Atheists deny that God exists. Yet for an atheist to make our ranking of the 50 top atheists in the world—given in ascending order—it is not enough merely to deny that God exists. More is required.
Certainty. To make our list, someone has to be very sure of him- or herself. No mere agnostics will do. To make the cut, one has to do more than merely question God’s existence or even deny that knowledge of God’s existence is possible.
Celebrity is another requirement. To make our list, the atheist must have a public identification with atheism and must have made some public impact by challenging religion and/or promoting atheism, either in print or on the Internet. In other words, our ranking is a list of people who are well known because they are atheists, among other things—as opposed to people who are mainly famous for some other reason (like Jodie Foster or Bruce Willis). In a few cases, a person has made the list mainly on the basis of his or her attack on free will and morality—the foundation of the traditional religious view of human beings—so long as the person has also publicly identified as an atheist.
Energy is another requirement. To make our ranking, the atheist must be an activist. He or she must exhibit some desire to win others over to atheism. The person must look upon atheism not just as an intellectual position or worldview, but also as a cause or movement. You might say ours is a list of atheists with attitude.
As the final requirement, we give pride of place to seriousness. Besides the certainty, celebrity, and energy of an atheist, we put a premium on the depth and seriousness of the man or woman’s case for atheism. We ask ourselves this question: How many rounds could this person go in the ring (so to speak) with a top-notch defender of religious belief? The more rounds we feel the person would last in such an imagined intellectual match-up, the higher on our list he or she appears. (Compare our feature article on influential persons of faith here.)
This last requirement leads to some counterintuitive rank assignments for well-known atheists. For instance, Richard Dawkins does not make the head of our list. Because this may disappoint some of our readers, we have, after our ranking, also ordered the atheists on our list by the number of Google hits that their names obtain.
Finally, to keep the list manageable, we have included only atheists who are still living.
Here, then, is our list of the 50 top atheists in the world today:
Silverman is President of American Atheists, the organization founded in 1963 by the grande dame of American atheism, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919–1995). The group, which has local chapters in many states, is currently based in Cranford, New Jersey, where Silverman makes his home. In recent years, the group has sponsored the Christmas-season “You Know It’s a Myth” billboard campaign in the New York City area. Silverman—who should not be confused with either the Egyptologist or the television animator of the same name—has appeared on such TV talk shows as The O’Reilly Factor. He writes on his blog that “Religion is my bitch.”
White, a former world-class heavyweight kickboxer, is a prolific novelist who boxed and now writes under the name, ”Wrath.” He resides in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two sons, where he runs a popular web site, Words of Wrath. His novels are horror stories with an atheist slant. He also blogs for Atheist Nexus. On his own blog, he has written that “I am saddened and somewhat disgusted by the very idea of a Black Christian. It would seem to me that after having so recently escaped our slavemasters that we would have had enough of masters.”
Barker, a former Protestant minister, is a jazz pianist, composer, author, and television personality. He was ordained in 1975 in California, and served as pastor of churches affiliated with the Quaker, Assembly of God, and other denominations. He also served as a missionary for two years in Mexico. Barker announced his conversion to atheism in 1984. He is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), and is the editor of that organization’s online magazine Freethought Today. He is also a host with the Freethought Radio Network. Barker makes frequent appearances on Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and similar TV shows.
Greydon Square is an Iraq-War veteran and rap artist, who incorporates atheism into his musical act. Born Eddie Collins in the low-income Los Angeles suburb of Compton, Square became immersed in gang culture, but changed his life by enlisting in the United States Army in May of 2001. The punning title of his 2007 album, “The Compton Effect,” reflects his background as an erstwhile physics major—to which he attributes his conversion to atheism. In his rap songs, he boasts about desecrating Brigham Young’s grave and urinating in a synagogue. The Phoenix New Times has called Square “the black Carl Sagan.”
Myers is Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, where he researches the developmental biology of zebrafish from an evolutionary perspective. He has also taught at the University of Oregon, the University of Utah, and Temple University. He runs one of the most popular atheist blogs on the Internet, called Pharyngula (a stage of the embryonic development of vertebrates). The website is notable for its over-the-top vituperation. Myers also has a flair for attention-getting stunts, like piercing a consecrated host with a rusty nail. In 2009, Myers was named “Humanist of the Year” by the American Humanist Association.
Born in Canada, Randi has had a long career as a stage magician, TV personality, and prolific author. However, the most distinctive feature of his career has been “debunking”—showing how his own and others’ magic tricks are done. He came to international attention in 1972 by revealing the tricks used by Uri Geller, an Israeli magician who claimed supernatural telekinetic powers. His career then became more and more dedicated to debunking paranormal claims. Most recently, he has become an outspoken atheist and critic of religion.
Toynbee has been a columnist for London’s The Guardian newspaper since 1998 and President of the British Humanist Association since 2007. Granddaughter of the famous historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, she stood for MP, unsuccessfully, in 1983 as a Social Democratic Party candidate. She has published several books on social and political topics, including Hard Work (Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2003). In 2011, she agreed to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but later pulled out, saying “I hadn’t realised the nature of Mr. Lane Craig’s debating style, and having now looked at his previous performances, this is not my kind of forum.”
Newdow is an attorney and physician famous for his atheist-inspired litigation. He was born into a Jewish family in the Bronx, but never believed in God, saying “I was born an atheist.” His many lawsuits have been aimed at forcing the United States government to remove references to the Deity from American currency and coinage, from the Pledge of Allegiance, and from oaths of office. Though some of his lawsuits have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, so far all have been unsuccessful. Newdow is an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church.
Based in San Francisco, Christina is an author and blogger. Hers has been named one of the Top Ten most popular atheist blogs on the Web. She has contributed to The Skeptical Inquirer magazine and to the anthology, Everything You Know about God Is Wrong, edited by Russ Kick (Disinformation Company, 2007). The latter anthology includes her essay, “Comforting Thoughts about Death That Have Nothing to Do with God,” which has been frequently reprinted on the Internet. In addition to atheism, Christina writes and blogs about feminism and lesbianism. She also publishes pornographic fiction.
Based in Seattle, Benson is a philosopher, co-author (with Jeremy Stangroom), and prolific blogger, best known for editing the atheist web site Butterflies and Wheels (the title refers to Alexander Pope’s counsel against rhetorical overkill, “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”). She is also a frequent contributor to London’s The Guardian newspaper and to TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine, where she writes a weekly online column reviewing philosophy blogs. She has said that “religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion which backs them up.”
Shermer is an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, as well as a journalist, prolific author, TV personality, and cycling enthusiast. He currently teaches an interdisciplinary course at Claremont called “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain.” He is also the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, the chief organ of the Skeptics Society, which is devoted to attacking religion and promoting atheism. He is perhaps best known as an advocate for the highly speculative field of evolutionary psychology, which seeks to find evolutionary explanations for all fundamental aspects of human behavior.
Blackmore is an English popular-science author who holds a B.A. in psychology from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a Ph.D. in parapsychology from the University of Surrey. She later became disenchanted with parapsychology and made a career out of debunking paranormal claims. After that, she became a supporter of the supposed science of “memetics.” Most recently, she has become an outspoken critic of religion in the U.K. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and one of the 55 signatories in 2010 to a controversial open letter to The Guardian demanding that Pope Benedict XVI’s official invitation to visit the U.K. be withdrawn.
Padmanabhan is President of the Rationalists’ Association of India and General Secretary of the Humanists’ Association. The former organization, which was founded in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1985, is also known by its Bengali name, Bharatiya Bigyan O Yuktibadi Samity (literally, Indian Science and Rationalists’ Association). The latter organization was established in 1993 “with the aim of replacing all established religions with Humanism.” The Rationalists’ Association’s announced aim is “to eradicate superstition and blind faith, which include religious fanaticism, astrology, caste-system, spiritualism and numerous other obscurantist beliefs.” Padmanabhan is also Executive Editor of The Freethinker online magazine.
Hirsi Ali, a vocal critic of Islam, is a feminist and atheist activist, author, and Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC. Born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Mogadishu, Somalia, she was granted political asylum by The Netherlands in 1992, after which she changed her name and renounced Islam. In 2003, aged 33, Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament. She wrote the script and provided the voiceover narration for Theo van Gogh’s controversial film, Submission, about the eploitation of women in Muslim countries. After van Gogh’s murder by a radical Muslim in 2004, Hirsi Ali went into hiding, eventually resettling in the United States in 2006.
Pullman was born in Norwich, U.K., and took a third-class English degree at Oxford University. He worked as a middle-school teacher while writing the children’s books—more than 30 by now—that would make his reputation. However, he only achieved real celebrity with the publication of his best-selling trilogy, His Dark Materials, between 1994 and 2001. The trilogy is loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost—except that the Satan figure is the hero, while God is the villain. It has been praised by atheists as an antidote to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which Pullman has denounced as religious propaganda. He is outspoken on behalf of atheist causes in the U.K.
Allen, a former stand-up comedian, is a playwright, jazz clarinetist, and world-renowned filmmaker. Born Allen Konigsberg in Brooklyn, he began selling jokes to newspapers while still in his teens. Allen’s trademark black humor reflects strong atheist convictions, emphasizing the futility of human existence—for example: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” In 1992, Allen was at the center of a sex scandal involving the daughter of his companion, the actress Mia Farrow. Some of his subsequent films are less funny than unpleasantly bitter.
More info: Wikipedia
Born in Aldershot, Hampshire, McEwan is considered by many to be one of the finest novelists of his generation in the U.K. From the beginning of his career, his work has been characterized by an extremism verging on cynical detachment with respect to his main subjects: sex, death, and moral evil. But it is with Black Dogs in 1992 that his books begin to acquire an explicitly theological dimension. In his recent work, McEwan’s heroes tend to be raionalists who are almost crushed by the irrational forces threatening them. He has written that “Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious convictions.”
Born Michel Thomas on the French Indian Ocean island possession of Réunion, Houellebecq is one of the most controversial literary novelists in the world today. Abandoned by his parents, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, whose maiden name he adopted. In 1998 his second novel, Les particules élémentaires, enjoyed an enormous succès de scandale. His books are graphic satires of the nihilism plaguing modern society in a godless universe. However, any moral force they might otherwise have is undercut by Houellebecq’s evident loathing of human beings. He has written that “God doesn’t exist, and even if one is a bloody idiot, one finishes up understanding that.”
Son of the famous English post-war comic novelist, Kingsley Amis, Amis fils is the author of nearly 30 books, including novels, short-story collections, and works of non-fiction. He is both prized as a stylist (of the “postmodern” school) by other writers and appreciated as a chronicler of men behaving badly by the broader reading public. His masterwork is generally considered to be the “London trilogy” (see below), published between 1984 and 1995. Atheism is implicit in the worldview expressed in Amis’s work, rather than one of his explicit themes. Speaking of religion, he has said: “I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We’ve waited it out, and it’s gone.”
Author of over 30 highly acclaimed books, Roth is considered by many to be America’s greatest living novelist. A perennial Nobel Prize candidate, he has won every major American literary prize. Roth grew up in a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, but his unsparing depictions of his largely Jewish characters have been controversial within the American Jewish community. His always pronounced misanthropy has taken on an explicitly atheistic tenor in his late books, with their dominant theme of human frailty, futility, and the finality of death. He has said in a recent interview: “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place.”
Kurzweil is an entrepreneur, author, and leading light of the influential “transhumanist” movement. In the 1970s, his company, Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc., developed the first practical optical scanning software. Recently, Kurzweil has risen to national prominence with a series of books in which he claims that we human beings are on the verge of shedding our bodies and “uploading” our minds (our “software”) into superior, artificial “hardware.” In so doing, he argues, we are destined to become immortal. He calls this event “the singularity.” He has been harshly criticized by P.Z. Myers and others, but his ideas are the logical extension of premises most atheists share.
Brockman is a literary agent, book editor, and self-proclaimed “cultural impresario.” He serves as publicist for many leading atheist authors. However, Brockman is perhaps best known as the founder of Edge.org, a web site promoting speculative thought about the nexus of science, technology, and culture. He has said: “I mean I don’t believe: I’m sure there’s no God. I’m sure there’s no afterlife. But don’t call me an atheist. It’s like a losers’ club. When I hear the word atheist, I think of some crummy motel where they’re having a function and these people have nowhere else to go.”
Jacoby, a former newspaper reporter, is a bestselling author and blogger. She contributes to The Spirited Atheist blog at The Washington Post, as well as to one of her own. Jacoby is Program Director for the Center for Inquiry–New York City, and sits on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America. Though she is a strong atheist activist, her voice is one of relative moderation. She has written that: “Atheism, in a mature form, is not angry anarchy that lashes out at religion, but simply looking for a collective and personal moral code independent of an external god.”
Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He has done research on the properties of neutrinos and other elementary particles. He is best known, however, as a prolific author of popular-science books and as a crusader against paranormal claims and against religion. Stenger has a special interest in challenging claims that the so-called “fine-tuning coincidences” constitute evidence for the existence of God. He is a long-time Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and is famous for saying: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”
Hecht is a true polymath: she pursued advanced studies in France and received her Ph.D. in the history of science from Columbia University; she has published two well-received volumes of poetry and three meticulously researched but popular books (one of them a bestseller) in the esoteric field of the history of ideas; and she currently teaches writing at Columbia University and New School University in New York. She also maintains a busy schedule of interviews, lectures, and poetry readings. Hecht’s approach to atheism is informed more by the arts than by the sciences—a perspective she promotes through her blog, Poetic Atheism.
Fang, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is a poet, popular-science author, and blogger who made his name by publicizing corruption in Chinese academia and by debunking Chinese traditional medicine. Born Fang Shimin, he was attacked with a hammer by hired thugs in 2010, but escaped with only minor injuries. A prominent surgeon whose work Fang had criticized was jailed for ordering the attack. He writes that “Religion wants you to believe blindly, while science wants you to doubt, to rely on evidence and logic. They have fundamental conflicts. I have always opposed efforts at reconciliation.” None of Fang’s books has yet been translated into English.
Coyne is Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Educated at Harvard University, where he studied under Richard Lewontin, he is a specialist in the problem of speciation. He runs a web site called Why Evolution Is True, and has published a bestselling book by the same name. He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and other prominent publications. He confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”
Books: Why Evolution Is True
Wright is a journalist, bestselling author, and founder of Bloggingheads.tv. Currently Senior Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation, he is a revisionist Darwinian evolutionary psychologist, who believes emergent and nonlinear dynamical effects influence the evolutionary process. Wright is also a critic of the dogmatism of the New Atheist authors, qualifying his own atheism as follows: ”I would say there’s reason to believe there is some sort of purpose unfolding through the natural workings of the world. This doesn’t by itself establish the existence of a god, much less a good one, but it seems to cut against the grain of pure atheism.”
Carrier is a historian, author, and blogger. He received a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University in 2008. As a crusading atheist, Carrier’s specialty is attacking the historicity of the New Testament. He has said that he thinks it ”very probable Jesus never actually existed as a historical person” (original emphasis). He has also been an active promoter of atheism on the Internet, formerly serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Internet Infidels/Secular Web site. He now runs the Naturalism as a Worldview web site, as well as a blog. He also participates in numerous public debates with Christians.
Onfray is a philosopher and prolific author who teaches in the philosophy seminar at the Université Populaire de Caen (UPC). He has written more than 50 volumes of philosophy, journals, travel, and political and cultural commentary. The principal focus of his philosophical writing, both historical and systematic, has been philosophical hedonism. His 2006 Traité d’athéologie (translated as Atheist Manifesto) became a sensation and elevated him onto the national stage in France. The Traité d’athéologie has been closely associated with the books of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism in France, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere. He traces his philosophical lineage to the Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope.
Pinker is a psychologist, linguist, and bestselling author. Born in Montreal and a naturalized U.S. citizen, he is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is best known for advancing the “language instinct” hypothesis, and for promoting a version of Darwinian evolutionary psychology. It has been announced that Pinker will join the faculty of the New College of the Humanities in London, the all-star university founded by A.C. Grayling. He has said that “I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew,” and that “Atheists are the most reviled minority in the United States, so it’s no small matter to come out and say it.”
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Churchland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, where she is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. A native of British Columbia, she is married to the philosopher, Paul Churchland. Together, the Churchlands are associated with the position called “eliminative materialism,” which claims that our everyday “folk psychology” concepts, like love, ought to be eliminated in favor of neuroscientific concepts, like oxytocin levels. Discussing morality, Churchland writes: “Evolution sets the brain’s style of drives and emotions. Experience in a culture shapes the style into specific habits and preferences using the reward system.”
Kurtz is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He is both a productive scholar and a prolific author of popular philosophical works. Among Kurtz’s notable achievements are the founding of both Prometheus Press, a publishing house dedicated to promoting science and atheism, and a number of skeptical, rationalist, and atheist organizations, including the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. He has also served as Editor-in-Chief of the latter organization’s in-house magazine, Free Inquiry. These oganizations may be said to combat paranormal claims and religion in equal measure. Kurtz has been called the “Father of Secular Humanism.”
Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Born in Buckinghamshire, U.K., he is a prolific author of textbooks on quantum mechanics and physical chemistry, as well as of expositions of physics and cosmology aimed at a popular audience. He is an outspoken critic of religion, and engages in frequent debates with Christians on college and university campuses around the world and on television. He has written: “My aim is to argue that the universe can come into existence without intervention, and that there is no need to invoke the idea of a Supreme Being in one of its numerous manifestations.”
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Provine is a historian of science specializing in population biology and the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary theory. He has published the definitive study of the distinguished geneticist, Sewall Wright. A Tennessee native educated at the Unviersity of Chicago, he is Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University, where he holds appointments in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Department of History, and the Department of Science and Technology Studies. Provine, who is a hard determinist as well as an atheist, rejects all forms of teleology in biology and claims that “evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented.”
Wilson is Distinguished Professor at Binghamton University (formerly known as State University of New York, Binghamton), with appointments in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Biological Sciences. He is best known as a proponent of the controversial theory of group selection, which he defended in the book Unto Others, co-written with Elliott Sober. He is also known for his evolutionary theory of the origins of religious belief, detailed in his book Darwin’s Cathedral. However, he has been critical of the New Atheists, whose dogmatism he has denounced as a “stealth religion.” Most recently, he has spearheaded an effort to apply Darwinian principles to urban renewal.
Rosenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is a proponent of philosophical naturalism—the idea that natural science, when complete, will describe reality exhaustively. He only recently began to be known outside the academic community, publishing a widely noticed op-ed piece in the New York Times (see below) to help publicize his new book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Rosenberg claims that natural science must eventually take over all of human knowledge: “400 years of scientific success in prediction, control and technology shows that physics has made a good start. We should be confident that it will do better than any other approach at getting things right.”
Harris is a best-selling author and television personality who is regarded as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement. He is from a Jewish background, but was raised in a secular home. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. His neuroscience research focused on the neural basis of belief, using fMRI technology. He is the co-founder of Project Reason, whose aim is to “encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.” Prominent among his controversial pronouncements on public affairs is his call for a new “science” of morality.
Born in what is now Zambia, Grayling was until recently Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. In 2011, he founded the “all-star” New College of the Humanities in London. His academic work has focused on skepticism and related problems at the interface between epistemology and metaphysics. He is also concerned with articulating a naturalistic foundation for ethics. Over the past decade, Grayling has become an outspoken critic of religion in the U.K. He was a signatory to the 2010 open letter protesting the British government’s invitation for an official visit to Pope Benedict XVI.
Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as Director of the Origins Project, at Arizona State University at Tempe. He is a cosmologist, who was one of the developers of the theory of “dark energy.” He is also known as a critic of string theory and the “multiverse” concept. He testified before the Ohio school board in 2004 in a hearing on the teaching of evolution, and worked as an adviser to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. He is given to provocative statements like “Forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be born.”
Hitchens was a journalist, essayist, autobiographer, world-class debater, blogger, and one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement. He was born in Portsmouth, England, but moved permanently to the U.S. in 1981, where he eventually became a naturalized citizen. He first attracted widespread public attention through his blistering attacks on Mother Teresa. Widely admired as a brilliant stylist, he wrote many bestselling books and was a regular columnist for Slate online magazine. He made innumerable appearances on television and in documentary films, as well as on debating platforms at college and university campuses around the world. He died one week after this ranking was first published.
Until his recent retirement, Hawking was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge—Isaac Newton’s old job. Since 2009, he has been Director of Research at Cambridge’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. His major contribution to cosmology has been the discovery that black holes evaporate by means of the “Hawking radiation” mechanism. A victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he was catapulted to world fame following the publication of his bestselling A Brief History of Time in 1988. With respect to God, he has said: “When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how accidental and insignificant human life is in it, that seems most implausible.”
Weinberg occupies the Regents Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also leads the Theory Group in the Department of Physics. He won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow, for his work on the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces of nature. Weinberg has also made many other seminal contributions to today’s Standard Model in physics. He has written a widely used textbook, The Quantum Theory of Fields, as well as the classic, The First Three Minutes, and other bestselling books for a popular audience. Weinberg has said that “Religion is an insult to human dignity.”
Dawkins is the most famous of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, and perhaps the most influential living atheist. He was formerly Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. In science, Dawkins’s main contribution has been as a popularizer of such ideas as uni-level “genic selection” and “inclusive fitness.” Through his outstanding gifts as a writer, Dawkins has had an incalculable impact on the dissemination of modern evolutionary theory to the general educated public. He claims that human beings are “gigantic lumbering robots” controlled by our “selfish genes.” In recent years, he has instigated a series of publicity campaigns against religion in the U.K.
Wilson, a native of Alabama and one of the world’s foremost experts on ants, is Emeritus University Professor at Harvard University. His research on ant societies led to the publication of his seminal work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in 1975. His ideas on the evolution of “altruism” in human society were hugely controversial at that time, and remain so—now rebranded as “evolutionary psychology”—today. In later years, Wilson became deeply involved with the movement to save endangered species and thus preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. He has written that: “Religion [has] to be explained as a material process, from the bottom up, atoms to genes to the human spirit.”
Dennett, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He introduced the idea that the theory of natural selection is a “universal acid” that eats through every theoretical domain it touches. Dennett’s distinctive position on human nature combines a computationalist perspective on the mind with an ultra-adaptationist approach to biological traits. This combination led to his notorious claim that “your great-great- . . . grandmother was a macro” (a software module). He describes belief in God as a “useful crutch” that we have outgrown.
Smith is University Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. He works in a number of different fields of analytical philosophy: language, mind, physics, religion, and the metaphysics of feeling. Probably, his most significant contributions have been to the philosophy of quantum cosmology and the philosophy of time. Smith’s work on the “natural selection of universes” has had an impact within physics itself, and he has also collaborated with the prominent Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. He denies the existence of a personal God—and so is an atheist—but he defends a form of pantheism.
Books: Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology, Time, Change and Freedom: An Introduction to Metaphysics, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, Language and Time, Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives
Nielsen is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. Born in Denmark, he was educated in the United States. After teaching at New York University, he has made his career in Canada. Nielsen, who is the author of more than 30 books and 400 scholarly articles, is one of the founders of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. His work has focused on the unintelligibility of the various concepts of God, and on the naturalistic grounding of ethics. Nielsen has been called one of the leading atheists of the century.
Martin is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1962. He has written or edited numerous monographs and anthologies devoted to the critique of religion and the vindication of atheism. Though not as well known to the general public, Martin is highly regarded among professional philosophers, believers and nonbelievers alike. He has written: “My object is to show that atheism is a rational position and that belief in God is not. I am quite aware that atheistic beliefs are not always based on reason. My claim is that they should be.”
Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Born in Melbourne, he is one of the world’s most controversial philosophers. A Utilitarian in ethics, he believes that only sentience, not species membership, confers moral value. This leads him to ascribe greater moral value to healthy adult nonhuman mammals than to unborn, newborn, mentally defective, and comatose humans. Singer has written: “The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.” We believe his blend of philosophical sophistication, extremism, and high public profile makes him the most formidable living atheist in the world.
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So, that’s our ranking of the 50 top atheists in the world according to our combined criteria, emphasizing both celebrity and seriousness.
Here is an ordering of the same 50 names in terms of celebrity alone, as determined by a Google search. The number of results (in parentheses) for each atheist was obtained by searching on the exact name, using quotes (“Richard Dawkins”). Where an individual is well known under two different versions of his name (“E.O. Wilson” and “Edward O. Wilson”), we have ranked him according to the higher score. For common names, a descriptor (“Michael Martin” atheist) has been added for disambiguation purposes. The searches were conducted on December 8, 2011.
- Woody Allen (32,600,000)
- Stephen Hawking (13, 200,000)
- Richard Dawkins (11,400,000)
- Christopher Hitchens (6,020,000)
- Sam Harris (5,680,000)
- Philip Roth (4,400,000)
- Philip Pullman (3,210,000)
- Ian McEwan (2,870,000)
- Michel Houellebecq (2,410,000)
- Peter Singer (2,140,000)
- Steven Pinker (2,110,000)
- James Randi (1,810,000)
- Daniel Dennett (1,770,000)
- Ray Kurzweil (1,730,000)
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1,560,000)
- Martin Amis (1,500,000)
- Edward O. Wilson (1,360,000)
- Peter Atkins (1,320,000)
- Robert Wright (1,260,000)
- Michael Shermer (1,190,000)
- Steven Weinberg (1,100,000)
- P.Z. Myers (683,000)
- A.C. Grayling (677,000)
- Victor Stenger (663,000)
- Michael Martin (636,000)
- Greydon Square (471,000)
- Wrath James White (470,000)
- Dan Barker (461,000)
- Polly Toynbee (373,000)
- John Brockman (365,000)
- Lawrence M. Krauss (345,000)
- Michael Newdow (345,000)
- Susan Blackmore (334,000)
- Jerry Coyne (287,000)
- Susan Jacoby (243,000)
- Paul Kurtz (240,000)
- Greta Christina (215,000)
- William B. Provine (209,000)
- Michel Onfray (204,000)
- David Sloan Wilson (174,000)
- Richard Carrier (173,000)
- Quentin Smith (164,000)
- Patricia Churchland (158,000)
- Kai Nielsen (119,000)
- Alexander Rosenberg (109,000)
- Jennifer Michael Hecht (81,700)
- Ophelia Benson (68,500)
- David Silverman (57,000)
- Fang Zhouzi (46,700)
- Sumitra Padmanabhan (3,670)