A Brief History
On March 25, 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was booted from the University of Oxford (England) for the publishing of a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism, a continuation of a long history of discrimination and persecution of atheists and agnostics by religious believers. In spite of a long, slow march toward religious toleration of competing beliefs, atheism did not enjoy any sort of rapprochement with “mainstream” religion and still has not.
Around the time of the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions , a growing number of educated and prominent figures had gravitated away from organized religion toward atheism, agnosticism, and deism. Often times, atheists were forced to pretend to be “deists,” people who believe in a supreme being or creator, but not in line with a major religious denomination. Prior to this historical period, atheists in all sorts of cultures were persecuted and even killed for their lack of faith. Americans such as Thomas Jefferson (officially Deist) and John Adams (officially Unitarian) may have been atheists that had to stay “in the closet” for political reasons. Abraham Lincoln (no official denomination) was talked out of publishing a letter declaring his atheist beliefs before the 1860 Presidential election, probably good advice as he would almost certainly not have been elected had he “come out.” Other than communists, whose political philosophy is officially atheistic, few world leaders have publicly acknowledged being atheists, although evidence indicates some of them were, are, or lean that way. Certainly most politicians are not the pious types they pretend to be. The Australian Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013 was an avowed atheist, a bit of an exception.
In Revolutionary France in the late 18th Century, religion was discarded by the new regime, but Napoleon Bonaparte reinstituted the Catholic Church as a Machiavellian means to an end to help him control the masses. Napoleon used religious beliefs in other countries among Jews and Muslims to lull the people into obedience. Adolf Hitler, born and raised Roman Catholic (but hardly a practicing Christian!) did not ban the Catholic or Lutheran religions in Germany, but he did certainly take exception to Judaism! His technique was to replace the Christian religion with a quasi-Nazi “religion” complete with rituals, rites, and specially defined beliefs. Can anyone in the United States today believe Donald Trump is the devout Bible reading Christian he proclaimed to be during the 2016 Presidential campaign? Barack Obama was raised atheist, and when he professed to be a practicing Christian he was found out by not having any idea what sort of preaching went on at the church he supposedly attended.
We realize Family Guy on Fox television is fiction, but the episode where Bryan reveals himself to be an atheist draws hatred and persecution from the Griffin family. A frequent insult to describe someone as particularly ruthless or worthless is to call that person “Godless.” Just as people have used religion to discriminate against groups of people, the discrimination against atheists remains a covert reality. Organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous are faith based and may not exclude atheists, but a certain air of disapproval is there. Try to tell your village you are not a believer in Afghanistan or Iran and see how you are treated! (Most likely treated to being stoned.) Scientists in the past had to pretend to be pious and reverent or risk losing their liberty, worldly goods, or even their life in the Christian world. Just ask Copernicus or Galileo.
Today, many scientists are somewhat less reluctant to discuss their atheism and many prominent ones have revealed their true beliefs. (So many that only a few are included in the list below.) Likewise, with some other celebrities, especially in the entertainment field, but not so much in the sports arena, although NFL star turned US Army hero/martyr Pat Tillman was an exception.
Some well known atheists include: Albert Einstein (scientist, recent release of private correspondence indicates atheism) Richard Leakey (Kenyan politician, son of famous paleontologists), Israeli politicians/military personalities Moshe Dayan/Golda Meir/Yitzhak Rabin, 5 Prime Ministers of Denmark, George Clemenceau (leader of France World War I), Francois Hollande (President of France currently), Benito Mussolini (dictator of Italy 1920’s-1940’s), several Polish political leaders, Olaf Palme (former Prime Minister of Sweden), 5 former Presidents of Mexico, Clarence Darrow (famed American attorney), Barney Frank (former Congressman from Massachusetts), Jesse Ventura (former Governor of Minnesota), George Will (political commentator), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC anchor and Rhodes Scholar), Jean-Paul Sarte (French philosopher), BF Skinner (American behaviorist), Pierre and Marie Curie (Nobel Prize winning chemists and physicists), Eric Ambler (spy novelist), Isaac Asimov (Sci-fi writer), Anton Chekov (Russian doctor and writer), Joseph Conrad (Polish/British writer), Marquis de Sade (aristocrat and writer of lurid stories), George Eliot (really Mary Ann Evans, writer), Ken Follett (spy novelist), EM Forster (novelist, essayist), Franz Kafka (formerly Jewish/Czech writer), Sinclair Lewis (American condition writer, Nobel Prize winner), HP Lovecraft (horror/sci-fi writer), Jack London (American writer and activist), W. Somerset Maugham (writer), Arthur Miller (playwright and Mr. Marilyn Monroe), Christopher Robin (actually CR Milne, the real life little boy in the Winnie the Pooh stories), Pablo Neruda (Poet, diplomat), Ayn Rand (writer), Anne and Stan Rice (novelists), Maurice Sendak (children’s stories writer), Robert Louis Stevenson (writer), Kurt Vonnegut (sci-fi writer), HG Wells (writer), Virginia Woolf (writer), HL Mencken (journalist), Ron Reagan (son of President Reagan, activist and commentator), Richard Dawkins (biologist and writer), Christopher Hitchens (journalist, free thinking advocate), Penn and Teller (magicians), James Randi (magician), Julian Assange (creator of Wiki-leaks), Abbie Hoffman (activist), Margaret Sanger (activist, pro-birth control advocate), Noel Coward (playwright), Guillermo del Toro (screenwriter, movie maker), Marlene Dietrich (old German actress/singer), Jodie Foster (actress), Ricky Gervais (comedian), Bill Maher (comedian), Nick Frost (actor), Peter Fonda (actor), Paul Giamatti (actor), Seth Green (actor), Kathy Griffin (comedian), Katharine Hepburn (actress), Keira Knightley (actress), Burt Lancaster (actor), Eric Idle (actor), Bruce Lee (martial artist, actor), Seth McFarlane (writer, actor), john Malkovich (actor), Ian McKellen (actor), Julianne Moore (actress), Thandie Newton (actress), Ellen Page (actress), Simon Pegg (actor), Brad Pitt (actor), Daniel Radcliffe (actor), Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek creator), Ray Romano (actor), Carl and Rob Reiner (father son actors, producers), George C. Scott (actor), Andy Serkis (actor and/or chimpanzee!), Sarah Silverman (comedian), Steven Soderbergh (filmmaker), Matt Stone (South Park co-creator), Orson Welles (filmmaker), Gene Wilder (actor), Billy Joel (singer-songwriter), Henry Rollins (singer, actor), Linda Ronstadt (singer), Richard Rogers (songwriter), Eddie Vedder (rocker), Frank Zappa (music pioneer), Andrew Carnegie (steel magnate), Larry Flynt (porn king), Allan Pinkerton (private detective), George Carlin (comedian), David Cross (comedian), Larry David (comedian), Jim Jeffries (comedian), Anthony Jeselnik (comedian), Patton Oswalt (comedian, actor), Joe Rogan (comedian/actor/commentator), Abraham Maslow (famous psychologist), Frank Mir (MMA fighter), Rafael Nadal (tennis player), Diana Nyad (distance swimmer), and Dana White (president of the UFC MMA promotion). The list of known atheists is many time longer than we could list, especially in the science and entertainment fields.
With such an imposing list of famous people you might think atheists are no longer discriminated against, but they are! Like we said earlier, especially in the US where 71% of the population identifies as Christian, giving the US more Christians than any other country in the world. That number is from 2014 (down from 78% in 2007). The number of Americans willing to admit to no religious affiliation (atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular) was 23% in 2014 (up from 16% in 2007). Can the changing numbers be an indication of greater willingness to be honest about belief or the lack of belief, or are people really changing in the US?
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you witnessed any discrimination against atheists? Do your friends and family speak privately in negative ways about known or suspected atheists? Do you think there is a problem with tolerance toward atheist beliefs? Do you describe yourself as an atheist, agnostic, believer, or what? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts on the subject of religious belief and whether or not other beliefs should be tolerated in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Evans, C. Stephen. Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges. Baker Academic, 2015.
McGowan, Dale. Atheism For Dummies. For Dummies, 2013.
Nye, Bill. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.