Once the news was out, some conservatives began lodging complaints. Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council said, “If this is where the ACU is headed, they will have to pack up and put away the ‘C’ in CPAC,” and Brent Bozell claimed their attendance would be “more than an attack on conservative principles. It is an attack on God Himself.”
That may have been the response that Dave Silverman, president of the American Atheists was hoping for, when he told CNN that “The Christian right should be threatened by us.” But, as he explained to TAC, Silverman’s goal wasn’t to attack the conservative movement, but to “change it from within.”
Silverman is a self-described conservative, who cited Christie Todd Whitman and Bob Dole as politicians he particularly admires, and found it ironic to be bumped from a conservative conference less than a week after he’d been out shooting with his family.
With atheists on the rise (the Pew Religion and Public Life project found that the religiously unaffiliated represent 20 percent of all U.S. adults, and a third of those under thirty), Silverman thinks that the GOP has to reach out to atheists in order to stay politically viable. In his opinion, “If Christian influence were wiped from conservatism, conservatism would thrive.”
According to Silverman, he asked the American Conservative Union what compromise or conditions they’d require in order to keep the American Atheists in attendance and was told that no negotiation was possible; it was a matter of tone. (The ACU could not be reached for comment.)
American Atheists is known for the inflammatory rhetoric on their billboards and ads (a sampling from recent years includes “You KNOW they’re all scams!” over an image of houses of worship and “Christianity: Sadistic God; Useless Savior… Promotes Hate; Calls it ‘Love’”). However, the pamphlets Silverman had prepared to hand out (reproduced in full at the end of this article) are relatively mild.
The brochure contains no attacks on the truth of religion or insults directed at believers. Instead it summarizes four key issues for the organization: amend tax policy to end distinctions between religious and secular non-profits, keep religious monuments off public land, limit conscience exemptions unless narrowly tailored, and keep policy debates focused on reason, not revelation.
If their soft-pedaling had won them supporters, American Atheists might have had a new problem on their hands. Although the many conservatives are uncomfortable with atheists, it’s not clear that the atheist movement is necessarily much more comfortable with conservatives. When Edwina Rogers, who had previously worked for Senator Trent Lott and President George W. Bush, was tapped as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America, Greta Christina, a popular atheist writer, said that her work as a Republican was “a real problem” and that the aims of the GOP were “diametrically opposed to those of the atheist and secular community.” Christina subsequently resigned her membership in the SCA, when she felt that Rogers did not adequately address these concerns.
When contacted, Rogers said that, as she’s settled into her tenure, atheist objections to her politics have died down. She notes that, among self-identified libertarians, 27 percent are religiously unaffiliated, tied with White Mainline Protestants for the largest subgroup. In the opinion of her communications director, Lauren Anderson Youngblood, “I don’t think the Republican Party has a choice but to move away from religion.”
Silverman aims at even larger ideological shifts in the GOP. He sees no role for social conservatives in long term, stating “Social conservatives are against atheists by definition.” In his mind, there’s no way to reach those policy positions except by appealing to a source of authority outside secular reason. Rogers, by contrast, has worked with pro-life atheists and knows secular opponents of gay marriage.
But the debate over the soul, or rather, the rational faculty of secular conservatism will play out somewhere besides the exhibit hall of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
Despite his organization’s exclusion, Silverman will still be attending CPAC (and live tweeting events from his handle: @MrAtheistPants). If you spot him at the event, he’ll still be awarding free American Atheists membships to CPAC attendees, as he planned to do at the booth. And he won’t be the only conservative atheist on the ground: Edwina Rogers attends CPAC every year, and has no plans to break her streak.