This piece was originally published on AlterNet. Note: When I originally posted the link to it, some people apparently misunderstood the intent of the piece, and thought it was supposed to be the eight best, or most famous, or most important, or most something else, non-believing scientists. It’s not. It’s just eight. Selected based on assorted personal criteria, some idiosyncratic, some not, and with a big heaping dose of random involved. Hope that clears things up.
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 aren’t. 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 scientists, whose work and lives and stories can inspire anyone — atheist, religious, or other.
And dude doesn’t believe in a personal God. He has written an entire book, The Grand Design
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.
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. You don’t just owe your computer and your smartphone to Alan Turing. To a great extent, you owe him the fact that you don’t live under Nazi rule.
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 — and he devoted years of his life to his country, and to halting the spread of fascism.
But she’s an inspiration as well. I mean… DNA. Come on. It’s one of the most fundamental ways we have of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. She made understanding it possible. And she did this at a time when it was exceedingly difficult for women to even get into science… much less do ground-breaking, earth-shaking, brain-rearranging work in it.
And yes. Big old non-believer. From one of her letters: “I agree that faith is essential to success in life … but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining … I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.”
In the face of vehement hostility and vilification — including a Congressional investigation that resulted in loss of funding for his research — biologist Alfred Kinsey dedicated his life to a scientific, evidence-based understanding of the reality of human sexuality. With its frank discussion of the realities and prevalence of homosexuality, bisexuality, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, masturbation, and more, his research radically changed the way we understand and experience our sex lives. And it both broke the ground and laid the groundwork for every scientific study of human sexuality since. Kinsey’s passionate pursuit of truth, even when it defied convention; his passionate commitment to the advancement of knowledge that could demolish toxic misinformation about sex; his passionate devotion to the promotion of human happiness in some of the most pragmatic, down-to-earth ways imaginable… this can inspire us all.
I’m just sayin’.
But this isn’t a list of inspiring atheist scientists. It’s a list of inspiring non-believing scientists. Tyson is definitely a non-believer. And he’s definitely inspiring. The fact that he’s director of the Hayden Planetarium — and that this is among the least well-known of his accomplishments — is a good sign of just how awesome he is. He may be the best science communicator of our generation. He is extraordinary at explaining science to non-scientists, in a way that isn’t patronizing or dumbing-down. He makes science seem exciting, fun, important, moving, joyful. All of which it is. And he communicates this joy to millions.
Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott doesn’t call herself an atheist. Instead, she calls herself a non-theist and humanist, and has said, “I believe there is nothing beyond matter and energy.” That’s plenty good enough for this list. Another non-believer who works like crazy to make this world a better place — and who can inspire anyone to do the same.
And… oh, yeah. Atheist. In fact, in 1988 he was given the International Humanist Award by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
Well, he was. Quote: “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.” Quote:: “So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake… Religion is all bunk.” Quote: “I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul. . . . I am an aggregate of cells, as, for instance, New York City is an aggregate of individuals. Will New York City go to heaven? . . . . No; nature made us — nature did it all — not the gods of the religions.” Quote:: “I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul… No, all this talk of an existence beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life — our desire to go on living — our dread of coming to an end.”
And I assume I don’t have to explain why Thomas Edison is inspiring.
So the next time someone tells you atheists have no morality… tell them about Andrei Sakharov. The next time someone tells you atheists have no meaning in their lives… tell them about Stephen Hawking. The next time someone tells you atheists don’t care about anyone but themselves… tell them about Eugenie Scott and Alfred Kinsey. The next time someone tells you atheists have no reason to work for the greater good… tell them about Alan Turing and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The next time someone tells you atheists can’t change the world for the better… tell them about Rosalind Franklin and Thomas Edison.
Atheists aren’t just your neighbors and colleagues. We’re not just your friends and family. Atheists are your heroes. And whether you’re religious or not, atheists can inspire anyone.