Last month, I exchanged emails with Kimberly Winston from the Religion News Service on the subject of atheists and their voting patterns. The article was ultimately scrapped when Pew released a study on “nones” being the fastest growing faith group in America, essentially eclipsing Winson’s subject. I was quoted in a separate article last week, The ‘nones’ say 2012 election proves they are a political force.
From the Religion News article:
“Indeed, reaching out to nones may be a problem for both parties in the future. In analyzing voting data about nones, political scientist Juhem Navarro-Rivera wrote on Public Religion Research Institute's website about the difficulty the Democrats will face trying to reconcile conflicting segments of their base, like black Protestants and the nones.
“Their “positions on social issues,” like same-sex marriage and abortion, he wrote, “are sometimes at odds.”
“Nor will it be easy for Republicans. There has already been plenty of talk about how they must work to attract a more diverse range of voters. A 38-year-old man who blogs under the pseudonym Heathen Republican said abandoning religious rhetoric will help attract more nones.
““By using faith-based arguments, religious conservatives actually hinder the conservative movement,” he said in an email, asking to remain anonymous for professional reasons. “They create obstacles where there don't need to be any, and they make it harder for the non-religious voter to take the Republican Party seriously. Non-faith-based conservative arguments will appeal to religious voters and non-religious voters. Faith-based conservative arguments will make non-religious voters tune out.””
Stereotype: Atheists are Democrats
Much of our Q&A didn’t make it into the article, so here are a couple of exchanges on the same subject.
Kimberly Winston: I think there is a stereotype that all atheists are Democrats. According to your experience, how many atheists are also Republicans? How many do you think are independents and sometimes vote Republican? Which do you think is more common?
HR: I think the stereotype is true and that most atheists are Democrats. I think one of the biggest causes is that the Republican Party has been branded (and branded itself) as a religious party and the party of family values (which is code for “religious”). Many atheists – particularly the militant variety – are actively opposed to religion, so any indication that a political party is tied to a religion will be enough to turn them away.
I am not a militant atheist and I think I represent one of the many new breeds of atheism. I’m not religious, I don’t believe in the supernatural, and yet I’m a big supporter of religious freedom. The secular right movement is trying to provide an alternative to the secular left because, as secularism grows, people need to know that there is an alternative to the Democrat Party.
I think the secular right is bigger than most people suspect, but that’s because most atheists who reject the left more readily identify as libertarians. If you add libertarians to the ranks of secular conservatives, the gap between left and right is a little smaller. Consider, most libertarians are in favor of small government, free markets, and secure borders, but may be open to abortion and same-sex marriage. This also describes most secular conservatives
Atheism and Voting Behavior
KW: Based on your personal experience, how many atheists/agnostics do you think are like you and their atheism is not the primary driving force when they go to the polls?
HR: I think most atheists – probably at least 70% – thrive on being anti-religious (pure guess; no idea if that’s a real number). But because they love being anti-religious, they walk into the polls with the plan to vote against the religious party, which is the Republican Party. In my experience, every atheist that I’ve met who is militant, or overtly anti-religious, is also on the left. When I’ve met atheists who are more indifferent to religion and pro religious freedom like me, they tend to be on the right or consider themselves politically independent.
If my generalizations hold up, we could probably identify each group based on their “conversion story” to atheism. If they abandoned religion for emotional reasons, in a state of rebellion against a family member or a church, or were somehow victimized by religion, they’d be more likely to be an anti-religious atheist and vote Democratic. If they abandoned their faith for more intellectual reasons, they are probably more receptive to the conservative world view
Atheists Mixing With Republicans
KW: The Republican Party is often considered very religious. Tell me how you - and other atheists - are able to find a home there.
HR: The short answer is that I am a conservative first and an atheist second. I have more in common with Republicans who share my ideology than with Democrats who share my lack of faith. My votes are cast for candidates who will advocate what I want in government and who most closely represent my ideology. In today’s world, that will always be a Republican and it will never be a Democrat. It’s not as hard as you might think, but Republicans could improve the situation.
#1 Target the right kind of atheist
Some atheists will never find a home in the Republican Party. The militant atheists and those who are explicitly anti-religious simply will never tolerate the openness of the Republican Party and will prefer the religious hostility that permeates the Left. So the first part of the answer starts with the atheist: s/he must be a supporter of religious freedom and be able to happily coexist with those of faith.
#2 Stop bashing atheists
I have run into my share of intolerant Republicans who don’t believe I belong in their ranks, but they are a distinct minority. One of my favorite quotes comes from a caller to the Dennis Prager show who says, “All atheists are is a problem. It’s because of atheists and people like atheists that we have the current moral degradation and rot in this country.” (23-Jun-11). If the Republican Party is ever going to appeal to the growing ranks of atheists in the U.S., this kind of rhetoric needs to be addressed.
#3 Recognize that it’s possible to be both moral and an atheist
Next, get past the ignorance demonstrated by Dennis Prager’s caller and recognize that it’s possible to be both moral and an atheist. People of faith seem to believe that we cannot be moral without God, but moral behavior does not have to depend on the existence of a deity, and it doesn’t depend on a religious theology constructed by men.
I encourage you to read Winston’s article over at Religion News.