Bundle Thinking: Atheism and the Political Spectrum

Donald R. Burleson

As a moderate socioeconomic conservative and an atheist, I often find myself misunderstood by people of many diverse viewpoints. When I mention that I’m an atheist, that I’ve become convinced after years of contemplation that the whole notion of God is a diseased and dangerous concept, many people automatically assume that I must be a political liberal in favor of big government, driven by social sensibilities, and suspicious of capitalism. Conversely, when I mention that I’m a socioeconomic conservative—that I favor responsible capitalism, largely distrust government involvement in private affairs, and believe that an insistence upon personal responsibility must outweigh most other considerations—then, appallingly to me, many people assume that I must be a God-believing, church-going religionist, even a fundamentalist Christian. (Strange—doesn’t anyone remember libertarian-capitalist-atheist Ayn Rand?)

I characterize these muddled categorizations as “bundle thinking”—the tendency to cluster certain philosophical associations together not because they logically belong together but simply because they have been found to reside together in many individuals’ thinking, grouped by habit or tradition.

One who wants to disentangle these unjustified associations is hindered by the fact that a number of leftist national governments in recent history have been more or less officially nontheistic. A conservatively inclined atheist runs the risk of being mispainted with a very broad brush. It isn’t that all people buy into the notorious “Communists are atheists, my neighbor is an atheist, therefore my neighbor is a communist” syllogism, but atheism and leftist politics have been linked conspicuously enough in world history to forge a connection in many minds, however vague and illogical.

Then there is the undeniable fact that, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, virtually all American conservatives profess to be deeply religious and expect any other conservative to be equally so. Former President George H. W. Bush once said: “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”* If one samples attitudes on the far Right in the United States, one finds this to be very common, though not quite universal: not only that political conservatism is traditionally bundled with religious belief but that belief in God is sine qua non for being an American—that one’s very loyalty and qualifications for proper citizenship are in question if one does not affirm the existence of a God ironically not even mentioned in the United States Constitution (which, of course, is as it should be).

This atheist, who considers himself a patriotic American, finds this attitude among my fellow conservatives distressing, but one learns to expect it at every turn. I suppose mental habits ingrained in childhood are difficult to break, especially for people who have been conditioned to maintain their belief systems.

How to account for this rampant religiosity among conservatives is another matter. With regard to the popularity of the God idea in general, I’m strongly inclined toward Richard Dawkins’s hypothesis of God-as-virus, the notion that “God” as a concept migrates memetically, copying itself from mind to mind to mind by a process that in some ways resembles the replication of genes. (God is a hearty survivor in the “meme pool” because natural selection favors those who most thoroughly assimilate into the culture in which they’re born, and religious indoctrination in childhood is virtually always part of that process.) To account for the fact that the God concept seems to find readier incubation at some places along the political spectrum than others, one might postulate a sort of conceptual haplogroup in which traits migrate together—with, for example, conservative religionists attitudinally begetting other conservative religionists. There is no particular reason why, say, a certain friendliness toward capitalism has to have anything to do with belief in God, but apparently the two memes often travel together: strong capitalists are usually God-fearing types, and vice versa.

A great deal of nonsense has been promulgated by advocates eager to establish, however speciously, that “this is one nation under God.” For example, religionists often claim that our political institutions, long since proven highly worthy despite their occasional problems, are “God-given” or at least inspired by the traditions and values of Christianity. Of course, the truth these religionists are unwilling to face is that those very American institutions they are so quick to claim were, on the contrary, inspired by Enlightenment values, not by religious dogma and decidedly not by Judeo-Christian precepts. Certainly a respect for law, free enterprise, and the American dream need have nothing to do with God.

Such linkings of conservatism with theism are founded on no particularly compelling logic, and indeed, thinking deconstructively about the matter, one may well argue that precisely the opposite ought to be the case—that, if anything, the God concept should find itself as dramatically out of place on the right wing of the political spectrum as it is on the left wing. Conservatives generally place high value on individual initiative, on personal independence from government influence and systemic puppet-string attachments generally. Religion being a collective social phenomenon, it seems to me that human individuality and subservience to the imaginary God of one’s acquaintances ought to be uncomfortable bedfellows. One might well expect conservatives to value human independence avidly enough to disavow the whole notion of that ultimate governmental puppet-master, God. For those who attach the highest value to private initiative and an indomitable human nature, God’s very (claimed) existence ought to seem radically inconsistent with those ideals. If this were the case, the God meme should find a ready haven essentially nowhere on the political spectrum.

But perhaps the very notion of that spectrum itself is the problem. One may easily argue that it is simplistic to hope to capture human political diversity on a linear scale. The extremes of this scale—the far Right and the far Left—have historically shared many unhappy qualities, rather as if these extremes meet each other at some point, perhaps at infinity. It may well be that a more powerful model of political philosophy would need to be displayed on the surface of a sphere or a torus or along the contours of some more multidimensional space.

In any case, the difficulty of justifying theism at any particular location on the traditional linear political spectrum is likely to be one of the best ways to see the limitations of that conceptual model. No model makes complete sense when it makes such concepts as “God” more or less coherent and dependent on what one thinks about unrelated matters, such as when supernatural creatures seem more or less credible depending on whether one is a capitalist.

So it’s tricky to bundle-think, to make assumptions about people’s religion because of their political or socioeconomic views—or to make assumptions about their politics because of their religion or lack of it. The stereotyped associations “atheist implies liberal” and “conservative implies religious” may often be true, but they need not always be. In a universe that runs itself, if one doesn’t need God the creator, one doesn’t need God the conservative or God the liberal either. We have quite enough fantasy in our lives already.

In fact, for theists there’s a serious problem with characterizing God according to one’s political, social, or economic proclivities. The more attributes a hypothetical supernatural entity is said to have, the less likely it is to exist. The logic seems straightforward enough. There are fewer even numbers that are divisible both by 7 and by 11 than there are even numbers divisible by 7, and fewer even numbers divisible by 7 than there are even numbers. Just as there are fewer purple carnivorous unicorns than there are carnivorous unicorns, and fewer carnivorous unicorns than there are unicorns, likewise one must suppose there are fewer gods with more numerous attributes than there are gods with more limited arrays of attributes. So if there are fewer conservative gods than there are gods, and if there almost certainly are no gods at all to start with, well then, that scarcely populates the universe with gods bearing any specified traits (jealousy, compassion, wisdom, particular sociopolitical complexions).

If you’re a conservative (or whatever) and you want God to exist, you do yourself no favors by loading him up with attributes. But then if you don’t give him your favorite attributes, you’ll have a hard time enlisting him to support your causes. I’m glad this isn’t my paradox!


* Joan Konner, The Atheist’s Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts, HarperCollins 2007, p. 173.

Donald R. Burleson

Donald R. Burleson is a mathematician and a widely published writer on nonbelief. He is a contributing editor to The American Rationalist, from which this article is reprinted with permission.

As a moderate socioeconomic conservative and an atheist, I often find myself misunderstood by people of many diverse viewpoints. When I mention that I’m an atheist, that I’ve become convinced after years of contemplation that the whole notion of God is a diseased and dangerous concept, many people automatically assume that I must be a …

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