The right's atheism problem: Why it should rethink its marriage with Christianity

After getting kicked out of the premier right-wing conference in America, an atheist leader sounds off to Salon

Published February 27, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

For a few hours Tuesday, American Atheists was scheduled to have a booth at CPAC, the premier right-wing conference the American Conservative Union will host that week. Tuesday afternoon, ACU announced that the invitation had been rescinded, and accused the atheist nonprofit of having “misrepresented itself about their willingness to engage in positive dialogue and work together to promote limited government.” (Featured CPAC speakers this year include Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre.)

“What CPAC has done is effectively bury its head in the sand …” American Atheists president David Silverman countered in a Wednesday interview with Salon. “They are pretending that atheists aren’t relevant. And they are pretending that Christianity still holds water in American society.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Why did you want a booth at CPAC?

To raise the awareness of the fact that 20 percent of America’s conservatives are non-religious people -- they never pray, according to Pew …

And they should include the non-religious in their talks … They should acknowledge the non-religious. And they should rethink the conservative marriage with Christianity …

I wanted to raise the awareness that there were atheists in the ranks, and I wanted to raise the awareness that those atheists -- at least some of them -- think that Christianity can easily and should easily be divorced from conservatism.

How did you learn that you were being uninvited?

[American Conservative Union executive director] Dan Schneider called me personally, a very civil conversation … He told me that he was getting a lot of flak from a lot of very angry board members. And then he came out and said: Because of your tone, we’re sending you your money back and kicking you out of CPAC.

And it was obvious to me that he was looking for a reason; I mean, considering the tone of some of the speakers at CPAC …

There is nothing in my tone that sounded aggressive toward a person, or trashed Christianity in any way. We were going there to attack the notion -- the false notion -- that conservatism requires Christianity.

But … he obviously needed us out, and was looking for a reason. So they picked “tone” and threw us out. It was too bad. We tried; I asked him if there was anything I could do to reverse the decision, and he said no.

A spokeswoman for CPAC told CNN that you “pledged” [to] “attack the very idea that Christianity is an important element of conservatism.  People of any faith tradition should not be attacked for their beliefs, especially at our conference.  He has left us with no choice but to return his money.”

Look at that quote. I did say that I was going to attack the idea that Christianity and conservatism were inseparable. This is not an attack on people of faith. An attack on people of faith is “all people of faith are stupid.”

An attack on the idea that conservatism and Christianity are … inextricably linked is not an attack on people of faith. They invented it. They wanted to find a reason to feign offense, so that they could kick us out and justify their actions.

Your public relations director recently wrote, “Setting aside the fact that religions are dangerous and false, separation of religion and government is absolutely necessary because if any religion co-opts legislature, it means that no other religion is free to practice as that legislature pertains to their beliefs. The range of applications is nearly unlimited: Marriage equality, right-to-die, abortion, birth control, sex ed, science education, science funding, religious school funding, liquor sales, business hours, employment discrimination, the list goes on and on and on.”

If your group has different politics on these issues than CPAC – and most of the people at CPAC – why should they have you at their conference?

Because CPAC doesn’t represent all people at CPAC … The reason that I wanted to go is to raise the awareness that CPAC is throwing away conservatives. CPAC is shoving conservatives off to the side.

Conservatism is declining, obviously … And the reason that they are suffering is because they are doing the wrong thing, by taking the fastest growing … religious demographic in the country -- the fastest-growing in all 50 states -- and shoving it off to the side for the sake of Jesus …

At my convention, we have a diversity of ideas and discussion ensues. And as a result we are stronger. We hear the dissent. We hear … “you should take this position versus that position,” we hear, “you should call yourselves this versus that” …

What CPAC has done is effectively bury its head in the sand, and is pretending that things aren’t changing. They are pretending that atheists aren’t relevant. And they are pretending that Christianity still holds water in American society.

What does it mean to say that Christianity doesn’t still “hold water in American society”?

Christianity is clearly on the decline, OK? ... The only reason there is a stableness in the Catholic Church is because of people coming into the country. Religion is clearly on the decline. So why are they staying in bed with religion, when atheism … is on the rise, and strengthening every day in every poll?

… Nobody is saying that we should throw Christians out of conservatism. What we’re saying is that Christianity should not be a guiding force in conservative policy …

Recently, I’ve defined myself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. And what I’ve come to realize is that social conservatism is Christian theocracy, OK? And I hate using that word, because it sounds like I’m casting a big net. But theocracy means religious dogma as law. And the entire social conservative agenda is theocratic in nature. The entire fiscal conservative agenda is fair in nature. And it’s small government, and it’s strong military, and it’s gun rights, and it has nothing to do with religion.

The entire social area of conservatism is Christian, and Christian only -- and that’s what [American Atheists’] Dave Moscato was talking about. And the reason that CPAC would want us there is to raise the issue of the fact that Christianity is holding conservatism down. It used to buoy it up. But now it is holding it down.

And as Christianity continues to decline, conservatism will continue to decline -- until it drops Christianity and embraces a secular, diverse America.

Should everyone be an atheist?

Yes, everyone should be an atheist … Atheism is a much better and healthier place to be mentally. Of course, every religious person would say the exact opposite.

But yes, I think everybody should be an atheist. But absolutely under no circumstances should anybody be forced into atheism, and under no circumstances should the government be used to promote atheism or religion.

Should anyone be a conservative?

Non-atheists should be conservatives -- I mean, yeah, of course they can be conservatives … I used to call myself a conservative. Of course people should be conservatives. But the conservatives need to realize that they’re being damaged by the fake concept of “social conservatism” …

There’s no such thing as social conservatism. It’s the opposite of conservatism. I mean, think about it: Conservatism is about small government. But social conservatism is about big government: You can’t marry this person. You can’t have this surgery. You can’t get that abortion …

The social conservatism is not conservatism at all. It is – again, I hate to use the word -- theocracy masquerading as social conservatism. So if somebody can stomach supporting something as un-American as theocracy, then yes, they should be conservatives.

But what really needs to happen is that the conservatives need to understand and assert the fact that you can not only be conservative without being Christian, but that Christianity is actually hurting the conservative movement, and stopping supporters from voting for conservatives.

If they want the vote, go to the fastest-growing segment of the population and court them. Don’t shove them aside and pretend they’re not there.

Should discrimination in public accommodations be legal based on race or based on LGBT status?

They should not …

Everybody should be able to discriminate in a private setting. Once you open a business, you’re open to the public, and you shouldn’t be allowed to say “no gays here, no Jews here, no blacks here, no atheists here.”

… If you’re going to open a public accommodation, it should be for the public … Personally I would support changing the Civil Rights Act to include homosexuals.

Are there kinds of businesses that you think should be allowed to discriminate based on sexual orientation or based on race?

Private clubs, private organizations -- I think that’s reasonable. But as far as nonprofits, public accommodations, hotels, restaurants – no, discrimination should be illegal.

Should it be legal to discriminate in hiring based on sexual orientation or based on race?

No ... Absolutely not.

Should there be religious exceptions when it comes to employment laws – whether it’s about gender or race or sexuality?

No, there should not … Religious exemptions are just excuses to say, “All right, I’m going to break this law because my god tells me to.” It’s like saying, “I’m going to drive 75 in a 65 zone because my god tells me to.” You just make that up …

If you’re running a 501(c)3 you are a public trust – and that’s for everybody.

By Josh Eidelson

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