Do non-believers tend towards a certain political view?


Disclaimer: all quotes from the AHS Convention are para-phrasings, not direct.

I’ve just been, yesterday, to the National Federation for Atheist, Humanist, and Secular Student Societies‘ conference in Conway Hall, London. The AHS are a group wholly facilitated and supported by the – perhaps more familiar – British Humanist Association, and the day involved many high-profile Humanists giving salient, topical, and often humorous talks to an audience of mainly student society leaders.

The speakers included Jim Al-Khalili, a Physicist, broadcaster, and the new President of the BHA; Robin Ince, a well-known Atheist comedian and co-host of the Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox on Radio 4; Andrew Copson, Chief executive of the BHA; Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and former BHA President; and many more notable and inspirational people.

I mention this because, during the Q&A after Polly Toynbee’s talk, a very interesting point was made… A self-identifying ‘Conservative Libertarian’ seemed at pains with the idea that potential Humanists could be put off from identifying with the label because the organisation tends to take left-wing political views on various issues (and it’s leading members are themselves vocally left-wing). According to my memory of it at least, the issue was – in his mind – a misrepresentation of the members of the BHA, as it ‘was not meant to be a political organisation’.

Again, to my memory, Polly made the point in reply that the stance that the BHA takes on certain public ethical issues – such as assisted dying and sexual/reproductive rights – is intrinsically left-wing. Andrew Copson noted too, that (after beginning with ‘Let me say something about the Tories’, which had the hall laughing) while the BHA did have associations with Conservatives, those Tories tended to be the most left-wing of the right – perhaps of the same somewhat paradoxical group of  ‘Conservative Libertarians’ as the man who asked the question.

But, what does it mean to be a ‘Conservative Libertarian’? Well, plainly, it tends to mean being conservative politically when it comes to issues of the economy, foreign policy, and homeland security for example, while holding that everyone is entitled to ‘individual liberty’, ‘equal rights’ and ‘equal opportunity’… Which sounds good, in theory. The only problem is that having a very capitalist economic opinion clashes, at least from my perspective, with ideas of ‘equal opportunity’. In a Tory context, I hear ‘individual liberty’ as misleading. It is not necessarily that everyone is entitled to the same basic services (like healthcare or education), it is the idea that people who ‘fail’ (economically) do so of their own accord  –  not because of outside economic forces beyond their control – and are then ‘free’ to live with the repercussions of their lack of ability/determination to find a job (when there are none), for example.

Or, in other words, hard-line Tories who are somewhat more reasonable when it comes to, say, Gay rights.

Anyway, back to the point. Andrew went on to say that, (again) while there are Conservative Humanists, Conservatives – as ‘a matter of fact’ – tend to be ‘more religious’ than their left-wing colleagues. On top of that, as another ‘matter of fact’, the BHA members’ views (and, I’m assuming, the views of the non-religious as a whole) likely average out to a ‘centre-left’ consensus.

So, ‘perhaps the BHA should have a political view… Including economically’ – said Polly Toynbee. And I agree.

In America, as I have recently discovered, there is a ‘National Atheist Party‘. Being a political party, they have very clear-cut political opinions. On Abortion, they have this to say:

“The NAP… recognizes that pregnancy is a profound physical change and that the ultimate decision to proceed with a pregnancy or to terminate it rests with the individual woman. Government should play no role in deciding such an individual choice. It is our position that legislation inhibiting a woman’s right to choose is based on religious concerns of morality and conception, and does not reflect the scientific community’s consensus of when a fetus can be said to be an independent organism.”

On Gay rights:

“The rights that we extend to our citizens are not dependent upon the majority position of those citizens. In fact, “rights” are designed to protect minority positions from the unfair oppression of their members by the majority. As such, the NAP feels that the time is overdue for the recognition of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) community as citizens, with rights protecting them from being targeted by those who disagree with their sexual identity. We call for a Constitutional amendment recognizing the rights of the GLBT, alongside other distinguished characteristics like race, creed, and national origin.

Further, we demand that marriage between consenting adults of any sexual persuasion be legalized and recognized by all fifty states. Civil union should be afforded the same rights and tax advantages as traditional marriage…”

None of this should come as a surprise to readers, as the NAP themselves claim to form these opinions “guided by the values of secular humanism and evidenced-based reasoning”.

So, what do they have to say on the seemingly disconnected issue of economics (the one which I imagine ultimately divides the ‘Conservative Libertarians’ from the rest of the BHA)?

They say this:

“With a cognizance of our national security, an awareness of the scientific community’s research into global climate change, and a desire to create new jobs, we must as a nation bring to a halt our national dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil. To this end, we call for a “Manhattan Project” or “Apollo program” level of national commitment and research into green energy solutions.

Another drain on our economy, that has so far yielded poor results with no abatement, is the “War on Drugs.” This party recognizes that the criminalization of drug use stems from a position grounded in religion. Free adults should be able to enjoy recreational drugs, provided that they do not abuse them in public or in a destructive manner. Therefore, the NAP advocates decriminalizing the use of drugs and instead find reasonable alternatives of taxation and regulation, creating jobs in the drug sector and eliminating vast drug cartels.

Balancing the budget is important, and finding programs among the Federal departments that can be downsized or eliminated is a difficult task. However, some programs, due to their nature as a lifeline for the disadvantaged, should never be cut. The NAP does not consider programs that contribute to the social welfare of our least wealthy citizens to be eligible programs for elimination...

And so on.

So, the position they take is, again, ‘left’. Why is this (if not for ‘evidence-based reasoning’)? Well, accoring to them, the “formal charter and platform” was “determined through a democratic membership vote” – so the opinions the party holds are all determined through the voting of their members.

Overall, it seems, those free from religious ideology – like the members of the BHA – do, ‘as a matter of fact’, tend to lean in a particular political direction: left. That’s not to say that there aren’t right-wing Atheists, it’s just that they’re generally outnumbered.

And that is wholly reasonable, if not expected, to me… So should the BHA, or some other irreligious organisation, form a political party (or outline a clear political position) here in the UK?

I think so.


You can follow the above links to find out, personally, where the NAP stand on other issues such as Gun Control, Tax Reform, and The Environment.

If you were present at the AHS convention, and can provide some corrections to my paraphrasing, please do… (Like Alex Gerald Martin – the inspiration for this very post - has in the comments below. Check it out.)

Carnun :P

6 thoughts on “Do non-believers tend towards a certain political view?

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. As a lifelong atheist devoted to individual liberty, as well as a former student of political science, I had several thoughts to share:

    1. I would think that humanism per se is not inherently political in any way except to advocate what is typically called “separation of church and state”. Merriam-Webster defines humanism as “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason”. Its definition has nothing to do with power, rights, or political institutions. So I would think that any organization committed solely to humanism must eschew all political involvement and ideologies.

    2. As far as a “National Atheist Party”, well…just as there are many political systems which involve religion, there are many political systems which are purely secular.

    2.a. Karl Marx advocated one political system which inspired brutal, murderous regimes that massacred millions in Russia; left millions in Russia, China, and North Korea as well as surrounding states in utter poverty; and sought world-wide domination over all personal and economic activity. It was 100% secular; in fact it practically criminalized religion. In Albania, for instance, traditional religious folk were horribly persecuted in an insane attempt to eradicate any religious ideology which might be at odds with Soviet-style communism.

    2.b. Over many bloody changes in government, France has come to develop a sort of secular republic which tries to keep religion out of its laws, and somewhat even out of its “public sphere”, with recent decisions to criminalize religious headcoverings in public. This last position has come under attack not just by Muslims but also by secular folks who consider the decision a violation of individual rights.

    2.c. Early intellectuals such as John Locke and later Thomas Jefferson who inspired the formation of the United States of America promoted a secular democratic republic where citizens were guaranteed the right to practice their own religious beliefs and the government could not establish an official religion (as existed in Britain). Religious organizations in the U.S. therefore wield more social influence since they are allowed to flourish, even enjoying tax-exempt status.

    3. It’s therefore simply illogical and actually harmful to the reputation of the freethought community for a political party to promote a single political agenda acting in the name of atheism. Although atheists certainly can and should be involved in politics, especially to the extent that they promote the “separation of church and state”, it isn’t right that they should claim the support of the entire community when advocating their own agenda.

    4. I highly encourage you to check out the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s a U.S. nonprofit organization which gives freethinkers a voice and also advocates strict separation of church and state. :) Friendly folks, a wonderful newsletter for members, and some great information and merchandise online.

    5. I also encourage you to read “For the New Intellectual” by Ayn Rand. It’s an easy read, and you may come to think of religion and politics in a new way.

    By the way, I’ve been posting some information about the horrible abuses of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh at the hands of Muslim authorities. Please check it out – if you click “Secularism/Atheism/Freethought” it will take you to those articles as well as other related posts.

    Best wishes and happy blogging!

    • Wow, thanks for such an informed response :)

      I’ll certainly be following your advice, and I aim to come back to the whole topic in the future…

      You too :)

  2. Hello Mr. Carnun, I believe it is me you are referring to in this piece. I’m sorry but you’re memory is shaky. There were two people that questioned Polly Toynbee about her comments about humanists and progressives being somehow natural intellectual bedfellows. At the time neither of us referred to ourselves as conservatives, and neither of us self identify that way. The phrases used were ‘right libertarian,’ and ‘classical liberal.’ It was Polly Toynbee that first brought up the Conservative party, not myself or anyone from the audience. I would appreciate it if you could correct these errors.

    I would also like to say that being a progressive does not make one a better or even make one more likely to be a Humanist. I work a full time job, for very little money (just above minimum wage) and dedicate resources, time, energy and cash into the local (the Sheffield branch), national and student Humanist movement. Its difficult, its hard work and there’s no appreciation apart from the fact that I think it’s the right thing to do, and I do it as a classical liberal. Polly Toynbee’s speech (that was an echo from her piece in the Guardian made my job more difficult, and was a slap in the face to the work of non progressives to the Humanist cause.

    The point I made at the time, which I will repeat now, was: that if it is desirable to increase the membership of the BHA (as was said by both the outgoing and incoming President) why argue that one particular political group is more likely to be Humanist? It was exclusionary rhetoric, that I have first hand experience of being counter productive to the movement. I suspect that Polly Toynbee was seeking to improve the lot of her political stance rather than her ethical stance, by making Humanists supporters of progressivism rather than progressives supporters of Humanism. This is both not her job as BHA president, and antithetical to my goals as a Humanist. The opportunity came along to tell her to her face, so I did, and I’d do it again.

    Also could you please clarify why exactly humanist economics would necessarily be ‘progressive’ and how right to die issues are inherently left wing?

    Also as head of membership for AHS (please not that all opinions are my own and nothing to do with the wonderful AHS) I sincerely hope I haven’t put you off campaigning and working towards a better more Humanist future for the U.K. and the world in general. Feel free to contact me here or in private at

  3. Thanks for the reply Alex, it’s great to hear from you.

    First of all, I’m grateful that you took the time to correct me as I’m sure you remember what you said better than I ever could. It also didn’t help that I was sitting right at the back of the hall, and that my memory of it all was of a couple of people at the front mumbling without a microphone. All I heard was either strained or through Polly and Andrew.


    As you, self-identifying as a ‘right libertarian,’ or ‘classical liberal’, know what you mean when you choose that label, I’d like to hear your personal definition of it – it’s likely that my impression is skewed.

    You say that “being a progressive does not make one a better or even make one more likely to be a Humanist”, and that Polly Toynbee’s article was “a slap in the face to the work of non progressives to the Humanist cause”. Care to expand? (And do you not identify as a ‘progressive’ then?)

    You add: “why argue that one particular political group is more likely to be Humanist?”
    I’d say that it works both ways. For “progressives [to become] supporters of Humanism”, Humanism itself should identify with progressives. I see no problem with that (currently, I may well change my mind), the same way I see no problem identifying Humanism with irreligiosity – not all humanists are atheists, yet the BHA identifies with atheism openly. Agnostic humanists (or even religious humanists, while rare) still form part of the organisation – or at least identify with it’s values – despite this.

    But this may well come down to the distinction between Atheism and Humanism, and how freely I perhaps naively exchanged those terms… What do you think?

    I do think that humanist economic politics would be considered ‘progressive’ in the same sense that campaigning for ‘ right to die’ is. Humanism has an element to it of ‘common good’, a somewhat socialist view in my opinion. When it comes to “inherently left wing” issues, I’d only say they are so because the opposition to them tends to come from the conservative, religious right (and I’m not saying all Tories are fundamentalists, it’s just more likely – statistically – that fundamentalists are Tories). Whether they are ‘objectively’ right-wing or left-wing though, I cannot answer. We have defined those terms around the issues and each side’s overall take on them, not the other way around.

    It’s great to have a response from the inspiration for my writing of this post, but fear not – I doubt friendly discussion (which I hope is ongoing) will put me off humanism. :)

    Why not write a guest post/ response post? I’d like to see where this conversation goes. Plus, it’d be a more honest way for my mistakes to be pointed out – far more than a simple ‘correction’ of those errors.

  4. I’ll take in the order they were asked.

    1stly Definitions of ‘Right Libertarian’ and ‘Classical Liberal’

    Right Libertarian: Libertarians believe that government action is immoral, ineffective, inefficient counter productive and/or generally harmful to the common good and should thus be kept to a minimum or eliminated all together. Libertarians are then divided into two groups, Left Libertarians and Right Libertarians. Left Libertarians are Libertarians who believe that the market place (money/the capitalist system) is inherently part of the state system and thus ought to be abolished/kept to a minimum also. And Right Libertarians: are Libertarians who believe that a market place/capitalist system is independent of the state and it should be allowed to exist for those who want it.

    Classical Liberals: Classical Liberalism is a political ideology, a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties and political freedom with limited government under the rule of law and generally promotes a laissez-faire economic policy, which is what I broadly define myself as (please note this definition is ripped straight off of Wikipedia.)

    I don’t see how holding either of these ideologies excludes one from being a humanist. In fact my Humanist stance is informed and made stronger by the ideologies that inform my economic and political views.

    2ndly Me expanding on my comments ‘being a progressive does not make one a better or even make one more likely to be a Humanist,’ and how Polly Toynbee’s comments were ‘a slap in the face to the work of non progressives to the Humanist cause.’ This was in direct response to what Polly Toynbee said in her article and speech that I will repeat verbatim here: ‘Liberated by knowing the here and now is all there is, humanists are optimists, certain that our destiny rests in our own hands. That’s why most humanists are natural social democrats, not conservatives.’ ( I don’t know how else this can be interpreted apart from that having a certain political view makes you more likely to be a Humanist. And that, if you are a Humanist who does not hold this political view, you are somehow lacking in your Humanism, or not quite a full Humanist. This is simply false, there are millions of people who are not progressives or social democrats who are humanists and many of them work very hard to promote the political cultural and ethical causes Humanism stands for, the implication otherwise is counter productive and insulting.

    3rdly your point about appealing to progressives: I am not opposed to appealing to progressives, I think the Humanist message is for everyone who believes that Human beings are in charge of their own lives and would like this message effectively communicated to all. What I am against is excluding certain people because you don’t want them in your club: ‘That’s why most humanists are natural social democrats, not conservatives’ is exclusionary rhetoric that limits the number of outspoken humanists and thus makes the cause weaker. As I said this is antithetical to my goals as a humanist.

    4thly your point on the distinction between Atheism and Humanism: yes the concepts are used interchangeably and it would probably be better if they weren’t. The problem is though, whilst Atheism is a well defined concept, (a lack of belief in God(s)) Humanism is deliberately ill defined. I would say that to be a Humanist you have to disbelieve in an afterlife and believe that Human beings can in charge their own lives. This would exclude many religious people, but crucially not non-progressives.

    5thly on your point that ‘I do think that humanist economic politics would be considered ‘progressive’ in the same sense that campaigning for ‘ right to die’ is. Humanism has an element to it of ‘common good’, a somewhat socialist view in my opinion.’ I could not disagree more. I want an economic policy for the common good I just believe that this lays in the free market. I appreciate however that those who believe that another kind of economic policy also think that is for the common good, I recognize that we disagree not that they are opposed to the common good. Socialists cannot claim a monopoly on wanting to do good for others. Wanting the common good is not exclusive to any political group including socialists, capitalists, progressives or even humanists for crying out loud. People who disagree with you aren’t evil/maliciously minded/selfish/greedy/mean. They are just people who disagree with you.

    6 your belief that social conservative laws are inherently religious: I would point you to these videos
    If you do not have time a quote: ‘That the most partially formed human embryo is both human and alive has now been confirmed, in an especially vivid sense, by the new debate over stem-cell research and the bioethics of cloning.’ Christopher Hitchens
    The point I’m trying to make is that it is entirely possible for the motivation for socially conservative views to be entirely free from the influence of religion. SOmeone one should consider when seeking to oppose these policies.

    7 your point on inherently humanist issues being progressive in nature: this is flatly untrue. One could easily make the argument that the right to die/abortion/take drugs is part of an individuals right to chose based on nothing more than their inherent humanity. And that the laws prohibiting such choices are in fact collectivist in nature, and thus collectivism ought to be opposed. One could say that only a respect and advancement of individual liberty can these laws be repealed. This would be completely legitimate argument, however what would not be legitimate would be to then claim that because progressives are collectivists they demean the human individual and thus are not natural humanists. To make that argument would be both disingenuous and rude.

    8 I can certainly write a post on how non progressives can and ought to be humanists if You’d like that would take no time at all.

    I look forward to your reply. Alex Martin

    • Hi Alex. Sorry it has taken me a while to respond, but I’m here now…

      1stly: Thanks for clarifying the definitions of ‘Right Libertarian’ and ‘Classical Liberal’ for me. While I certainly see your point that these stances are not necessarily incompatible with humanism, I’d like to ask you to continue a more political conversation by email for no reason other than personal curiosity – if you’d like to too, of course (in which case you can email me at

      Also, thanks for numbering your responses :P

      2ndly: But most humanists are ‘social democrats, not conservatives’. It’s not that “having a certain political view makes you more likely to be a Humanist”, it’s that being a humanist tends to (emphasis on ‘tends’) make a person more likely to be a ‘progressive’ also. There are exceptions and minorities here, obviously – but the fact of individuals frankly being in the minority group in no way belittles their humanism, I feel. I could very well be wrong though, as I am obviously coming at this from the ‘certain political view’ you take such issue with being publicly and consistently associated with humanism.

      3rdly: No-one is excluded from humanism by the very fact that, statistically, ‘most humanists are natural social democrats, not conservatives’. Evident in the very quote, it’s not ‘all humanists’, it’s ‘most’. Giving everyone in the humanism ‘movement’ a say is a great thing to work towards – but I don’t think that statistics can be accused of limiting the “number of outspoken humanists” who also happen to be ‘Right Libertarians’ or ‘Classical Liberals’. (Or was this a problem with Polly’s “That’s why” interpretation?)

      4thly: I agree. Atheism, to me, seems a rather politically neutral stance… But humanism does not. I don’t think it’s and ill-defined concept either: for me, it’s about deriving human values free from religious doctrine, all the while considering individual – and collective – worth. Sure, the word has had a history of ‘ill-definedness’, but today’s meaning (adopted by the BHA, the American Humanist Association, and others) is one of placing value in a single life, having respect for others, basing judgements on reason, and working towards some sort of ‘greater good’ for humanity. I do think of this definition as, if true, inherently progressive.

      5thly: You’re right. ‘Wanting to do good for others’ is not monopolised by socialists – but intentions can only go so far. I doubt there are many conservatives who genuinely take pleasure in screwing the majority of the country over, as many of them would see policies such as austerity as central to their notions of ‘common good’. They may think that it will actually work, boosting the economy and creating jobs – and this is an admirable goal… It’s just the effectiveness of the means I disagree with. I don’t personally dislike each and every conservative for holding their political views (just some), but I have every right to disagree with them passionately.

      6thly: I’ve seen the clips before, and I do agree that “it is entirely possible for the motivation for socially conservative views to be entirely free from the influence of religion”. It’s just that it’s rare to find such an argument being vocalised above all of the many deeply religious socially conservative views constantly expressed, a sentiment which I’m sure Hitch would acknowledge.
      The point is, I’d love to live in a time where political arguments are all ‘free from the influence of religion’ – and I’d expect for both ‘sides’ (‘left’ and ‘right’) to still exist if that were to happen. It’s far better to have the rational debate than the dogmatic one, I agree.

      Plus, what of faith-free oppositions to, say, homosexuality? I am yet to come across one… I do acknowledge that this doesn’t mean that the ‘right’ is religious, but merely that the religious tend to be a tad more conservative (which makes sense to me, seeing as there is an element to conservatism of protecting and promoting ‘traditional values’).

      7nthly: I, naturally, disagree. I can see that there is no objective conservatism to the opposition of ‘right to die/abortion/take drugs’, but because of the fact that a lot of opposition to these issues becoming non-issues tends to come from the religious, the counter-argument will (again naturally) come from the humanist community fairly loudly (as it has).
      And as for “what would not be legitimate…” – what do you mean, I didn’t even suggest this? Plus, there is obviously (again) an element to humanism of common, collective human good – does that contradict the human individual’s worth? I don’t think so, and I don’t think stating that each quantity exists is “both disingenuous and rude”… But perhaps I misread/misunderstood.

      8thly: Go for it, and email it to me. I’ll post it unedited.

      Again, sorry for the time I took to respond :/


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