What's So Weird About a Conservative Atheist?

The American Atheists were invited—and then uninvited—from the Conservative Political Action Conference. Why?
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"It is an attack on God Himself."

This was how Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative Media Research Center, felt about the prospect of representatives from the American Atheists attending the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of conservative leaders and organizations in Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, the Atheists announced they would host a booth at the conference next week; within hours, they had been disinvited. The group "misrepresented itself about their willingness to engage in positive dialogue and work together to promote limited government," a CPAC spokesperson told the Washington Post yesterday.

The American Atheists disagree. "America’s religious conservatives can deny it all they want, but soon they’re going to realize that ignoring the growing number of atheist constituents is a losing proposition,” the organization's president, David Silverman, said in a press release. He says his group had been in conversation with conference's planning committee about 2015, offering up ideas for future atheist keynoters. Despite this year's snub, the Atheists are willing to reopen dialogue with CPAC about "the importance of religious equality," Silverman said.

All this back-and-forth over a booth at a convention has a touch of farce. The American Atheists are losing out on the chance to hand out keychains and fliers to a massive group of conservative Christians—it seems unlikely that the group would have successfully un-saved any souls in attendance. The stakes seem to be symbolic: If the most religious, far-right conservatives can open their arms to people with a fundamentally different worldview, that would signal big changes to come in GOP politics. The lightning-quick withdrawal of CPAC's invitation suggests that the Republican Party isn't quite there yet, though.

The American Atheists are losing out on the chance to hand out keychains to a massive group of conservative Christians.

But what's in this for the American Atheists? There seems to be a misalignment between CPAC, which is fundamentally a political summit, and the group's mission: "Fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion." [Emphasis added.] Perhaps the organization sees the GOP as an untapped source of potential allies in government—it's always helpful when people in Congress have your back, even if you want them to stay out of religious matters. As this whole affair has proven, this was also a chance for the Atheists to score some press coverage: Both on and off the invite list, the group has used their involvement with CPAC as megaphone for talking about religious freedom and civil liberties.

But there's also an awkwardness to the pairing between atheists and conservatives. It's not just that the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, is a traditionally religious group, although it is: A section headed "What We Believe" on the ACU's website says "we reaffirm our belief in the Declaration of Independence, and in particular the belief that our inherent rights are endowed by the Creator." 

It's more that the American Atheists and the ACU seem to be focused on totally different things: The former, on the metaphysical proposition that there is no God, and that people should have the right to believe that; and the latter, that conservative values and a belief in limited government should guide policy. Christianity might inform conservatives' political views, but conservative politics aren't necessarily about persuading people of the truth of Christianity. Even if they have fundamentally different world views, why shouldn't doubters and believers band together on political issues?

This controversy echoes the perennial hubbub over whether an LGBT organization called GOProud can come to the conference. It's an explicitly conservative group of people who just happen to be gay, but CPAC's organizers have voted against including them for the past two years. GOProud is explicitly aligned with the politics of CPAC, yet a difference over an arguably private lifestyle choice—sexuality—was grounds for exclusion.

Both of these issues hint at a deeper rift within the Republican Party. The rise of the Tea Party signaled the ascendance of a political philosophy in which alliances are less about agreeing on legislation and more about holding the same metaphysical view of the universe. This is the opposite of pluralistic, "big tent" politics: There's a limit to how much intellectual diversity CPAC Republicans will tolerate, apparently. As long as the conservative wing of the GOP keeps its significant power over the party—which isn't guaranteed for long, actually—people who think or live their inner lives outside the boundaries of "traditional" Christian values will have to look elsewhere for political allies.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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