You might think, given the recent publicity about the rise of atheism, that nonbelievers are new to the American story. (Spoiler: We're not.) And these five individuals are perfect proof. They come from different eras, regions, fields of study, political persuasions, and have each left their mark on America. What unites them, other than their fame, is their willingness to confront life with a critical eye instead of blind faith.
It is difficult to prove that a person was definitely an atheist for two reasons. Firstly, the nature of agnosticism and atheism are such that there are a multitude of skeptical philosophical positions short of absolute atheism. But to separate the "hard" atheists from the millions of other skeptics is to be completely disingenuous about the skeptic movement as a whole. Those who simply question the dogma of religion — without actually labelling themselves "atheists" — are equally important in cultivating an environment of free thought and critical thinking.
Secondy, the label "atheist" itself possesses a world of negative connotations, most of which find their roots in thousands of years of religious hostility. These two pressures make it difficult to "prove" that a person is or was an atheist, unless he or she declares so. These individuals may have considered themselves anything from atheist, to deist, to pantheist, to crypto-atheist, but at the very least, each of these famous Americans had significant doubts about faith, God, or organized religion.
This eclectic group of famous Americans might not agree on much if you were somehow able to get them in a room together, but on this they would agree: You alone get to decide what you believe.
1. Thomas Edison: "Religion is all bunk."
The Wizard of Menlo Park is surely one of the greatest inventors of all time, and has long been considered an American icon. But rarely mentioned alongside the incandescent bulb is Edison's philosophical skepticism. Decades before the Supreme Court decided Abington School District v. Schempp, Edison was well aware of the danger posed by indoctrination of young minds.
He said, "The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age, and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them. Incurably religious; That is the best way to describe the mental condition of so many people. Incurably religious."
Edison, one of America's greatest scientists and foremost thinkers, keenly recognized the danger of teaching superstition as fact. "I do not believe that any type of religion should ever be introduced into the public schools of the United States." One hundred years later, we are still fighting Christians who insist their superstitions should be treated as fact, and added to textbooks under the guise of "religious freedom." Suffice it to say that Edison was aware of problems that would linger in the American consciousness long after his light went out.
If any doubt remains, Edison, who was a great admirer of 19th century skeptic Robert G. Ingersoll, could be very blunt when necessary.
"So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake ... Religion is all bunk."
2. Pat Tillman: "You're worm dirt."
Pat Tillman will forever be remembered for his decision to abandon an NFL contract to serve in our nation's armed forces. Shaken by the 9/11 attacks, Tillman enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002, later joining the elite unit known as the Army Rangers. In 2004, during one of multiple tours in Afghanistan, Tillman was killed in action. His death was originally attributed to enemy fire, but in subsequent months, investigations found that he was actually killed by friendly fire. The investigations into Tillman's death revealed what appeared to be a massive cover-up by military leaders intent on saving face.
The long struggle for the truth about Tillman's death is just one reason he stands out in our memory. His political views are another.
As a staunch opponent of the Iraq war (he regarded Bush's invasion as illegal), Tillman didn't seem like the kind of guy who would be eager to volunteer for the war against the Taliban. His commitment to his country trumped his political objections.
But the most sickening aspect of Tillman's story was the hostility toward his family because of his atheism. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, who led the second investigation of Tillman's death, told ESPN.com that the reason Tillman's family kept pressing for the truth was because they had no other way of coping with the loss, given their irreligion.
Watch Tillman's mother describe her interactions with the Pentagon here. The standout line: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."
That's right: The military, on the defensive because of its effort to conceal the truth, implied that his grieving family was wrong to continue asking for the truth because they're atheists. Needless to say, this says a lot about the state of affairs for nonbelievers in our armed forces.
Sports Illustrated's essay on Tillman provides a vivid picture of the man, and shows him as a complicated, questioning individual who was quite aware of the hostility he'd face for not believing in a god. That hostility to military atheists continues today. Last month, Congress voted against allowing secular chaplains into the military, presumably because the government is expressly required to establish a religion. (End sarcasm.)
Currently, the military requires all chaplains to belong to a "faith group," so it may seem clear why an atheist chaplain wouldn't fit the bill. But those unfamiliar with atheism are often completely unaware the presence of humanism among atheists. A humanist philosophy fulfills many of the same needs a theological philosophy might, but emphasizes rationalism and a belief in the ability of humans to improve the human experience.
A recent article in the New York Times succintly explains why the military should drop its intolerance of nonbelievers. "Atheist leaders acknowledge the seeming contradiction of nonbelievers seeking to become chaplains or receive recognition from the chaplain corps. But they say they believe the imprimatur of the chaplaincy will embolden atheists who worry about being ostracized for their worldviews."
Atheist chaplains probably wouldn't have prevented Tillman from dying. But if we truly want to give our troops the best support possible, we need to communicate that we accept them for whoever they are, and refrain from talking about anyone as no more than "worm dirt."
3. Langston Hughes: "You're getting in the way of things, Lord."
Langston Hughes is one of the Harlem Renaissance's greatest figures, and today he is remembered as a great poet, dramatist, and columnist. But Hughes was incredibly critical of the dissonance of a nation of Christians who behaves nothing like Christ. His 1932 poem "Goodbye Christ" emphasizes what he sees as religion's bastardization of Jesus' message, and the subsequent need to reject organized religion:
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
The idea that man is fundamentally helpless without God has long been a part of religious doctrine. Hughes rejects this at face value, telling Christ to "[m]ake way for a new guy with no religion at all."
Hughes associated religious authority with other oppressive forces in contemporary America. As one of America's forgotten black atheists, he was easily an expert on prejudice. (And if being black, allegedly communist, and atheist didn't subject him to enough prejudice, there were always the rumors that he was gay.)
It is interesting to note that Hughes follows his rejection of Christ with admiration for the relatively young communist movement spurred by Lenin and Marx. Hughes was by no means the only African American who saw communism as a solution to America's inequities (Paul Robeson is another prime example), nor was he the only one whose opinion of Soviet Russia was much higher before the brutal, totalitarian truth revealed itself. While atheism has often been equated with communism, the two are distinct concepts. "Goodbye" may seem to simply replace the religion of the Church with that of the state, but a more nuanced reading suggests a change in mindset. Instead of believing that some higher power makes everything happen for a reason, Hughes declared that he was in charge of his own future, much as the communists declared themselves masters of their own means of production.
Another Hughes line reveals quite clearly his views on man's progress. "You’re getting in the way of things, Lord."
4. Carl Sagan: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Carl Sagan is one of the most well-known American astronomers and scientists of all time. He was an expert in cosmology, astrophysics, and astrobiology, and on top of that, he was a true skeptic. Sagan, who was dedicated to improving the public's understanding of science, was unyielding in his emphasis on the benefit of the scientific method: “I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before. It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth ... How can we affect national policy—or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives—if we don’t grasp the underlying issues?" -The Demon-Haunted World, 1995
Sagan's greatest skill was his ability to translate scientific theory into the vernacular. His ability to relate concepts to the nonscientist extended beyond the field of science. His Baloney Detection Kit is perhaps one of the pithiest guides ever written on how to think critically. (You'd be surprised; not everyone in this country wants you to think for yourself.) In his thought and work, Carl Sagan was dedicated to the rejection of superstition and pseudoscience.
It is important to note that Sagan saw absolute certainty in atheism as logically indefensible, much as he saw rejected theism. To Sagan, "An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed."
Sagan's rejection of the term "atheism" echoes the labeling problems discussed in the introduction. Because Sagan's definition of atheism implied absolute certainty, he declared himself agnostic. But in reality, his skepticism brings him to a position indistinguishable from Dawkins' famous definition: “I don't know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
Sagan died in 1996, but his legacy lives. Recently, Arizona state representative Juan Mendez opened a Congressional session with a Sagan quote, replacing the typical call to bow heads. If we're going to continue to reject baloney in the 21st century, we'll need to keep Sagan's lessons close to heart.
5. Ayn Rand: "Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life."
She may still be Paul Ryan's idol, but that doesn't mean Ayn Rand shared the former vice presidential candidtate's love for the Church. Rand, the objectivist author whose works are still drooled over by anarcho-libertarians, was bitterly opposed to human faith. In a 1964 interview with Playboy, Rand eviscerated what she saw as faith's fundamental weakness:
Playboy: "Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?"
Rand: "Qua religion, no — in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy."
Given the American right's growing obsession with Rand's political creed, it would seem strange that the party of God would display admiration for the woman who declared abortion to be a "moral right." More likely than not, Rand's fans have cherry-picked the ideas they like, while rejecting the parts that don't sound good. (Something very similar often happens with those who read the bible.)
While it is arguable whether or not Rand's view of unfettered capitalism has taken hold in this country, Rand would be pleased to see America's growing rejection of faith. And though her political economics are likely unpalatable to a huge swath of nonbelievers, Rand's atheism proves that people from across the political spectrum can still agree on the fact that we, not God, own our fates.