If there is one breed of content of which the Internet has enough, it is listicles — and yet, Google seems powerless to provide a list of prominent conservative atheists. With irreligion on the rise in America and elsewhere, the invisibility of the nonreligious within the conservative bloc risks alienating nonbelievers from right-wing causes. To help avoid this problem and demonstrate that atheists, too, can be conservative, this article will enumerate some of the most prominent atheists and agnostics in the American conservative movement, past and present. This list will not include slightly less well-known right-wing atheists like Razib Khan, nor will it feature figures like Walter Olson, who is more libertarian than conservative, or S. E. Cupp, who seems to be comfortable neither with atheism nor with conservatism.
Conservatism and atheism are often considered to be in conflict, and this perception is somewhat understandable. After all, conservatism is usually viewed as having originated with Edmund Burke, “an Anglican figure who deployed Anglican arguments in defense of an Anglican constitutional settlement.” On the other hand, Professor Jerry Z. Muller seems to stand as almost the lone high-profile dissenter from this chronology: the subtitle to one of his most notable books seems to locate conservatism’s baginning in the works of David Hume, an Enlightenment atheist. Without re-hashing old discussions about the relationship between politics and religion, here are some of America’s main conservative atheists (and agnostics).
Let us start with some current and recent personages. First, there is Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute. Best known for her stalwart defenses of policing and opposition to racial favoritism, she has also made no bones about her atheism and is listed as a contributor to the blog “Secular Right.”
A figure no less prominent, though surely less mainstream, is former Trotskyite David Horowitz. Over the years, this firebrand has authored a mind-boggling number of books defending conservatism. At age 84, he continues to edit the staunchly rightist Frontpage Magazine, and the David Horowitz Freedom Center includes an organization dedicated to improving education, the famous website Discovering the Networks, and Jihad Watch, an outfit studying Islamic radicalism. In 2015, Horowitz wrote: “I am an agnostic, a believer in mysteries that we cannot solve.”
George Will needs no introduction, but most people probably assume he is religious. His spouse and progeny certainly are, but this is not true of Will himself, who is a second-generation atheist. Unlike Horowitz, Will has no problem with the term, having stated: “An agnostic is someone who is not sure; I’m pretty sure.”
Next is mathematician and pundit James Lindsay. Dr. Lindsay may not be the classical conservative — in a 2022 interview, he was unsure to what extent the label applied to him — but has risen to prominence on the right as a tireless critic of leftist academic theories, and his work nowadays seems to be mostly right-leaning. He is also an atheist and has in the past delivered biting criticism of religion.
Another member of that apparently rare species — female conservative atheists — went by the name of Florence King, a notoriously snarky and acidic columnist for the National Review who died in 2016. King considered herself an “agnostic.”
Robert M. Price is a lesser-known figure, but still makes the list because I had heard of him before finding out that he was a conservative atheist. Dr. Price has gone from being a Baptist clergyman to acting as one of the most prominent academic proponents of the theory that a historical Jesus never existed. His conservative credentials can hardly be disputed, as evidenced by his wonderfully clear-eyed introduction to an anthology of fantasy stories, which promptly led several incensed authors to ask that their stories be withdrawn from the book. The scholar also has a page on the website “Republican Atheists.”
We now move on to earlier examples of American conservative atheists. “James Burnham is having a moment,” writes Nicholas Pompella in reference to a recent bump in attention to this late thinker. Burnham was a major contributor to “National Review,” and one writer deems him “one of the few, keenest thinkers who offered a modernist framework that could seriously challenge the Left.” This bold and provocative political philosopher spent most of his life as an atheist before re-converting to Christianity during his last days. He is probably most widely known for his 1941 book “The Managerial Revolution.”
Max Eastman transitioned to conservatism from communism, much like Burnham did, but never shed his atheism. Although his focus after this change was anti-communism and support of capitalist economics, and he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, Eastman identified himself as a “radical conservative” rather than a “libertarian.”
Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken, like George Will, probably needs no introduction. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Mencken was, in addition to his political commentary, “probably the most influential American literary critic in the 1920s” and “perhaps the leading authority on” American English. While his views as a whole may defy easy categorization, most people seem to consider him a conservative, and it is perhaps indicative that “The Imaginative Conservative” has an author page for him. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a page dedicated to him as well, quite appropriately given the columnist’s frequent religion-bashing.
Much friendlier towards religion was Mencken’s contemporary and fellow atheist George Santayana, who went so far as to call himself an “aesthetic Catholic.” According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on the Spanish-American philosopher, “Santayana’s political conservatism is founded on his naturalism and his emphasis on self-realization and spirituality.”
Howard Phillips “H. P.” Lovecraft is best remembered as a pioneer of horror fiction, even having founded a whole subgenre called “Lovecraftian horror.” According to a scholarly paper by one Tyler L. Wolanin, although the eccentric and notoriously bigoted writer became a socialist towards the end of his life, this had not always been his political outlook. “For most of his life,” writes Wolanin, “he was an utter reactionary, favoring a feudal or aristocratic control of the United States and unrestrained capitalism.” The widely acclaimed writer’s essay “At the Root” continues to be a powerful conservative analysis of the First World War. Lovecraft was a convinced atheist.
Finally, Robert Ingersoll is mostly remembered today for upholding agnosticism, but was an influential conservative figure in his day. As the Encyclopædia Britannica notes, Ingersoll made an “outstanding contribution to” the GOP, having worked as attorney general of Illinois “and as a party spokesman in presidential campaigns.” Through his activism, this “staunch Republican” earned the byname “the great agnostic.”
That just about concludes our list. There are other examples which did not quite make the cut. Ayn Rand was more of an Objectivist than a “true” conservative, Curtis Yarvin is a neoreactionary, and Douglas Murray seems to be a British national, though he apparently lives in New York — or maybe Britain after all. Andrew Stuttaford lives in New York, but whether he is an American citizen is unclear. Interested readers are invited to do their own further research, or possibly, since information on this subject seems impossible to find, to keep a continuously updated list of conservative atheists which they can update each time they encounter an example. Then again, why would anyone go to that much effort? All things considered, political figures’ religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are not exactly on the short list of most important issues facing mankind.
Nonetheless, we have seen that there is a long and substantial tradition of conservative atheists in the United States, even though no-one ever seems to talk about it.