There's been an interesting exchange over at NRO. Just scroll for the last couple of days. The Buckley view, apparently, is that it is perfectly possible for a conservative to be an atheist, but that respect for religion and a lack of disrespect for the faithful is also part of conservatism. I tend to agree. The only thing I'd add is that "religion" is a very broad and inchoate term for the purposes of this discussion. It matters a great deal what kind of religious faith we're talking about. Faith is not, to my mind, an on-off switch, in which you either believe completely or not at all. This model is shared by fundamentalists and atheists, but not by many, many Christians.
The most natural religious complement to conservatism is a faith in God, tempered by a deep humility about our ability to know surely much about what God is, an emphasis on mystery, on charity, individual responsibility, and sacramental worship. But when religion becomes absolutist and abstract and political, when it become fundamentalist, it is much less compatible with conservatism, and, in the end, actively hostile to it. What we are seeing resurgent in the world today is the rise of a religious sensibility - in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity - which has far more in common with the statist absolutist totalitarianisms of the last century than with, say, Anglicanism or post-Vatican II Catholicism. In fact, as I argue in my book, I think the collapse of the last centuries' totalitarianisms has opened a cultural and psychological vacuum for this kind of religion to occupy, as it once did before the Enlightenment. A passage from my upcoming book makes the point:
In this non-fundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important then theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle. This is the Christianity that the conservative clings to; and it is a form of Christianity the fundamentalist rejects. That is his right. But it is the great lie of our time that all religious faith has to be fundamentalist to be valid.
Alas, many conservatives have conflated these rival forms of faith. And, often with good intentions, they have thereby helped erase conservatism's critical, definitional distinction between transcendent truth and practical wisdom. From that confusion, so much damage has been done. So much - in so short a time.