8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

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 or agnostic scientists, whose work and lives and stories can inspire anyone — atheist, religious, or other.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

23 thoughts on “8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

  1. 2

    Rosalind Franklin had just been hired to head her own lab at a prestigious new center for molecular biology at Cambridge when she died. Another person (and another atheist) invited to head his own lab there was Francis Crick. So Franklin’s career was exactly as far along as Crick’s when she died.

    Instead of bemoaning Watson and Crick’s use of her data, Franklin used their model to analyze her data, became great friends with Crick and his wife, and had a blossoming career, literally right up until the day of her death. Her story is tragic, but not because she wasn’t given credit for her work– she wasn’t given a lifetime to complete it.

  2. 3

    Pretty good article. The title reads like a Cracked.com article. Maybe it should have appeared over there. Great way to reach a wider audience.

    And yeah, I know about the infamous MRA-ish article by David Wong. Can’t believe he got it so wrong when most of his stuff is so good. Really woke me up to the idea that people I usually think of as cool might get things terribly wrong.

    Thanks for mentioning Sakharov. So many people credit Saint Ronald with ending the cold war. Shouldn’t Soviet dissidents get the real credit? And what about all those Samizdat publishers? Pussy Riot is going to finish the job Sakharov started.

  3. 5

    Not the best of lists.

    At least a couple of very important omissions, Einstein and Darwin. Einstein clearly laid out his non-belief, and he clearly changed our understanding of the world with his theories.

    Darwin may be a bit trickier on his beliefs early in his life, but in the end, it was his own work that made him agnostic at least later on. His work is monumental in science and in breaking a wall of biological understanding of how life could come to be the way it is without a supreme being.

  4. 7

    Could you please remove Edison from your list? Unless you want to inspire people to commit plagiarism, like Edison did with Nikola Tesla. Also remember: Edison was wrong whenever he disagreed with Tesla.
    I can think of at least three more inspiring non-believing scientists: Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman. But my vote will go to Marie Curie and now Í am the one who doesn’t need to explain.

  5. Cal

    Lord Howard Florey, who developed the antibiotic properties of penicillin mould into a useable medical treatment along with Ernst Chain, was an agnostic/atheist too.

  6. 9

    I am an atheist but the article brought a question to mind. Couldn’t we make a similar list of theists that have made outstanding contributions to our world. People throughout history, with varied world views, have been incredibly influential in a positive way. Is this, in some way, an appeal to authority. Just because someone has made a positive lasting impact, does not make their world view any more likely to be true. I realize that this may not be the intention of the article but I have seen similar lists by christians followed by the insinuation, how could these great people be wrong about the god question.

  7. 10

    At least a couple of very important omissions, Einstein and Darwin. Einstein clearly laid out his non-belief…

    The **** he did. Einstein was guilty of using religious language (God doesn’t play dice, God is subtle but He is not malicious) that allowed quote-mining beliebers to pretend he was one of them.
    He is also frequently characterized as a pantheist rather than an atheist or agnostic.
    He also wrote for public consumption some incredibly stoopid things about science and religion, which I have expounded on at length elsewhere. I congratulate Greta Christina for having left him off the list.

  8. 11

    #2 hoary puccoon: Instead of bemoaning Watson and Crick’s use of her data…

    It’s Greta Christina’s list, and I can understand why someone would want to leave Crick off their list, particularly if they have feminist inclinations. But I would like to point out that his scientific career was directly inspired by his atheism, as revealed in the seminal history of molecular biology, The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson (who BTW was father of science writer Olivia Judson).

    An important reason Crick changed to biology, he said to me, was that
    he is an atheist, and was impatient to throw light into the remaining
    shadowy sanctuaries of vitalistic illusions. “I had read Schodinger’s
    little book, too. Essentially, if you read that book fairly
    critically, the main import is very peculiar; for one thing, it’s a
    book written by a physicist who doesn’t know any chemistry! But the
    impact – there’s no doubt that Schrodinger wrote it in a compelling
    style, not like the junk that most people write, and it was
    imaginative. It suggested that biological problems could be thought
    about, in physical terms – and thus it gave me the impression that
    exciting things in this field were not far off. My own motives I never
    had any doubt about; I was very clear in my mind. Because when i
    decided to leave the Admiralty, when I was about thirty, then on the
    grounds that I knew so little anyway I might just as well go into
    anything I liked, I looked around for fields which would illuminate
    this particular point of view, against vitalism. And the two fields I
    chose were what we would now call molecular biology, though the term
    wasn’t common then, certainly I didn’t know it – but I would have said
    the borderline between the living and the nonliving. That was the
    phrase I had in my mind, on the one hand. And on the other, the higher
    nervous system and this problem of consciousness, whatever that may
    mean. And I had a period of some – weeks, maybe longer, trying to
    decide between these two. I eventually decided on what we now call
    molecular biology simply because I thought what I knew, as a
    physicist, was more relevant! But as you know, in recent years, we’re
    now edging towards the nervous system.”

  9. 12

    #10 Reginald:

    I haven’t read my books on Einstein since my de-conversion a few years ago. I suppose a re-read with my new eyes may be instructive.

    Still, as an (at least) agnostic scientist, he made contributions that changed the world.

  10. 13

    I’d down vote Edison as well – theoatmeal expressed it well he was more of a CEO than a geek or scientist. Compared to Tesla… Well there is no comparison.

    Tesla was a definite atheist! Quote – “It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making”

    Sounds like humans made up god to me 😉

    Actually I think he was some sort of Deist unfortunately, but then no one is perfect. Lets call him an atheist to piss off the religious?

  11. 14

    Not to be critical or argumentative, but I’m sure there are others who could easily be added to (or replace) names on the list.

    For example, Isaac Asimov, PhD in biochemistry. His work in sciences and his teaching at Boston University may not have changed the world, but he definitely changed people’s attitudes towards the sciences, encouraging people to learn and study. His long term influence may be greater than most of the others. Arthur C. Clarke could also merit a mention for the same reasons.

  12. F

    I was wondering if anyone would have something to say about Edison. He’s definitely one of those “being atheist doesn’t mean you are good” atheists. And I’d hesitate to call him a scientist. He used the scientific method, or bits of it, sometimes, but that’s about it. He was certainly a businessman who knew how to engage in innovation on his ideas and patents, and those of others, at least until he hit one of those amazing blind spots (in Denial City) of his.

    I don’t actually mean to critique the article here, it isn’t some manifesto or hall of saints. I think it’s fine. I do find it informative and entertaining to discuss these sorts of things, though.

  13. 16

    I don’t know Tyson’s work. I do know the work of Bohr, Dirac, Oppenheimer, Schrodinger. There’s a living American physicist, Ed Witten, who is very heavy, and famous to me cause he won a Fields Medal, the only person ever who wasn’t a professional mathematician.
    I could list a long line of mathematicians, starting around the time of Lagrange (around 1770).

    In my work with the better biologists (the least religious group of them all), folks don’t mention religion much cause it’s a two-fold error. First, that you believe is a sign of being light of brain. Second, you are insane to have outed yourself.

  14. 19

    I don’t think Alan Turing became an atheist because Christopher Morcom died. He was definitely an atheist, but around the time Christopher died Alan Turing actually believed in some spiritual ideas. He would later on become a rather hardcore materialist, but I don’t think that Morcom’s death played a big role in it, though it did have a profound effect on Turing in many ways. I am going mostly off of Andrew Hodges biography here, if anyone knows of any sources that focus on Alan Turing’s religious beliefs or lack thereof I would love to see them.

  15. 21

    I’m not sure standard your using for Scientist but can I suggest the mathematician Bertrand Russell as someone to replace Edison? Was a key in the development of set theory and logic as well as a promoter of humanism.

  16. 22

    I actually find almost no places where Witten discusses religion, except an interview with Ira Flatow where he answers a question about the need for a creator as perhaps not being a sensible question. Couldn’t find a transcript easily. The video is easy to find.

  17. 23

    Enjoyed the article, but I really have to argue for the inclusion of Charles Darwin here, as he is one of the most influential scientists of all time, and his lack of public rejection of religion was based mostly on consideration for his wife, who he loved, and with whom he shared the grief at the loss of their daughter. I don’t have the quote handy, but at one point he specifically said that he kept his loss of faith private for this very reason. He also said that the very idea of hell was abhorrent to him, that the idea that many of the scientists he counted as his closest friends could burn for eternity was obscene.

    He also exemplified the A+ sort of atheism, at least to the extent possible in Victorian England, as he was a staunch abolitionist and both his own family and his wife’s family were real leaders in the campaign to get the UK to ban the slave trade and interdict slave ships in the Atlantic.

    It’s really difficult to find any biologists of any stature who are believers. You might also have included E.O. Wilson, Robert Sapulsky, Ernst Mayr, a whole host of others.

    Really appreciated that you include Turing who is still under-recognized and under-rated, and who suffered greatly from religious fundamentalist nonsense on sexuality.

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