I’m an atheist who considers himself to be a conservative. Not so long ago a good proportion of the British conservative movement would have regarded this as a logical contradiction. You can’t be a conservative and an atheist they would say, any more than you can be a teetotal alcoholic or a mass murdering pacifist. If I was lucky this statement would merely provoke ridicule, more likely it would lead to ostracization. Not being a martyr by inclination, I’d almost certainly have kept my mouth shut. I’d have prayed to a God I don’t believe exists, and hoped that nobody could tell that to me the words are meaningless. Over a considerable proportion of the world, if you want to participate in movements which self-define as conservative, this deceit is still required. So why, and how far, have attitudes towards atheism and humanism changed within British Conservatism? I discussed these questions with Andrew Copson, who since 2010 has been Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, the UK’s leading voice for the non-religious.
Copson makes two central points. Firstly atheism and humanism, the associated philosophy which believes we can live fulfilling lives based on reason, scientific enquiry and a general concern for human wellbeing, are perfectly compatible with most forms of conservatism. Indeed with the more individual liberty orientated conservatism which has come to dominate the movement since the 1980s, they fit like a tailor made glove. In line with this Copson believes atheism and humanism are becoming far more commonplace, despite the religiosity of the current Government, within the conservative movement as a whole. Especially amongst young conservatives, these values are becoming entirely acceptable and, perhaps in some cases, the new norm.
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA).
We begin by discussing humanism’s general compatibility with conservatism. On this subject Copson divides conservative thought into two broad categories, which can roughly be defined as traditionalist and liberal conservatism. The first, and historically dominant, of these two brackets Copson describes as ‘traditionalists…people who believe in cultural nationalism and the national community’. That is conservatives who believe that ‘religion, especially established religion, is something cohesive which holds us together’. Copson links this position closely to the views of Edmund Burke, ‘probably the most famous conservative anti-humanist’, whose position he summarises as ‘religion is the basis for civil society and he doesn’t even care if it’s true…Islam’s the right religion for Arabs and Hinduism is the right religion for Indians and Church of England is the right religion for English people because it binds together our culture, heritage, and nation’.
For this viewpoint religion – specifically Anglican Christianity in the case of England – is an integral part of the nation and national character, and consequently is one of the forces holding society together. If you have a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, as many traditionalist conservatives do, and see civilisation as the exception rather than the norm of human interaction, I can see why religion has an appeal. If the existing order is inherently fragile what better way to protect it than to threaten those who break its rules with an eternity burning in hell? Copson rejects the traditional conservative view that religion acts as glue for social cohesion, describing it as ‘just empirically wrong’, though he agrees there is a fundamental tension between those who hold this view and humanist doctrine.
However Copson carries a much more optimistic view about the interaction between humanism and the brand of liberal, occasionally even libertarian, conservatism which has become increasingly prominent in recent decades. This position, which he describes as ‘liberal thinking about freedom and reason, and…political values which many Conservative thinkers in the last few decades stood up for, especially in opposition to the Soviet system’, ‘fits very well’ with humanist positions. Essentially those conservatives who are suspicious of state interference, whether in the economy or their private lives, ought to be equally mistrustful of organised religion trying to do the same. Or, as Copson quotes the conservative humanist Matt Ridley ‘big God is just as bad as big government’. Indeed Copson takes this point further, arguing that ‘neither left nor right is the enemy of humanism…it’s authoritarianism’.
At this point Copson points to what he sees as a tension particularly pronounced within English liberal conservatism. He notes how conservatives who reject state infrastructure are likely to ‘start looking around for civil society infrastructure’, including the religious, as a replacement. Yet in England, where the state supports the Church of England via favourable taxation arrangements and political influence (such as Bishops in the House of Lords), how truly independent is the dominant church from the state? He argues that, far from offering an alternative to state infrastructure, the Church of England is an illiberal extension of it?
Having argued that conservatism, or at least the now dominant liberal strain, is compatible with atheism and humanism Copson explains how both are making big advances within the conservative movement. He agrees that, historically, the position of atheists within the British Conservative movement has often been difficult. We discuss the comments by James Arbuthnot, a former Tory Minister and MP who admitted he was an atheist in 2015, who claimed that pressure on Conservative MPs to keep quiet about being atheist is ‘very similar to the pressure there has been about keeping quiet about being gay’. Copson concurs that, historically, the comparison between gay and atheist Conservatives ‘is actually quite good’. Arbuthnot wrote that he only felt comfortable admitting he was an atheist after he decided to leave politics, claiming that had he admitted this earlier ‘it could well have stopped my being selected as a candidate’ by his local Conservative Association. This is a story Copson tells he’s heard ‘again and again from Conservative MP after Conservative MP. It’s not the electorate they’re worried about, but their local party’.
But crucially Copson is confident that attitudes within British conservatism are changing, and has the evidence to back it up. He explains how over the past year membership of the Conservative Humanists group has ‘ballooned’, whilst the number of MPs and Peers interacting with the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group has been increasing steadily. He is particularly pleased at the appeal of atheist and humanist ideas to young conservatives, stating that members of the Conservative Humanist Group ‘tend to be in their thirties and forties, sometimes twenties’. As a result of this shift, reflecting changes within the general population, Copson notes that ‘Conservative voters and supporters…are less and less religious year on year’.
Atheist and humanist sentiment is almost certainly stronger within the Conservative Party now than at any other point in the party’s history. In many respects the transformation has been sensational. Go back 40 years and openly expressed atheism was essentially taboo. Now, there is a thriving Conservative Humanists group and, in sharp contrast to America, a significant number of openly atheist Conservative Parliamentarians. Amongst young Conservatives in particular atheism has become totally unremarkable, perhaps even the norm. Ideologically it is clear that atheism and humanism are perfectly compatible with, and arguably offer a perfect ethical complement to, the brand of liberal conservatism which currently predominates British conservatism. Thus, regardless of the religiosity of the present Government on issues such as faith schools, the future of atheist and humanist thought within the conservative movement looks bright. Those of us who want to bridge the divide between humanism and conservatism shouldn’t become complacent, but we can look back with great satisfaction at the progress which has been made over the past few decades.
Should you wish to you can join the British Humanist Association via humanism.org.uk/join