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9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

Here are some non-believers who left a profound mark.

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8. Emma Lazarus. Like Robert Frost, Emma Lazarus was a poet whose words have defined the American experience. She may not have as many classics to her name, but her one crowning achievement may be even better known than any of his: her poem "The New Colossus," best known as the words engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." The statue was originally a symbol of republicanism, but Lazarus' poem recast it as a beacon for immigrants from all over the world. Even when America has fallen short of this ideal, these words remind us that we can do better and inspire us to work for positive change.

Lazarus came from a Jewish background, but she was known as a freethinker. As the Jewish Virtual Library records, on one occasion she told a rabbi who asked her to contribute to a hymn book, "I shall always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor in my soul."

9. Yip Harburg. E.Y. "Yip" Harburg isn't a household name, but some of his works are. Harburg was the Broadway lyricist who wrote the words to some of America's most memorable and culturally significant songs, including "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and all the music from The Wizard of Oz, including "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Harburg was known as "Broadway's social conscience" for the progressive messages of his songs and musicals, including "Bloomer Girl" and "Hooray for What," which advocated feminism and anti-war themes respectively. At one point he was blacklisted by McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, but kept working for the stage even as he was barred from television and film. He said in a biography, "The House of God never had much appeal for me. Anyhow, I found a substitute temple -- the theater."

For more famous historical freethinkers, see my series " The Contributions of Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby's book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, or Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History.


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