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David Niose


9 Great Nonbelievers In U.S. History

Posted: 07/17/2012 8:11 am

When the Religious Right first rose to prominence in the 1980s, its main opposition came from those who were quick to argue that social conservatives had no monopoly on religion, that liberals and moderates could be religious too. While of course true, this approach proved largely ineffective, as the influence of religious fundamentalists has only seemed to grow with each election cycle.

In recent years, however, a new group of Americans has stepped forward to challenge the Christian Right. A secular movement, fueled by the country's millions of long-overlooked nonbelievers, represents a powerful and previously unseen opposition to the political agenda of religious conservatives.

As I explain in my new book, "Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans" (Palgrave Macmillan, $27), with the religious right now standing as a behemoth in the American political arena, appreciation of personal secularity has never been stronger.

For millions of Americans, openly identifying as secular has become a way of making a statement, of affirmatively pushing back against politically mobilized religious fundamentalism.

Though the secular movement is new, nonbelievers in America are certainly not. We are frequently told that America is a very religious country, but rarely are we reminded that a strong current of religious skepticism also flows through the nation's history and culture. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and nonbelievers of all stripes can be found prominently throughout the American narrative. Here is a list of nine important religious skeptics in American history.

This list is just a sampling of America's rich tradition of nonbelievers. A comprehensive list of important religious skeptics would include Thomas Paine, Clarence Darrow, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, W.E.B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger, Langston Hughes, Eugene Debs, Thomas Edison, Kurt Vonnegut, Pete Stark, and numerous others.

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  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

    Before the discoveries of Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century, open atheism was rare even in intellectual circles. Those who were religious skeptics and reason-oriented in their thinking often tended to be Deists, believing in a non-intervening, "watchmaker" type of divinity. Such were the beliefs of many of America's founders, particularly Jefferson, who edited his Bible to remove references to miracles and other supernaturalism. "Question with boldness even the existence of god," he told his nephew. He also wrote, "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

    The great suffragist and social activist was an outspoken critic of religion, particularly its role in oppressing women. Her book, The Women's Bible, was a bestseller in the 1890s, and many believe that her relentless attack on religion has caused historians to downplay her role in the women's movement in favor of Susan B. Anthony, who like Stanton was agnostic, but less vocal in her criticism of religion.  

  • Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899)

    Largely forgotten by mainstream historians, Ingersoll was a major figure in nineteenth century America, one of the greatest orators of his era. Known as "the Great Agnostic," he was a prominent attorney and influential at the highest level of politics. "If by any possibility the existence of a power superior to, and independent of, nature should be demonstrated, there will be time enough to kneel," he said. "Until then let us stand erect."

  • Mark Twain (1835-1910)

    Twain was satirical of piety and organized religion in his writing, but he saved his sharpest criticism of religion for his autobiography, which by his own instructions was not published until 2010, a hundred years after his death. "There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory," he wrote. "The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled."

  • John Dewey (1859-1952)

    Often cited as one of America's most important philosophers, Dewey rejected the supernatural and saw humanism as the philosophy that could best lead society into the future. Dewey signed the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, and described humanism as a view "in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good."  

  • A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)

    A tremendously important historical figure, Randolph is also one of the most overlooked personalities in modern American history. The key organizer of the March on Washington and an influential leader in the civil rights and labor movements (Martin Luther King, Jr. called him "the Dean" and "the Chief"), Randolph was the American Humanist Association (AHA) Humanist of the Year in 1970. "Our aim is to appeal to reason" he said. "We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish."

  • Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

    Though openly atheistic entertainers are commonplace today (think Brad Pitt and Daniel Radcliffe), they were less common in years past, when nonbelievers were often erroneously assumed to be communists. Hepburn, fiercely independent and not intimidated by pressures to conform, was blunt in her assessment of religion. "I'm an atheist, and that's it," she said in an interview. "I believe there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people." She received the AHA's Arts Award in 1985.

  • Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

    The legendary scientist and master communicator described himself as an agnostic, and his writings always emphasized appreciation of skepticism and naturalism, as opposed to supernaturalism.  His views on theology are expressed in many of his writings, none more clearly than The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,"  Sagan, who was the 1981 AHA Humanist of the Year, famously said.

  • Pat Tillman (1976-2004)

    Proving that there are indeed atheists in foxholes, Tillman left a lucrative NFL contract to join the military in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, only to be killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. When his family raised concerns about a cover-up surrounding the incident, military brass shockingly attributed the objections to the family's religious skepticism. When atheists die, they are "worm dirt," said Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, explaining why he wasn't surprised that Tillman's family had difficulty accepting the death.