Liberal Atheists versus Conservative Christians

The liberalism of atheists in America stands in stark contrast to the conservatism of Christians, and evangelical Christians in particular. Thus the conflicts between atheists and evangelical Christians involve not just the existence of gods and reasonableness of various religious beliefs, but also a host of political and social issues.

In another time and place the two groups might be on opposite sides or even united, but not in contemporary America. This can tell us a lot about the political and social relationships between various religious groups in America.

A 2002 Barna survey asked Americans how they describe themselves, including the following description:

Mostly Conservative on Social and Political Issues
  • Evangelicals: 64%
  • Non-Evangelical, Born Again: 34%
  • Notional Christians: 25%
  • Non-Christian Faith: 16%
  • Atheist/Agnostic: 4%

These numbers (+/- 3% margin of error) make it clear that evangelical Christianity is the primary driving force for social conservatism in America. Evangelical Christianity is the primary reason why there are many debates over gay marriage, abortion rights, contraception, divorce, sex education, etc.

Atheists, in contrast, may have conservative beliefs in other areas like economics, but conservative beliefs are practically non-existent when it comes to social issues. Even if atheists, agnostics, and various nonbelievers disagree in the details (i.e., when sex education should begin) almost all share strong liberal conclusions (i.e., there should be comprehensive sex education in public schools).

Secular Atheists vs. Religious Theists?

But the conflict isn't between secular atheism and religious theism. You can see that while the percentage of non-Christians believers who consider themselves "mostly conservative on social and political issues" is far higher than atheists and agnostics, it's also far lower than even "notional" Christians, never mind evangelical Christians.

So what's going on? I think it has a lot to do with the degree to which evangelical Christianity has become identified with political and social conservatism — and the way in which white evangelical Christians have sought to use their privileged status in America to make life harder for everyone else.

Conservatism for Christians Only?

If the primary face of political and social conservatism is that of people who want you to be relegated to second-class status in politics, culture, and society because of your religion, then it's going to be tough to muster much support for their political and social conservatism. Who knows how many non-Christians and even "notional" Christians might otherwise be inclined towards conservatism but have been driven away and made more liberal by the social, cultural, and political bullying by evangelical Christians?

For conservative evangelical Christians, conservatism is as much an evangelical and a Christian position as it is a purely political position. When conservatism becomes religious and even sectarian like that, not much room is left for non-Christian conservatives, and those non-Christians who reach out to conservative circles may not feel very welcome. It's certainly difficult for open atheists to feel very welcome in a political movement and political party which so often promote policies that would drive America towards theocracy.

Why Aren't More Atheists Conservative?

What do you think about this? What do you think the reasons are for why conservatism is relatively rare not only among atheists and agnostics but also among religious theists who aren't Christians? Why do you think conservatism would be so much more popular among Christians than other groups and evangelical Christians in particular? Is there any reason to think that atheists and other groups might grow more conservative over time?