Conservative Atheism …

For a while now, the atheist movement, as represented by groups like Freethought Blogs, Atheism+, and whatever other groups have joined in calling for Deep Rifts[tm], have been pushing the line that the only proper atheism is that which is liberal and progressive, even going so far as to say that conservative atheists should, as the latest post on the matter from the blog “Death to Squirrels” by Iris Vander Pluym “get out of mah tent”, meaning the overarching atheist tent. So what this means is that if someone becomes convinced that atheism is correct and that there are no gods, but don’t happen to abandon their conservative beliefs at precisely the same time, then they aren’t welcome in the atheist “Big Tent’. Add in that religion and conservativism often correlate and there’s an awful lot of potential atheists that this attitude will exclude until they form the “right” set of beliefs.

So when Pluym criticizes one who is in some way conservative — and was described as an asshole — this way:

And movement atheism, which likes to consider itself a “Big Tent,” is already so chock full of them [assholes] that many, many good people have been driven away and quite understandably want nothing to do with it.

It looks like liberals can achieve that lofty classification themselves, and so it’s not limited to conservatives. Maybe, then, the liberal and progressive atheists ought to start by cleaning up their own house first, because those who insist that conservatives need not apply are going to push away a lot more at least potential atheists than the conservatives will.

(At which point, the reply will be that it’s about what’s right, and not about recruitment. Flip between the arguments as appropriate so that you can always claim to be totally right about everything.)

Then Pluym moves on to talk about those who claim to be fiscally conservative but socially progressive, who potentially then would meet the ideological requirements to be included in the “Big Tent”:

Gosh, that sounds reasonable! Fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal!

Except for one little problem: that position is utterly, laughably, fatally incoherent.

Greta Christina did an excellent job deconstructing it in a piece for AlterNet titled 7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand, wherein she points out that self-professed fiscal conservative/social liberals (“FC/SLs”) are depressingly common.

Now, I read that article, and as Pluym points out, the main argument was that fiscal considerations and social considerations aren’t, in fact, completely distinct from each other. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t think that fiscal conservativism can produce good outcomes even in the social sphere. If you look at Christina’s arguments, they essentially boil down to the idea that if the government gives people less money, it impacts all sorts of social concerns because, well, people have less money. But a fiscal conservative can easily deny that the way to fix that ought to be through government intervention, and that it isn’t the case that the only solution to the problem is the one that the progressive wants to implement. And both sides can claim, credibly, that no society has really tried their pure solutions.

The problem, though, is that Pluym doesn’t seem to understand what capitalism — and even equality — really is:

Conservatives are opposed to equality in principle, except when an issue directly affects them. You cannot have a “free market” and equality. Indeed, capitalism is predicated on inequality, and cannot exist without it. Are the uber-wealthy building or cleaning their own palaces, growing and preparing their own foods, making their own fabric and clothing, or home schooling their own children? No, they are not. They are instead very busy buying politicians who ensure they pay “low taxes” and that the people who perform all of these jobs for them are paid as little as possible. EQUALITY, everyone.

What Pluym is doing here is taking the worst properties of people who claim to be fiscally conservative — many of which would also be socially conservative — and elevating that to be what it means to be fiscally conservative, throwing in a lack of understanding of equality into the mix. First, the uber-wealthy are, in fact, hiring people to do that for them, trading the money they earned through other means to gain labour and time by getting other people to do that … just like pretty much everyone does. I don’t fix my own car or do house repairs beyond the very simple. I get other people to do that for me. If I didn’t want the exercise, I could hire someone to cut my lawn and shovel my snow, too. Does this mean that somehow those people aren’t my equal? If they hire me to do work for them, am I thus inferior to them? The whole notion of this is absurd.

Pluym also misunderstands “equality” here, insisting, it seems, that it must mean equality of outcome, which is indeed the form of equality that capitalism doesn’t guarantee … although, contrary to Pluym’s assertions, it can survive with it as well. What it guarantees is equality of opportunity: if you have a good enough idea and work hard enough, you can be a success. Now, starting points and luck come into it as well, but maybe the issue is that life just can’t be purely capitalist. But, at any rate, capitalism isn’t predicated on inequality, and would work far better than it does if we really did have an equal society.

It’d be more reasonable to argue that fiscal liberalism is predicated on inequality, because it’s predicated on taking from those who work harder and produce things of more value and giving that to people who work less hard and produce less value. And that would also be a strawman of the position.

Look, let me walk through my Not-So-Casual thoughts on what fiscal conservativism and fiscal liberalism entail. Fiscal conservatives, it seems to me, believe that the government should only provide that which a government is obligated to provide, and only take enough to fund those necessary services. Otherwise, as Elan says in this “Order of the Stick” comic, “the consumer knows best how to spend his or her hard earned money”. The market will provide what people want enough to pay enough for to get, and if the market tries to overcharge for a product, then people won’t buy it and either the market will have to lower the price or no one will be able to get it. The government should not get involved in determining what people want and what they do with the products of their labour.

Fiscal liberals, on the other hand, want the government to provide not only what only they can provide, but also at least what it would be better for them to provide if not what they think it would be good for them to provide. They have no problem talking the hard earned money from people as long as that gets spent in what they consider to be a manner that works better for society. Indeed, they don’t trust people to not spend their money only on selfish measures, and ones that hurt society.

This leads to the two extremes, which are not representative of the whole. On the fiscally conservative side, you end up with a very small list of things the government must provide, while on the fiscally liberal side you end up with the government taking the proceeds of everyone’s labour and using it to make everyone “equal”. From this, you can also see the benefits and downsides of each. Under fiscal conservativism, you have the most freedom in your spending … but you and/or a number of people might get “priced out” of really important things because you don’t earn enough; your financial freedom is limited not by direct action, but instead by how expensive all of the things that are important to you are. For fiscal liberalism, you can get the things that are important … but have less financial freedom to purchase or support the things you want but that the government doesn’t want to provide.

This is why the common criticism of fiscal conservativism that they don’t seem to complain about defense spending doesn’t work. Fiscal conservatives think that defense is something that the government is obligated to provide — even Ayn Rand thought that — and think that they are spending what they need to to maintain military supremacy. You’d have to argue that defense is not something that a government needs to provide, or else that we are spending more on it than we need to (although the weakness of that argument is that history has shown that it’s better to spend too much rather than too little).

So, how does Pluym go on to talk about conservatives in the “Big Tent”?

cannot believe this needs to be said, but one cannot reasonably expect people of color and women, for example, whose lives and most basic human rights are under constant, violent and escalating assault by conservatives, to occupy the same goddamn Big Tent with racists and Forced Birthers who just so happen to grok that there probably is no god. We should all come together in the cause of what? Atheism? To what end? “Equality for everyone”? Please.

By conflating fiscal and social conservativism in the worst possible way, and then excluding conservative atheists … who at least need as much support in their atheism as progressives, if not more. Nice, that.

Is there no possibility of disagreeing on some points, even major ones, but agreeing that you all share similar concerns that relate directly to your shared atheism? If you do, then partitioning out the “Social Justice” angles to focus on those specific issues makes sense. If you don’t, then what need do you have of an atheist movement?

Pluym finally gets around to talking about things specific to fiscal conservativism:

… there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that a robust welfare state (especially quality universal single-payer health care) decreases religiosity, while economic insecurity (with respect to wages, housing, food, etc.) increases it. See, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s book “Society Without God.” Fiscal conservatism in the form of Dave Silverman’s “small government, low taxes, a free market” is entirely antithetical to taking the path most likely to get us to the very outcome he seeks: the death of religion.

Except that fiscal conservatives will argue — with some justification — that a free market (even if not totally free) can produce more economic security and so reduce religiosity that way. Strong communist societies that have very robust welfare systems still had to try to reduce religious impulses through force … and generally failed. Booming economies provide financial security, regardless of how “welfare state” they are. Also, they can argue that expanding the social network just to create more atheists is a bad solution, as long as they really believe what they say they believe. The facts are not completely on the progressive side, despite Pluym’s and Christina’s assertions that they are.

And the problem in the atheist movement is conservative atheists. Their rationale doesn’t even withstand the most cursory scrutiny, and their conservative ideology is precisely what will prevent them from ever reaching their stated goals. More importantly, if history is any guide, conservatives will happily throw allies right under the bus, if it means they get to keep their guns or their regressive tax deductions or whatever selfish and destructive bullshit they truly hold dear.

And you are willing to toss potential allies in fighting for atheism under the bus to promote your progressive ideas, no matter how destructive they think they are. Sounds like you’re really no better, and that your “Big Tent” has a label of “All the people who agree with me on pretty much everything that I think important”. Which isn’t an “Atheist Big Tent” at all.

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One Response to “Conservative Atheism …”

  1. Andrew Says:

    “the path most likely to get us to the very outcome he seeks: the death of religion.”

    Interesting that he sees the movement as working toward a negative goal, not a positive one. But “no religion” has to be a means, not an end. Which prompts the question “what is the end?”.

    Despite the inevitable accretions, every religion must provide answers to two key questions:
    (1) why people?
    (2) given (1), how should we behave?

    Without (1), (2) is just opinion. Without (1), we don’t actually know if religion is a net positive or negative, nor whether we should abolish it without a trace, adopt a particular form wholesale, or anywhere in between.

    Religion certainly features in many atrocities between the in-group and out-group. But it’s interesting to note that almost all modern atrocities of a group against its own people have been atheist – almost as if the removal of religion renders a group incapable of resolving internal conflicts except by pure power.

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