9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History
Photo Credit: Krylova Ksenia / Shutterstock.com
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?
To hear religious apologists tell it, the triumph of atheism would mean a swift descent into selfishness and chaos. The defenders of the faith argue that atheism inevitably leads to selfishness and nihilism, and that only religion can justify charity or compassion, bind people together in community, or inspire a lively and flourishing culture. But this assertion can only be sustained by ignoring the accomplishments of famous nonreligious people throughout history, of which there have been many.
To dispel the myth that nonbelievers have never contributed anything of worth or value to human civilization, I want to highlight some who've left their mark in the arts, the sciences and the humanities. Demonstrating that the godless count distinguished members of the human race among our numbers is a way to fight back against this prejudice and to demonstrate that we, too, have a historical legacy we can be proud of.
Not all of the people profiled here were strict atheists, but all of them were freethinkers, a broader umbrella term that embraces a rainbow of unorthodoxy, religious dissent, skepticism, and unconventional thinking. It's no surprise that so many influential thinkers and creative types have come from the ranks of these intellectual revolutionaries. Organized religion tends to reward people not for thinking creatively or critically, but for reciting and defending the dogmas of the previous generation. Throughout human history, it has consistently been true that hidebound theocracies have been mired in poverty, backwardness and intellectual stagnation, whereas the most dramatic advances have come about in times and places where people had the freedom to think for themselves, to freely question and debate. The lives of the men and women recounted here bear testimony to this.
1. Albert Einstein. The archetypal scientific genius, Einstein inaugurated a revolution in physics that bears fruit to this day. His theories and equations undergird the 20th century: technologies from nuclear power to GPS satellites only exist because of his discoveries. But beyond his impressive scientific contributions, he was known as a peacemaker and civil-rights advocate: he was one of the first to warn the world of the dangers of Nazism, joined anti-lynching campaigns, publicly opposed McCarthyism, and called for nuclear disarmament worldwide. Later in life, he was offered the presidency of Israel but turned it down, saying that he was unqualified.
Einstein famously made statements like, "God does not play dice with the universe" that have inspired religious apologists to try to claim him as their own, but on other occasions, he made it clear that this was nothing but poetic metaphor. He made his views known in letters, writing, for example: "I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." On another occasion, he wrote, "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish."
2. Robert Ingersoll. One of the most famous Americans most people today have never heard of, Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll, known in his lifetime as the "Great Agnostic," once commanded national fame and renown. In an era before television and radio, public oratory was the leading form of entertainment, and Ingersoll set the gold standard. He was one of the most sought-after speakers in the country; he drew crowds of thousands, and on one occasion, after hearing him speak, Mark Twain observed, "What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!"