Go back a few hundred years, and atheism was very much a minority position. Those who were atheists would have been ostracized by society and possibly even killed (as in burned at the stake, depending on how far back you go). Fast forward to the present, and atheism is far less objectionable, and in some circles even the dominant view.
In the new millennium, prominent atheists abound. One website, www.celebatheists.com, is even dedicated to listing celebrity atheists. Celebrity atheists are wide-ranging and include people like Mark Zuckerberg, Lance Armstrong, and Jodie Foster. Even so, they don’t make it on to our list of influential living atheists. Why? Because they, like so many other atheists, don’t make a big deal out of their atheism. They live their lives without God, but are happy to let other people live their lives with God.
To make it on SuperScholar’s list of influential living atheists, an atheist can’t merely disbelieve in God but also must actively encourage others to disbelieve in God. But even that isn’t enough to make our list. Bill Maher and Penn & Teller, for instance, use their prominence as entertainers to promote atheism. But they do so mainly as popularists, not as scholars attempting to make a considered case against theism and for atheism.
Thus, to make it on our list, an atheist needs not only to be actively promoting atheism but also to do so as scholars in scholarly forums – this is, after all, SuperScholar! All the names below fit that bill. They are notable scholars in their own right and they use their scholarship to promote atheism explicitly or to promote forms of thought that make belief in God untenable.
Many of the scholars listed here have given new life to atheism, inviting the term “neo-atheism” to describe their impact and movement. Since the rise of neo-atheism in the last decade, public acceptance of atheism in the United States has vastly increased. In Gallup polls until ten years ago, those willing to call themselves atheists hovered around 10 percent. It’s now up to just under 15 percent.
Whether this atheistic upsurge in polls indicates an actual increase in the number of atheists or just a greater willingness of atheists to be known as such, it underscores a seismic shift in our culture away from belief in God and toward more secular ways of viewing the world.
1. Richard Dawkins
Weighing in at the top spot is, of course, Richard Dawkins. Using science, and especially the evolutionary theory of Darwin, to undercut the factual basis of religious belief, he has turned against religion as rationally and morally incoherent. Dawkins is the most conspicuous public voice and face of contemporary atheism.
2. Sam Harris
A close second behind Dawkins is Sam Harris. Commanding a $50K honorarium and traveling with an entourage that includes a security detail (for his criticism of Islam), Harris is the “rock star” of contemporary atheists. Though finding religion a bad idea generally, he is open to certain aspects of the paranormal, which raises eyebrows among some atheists.
3. Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens is the most articulate and urbane voice among contemporary intellectual atheists. Witty and searing, he shirks no debate. And as a worldclass journalist and correspondent, he commands a highly visible platform from which to promote atheism.
4. Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett, together with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, completes what has been called the “four horsemen” (referring to the four horsemen of death in the biblical book of Revelation). Dennett is a worldclass professional philosopher who has argued for materialistic atheism in everything from human consciousness to evolutionary biology.
5. Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking is one of the world’s great theoretical physicists. His trade-press book A Brief History of Time took the world by storm in the late 1980s. In it he raised the prospect of a self-creating universe, which he has since developed at length. The theme he keeps pounding is the extraneousness of the God hypothesis.
6. Steven Pinker
As a cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker deconstructs all aspects of human thought that might be construed as pointing to a non-material origin. With a Harvard professorship and a steady stream of popular books arguing for a materialistic view of cognition, he has been a remarkably effective apologist for atheism.
7. Michael Shermer
A former evangelical Christian, Michael Shermer promotes a skepticism that eliminates any vestige of supernaturalism. Founder and publisher of Skeptic Magazine, he is an indefatigable voice for atheism through popular books, highly visible debates and television interviews, and a monthly column with Scientific American.
8. Peter Singer
Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer argues that religion’s main problem is its promotion of what he calls “speciesism” – the view that the human species is in some way exceptional compared to the rest of the animal world. In thus challenging human exceptionalism, Singer fundamentally undermines all of western monotheism.
9. Steven Weinberg
The premier living Nobel laureate physicist, Steven Weinberg is one of the great scientists of our time. He is also a remarkably good writer, as demonstrated in his popular books on physics, which advance an atheistic view of the universe. According to him, science’s greatest cultural achievement is to eradicate religion.
10. Paul Kurtz
Paul Kurtz is the preeminent advocate of secular humanism, which eschews religion in the quest for human flourishing. He has been incredibly productive in fostering secular humanism by, among other things, directing the Council for Secular Humanism, editing the Skeptical Inquirer, and founding Prometheus Press.
11. Lawrence Krauss
When the television networks need a well-credentialed and well-spoken scientist to discuss the relation between science and religion, Lawrence Krauss is their man. A physicist with solid credentials as well as a ready pen, who has written a string of successful popular science books, Krauss has effectively used this platform to promote atheism.
12. Edward O. Wilson
The inventor of sociobiology and the inspiration behind contemporary evolutionary ethics, Edward O. Wilson started life as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist only to become an ardent supporter of evolutionary naturalism under the inspiration of Charles Darwin. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he sacralizes Nature and urges it (her?) as a replacement for traditional conceptions of God.
13. P. Z. Myers
An associate professor of biology the University of Minnesota (Morris), P. Z. Myers has catapulted to atheist stardom through his devastatingly popular blog Pharyngula. Perhaps the most in-your-face of the new atheists (blasphemy challenges and desecrating Eucharists are for him common fare), he has captured the atheist hard-core.
14. James Randi
Formerly a professional stage magician, James Randi has used his skills at deceiving the eye to uncover the techniques, tricks, and strategems of charlatans who use religion as a cloak for fraud. In thereby exposing religious frauds, he has gone further and turned against religion generally, regarding it as “silly” and “fantastic,” promoting instead a naturalistic understanding of the world. Be sure to read our recent interview with James Randi.
15. Jennifer Michael Hecht
A renaissance woman with expertise in history and philosophy, Jennifer Michael Hecht is providing the theoretical underpinnings for the new atheism. A prolific author and wide-ranging speaker, she is demonstrating that the leading new atheists no longer comprise a “gentlemen’s club.”
16. Peter Atkins
An Oxford University professor of chemistry, Peter Atkins is a prolific author of both academic and popular science books. He champions using science to advance secularism, arguing that religious belief denigrates the power of human understanding whereas science elevates it.
More info: Wikipedia
17. John Brockman
John Brockman is the literary agent and publicist for all the leading atheist authors. Through his Edge Foundation (www.edge.org), he channels the energies and talents of his authors, advancing what he calls “the third culture,” an effort to integrate humanistic and scientific thought that excludes traditional religious belief.
More info: Wikipedia
18. Philip Pullman
Oxford-educated best-selling author Philip Pullman sees himself as “undermining the basis for Christian belief.” Viewing C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series as religious propaganda, he has written His Dark Materials trilogy as an atheistic foil. Most recently, he authored a fictional account of Jesus, representing Christ as a cynically manipulating deceiver.
19. Barbara Forrest
An active secular humanist, Barbara Forrest came to prominence as the leading philosophical voice against the form of creationism known as intelligent design. Criticizing intelligent design as religious propaganda and as an attempt to insert God into educational curricula, she has been effective at making conceptual space for atheism.
Books: Creationism’s Trojan Horse
20. David Sloan Wilson
A biologist and anthropologist, David Sloan Wilson argues for the pervasiveness of selection in the evolutionary process. In consequence, he sees religion itself as an adaptation that can motivate humans to cooperate and behave altruistically. At the same time, he denies that religion has any purchase on transcendent reality.
More info: Wikipedia, Homepage
21. Ray Kurzweil
Author, inventor, entrepreneur, and transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil sees technology as fulfilling all aspirations previously ascribed to religion, including immortality. He argues that computing machines will soon outstrip human cognitive capacities, at which point humanity will upload itself onto a new, indestructible digital medium (an atheist version/vision of “resurrection”).
22. William B. (“Will”) Provine
Cornell historian of biology William B. (“Will”) Provine is one of the most forceful advocates for using evolutionary theory to both justify atheism and disqualify theism. According to him, evolution destroys not just belief in God but also all the vestiges of that belief, such as the view that humans have free will.
23. Kai Nielsen
Kai Nielsen is a classical old-school atheist who still casts a long shadow in contemporary debates over God’s existence. A top academic philosopher, he has written and debated at length not just on the coherence (or lack of it) of theism but also on the proper formulation of atheism.
More info: Kai Nielsen
24. Susan Blackmore
Writer, speaker, and parapsychology skeptic, Susan Blackmore addresses the question of human consciousness from the perspective of Richard Dawkins’ idea of “the meme,” a unit of cultural information transmitted once organisms evolve sufficient consciousness. For Blackmore, religion is not only a noxious meme but also false.
25. Richard Carrier
Trained as a historian, Richard Carrier is the dominant presence on the so-called “secular web.” He is known especially for his writings at Internet Infidels. Besides critiquing theism on philosophical grounds, he also challenges Christianity head-on, considering it “very probable Jesus never actually existed as a historical person.”