: the questions are worded to elicit the desired response. This is called framing bias. For example, on a socialist test, you might see a question such as “Do you believe people should help each other?” Libertarians would answer “yes” to this question; the problem is the “but”s that are filtered out by the question format.

    Many libertarians use this as an “outreach” (read: evangelism) tool. By making it easy to get high scores on both axes, subjects can be told that they are already a libertarian and just didn’t know it. This is the same sort of suckering that cold readers and other frauds use.

  11. kev_s says

    If you have been made to feel unwelcome then you should definitely go.
    How about a talk on how any organization ends up being run by dicks? 🙂

  12. says

    Liberalism and libertarianism both include an implicit rejection of traditional authority. Atheism involves the rejection of the ultimate in authorities.

  13. Ichthyic says

    I leave it up to you, readers, to weigh in on why that is.


    HERE is why that is.

    for decades, the GoP power base strategy has been to manipulate authoritarian personalities via religion.

    simple as that.

  14. says

    Good replies; I love you peeps. Irene, I know, I was thinking the same thing.

    Sastra – I forgot that you’re going. That helps! Seriously, at this point I’m picturing a %100 hostile environment, which doesn’t make a July weekend at a smoking-allowed hotel in the Nevada desert seem at all appealing.

  15. says

    Well, reality does have a left-wing liberal bias…

    Another factor why I think many atheists lean left, is that many of us have seen or experienced directly how religions tend to trap people by making them fully dependent on their church community. Having a strong social safety net is one of the things that can make it easier for people to leave their church and religion when they want to, or need to. Many of us want that help to be there.

    By the way, the religious knows that the social safety net is a danger to their power and influence. This is why they oppose it using language like “liberals want to replace God with Government”.

    And then of course there are the benefits of public education, public funding of open-ended science projects that don’t have a short-term profit motive, etc, etc.

  16. Chris Lawson says

    I’m not convinced that atheism can be said to be anti-authoritarian overall (the few openly atheist regimes in history have been extremely authoritarian) — but being an atheist does mean rejecting at least one form of authority, and a rather big one at that. The problem is that some people seem to feel the to replacing one authority with another, and of course, once in power they persecute everyone who does not follow their idol. The gulags were full of atheists.

    On the left-right thing, though, I think that conservative politics has embraced authoritarian religious views as a political tool — especially over the last 30-40 years in the Anglosphere (obviously in some parts of the West like Spain, the link goes back a long, long way). And vice versa, the more authoritarian religious groups have embraced conservative politics. I’m still trying to figure out why the Republican party became the host of this particular form of parasitism given that, historically, the party did not really fit the bill until Reagan.

  17. Sastra says

    Ophelia wrote:

    Seriously, at this point I’m picturing a %100 hostile environment, which doesn’t make a July weekend at a smoking-allowed hotel in the Nevada desert seem at all appealing.

    A few other things to consider:

    1.) When Rebecca wrote that she was not going to be at the conventions, a lot of fans who had already signed up (and paid!) expressed disappointment along with their support. There are going to be a lot of Skepchick and freethoughtblogs. readers there, men and women. Every position on every controversial issue in the atheist/skeptic/humanist community is bound to be reflected whenever you gather about 1500 atheists/skeptics/humanists. I can’t imagine 100% hostility unless you a.) pull out a gun and start shooting or b.) try to convert them to Jesus, homeopathy, or holocaust denial … and then don’t allow any Q & A!!!

    2.) Leaders are not always universally loved in any of the a/s/h organizations and communities, and members do not follow lockstep. To put it mildly. For example, not everyone in CSH agreed with Kurtz, as you may have heard. The dedicated, active members of the JREF usually measure the JREF by themselves.

    3.) I have always been surprised at how many people at conventions seem unaware of what goes on on the internet — or even within the politics of the organization. The gnu atheists vs. accomodationism; power-play infighting; Maher and the Dawkins Award; Elevatorgate; sexism; you name it: half the people I actually talk to on these issues seem to have no idea there’s been any controversy or problem. Newbies, the elderly, the young, academics, intellectuals, introverts, whatever — they are not “plugged in” to the a/s/h community. But, they are often very “plugged in” to atheist, skeptical, and humanist issues themselves, are sharp as hell, and can be a receptive, eager audience for whatever it is you want to talk about. They can’t be hostile to you because they don’t know what’s going on (and thus usually not part of the problem.) Do not dismiss them too easily.

  18. says

    I was actually figuring that most of the speakers, at least, would have no clue about internet dramas…so that makes the 100% figure already wildly exaggerated, doesn’t it. Ah well, I never said I was coherent.

    Yes I think I have heard some faint thing about not everyone agreeing with Paul Kurtz.

    Thanks, Sastra.

  19. says

    As others have said, I think the fact that right wing politics in the West has allied itself strongly with fundamentalist religion tends to drive atheists away from the right. In a society where atheism is dominant – e.g. China, other Communist countries – I would expect to see a much lower correlation between atheism and left wing views. It may be that religious minorities in China are actually more likely to be left wing, because they belong to a marginalised minority group. Just speculating.

  20. Dennis says

    Chris Mooney wrote a few books on the topic, indirectly. Here is some science on the issue:

    In the U.S., the Republican party is now wedded to science denial; being a member of the Republican clan means performing rituals of recognition including those that scorn science and scientists. The evidence-based approach only has a home in the “left.” And that home is not necessarily permanent – the way the Democratic party is in the pocket of many of the same corporate interests probably precludes it. Is it left-leaning to assert that evolution is true? Or that human-caused global warming is occurring? Obviously not, but assert those truths and one is a presumed Democrat or a “socialist” even. The person treated such, driven to argue for evolution for example, may find they are more welcome in the Democratic party. Republicans in effect are pushing people out who value evidence and scientific methods.

  21. Sastra says

    I considered myself Republican (and conservative) till the early 90’s, when it was just too hard for an atheist to consider themselves either: the party became too overtly religious. I now consider myself middle-of-the-road to liberal. Not sure how that contributes to the theory: perhaps that you can be motivated as much by what you run from as run to (though I’m usually pretty vague on politics and economics in general, with only a few issues I feel confident enough to be firm about.)

  22. fmcp says

    Ophelia, I have quite genuinely never posted in any comment thread anywhere before this, but your worry that you will be entering a hostile environment made me sad. This will be my first TAM (good timing, eh?) and I was delighted when I saw you on the list of speakers. I think you’re pretty great.

  23. LeftSidePositive says

    Can I say I absolutely LOVE the idea in #5 of doing a side-by-side comparison of religious logical fallacies and sexist logical fallacies? Bonus points if you can directly quote them from DJ Grothe and/or internet comments on atheist blogs.

  24. Dave Ricks says

    I’m all for Ophelia meeting Sastra, the rest is gravy.

    (still working on my “shorter” chops – this one took me 2 hours)

  25. Eric O says

    I agree with Winterwind and the others who have made similar points. I don’t think atheism is inherently anti-authoritarian, but in a society where the most popular form of authoritarianism is religious in nature, it’s no surprise that people who reject religious dogma will also reject that brand of authoritarianism.

    Another factor would be that there’s an overlap between skeptics and atheists, and just as applying skepticism to religion generally leads to atheism, applying skepticism to politics may generally lead to liberalism. Stephen Colbert joked that reality has a liberal bias, and it’s absolutely true: conservatives often have to deny reality in order to justify their positions. So do libertarians for that matter – what pulled me out of my libertarian phase wasn’t so much a change of values but a better understanding of environmental and economic realities that made it impossible for me to see the invisible hand as a panacea as I used to.

  26. Shatterface says

    I think there’s a traditional link between leftish politics and atheism, but there’s a tendency among some on the modern or postmodern left towards relativism, and to excuse bigoted behaviour if the perpetrators’ religion can be classified as ‘anti-colonialist’.

  27. Zengaze says

    Hostility schmillity

    Go do your thing ophelia, and if they don’t like it, fuck em. I can understand Rebecca’s position, and it definately has merit, but I prefer the “here I am, so what was that you were saying” approach.

    On the atheists leaning left thing, I think it’s a false positive, I’m that horrible old word, a communist, and not the false communism of the soviet union,or china, that’s like labelling coffee tea and insisting its tea because of the label.

    I’m also a realist and understand that communism is great in theory but gets all kind of fucked up when you introduce humanity into the equation. From an American centric view atheism equals liberalism but it’s a false correlation, a quick glance through European history demonstrates this! And to those readers who think European history starts and ends with hitler, I point you to “the prince”.

  28. numenaster says

    This will be my 3rd TAM. I’m a youngish woman who attended TAMs 8 and 9 without any wedding ring or escort, and I did not experience any of the insulting, demeaning, threatening or unpleasant behavior that others have reported (except from one non-attendee guy at the buffet who was a tourist and apparently mistook me for a call girl). I found TAMs to be a nice intellectual respite from the regular world (not JUST because I got to meet Sastra, although that helps) and I’m looking forward to spending some time in the skeptical bubble again this year.

    Harassment happens everywhere, but I did not find it more prevalent at TAM than in the rest of the world (and I work in high tech). Large gatherings of skeptics, on the other hand, do NOT happen everywhere yet, and I’m not going to miss my chance to marinate in this one.


  1. […] from Burke to Ayn Rand, the slaveholders to Ludwig von Mises.It is not always true that, as Ophelia suggests, “god stands for hierarchy and obedience.” There have been radical egalitarian versions […]

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