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8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

Non-believers are among our most respected and beloved heroes.
 
 
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It's common knowledge -- or it should be -- that atheists are among the most reviled and mistrusted groups in America. We consistently come in at the bottom of polls about who Americans would vote for, who they would trust, who they want to marry into their families, who they think shares their view of how the world should be.

But it's also the case that non-believers -- not atheists as a group, but certain individual atheists and other non-believers -- are among our most respected and beloved heroes. Not everyone knows that these people aren't religious, of course... but they're not. And scientists are among the most admired of those heroes. Maybe it's because scientists are more likely to be non-believers than the general population... and the more advanced in their field they are, the more true that becomes. Or maybe it's because great scientists -- American or not -- embody the old-fashioned American values of exploration and curiosity, the willingness to question and the passion for truth, persistence in pursuing dreams and courage in the face of adversity. (These values aren't uniquely American, of course -- but when people gas on about the American character, these ideals do tend to turn up in the conversation.)

So here are eight non-believing or agnostic scientists, whose work and lives and stories can inspire anyone -- atheist, religious, or other.

1) Stephen Hawking. What can I say? Dude can think. Dude is revising the entire way we think of the universe. Dude is on the cutting edge of explaining why the universe even exists. And dude doesn't believe in a personal God. He has written an entire book, The Grand Design, explaining that God isn't necessary to explain the origins of the universe. Quote: "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." He has described the most important point of his book as being "that science can explain the universe, and that we don't need God to explain why there is something rather than nothing or why the laws of nature are what they are." He has said that, "The scientific account is complete. Theology is unnecessary." And he can be quite passionate on the subject: he's said that belief in Heaven or an afterlife "is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." And no, he's not inspiring because he's disabled, and disabled people are here on Earth to overcome adversity and be courageous and give inspiration to the rest of us. Fuck that noise. Yes, of course, overcoming adversity is awesome. But Hawking would be inspiring if he came up with his ideas while doing one-handed push-ups.

2) Alan Turing. He's been called the founder of computer science, and the founder of artificial intelligence. The fact that you're reading these words on a computer -- the fact that you can send email, text your loved ones in an emergency, do your banking in seconds instead of hours, use your phone to look up weird facts at bars, and have access to every other way that computers have radically shaped and improved our lives -- is something you owe, in large part, to Alan Turing. But even more inspiring is the work he did cracking German codes during World War II. The cryptanalysis of the Enigma machines used by the Axis was "decisive to the Allied victory" -- those are the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower. And Turing was one of the most brilliant and most central people responsible for it. Turing's story is actually pretty sad. Despite the years of devoted work he did for his country -- work that arguably saved his country -- Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality (a crime at the time in England). He was given a choice between prison and chemical castration; chose the latter; and committed (probable) suicide two years later. The way he was treated by his country was despicable and tragic. But his story is also inspiring. And it gives the lie to the ridiculous notion that, without belief in God, people would have no meaning to their lives, no basis for ethics, and no reason to care about anyone other than themselves. Turing was an atheist -- he let go of his religion as a teenager, when a close friend died of tuberculosis and he decided materialism made more sense than religion -- and he devoted years of his life to his country, and to halting the spread of fascism.