Are They Really the Most Influential Atheists? January 15, 2011

Are They Really the Most Influential Atheists?

There’s been a lot of talk this week about a list of the “25 Most Influential Living Atheists” from

To make it on SuperScholar’s list of influential living atheists, an atheist can’t merely disbelieve in God but also must actively encourage others to disbelieve in God…

… to make it on our list, an atheist needs not only to be actively promoting atheism but also to do so as scholars in scholarly forums…

The list has a few people who deserve to be on it. It has some people who probably don’t. It has some people you’ve never heard of:

1) Richard Dawkins
2) Sam Harris
3) Christopher Hitchens
4) Daniel Dennett
5) Stephen Hawking
6) Steven Pinker
7) Michael Shermer
8 ) Peter Singer
9) Steven Weinberg
10) Paul Kurtz
11) Lawrence Krauss
12) E. O. Wilson
13) P.Z. Myers
14) James Randi
15) Jennifer Michael Hecht
16) Peter Atkins
17) John Brockman
18) Philip Pullman
19) Barbara Forrest
20) David Sloan Wilson
21) Ray Kurzweil
22) William B. (“Will”) Provine
23) Kai Nielsen
24) Susan Blackmore
25) Richard Carrier

To summarize: It’s a big list of white (overwhelmingly male) people, some of whom are vaguely connected to a university, most of whom have published something of some sort — even though the books aren’t all about atheism and the published papers are not all about the nature of god… (Someone remind me again of what qualifies someone as a “scholar”?)

You know, I practically live in this “atheist subculture.” I work with atheist groups, I write about the subject, I read the books, and even I haven’t heard of everyone on this list. I know the world doesn’t revolve around me, but if I don’t even know their names, how influential can they possibly be? How did some of the “most influential atheist scholars” somehow get under my radar this whole time…?

(To be fair, I’d never heard of Antony Flew, either, until Christians starting using him as an example of a “former” atheist — he came out as a deist later in life.)

To make things worse, SuperScholar responded to criticism that Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn’t on the list by digging themselves into a deeper hole:

… SuperScholar’s exclusion of Hirsi Ali from our list of atheists was deliberate. Her atheism seems less than central to her life’s work and mission. Her target, taken negatively, seems to be Islam, and the more extremist forms of it. Her target, put positively, is to create space for the full range of human freedom.

In this respect, she is willing to make common cause with all peoples of good will, those with and without faith. In THE CAGED VIRGIN, she will write:

I now feel the common humanity with those whom I once shunned: the Jews, Christians, atheists, gays, and sinners of all stripes and colors.

Hirsi Ali seems, in our reading of her, not to have made it a priority to rid the world of religion and God. Nor do her writings and actions strike us as an apologetic for atheism. For this reason she did not make our list.

Atheism isn’t central to her life? Certainly it’s more prominent in her life than atheism is in James Randi’s life (doesn’t JREF get criticized for not promoting atheism enough?)… Barbara Forrest has been a strong voice against Creationism/Intelligent Design, but how is that the same as promoting atheism first and foremost?

And what’s this about Hirsi Ali not doing enough to rid the world of religion? That’s downright slander. She’s probably done more to get people off of harmful religion than all of us combined. I can only dream of having the type of courage she possesses.

The bright side to this silly list is the uproar that it’s causing. People want to know why this person and that person were left out.

Which just says to me: Isn’t it great that there are so many intelligent, influential atheists out there that we can’t narrow it down to just 25?

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  • Don Rose

    Lists like that are always contoversial, and often compiled by people with no qualification.

    As a guitar player, I see it every time some magazine lists the top 100 rock guitar players of all-time…… and I see Curt Cobain on the list….lol!

    Maybe we need a facebook only list. It would include Hemant Mehta, Al Stefanelli….etc. Anyone else got some good nominations? I’m always looking for great atheist friends.

  • Revyloution

    “Which just says to me: Isn’t it great that there are so many intelligent, influential atheists out there that we can’t narrow it down to just 25?”

    Or 4?

  • We need either a college football BCS-like system with computer scoring or perhaps an atheist tournament to decide who gets on the list. 😉

  • bigjohn756

    …an atheist can’t merely disbelieve in God but also must actively encourage others to disbelieve in God…

    Holy Crap! What is their agenda? It sounds almost as if they want to impose atheism on the world in a fashion similar to the way Muslims want to impose Islam on the world. I am a firm believer in continually presenting reasons that atheism is correct and letting these thoughts soak in until they finally make sense to the religious.
    Eventually, God willing, enough people will see the light and we will reach a tipping point.

  • pirmas407

    “Hirsi Ali seems, in our reading of her, not to have made it a priority to rid the world of religion and God.”

    Honestly, that line scares me. That makes us sound like sound… well… like missionaries, and forgive the term, but I don’t think that should be our mission.

  • That list is bullshit.

    I mean, Hemant Mehta is a teacher, very famous, and even so he didn’t make it on the list!

    Why? Isn’t he scholar enough? Old enough? White enough? Atheist enough?

    I’ve never even heard about before. Who are they to make a list of influential atheists if they’re not influential themselves?

    I think Mehta should make a list. I’m sure it would be better, and it would have more women too.

  • Frederick Green “The Best Ideas in the World” yet it is simply website with a bunch of “Top 10” lists and some interviews. Scholarly?

  • Yeah, I don’t need anybody telling me how I should be an atheist or if I’m a “real atheist”. If I had been on this list, I’d demand that my name be removed immediately. Zero respect here.

  • Tometheus

    The absence I find most egregious is Eugenie Scott.

  • yeah i have issues with this list, not just because it’s predominantly white AND male, but because some of these folks I have never heard of.

  • Tyro

    I left this reply on his site but it’s not showing up so copied here. (I’m a little miffed at casual sexism and racism, but it really irks me when people try such lame-ass attempts to justify it. For the record, I think Hemant belongs on that list above several others.)

    That seems like a specious, confabulated argument, one which you didn’t apply to other people on the list.

    Take a few other examples from the list. Stephen Hawking has been notoriously coy about his religious beliefs, has only ever obliquely mentioned (let alone criticized) religion, and achieved prominence in the atheism discussion for a single sentence in a book which is otherwise totally unrelated to religion. You write “The theme he keeps pounding is the extraneousness of the God hypothesis” which is simply false. Explaining cosmology was the overriding theme and throughout the book he discusses God dozens of times (still small considering the size of the book) and when he does discuss God it is often to discuss what God could have done with essentially no hint that he thinks God doesn’t exist. Part of the controversy of “A Brief History of Time” was that his views on God were so ambiguous.

    James Randi is an atheist yes, but like Hawking has never written a book on it, doesn’t write editorials about it, and his JREF foundation so carefully avoids critiques of religion.

    We can go on in this vein for Wilson (who is quasi-religious himself), Forrest (who has been very critical of atheists and has heavily promoted religious thinkers in her quest to defend evolution and absolutely refuses to criticize religion in general), Kurtzweil (who pays very little attention to religion at all).

    For Hirsi Ali, you claim to have excluded her because she did not have “a priority to rid the world of religion or God”. You clearly don’t use this criteria for the others on your list. It’s also doubly absurd as a direct attack on religion has been front and centre in both of her books, many editorials, many speeches and her art exhibits.

    I can sort of understand that a white male could unintentionally overlook a black female atheist but when pointed out, the classy and honest thing would be to fess up and fix it. This long and transparently self-serving attempt to justify a mistake does you no credit.

  • Tyro

    The absence I find most egregious is Eugenie Scott.

    Scott, like Forrest, are troubling cases. They’re both atheists and both of them work tirelessly to battle religious foes however both of them also work hard to avoid criticising religion and to promote versions of Christianity that they think are compatible with evolution. They deserve recognition but I strongly believe that it should not be for any atheistic support, but for their work as science communicators in general and evolution defenders in particular.

    I feel that to be recognized for your work as an atheist, you should as a bare minimum, speak out and defend atheism which Forrest and Scot have not done.

  • tim

    an atheist can’t merely disbelieve in God but also must actively encourage others to disbelieve in God…

    In other words – participate in the exact same sort of behavior we hate about evangelicals.

    I don’t evangelize my lack of faith. I also don’t evangelize the fact that I’m gay. I live my life as a decent human being. And that example does more in a year than bitter people like PZ Meyers can do in a lifetime.

  • JenniferT

    Quite honestly, the whole preamble to that list sounds like some religionist trying to be inclusive and making a patronising arse of himself (and yeah, penny to a pound it’s a man). And then the list seems to be “the only 25 atheist authors whom the compiler of this list has heard of”. not that bothered about, y’know, proper research or having a clue.

  • Mattilio

    George Carlin and Bill Maher should be towards the top of that list.

  • Rich Wilson

    As I posted on RDF, I think it would be more entertaining to have a list of the religious people who have made more atheists.
    Fred Phelps
    The Pope
    Pat Roberts

  • Mr Z

    My oh my, when WILL we learn. A top ten list of anything is only useful when there are only 4-5 entities to go on it. Saying there are a top 25 atheist told me right away that it is a personal list which might be interesting but has nothing to do with actually listing the 25 most influential of anything. This is much like creating a list of the top 25 mammals, or the top 25 historical figures. It’s meaningless outside a very narrow scope and concept. Compare it to ‘if you were trapped on a deserted island, what 25 items would you want with you’ kind of lists. That’s all it is, no matter who makes it up.

    Now, on the other hand, try a list of the top 25 Ford Mustangs – that’s a list! Perhaps the top 25 books on Evolutionary biology. How about the top 25 planets?

    Hopefully my point is made.

  • Danielle

    Where is Ayaan Hirsi Ali? She wants to try and get rid of Islam for fuck sakes! Trying to pass laws against female mutilation? Trying to help Muslim women stand up for themselves against abusive religious men?

    This article sucks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an amazing and influential woman.

  • Frank

    In what “scholarly forum” has Richard Dawkins promoted atheism?

  • I must chuckle at the irony of a group, whose primary activity is dismissing self-appointed authorities and their self-serving texts, getting all worked up about another self-appointed authority and the content of its self-serving text.

    They’ve likely gotten bumped higher in search results from all the atheists who disagree with the list than the list itself would have generated.

    It would in fact be doubly ironic if they had taken a page from the David Silverman PR manual and make some of the list choices simply to annoy the athiest blogosphere and garner free attention.

    It’s been a rough week and I needed the chuckle-thanks. 🙂

  • JD

    Among others, I don’t think Kurzweil belongs anywhere near that list. He has interesting things to say about technology and the future, but but that is not talking about unbelief, and he is very nutty about vitamin pills, he should know much better than that.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    I didn’t see it as a competition, top 25, top 40, this year’s emmy winners, Miss Universe, Most Beautiful People, lists change and are always contested. I’d make my own list but I’m too busy trying to get usefully informed. Who cares who’s on first but comedians and their fans? That there’s some strangers to me on this list just increases my reading list, grrrrrrrr. 🙂

  • It’s a silly list. Well… perhaps if the author said “here is a list of cool atheists” it would be more accurate. My list would include Bertrand Russel and Carl Sagan… right? Of course, these are two white guys. Whatever. Was this list even worth posting here?

  • Y’know, Bill Maher has done a lot more to real the common person on the fence than many. Sure its not as academic, but it certainly resounds well much in the same way Michael Moore does. While I’ve read Dawkins, Harris and a few others, what interested me in atheism sub culture was Bill Maher, even if I had been an atheist long before I really watched his shows with regularity.

  • Kerrie

    At least S.E. Cupp wasn’t on the list!

  • flatlander100

    Such lists can be fun — look at all the fun we’re having about who’s on it, who’s not, why they define “atheist” as they do, or “scholar” — but they’re essentially meaningless. Hell, Yahoo cooks up a “Best five” or “Worst Ten” for its website practically every day. [Top Ten Beaches, Five Worst Credit Cards, etc.]

    Change the definition of “atheist” that qualifies someone for inclusion, and the list would change. Change the definition of “scholar” and it will change again. The list is about as meaningful as one I’d cook up or that HM might. Fun to kvetch about on rainy days, but not worth much else.

  • Circe of the Godless

    Once again a nice white list written by the nice white patriarchy who think they rule everything.

    Where is:

    Hemant Mehta

    Ayaa Hirsi Ali

    Taslima Nasrin (an AMAZING woman who spoke at the first International Aetheist Convention in Melbourne)

    Whole thing stinks of sexism and racism. They can take their list and stick it.

  • Guffey

    Another list of men telling each other cool they are… oh, and toss in a few women to show the world just how cool they are for not excluding women.

    I have to agree with the “stick it”… and hope this embarrassing little piece of self-aggrandizement is forgotten quickly.

  • flatlander100

    Circe and Guffy:

    You are attributing to the list far more importance that it has or deserves.

  • The omission of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is inexcusable. She’s far more deserving than, say, Kai Nielsen. Other than that, I don’t think this is a bad list.

    It’s just a matter of fact that the atheist/pro-science/pro-reason movement has been overwhelmingly white and male. That’s probably something we should be trying to fix.

    However, to pack a list of influential atheists with women and non-whites isn’t a solution, it’s a whitewash.

    I wonder if the exclusion of Hirsi Ali is not straightforward racism or sexism, but a squeamishness about people who focus on Islam. Though as Hirsi Ali has said, that often seems to involve a sort of “racism of low expectations” – we can’t expect Muslims to be rational, so let’s just be nice to them.

  • Noble 6

    I’d read something by or at least heard of all those on the list except Peter Atkins.

    But yeah, it is still kind of arbitrary the way most were selected.

    Also, I think it is very questionable to include E. O. Wilson on the list. He writes on page 6 of his book Consilience:

    “I drifted away from the church, not definitely agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more.”

    And he’s included on a list of atheists?

  • Me

    I don’t see an issue that a group of predominately white-males had a list of white-males in their top 25. Honestly if you think about the most outspoken, popular, atheists, you think of the top 10, all of which are white. What’s wrong with that?

    I can think of the top 10 feminists. All of them are female. Should I get upset that a group dominated by women wouldn’t include men? No.

    All it is is a sign that diverse speakers have the opportunity to step up and claim a top spot on a popularity contest.

  • Circe of the Godless

    Flatlander – fuck mate, its not like I lost sleep over it or something !!!!!

  • trixr4kids

    Wait, we’re supposed to be “working to rid the world of God”?

    God doesn’t exist, sooperscholar boys. Ergo, no need to rid the world of him.

    Guess we can scratch that one off our to-do list.

  • trixr4kids

    … and concentrate on evangelizing ridding the world of religion.

  • AWayfaringStrainer

    Scholars is a weird category, but I would definitely have included:

    – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

    – Rebecca Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010)

    – Susan Jacoby, author of multiple books

    just to name a few more women.

  • Stephen

    Sheesh! Worthless list. No Hemant Mehta on it!

  • jose

    It’s a list on a website. Big deal. Let them put whomever they want in their little list.

  • Richard Wade

    To make it on SuperScholar’s list of influential living atheists, an atheist can’t merely disbelieve in God but also must actively encourage others to disbelieve in God…

    SuperScholar has the right to pick their own criteria for their opinions, but I question the implied assumption that the kind of “influence” described above is the only kind of influence worth recognizing in atheists. That is THE one and only influence to measure? I agree with bigjohn756, primas407 and others here if they find this “rid the world of religion” single-item agenda to have a chilling resemblance to dominionism.

    They dismiss Ayaan Hirsi because this is her influence:

    Her target, put positively, is to create space for the full range of human freedom.

    That’s an influence that I value and admire far more than what SuperScholar emphasizes. In my miniscule way I hope to influence people too. Not to “disbelieve in God,” but to stop hating, fearing, shunning, abandoning, and hurting each other over belief and non-belief.

    If people want Hemant on a list, they’ll need to start their own with a positive criteria and eschew SuperScholar’s negative one.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I’m curious about the lists that other people here would make.

    Do you have to be a rabid anti-religionist to qualify as an influential atheist, or just a public intellectual who argues for atheism?

    Would an atheist scholar who takes no part in identity politics like this make the list?

    What about a Michael Martin or a William Rowe? Are they too serious and not pop enough to make the list?

  • I’m actually glad they are eliminating people from the list if they are willing to tolerate religion and religious people. I can’t stand those atheists who want everyone to hold hands and just get along. It’s useless. It’s not just useless, it’s actually harmful because it allows religious people to go on being religious. Our goal SHOULD be to rid the world of religion. If you think we should live and let live, you aren’t helping at all. You are simply part of the problem. You need to grow some balls and tell those people that while they may have the best intentions, their beliefs are just factually incorrect.

  • and can you people please pipe it with the comments of it being racist and sexist? I’m sorry to tell you but when selecting the top most influential atheists there is no affirmative action. They don’t need to select women and black people simply because they are black and/or women. The most influential atheists by the criteria set by the SuperScholar all happen to be white men. If women or black people don’t like it, they should work harder to get on the list. We collectively as atheists or any atheist organization shouldn’t feel obligated to recognize more women and/or black people simply because we want to appear more diverse. Everyone is equal. Black people and women don’t get to have it easier just because we want atheism to appear more diverse. The movement is dominated by white men, so it makes sense that this list would be composed of white men. All this list shows is that the influential atheist black men/women need to work harder on the criteria set by SuperScholar.

  • Luther

    The problem is it should be called the “Most Influential, Scholarly, Aggressive Atheists”

    For a list of “Most Influential Atheists”, about half the list of the SuperScholar 25 would likely stay on such a list. I would for starters include:
    Annie Laurie Gaylor
    Dan Barker
    Michael Weinstein (Even though he is Jewish)
    Michael Newdow

    And others mentioned in other comments.

    Obviously Hemant would also be on the list.

    Richard Wade should be as well. If his wonderful answers were compiled in a book, his influence would expand geometrically. (Like the loaves and the fishes, only in reality)

  • To summarize: It’s a big list of white (overwhelmingly male) people, some of whom are vaguely connected to a university, most of whom have published something of some sort

    I once read someone describe atheism as being akin to designer drugs: generally the realm of western elites.

    Though the question is well raised about how influential they are.. as popular as atheism appears to be on the internet, do any but a few of those have any real wide influence?

  • jose

    What about Asia? Is this ‘coming out’ wave of public atheism just a westerners thing?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    To summarize: It’s a big list of white (overwhelmingly male) people,…

    Hemant plays the race card.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Also, I think it is very questionable to include E. O. Wilson on the list.

    E.O Wilson Says He’s a “Provisional Deist”
    November 17, 2008

    Bill Gates is not on the list? His charitable activities have had some impact.

    #20 David Sloan Wilson is a legend in his own mind. His attempts to revive group selection have not been nearly as successful as he thinks they have.

  • I agree that the whole idea of “atheism isn’t central to their lives” argument is pretty dumb. I think it’s a great list of “affluent atheists”, but I think when we talk about influential, we have to consider people who help spread the word and wake people out of their delusions. Where is Dan Barker in all this, or Julia Sweeny? How many people did they help?

    Seems to me the author confused educated with influential.

  • NakkiNyan

    Hirsi Ali needs to be on that list I don’t give a crap what they say.

    Also Jennifer Mccreight needs to be on there, the Boob Quake, for as much as it was funny, got the attention of more people than all the works from some of the people on that list and even made other religious people think about how stupid their list of “sins” are.

  • DicePlayGod

    Julia Sweeney
    Susan Jacoby
    Karen Armstrong (an atheist by any reasonable sense of the word)

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    Influential and scholarly don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

    Influential: Matt Groening (The Simpsons), Seth McFarlane (Family Guy)

    Scholarly: Michael Martin, William Rowe

    Influential to whom? The general public in the first case, among other scholars in the second.

    Even ‘influential to scholars’ can mean different things: what scholars outside of philosophers read Martin or Rowe? A ‘wider’ influence on scholars would be someone like Sartre or Camus or Marx, since not only philosophers are influenced by them.

    And then there are philosophers like Colin McGinn, public atheist, but his work is about mind, not religion.

    Last point: Groening and McFarlane are influential to more people, but influential how? Influential in that millions of people know their story lines, or their names? Or influential because they are widely known as atheists, or because the spread the message of atheism?

    These lists can get quite complicated with all these different criteria.

  • ThilinaB

    an atheist can’t merely disbelieve in God but also must actively encourage others to disbelieve in God…

    I would consider an Influential atheist to be someone who influences other atheists. Not the atheist equivalence of the guy yelling on a street corner waving a bible.

    Even considering the top 5, i would say Sam Harris is the only one who “actively encourage others to disbelieve in God”. Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett go far enough to say the evidence suggests god doesn’t exist but stop short of everyone should abandon religion and stop believing in god. And i’ve never heard any such thing even close to that statement from Stephen Hawking.

    Alot of these people are very influential to alot of us (and usually for different reasons) but SuperScholar seems to have really put their foot in their mouth about the qualifications to make the list.

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