As a child, Razib Khan spent several weeks studying in a Bangladeshi madrasa. Heather Mac Donald once studied literary deconstructionism and clerked for a left-wing judge. In neither case did the education take. They are atheist conservatives — Khan an apostate to his family's Islamic faith, Mac Donald to her left-wing education.
They are part of a small faction on the right: conservatives with no use for religion. Since 2008, they have been contributors to the blog Secular Right, where they argue that conservative values like small government, self-reliance and liberty can be defended without recourse to invisible deities or the religions that exalt them.
And they serve as public proof that an irreligious conservative can exist.
"A lot of religious conservatives say, ‘You can't be conservative because you don't believe in God,'" said Khan, 34, who was raised in New York and Oregon but whose grandfather was an imam in Bangladesh. "They say I am logically impossible, and I say, ‘Well I am possible because I am.'
"They assert your nonexistence, and you have to assert your existence. "
Neither Khan nor Mac Donald gaingsays the historical connection between conservatism and religiosity. Influential conservatives, like the 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, have been sympathetic toward religion in part because it endures.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, noted that conservatives throughout history have esteemed "mediating institutions" like schools and churches, sources of authority other than the state." If that's the way you're thinking, concern for the strength of organized religion follows pretty naturally," Ponnuru said.
After the French Revolution, opposition to clergy became identified with revolutionaries and, as in communist countries, the political left. Veneration of clergy was a marker of the right.
But only in the 1970s did the Republican Party become more identified with religiosity than the Democrats. In recent years, conservative magazines and talk radio have increased their cheerleading for religion, while two magazines with religious roots, First Things and Commentary, have become more conservative in their politics.
In 2008, feeling the absence of irreligious voices on the right, Khan, who also blogs about science for Discover magazine's website, started SecularRight.org. Today, the site usually gets 500 to 1,000 hits a day, Khan said.
For many, the conjunction of conservatism and atheism is embodied by the novelist Ayn Rand, whose thought blended free-market absolutism and human-worshipping atheism. She is influential — her cultic following included the young Alan Greenspan — but she is no patron saint to the bloggers at Secular Right.
The five bloggers are like the dramatis personae of a drawing-room comedy about irascible conservatives — written by Alan Bennett but set at the Heritage Foundation.
There's the urban pragmatist (Mac Donald, who clerked for the liberal federal Judge Stephen Reinhardt but now writes conservative essays about homelessness and policing), the data-driven scientist (Khan), and the libertarian enthusiast for tort reform (Walter Olson, also founder of the blog Overlawyered).
And because conservatives are Anglophiles, there are two Englishmen: John Derbyshire, the popular mathematics writer and opponent of liberal immigration policy, and Andrew Stuttaford.
Of the group, Mac Donald is the one best known for atheism. She has written scathingly of the Christian instinct to give God credit for our good fortune while absolving him of our misfortunes.
"God's mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved" from the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, Mac Donald wrote in The American Conservative in 2007." But why did the prayers for 5-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated?
"If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God's ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just."
Few liberals would use "affirmative action" as a byword for injustice — but very few conservatives would refer to Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin as members of "the knee-jerk venom squad," as Mac Donald did a week ago on her blog.
Derbyshire retains affection for his Anglican schooling, and Mac Donald respects many religious people she knows.
"We live with a religion that has been tamed, told to mind its manners and told to speak when asked to speak," she said in an interview this week. "I won't dwell on those outmoded religious activities that one is not supposed to remind religious advocates about, such as the burning of heretics and books, pitchforking the wrong type of Christian and opposition to liberal political reform."
For Mac Donald, politicians — those beneficiaries of liberal political reform — can be as bad as the radio talkers.
"I am puzzled," Mac Donald said, "by the logic of a John Ashcroft saying that while the wonderful people of the Justice Department contributed to keeping America safe, that really the ultimate gratitude is due to God.
"If that is true, why did God leave us vulnerable on 9/11?"