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The Republican Atheist: Lost Cause or Missed Chance?

There is no way to start this piece without a confession.  Until the age of nineteen, if you asked me which political party I identified with, I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer Republican.  Having grown up first on a farm and then in the lap of Babbittish San Diego isolation, I didn’t even see my first Democrat until high school.  The only thing I really knew was that it was a Democrat who led the charge that killed the Superconducting Super Collider project, and that was enough to earn wrathful ire from a kid with grainy hand-scanned pictures of atomic physicists lining his wall.

To give an idea of how much things have changed, my justification for identifying as Republican was that I felt they were pro-science, as demonstrated by their support of the SSC and distrust of anti-positivist academic trends, pro-environment in a Roosevelt conservationist mold, and pro-reason, as I heard in their relentless snickering at the vogue of popular spirituality drifting about in the late eighties and early nineties.  I was president of our high school’s Teenage Republicans Club my sophomore year, and one of the first things I did was dedicate a meeting to the proposition that “Under God” should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, a notion that the four or five people gathered there didn’t really have any problem with.



My atheism and Republicanism seemed like natural allies.  I heard the pundits rage against self-indulgence, and nothing seemed to me more intellectually self-indulgent than Christianity.  Surely, all Republicans must be dead-set against an ideology which so blatantly pandered to people’s laziest fantasies of revenge and reward.  I was so sure, and received so little correction from my immediate environment, that I assumed it was the case nationally, when a pundit spoke of the need for more God in schools, that they were doing it out of a sense of historical antiquarianism, not an actual deep-seated belief.

The Republican Party claimed a profound respect for hard work over entitlement.  Again, atheism seemed the clear choice.  Atheism is hard.  You have to believe things you don’t really want to believe.  To maintain yourself against world opinion, you have to study science and math, philosophy and history, comparative religion and foreign languages.  It is a massive effort to maintain a set of ideas that you wish wasn’t true, and tends to produce rather straight-laced nerds who might talk graphically about the luscious hedonism they could theoretically partake of, but who in practice spend their time learning about Fourier Transforms and passive periphrastic structures.  Christians and atheists have the same basic sense of morality on everything that matters, but atheists have a towering academic responsibility on top of that which I felt was necessarily a draw for any self-respecting Republican.

The Republican Party I knew also had a keen sense of rigor and standards, that the road to truth was a scrabbly and difficult one, and all assertions made must be tempered in the fire of intense scrutiny.  Truth isn’t something a vocal gathering of people feels ought to be true, it’s something that has survived every possible test put to it.  When the Republicans hooted at the state of nineties academia, it was that very lack of standards they bemoaned, and whether or not they were right (I come in at a very unhelpful “sometimes”), it seems natural that that distaste for squishy epistemology should transfer to the realm of religious thoughts as well.

In short, the virtues of the perfect early 90s Republican (self-discipline, willingness to believe things that work against your own interest if they are logically plausible, intellectual rigor) were the virtues of the atheist, and it was utterly unthinkable to me that, secretly, the entire party wasn’t fundamentally atheistic in outlook.

I was, of course, hopelessly naïve.  I listened to Rush Limbaugh and, with all the concentrated narcissism of the teenager species, heard only the things that happened to apply to my small sphere of interests and none of the ones I had no direct experience of.  I knew nothing about larger social and lifestyle issues having never looked past my zero-diversity surroundings, rationalized away the growing presence of fundamentalists at party events, and carried on expounding a Republicanism that I pasted together out of invisibly thin strands of reasoning and wishful thinking.

But I was soon disabused of my fanciful notions.  The first election I had a chance to vote in was the 2000 contest between Gore and a candidate selected by my party as if explicitly to drive away people like me – a religious extremist, anti-intellectual, barely coherent, historically uninformed, massively self-indulgent, environmentally callous slug of a man who showed to me all in one moment how far the party was from the things I had believed it stood for.

My first vote in a presidential election went to a Democrat.

But here’s the thing – I left the party, as much for the selection of Bush, Palin, Hannity and other fumbling indulgence monkeys as the party’s pantheon as for what I learned about the world once released from my isolated cocoon.  About different people, their struggles, and how they deserve to be treated.  About my own over-bearing arrogance in judging certain areas of human achievement as “better” than others.  And about how human history actually works and what direction we need to go.  I left for good, but many stayed, and are there still, waiting quietly for a return to an environmentally responsible, scientifically literate, philosophically sophisticated platform that they can embrace again.  They say they believe in God, because that is what they have grown up with and because the public image of atheism frightens them.  But, intellectually, in terms of the virtues they claim to honor, this is where they need to be, and we need to realize that, not giving up every Republican as a lost cause and waste of resources.

They’re there, and they’re largely unhappy living a double life of constantly frustrated ideals.  And now that we’ve settled down a bit as an intellectual movement, maybe it’s time to reach out and say what we have to offer them and hear, perhaps, what they have to offer us that we didn’t even know we needed.