How can someone be conservative and non-religious?

The tenets of atheism

My road to atheism

I wasn’t born an atheist, but rather held a firm belief in God when I was a child. For a couple months in 3rd grade, I started the habit of saying a silent prayer to myself a few times each day. I wasn’t always eager to attend church (my parents are both Lutheran), but neither did I question the fundamental tenets of Christianity.

However, as I got older I began to question the value of this belief system and by 8th grade I considered myself an atheist. A couple years later I liked a girl who happened to be Christian. For a time I re-examined Christianity and made a very sincere attempt to believe in it. I read the Bible word-for-word from Genesis 1 to somewhere in the book of Ruth. Then I quit, and never went back. To me, the Bible seemed like nothing more than a nationalist history of the tribe of Israel, with creation myths and fantasy mixed in. Why would a universal God transmit his message through one small tribe, and nominate them as his chosen people? The Bible seemed to be written for the benefit of Israelis, and it was written by Israelis (surprise!!). It hardly seemed like something to base a religion on.

Political Parties, religion, and identity

Around this time I also began to read about politics and found that the Republicans frequently cited Christian principles when making philosophical defenses of conservatism. This turned me off. Then I saw Republicans support asinine policies like the PATRIOT Act, the Homeland Security color code chart, the overturning of Oregon’s euthanasia law, the restriction of research on stem cells, and the grand daddy of them all… the horrifically stupid invasion of Iraq. At the same time, I saw Democrats opposing these policies every step of the way (minus the PATRIOT act which passed ).

What happened is that an emotional identity was created, where I naturally agreed with Democrats on other issues because I identified myself as being “one of them”. This was my entire peer group from the age of 17-22. The feedback loop I received from majoring in the social sciences at the University of Chicago reinforced this tendency. Only rarely did I hear conservative viewpoints in college, and they were usually poorly constructed straw man arguments at that.

Of course, now that the Democrats pull all the levels, I see that they maintain at least as many inept and senseless policies as the Republicans do. Simply look at who gave big money to Barack Obama in 2008, and then see what Obama is doing now.

I reflexively sided with anyone who hated this guy.

The truth of the matter is that politics and religion have nothing to do with each other. Particularly in the United States, the two are mutually exclusive (in theory). I’ve heard it argued that the US is a Christian nation and was founded on these principles. I feel that this belief includes a willful blindness towards early American history, which I explain below.

The United States was founded as a libertarian nation, not a Christian nation

The United States was founded on a radical interpretation of the works of John Locke and Cato (click link for a summary of Cato in Colonial American thought). In fact, though Locke is more frequently cited in modern sources, Cato was far more influential. One fact that is papered over is that the US barely had a federal government from 1783-1789. During this period, the governing philosophy of the United States was one of the most utopian ever attempted.

What happened is that there was a great cultural shift in American attitudes early in the 19th century. The historical term is the Second Great Awakening. Relatively fundamentalist sects such as Methodists and Baptists expanded drastically, while more established sects like the Presbyterians declined. In this era many political reformers emerged who justified their actions with the Bible, and embraced the fusion of religion and politics. It was in this era that America as a Christian nation, rather a libertarian nation, really began to take hold.

1839 rendering of a Methodist revival. These scenes were much less frequent in the 1780s

Think outside the Democrat/Republican divide

When I was able to make the distinction between religious belief and economic/political viewpoint, I realized that my views are much more conservative than liberal. It is only the infestation of the Republican party with fundamentalist voters and “God Bless America” rhetoric (my interpretation of Christianity is “God Bless the World”) that kept me from seeing this earlier. Having reached the conclusions I have, I doubt I will be voting for either party in 2012, as they simply do not align with my own world view. All I would do is to encourage anyone looking at political issues such as the size of government, free trade, the structure of the banking system, foreign policy, the importance of hard work and strong ethics, etc. to leave out their perception of religion and analyze these issues on their own merit. Just because you would be ashamed to call yourself a Democrat, doesn’t mean that you can’t hold liberal views, and vice versa. Remember, the political parties serve mainly to enrich their own contributors at the government’s expense.

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