What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?
To hear religious apologists tell it, the triumph of atheism would mean a swift descent into selfishness and chaos. The defenders of the faith argue that atheism inevitably leads to selfishness and nihilism, and that only religion can justify charity or compassion, bind people together in community, or inspire a lively and flourishing culture. But this assertion can only be sustained by ignoring the accomplishments of famous nonreligious people throughout history, of which there have been many.
To dispel the myth that nonbelievers have never contributed anything of worth or value to human civilization, I want to highlight some who've left their mark in the arts, the sciences, or the humanities. Demonstrating that the godless count distinguished members of the human race among our numbers is a way to fight back against this prejudice and to demonstrate that we, too, have a historical legacy we can be proud of.
Not all of the people profiled here were strict atheists, but all of them werefreethinkers, a broader umbrella term that embraces a rainbow of unorthodoxy, religious dissent, skepticism, and unconventional thinking. It's no surprise that so many influential thinkers and creative types have come from the ranks of these intellectual revolutionaries. Organized religion tends to reward people not for thinking creatively or critically, but for reciting and defending the dogmas of the previous generation. Throughout human history, it's consistently been true that hidebound theocracies have been mired in poverty, backwardness and intellectual stagnation, whereas the most dramatic advances have come about in times and places where people had the freedom to think for themselves, to freely question and debate. The lives of all the men and women to be recounted here bear testimony to this.