I remember when the whole concept of a conservative, or at least right-leaning atheist, came across as a foreign concept. Back in 2014, the non profit organization American Atheists was disinvited from CPAC, which was the topic of a few opinion columns discussing how unwilling conservatives have been to accepting atheists. It’s ironic that nowadays things seem to have changed. With the high number of people embracing far left ideas like cancel culture, the MeToo movement, trans identity politics, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa, it seems that more atheists are finding themselves to be politically homeless. The majority of them (69%) identify as Democrats, while only 15% lean Republican, and only 11% of conservatives have no religious leanings (only 1% say they’re atheists and 1% say they’re agnostic), but there are plenty of notable atheists who have openly expressed their right wing views, such as Heather Mac Donald, George F. Will, Charles C.W. Cooke, Douglas Murray, Lauren Ell, S.E. Cupp, Jillian Becker, Andy Ngo, and many more.
Conservatives are also starting to seem more willing to accept them, with PragerU featuring some atheists in their videos like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Heather Mac Donald, atheists like James Lindsay have spoken at TurningPointUSA, and some atheists like Andy Ngo and Charles C.W. Cooke who has written for Daily Wire or National Review. But even though a “Secular Right” seems to have gained some attention lately, I don’t think it’s as new as we make it out to be. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been plenty of agnostics/atheists who made a name for themselves on the political right.
Max Eastman was an American journalist and activist, who wrote in left wing magazines such as The Masses and The Liberator, where he espoused pro-socialist views. However, when he traveled to the Soviet Union in 1922 and observed communism first hand, he quickly became disillusioned with socialism and started writing anti-communist articles. He allied with William Buckley Jr. and the National Review (although the two still greatly disagreed on religion, as Eastman was still an atheist), and labeled himself a “radical conservative” and later a “conservative libertarian.” His book, Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, outlined his criticism of socialism and defended the free market.
George S. Schuyler
George S. Schuyler was an American author, civil rights activist, and journalist. At the age of 17, he joined the U.S. Army but was so disgusted by the racism he saw toward black officers and the fights he witnessed between white civilians and black soldiers, that he went AWOL, but he eventually turned himself in and served 9 months of a 5 year prison sentence for desertion. When released, he worked low-grade jobs for some time and was homeless. He eventually ended up joining the Socialist Party of America and worked with a competitor of the NAACP known as the Friends of Negro Freedom. He, as well as some other black Americans, took an interest in socialist ideas because they saw it as a way to combat racism in a capitalist society.
But Schuyler eventually grew critical of these ideas, as he saw socialism as a corrupt tool used to manipulate black Americans. He eventually became a journalist in the 1920s, and wrote articles on race and communism. His conservative views made him controversial during his time, as he criticized the Harlem Renaissance for focusing on ethnic identity over national identity, attacked the idea of forced integration which he deemed as unacceptable as segregation, and condemned other civil rights activists such as Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, and even Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1950’s. He authored many books such as “Rac(e)ing to the Right”, his memoir “Black and Conservative”, and his fiction novel “Black No More,” where one of his targets was White Christianity and portrayed it as hypocritical and perpetrator of racism.
H.L Mencken was an American Journalist and Essayist born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1880. He began his career as a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, making him about 19 years old at the time, and joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun in 1906. He wrote and edited other magazines since then, such as The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Mencken was a self-proclaimed agnostic and an extreme libertarian who became known for his criticism of American culture and religion, especially Puritanism, which he defined as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
He gained some notoriety for his disdain of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and for his opposition to the New Deal during the Great Depression. Despite never labeling himself a conservative, he was admired by many on the political right and had been described as “deeply conservative” by Charles Fecher, the man who edited and published Mencken’s diary, and was referred to as a “tory anarchist” by Samuel Putnam, which the economist Murray Rothbard agreed with on the label. Mencken wrote many books, such as his three book memoir Days Trilogy, a six volume collection of essays titled Prejudices, and one of his earlier books, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, a biography which helped popularize the philosopher in America. He also co-wrote Men vs The Man, a series of letters where he debated socialism against the writer Robert Rives La Monte.
Eric Hoffer was an American philosopher who became known for his book, The True Believer, which focused on the nature of mass movements and those who lead them. At the age of 7, he became partially blind and he didn’t recover until he was 15, which he then became an avid reader. He lost his mother when he was a child and when his father died in 1920, Hoffer moved to California and began working at migrant farms and manual labor for the next 23 years of his life. In 1943, he joined the Longshoreman Union and spent the rest of his free time reading and writing.
Hoffer is often acknowledged as a conservative writer, and according to Tom Bethal, the writer of the biography Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, his political beliefs over time changed to a conservative direction (Page 156), Although The True Believer was not a conservative book. Hoffer described himself as an atheist (Page 7) who thought religion was a significant source of leadership.
Thomas Szasz was a Hungarian-American psychiatrist best known for being associated with the “anti-psychiatry” movement with his most popular book, The Myth of Mental Illness. He first attended school at the age of 6, and would take long walks where he would see prisons, hospitals, and mental asylums, which even back then he believed should be called prisons. In his teens, he realized it’s taboo to question why locking up mentally ill people is justified. He came to the conclusion that mental illness wasn’t really an illness and never gave up on that belief.
When Hungary sided with Nazi Germany by 1938, his family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he would graduate from a university in physics in 1941 and medicine in 1944. He later trained in the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and earned his diploma in 1950 and joined its staff in 1951 until 1956. He found psychiatry and psychoanalysis to be dehumanizing and made sure to never treat an involuntary patient. He then taught psychiatry at the Upstate Medical Centre of the State University of New York but didn’t publish his views on mental illness until after he obtained his tenure.
Although both his parents were Jewish, Szasz was an atheist who described his atheism as “religious,” and claimed humans were ineffable in the sense that they could not be described by a system or science. He believed psychotherapy was also ineffable and psychotherapists were more like priests and rabbis than medical doctors.
He was a self-described libertarian who opposed drug prohibition, defended the right to suicide, and co-wrote the book On Liberty and Drugs with Milton Friedman. Another one of his political writings was the book Pharmacracy, where he attacked the political influence on pharmaceutical care. He was accused of conservatism and being a Republican by Cornell historian Holly Case, but Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine explained why this is not the case.
Murray Rothbard was an economist of the Austrian school. He was born in Bronx, New York, on March 2, 1926, to Russian immigrant parents. He enrolled in Columbia University in 1942 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later with an M.A. in economics and worked on his Ph.D. under his first mentor Joseph Dorfman, and received it in 1956. In 1946, Rothbard took a class from George J. Stigler at Columbia soon after Stigler and Milton Friedman published a pamphlet criticizing rent controls, which was published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Rothbard visited the place by suggestion from Stigler, and learned about different libertarian journalists when he arrived, such as H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and Frank Chodorov.
Rothbard recalled these introductions were what rapidly converted him from a free-market economist to a pure libertarian. In 1982, Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. founded the Ludwig Von Mises Institute and persuaded Rothbard to become Vice President of Academic Affairs, where he would lead Mises Institute seminars and edited The Review of Austrian Economics, writing for the Mises Institute’s Free Market newsletter. In his life, Rothbard wrote hundreds of articles which appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Fortune. He wrote a dozen major books, including For a New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto, where he provided a natural rights defense of liberty.
In April 1991, they started a monthly 12-page newsletter titled The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, which urged an alliance between libertarians and conservatives. In the biography An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard By Justin Raimondo, a letter Rothbard wrote is referenced (Page 326) where he identifies himself as both a libertarian and an atheist, but praises Christianity and Catholicism as the underpinning of liberty, and criticizes left-libertarians for their hostility towards liberty.
Friedrich Hayek was an Austrian-British economist, best known for his book The Road to Serfdom. He was a student of Friedrich von Weiser and a colleague of Ludwig von Mises, and he was the most successful of the Austrian school theorists in the English-speaking world. He was born in 1899 of a Viennese family of intellectuals, and attended the University of Vienna after the first World War at age 19, where he earned his doctorate in 1921 and 1923. He initially enrolled as a law student but he was mainly interested in economics and psychology. He chose economics because he wanted to improve social conditions, like the poverty in postwar Vienna, and believed socialism was the proper solution.
However, when he read Mises’s book, Socialism: An Economic and Social Analysis, which argued in favor of a free market for the means of production, it converted him to laissez-faire. At this point, he began attending Mises’s Privatseminar, which was the center of Vienna’s economics community. Later on, Hayek became the first of the group to leave Vienna, as most of the rest, including Mises, eventually left as well at the beginning of World War II. Hayek used Mises’s work on monetary and banking theory as a starting point for his research on fluctuations, which would earn him an invitation to lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science and then get a position in Economics and Statistics, which he accepted in 1931.
He lectured on Mises’s business-cycle theory, and that gained him supporters in Britain and America and was becoming known as a preferred explanation of the Great Depression until Keynes’s General Theory came out in 1936. In The Economic Journal, Keynes and Hayek wrote essays where they argued against each other on Keynes’s book, A Treatise on Money. Hayek identified as an agnostic, and denied being conservative, referring to himself as a “liberal” in the original meaning of the word but acknowledged that Americans mean something else now and that the label he uses has been replaced with “libertarian.” Although he found the word unattractive and settled with calling himself an “old Whig.”
Despite this, his work has been praised by conservatives such as Willliam F. Buckley. Jr. Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute argued that Hayek was a large “C” Conservative, as they don’t want to conserve tradition or state of society, but the process of society, which is why Margaret Thatcher is placed in the conservative camp. Pirie reasoned that when Thatcher was asked about Hayek claiming he was not conservative, she replied that he would approve of what she was doing, and Pirie believed she was right as the two would have dinner twice a year at meetings in the British Academy.
Robert Nozick was an American philosopher known for his contribution to political philosophy, decision theory, value theory, and epistemology. He was the only child of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, and attended public school in Brooklyn. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia College in 1959 and received a Ph.D from Princeton University in 1963. He was a socialist during his years in high school and college and a member of the student New Left, but began to study libertarian thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and adopted a right-libertarian philosophy.
His most famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, was published in 1974, and argued for a minimal state which put him at odds with the liberal philosopher John Rawls. While Nozick did believe the state deserves to exist, he believed it should remain scaled-down and only provide security to individuals and protect private property. This is sometimes referred to as a “night watchman” state. While Nozick himself was not a conservative, as they focus on other issues such as customs and traditions while Nozick never focuses on either and his idea of a society would result in individuals breaking with traditional cultures, his work was praised by conservative intellectuals and is considered a sort of philosophical manifesto for the New Right, but Nozick himself was never completely fond of the affiliation. Religion was not particularly a topic he was known for, but in his memoir, An Examined Life, he wrote a chapter title The Nature of God, the Nature of Faith, “I cannot say that I am a believer” in either of those, but willingly contemplated religion and god as a possibility.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holes Jr. was a legal scholar and a Supreme Court Justice best known for his defense of free speech. He was born into an abolitionist family and served with the Massachusetts 20th Volunteers during the Civil War after graduating from Harvard in 1861. He eventually graduated from Harvard Business School in 1866 and went back to Harvard to teach legal history, constitutional law, and jurisprudence.
In 1882, Holmes accepted a position on the Massachusetts Supreme Court as a Republican where he served for 20 years. He was named Massachusetts Chief Justice in 1899, then in 1902, and President Theodore Roosevelt named him to the Supreme Court, where the Senate confirmed him. His reputation as a First Amendment advocate began in 1907, with the Patterson v. Colorado case, when a newspaper editor was convicted over depicting Colorado Supreme Court members in a derogatory manner and Holmes determined that no First Amendment issues were at present because it limited the actions of the national government. He became more active as a civil libertarian in the Schenck v. United States case in 1919, where he delivered the majority opinion of the conviction of Charles Schenck, a socialist who was charged for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for discouraging draftees from responding to draft notices. Holmes believed the First Amendment provided the foundations for a democratic society.
Holmes wasn’t fond of the concept of equality, and he expressed his atheism while wounded during the Civil War, when he wrote in his journal (Page 73-74) that he couldn’t be guilty of a deathbed recantation, as his biographer G. Edward White noted he believed that would have been cowardly.
Allan Bloom was an American philosopher and author. He was born in Indianapolis in 1930 and graduated from the University of Chicago where he received his Ph.D in 1955, among other classmates who would end up becoming political theorists as well such as Seth Benardete and Stanley Rosen. During his time in Chicago, Bloom studied Leo Strauss who had become one of his biggest influences throughout his work, and later studied with Alexandre Kojève in Paris.
In 1987, he published his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind, where he criticized the American universities’ education system, and provided an analysis on the influence Friedrich Nietzsche and other European philosophers had on American discourse. The political scientist Peter Lawler lists that Bloom was “ an atheist, hyper-urban and urbane, secular Jewish, gay (and not in the closet), and dyslexic,” and that he didn’t believe “his sexual orientation or disability or background defined him, and they, in fact, did not.” He was often characterized as a conservative, but he disliked the label, but is better seen as a neoconservative, which many students of Strauss were seen as. He did, however, support the natural rights from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and saw left multiculturalism as dangerous.
Ayn Rand was a Russian-American philosopher and writer best known for her novels, which she used to advocate her philosophy known as Objectivism. She was the first born of two Jewish parents on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father was a successful pharmacist but his shop was seized by Bolshevik soldiers in 1917 and she and her family were forced to live in poverty in Crimea. In 1924, she returned to her birth city and enrolled at the State Institute of Cinema Arts to study screenwriting. She was granted a visa in 1926 and left Russia for the United States to visit relatives in Chicago and took the pen name Ayn Rand.
A few months after living in Chicago, she moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a screenwriter. She luckily ran into Cecil B. DeMille, who gave her the role as an extra on the 1927 film The King of Kings, where she met Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929 and became a U.S. citizen. In 1932, she wrote the screenplay Red Pawn and sold it to Universal Studios, and then the courtroom drama Penthouse Legend, which Rand and O’Connor moved to New York for the film’s production in late 1934. Around this time, she wrote her first novel We the Living, and managed to publish it in 1936 after several rejections. In 1938, she published the collectivist dystopia Anthem and eventually Fountainhead, which was about an architect named Howard Roark who refused to follow what was conventional, and represented Rand’s individualistic views. The book eventually made strong sales and was what made Ayn Rand’s name known.
In 1957, her ideas became even more famous with the publication of her novel Atlas Shrugged, which portrayed a world where industrialists fail in a collectivist society that takes advantage of their skills and this leads to the (in)famous speech by the novel’s hero, John Galt. Objectivism believes in a concrete reality, supports egoism, atheism, individualism, rational self-interest, and laissez faire capitalism. Although Ayn Rand herself was never a fan of conservatism, in fact she made that very clear multiple times, she was never fond of liberals either. Her views are often categorized as right-libertarian, but she herself would constantly deny this association.
Despite this, her support for capitalism and minimal government gave her more support from those on the conservative spectrum, such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, Clarence Thomas, Ronald Reagan (Although the feeling wasn’t mutual), Larry Elder, and Paul Ryan. Even today, conservatives are embracing Ayn Rand, with the Objectivist non-profit organization Atlas Society partnering with the conservative organization Turning Point USA.
Conservatives haven’t been completely willing to embrace atheism with open arms. Dennis Prager blames wokeness on secularism, Charlie Kirk blames atheism for communism, and let’s not forget the constant reminder from the political right that America was founded as a Christian nation, a baseless and, at best, a debatable claim. Some atheists may be in agreement with them, while the rest of us still think we should move on from religion. Some atheists are christian atheists, and some of us are anti-theists.
Personally, I think religion has done way more harm than good, and wokeness, if not another dangerous religion, at least acts like one. I highly doubt any of those individuals I listed would be fond of what the left has been promoting. An anti-woke secular movement should learn more about the ideas these thinkers have expressed during their times because they’re still relevant, and I think the religious conservatives would be better if they try to learn from them too, despite their godlessness.