Atheism & Liberalism: Correlation vs. Causation

CorrelationI ran into a comment on another blog that seemed to suggest that there is a direct causative link between atheism and liberalism, as though one caused the other, that’s why so many atheists self-identify as liberals.  Sorry, this just isn’t the case.

Unfortunately, there are lots of people, atheists included, who really don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation, even though it’s one of the major logical fallacies that they point out to theists on almost a daily basis.  I think I need to define the  terms first, in order to make this post clearer.

Correlation:  a mutual or reciprocal relationship between two or more things

Causation:  the act or fact of causing; the production of an effect by a cause

Just because two events correlate chronologically, they occur at or about the same time-frame or in the same vicinity, that does not mean that one event caused the other event or that one event is responsible for the other event.  Now yes, it is true that there are an awful lot of liberal atheists but that doesn’t mean liberalism causes atheism or that atheism causes liberalism.  To understand this, we have to examine the common circumstances of these two positions.  We do know by examining many studies done over the years that atheists tend to be more intelligent and better educated  than theists on average.  Atheism doesn’t make one smarter or more educated but it is likely that being better educated does tend to make one an atheist.  Universities tend to be a bastion of modern-day atheist thought, people who are aware of the sciences and how the world really operates can more clearly see the problems of religion, particularly where it comes into conflict with reality, than those who are not.  Since intelligent people are the ones most likely to be attending a university, that characteristic correlates as well.  The other thing that we understand is that universities are also more likely to draw liberal political views.  Why?  Because quite often, liberalism is associated with the  young and  you’ve got a lot of idealistic young people on college campuses.  The professors tend to be more liberal because they live in an academic bubble where they cannot lose their jobs because they have tenure and they operate within a world of idealism, not reality.  Studies suggest that upwards of 70% of American college and university professors self-identify as liberal, with only about 15% identifying as conservative.  Once you combine all of these factors, you’re left with intelligent, well-educated people who exist within an environment that tends to produce liberals and also tends to produce atheists.

It isn’t liberalism that causes atheism or atheism that  causes liberalism, if there is a common factor at work here, it’s most likely education that has the greatest potential to cause atheism.  It’s no wonder why religions hold up anti-intellectualism as  the greatest virtue for the religious.

This is also the reason why there seem to be so many white males in the atheist movement.  It isn’t that being white and male predisposes you to be an atheist, it’s just that as a setting, there are more white males in universities than other groups.  I couldn’t find any current statistics on the makeup of college campuses, but did come across a survey that suggested that 79% of university professors and staff are white and 42% of all university professors and staff are white males.  That’s not a racist thing, it’s just the way things are.

I think it’s important that atheists who want to attract more atheists should stop tacking on politics to their list of requirements, it only serves to drive away people who are conservative or libertarian or otherwise independent from identifying as atheist.  They have to understand that atheism and liberalism are not synonymous terms.  Is it more important to have more atheists or to have only liberal atheists?

I vote for the former.

6 thoughts on “Atheism & Liberalism: Correlation vs. Causation

  1. Another great post. I have noticed a similar thing when talking to some of my friends that identify as conservative do not want to also adopt the term liberal, yet they are sometimes even more liberal than I am. Its as if people have a set definition of something and then decide these words belong in a group. However as you pointed out, there is absolutely no relation between them. You can be both or only one or neither.
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  2. Thanks for this. I have no idea if atheism often tends to make the atheist liberal. However, based on the atheist internet blogs I read, it appears to me that almost all of the authors tend to be strongly liberal or left leaning, including the commenters. I do know one thing when I became an atheist, I became much more socially liberal, that is, I believe more in "live and let live" for others but not necessarily for myself. I was already a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights and civil liberties as a theist, and I didn't notice any change in myself in that area. It seems to me that the overwhelming number of atheists seem to hate the right to keep and bear arms or want to dilute it to a great extent far beyond my tastes.

    1. It's not that atheism makes people liberal, it's that the same kinds of people who tend to be atheists also tend to be liberal-minded, just as they also tend to be white and they tend to be male and they tend to be young. One didn't cause the others, they are just characteristics that tend to correlate based on a number of factors. Now personally, I find liberalism to be quite distasteful as a socio-political position, I'm fiscally conservative and socially moderate, although I can easily get to all of the social positions I have from an entirely secular conservative position. I also am finding that a lot of people who self-identify as liberal atheists really aren't that liberal, they just identify that way to differentiate themselves from the religious neo-conservative right. Nobody seems to really agree on what the "liberal" label actually means.

    2. While I completely agree with your comment, (atheism has helped me a lot too, socially, emotionally and processionally) I'm not really a fan of atheism as a cult. Too many people take pride in being atheist because they feel smarter, or talk about atheism as another religion and it's just not right.

  3. Atheist come out as smarter in these test because they tend to learn more because they have no constraint on their knowledge or beliefs and they want to know more about things.

    1. It depends on the test. Some measure your ability to know things, some measure what you actually know and therefore it isn't as much a matter of intelligence as potential. I hate to generalize, I know some really, really stupid atheists and some really, really smart theists, but in general, I'd say the studies show a trend, that people who care about reality, who question assertions and who don't believe without evidence are probably going to score a lot better than people who don't.

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