A version of this piece was originally published, under a different title, on AlterNet.
Atheism is often seen as a white men’s club. But there have always been atheist women and atheists of color — and they can inspire anyone.
Richard Dawkins. Christopher Hitchens. Sam Harris. Charles Darwin. Mark Twain.
These are the names and faces many people associate with atheism. And apart from their atheism, they all have something in common: They’re all white guys. Atheism is often seen as a white men’s club — by believers, and by all too many atheists as well.
But for as long as there have been atheists, there have been atheist women and atheists of color. Some have been vocal and ardent about their atheism; for some, their atheism has been much more incidental to their life’s work. And some of that life’s work has been incredible. Some of it has changed the world… not just for atheists, but for everybody. When you’re imagining the face of atheism, I hope some of these faces — faces from history, or alive and yelling today — will come to mind.
1: Frida Kahlo. One of the most magnificent and beloved painters of the modern era. Of any era. really. Her work is accessible and challenging, iconic and iconoclastic, introspective and expansive, deeply unsettling and richly beautiful. Largely self-taught, indeed largely self-invented, she is an inspiration and a hero to millions.
And she was as atheist. As John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it: “She is, however, an uneasy fit for Mexican culture. In this country dominated by tradition and Catholicism, she was an atheist communist (in and out of the party).” And as she herself put it in a poem written to her husband Diego Rivera (from Finding Frida Kahlo by Barbara Levine):
kills me, making
of your memory.
You are the nonexisting
2: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You might have heard of her. Palled around with Susan B. Anthony. Largely responsible for the women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements in the United States. Sometimes credited as the primary instigator of these movements in fact. If you’re a woman in the United States, and you vote, you have this woman to thank.
Big old non-believer. A freethinker, technically (the more common term in her day than “atheist”). And not just a non-theist — an ardent anti-religionist. The co-author of the Women’s Bible, which re-examines the Bible as a literary fiction and critiques its degrading teachings on women, she proposed a resolution at the 1885 National Woman Suffrage Association that would have condemned all religions “teaching that woman was an afterthought in creation, her sex a misfortune, marriage a condition of subordination, and maternity a curse,” and stating this:
“You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman. What power is it that makes the Hindoo woman burn herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband? Her religion. What holds the Turkish woman in the harem? Her religion. By what power do the Mormons perpetuate their system of polygamy? By their religion. Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, `Thus saith the Lord,’ of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us Christ is the head of the Church, so is man the head of women, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages?
3: A. Philip Randolph. Founder of the March on Washington Movement — you’ve heard of that, right? Founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — the enormously influential labor and civil rights organization, and the first labor organization led by blacks to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor. One of the great early leaders of the civil rights movement. Once known as the most dangerous black person in America; later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson. (I can’t decide which of those is more awesome. Maybe the two put together.)
Atheist. He once wrote, “We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.” In fact, he was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1970, and was a signatory of the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II.
4: Zora Neale Hurston. Brilliant Harlem Renaissance writer. Anthropologist. Ethnographer. Folklorist. Best known and beloved for her 1937 masterpiece novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Enormously influential in the worlds of literature, anthropology, oral tradition, African American folklore, and just about every other damn thing except maybe particle physics.
Non-believer. Even as a child, she was beginning to question the unquestioning faith and dogma of her congregation. She wrote of those years she could not “understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see…. When I was asked if I loved God, I always said yes because I knew that was the thing I was supposed to say. It was a guilty secret with me for a long time.” She eventually concluded, “Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.”
5: Salman Rushdie. I hope I don’t have to tell you who this guy is. Staggeringly brilliant, multiple award-winning author, whose awards include the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction, Author of the Year (British Book Awards), Author of the Year (Germany), Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award, and… oh, just look at the list yourself. Most famous, unfortunately, for writing a book that some fundamentalist Islamist leaders found upsetting… and, as a direct result, getting targeted with hit men.
And in his 1985 essay “In God We Trust,” he wrote, “God, Satan, Paradise, and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith… and afterwards, to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down. […] From that day to this I have thought of myself as a wholly secular person.”
6: Natalie Angier. If you haven’t read The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, you have thus far missed one of the great joys of life. I encourage you to remedy the matter at once. New York Times science journalist Natalie Angier is one of the most purely joyful ambassadors of science I have ever read, seen, heard, or perceived by any other sensory apparatus. Blending giddy exuberance with thorough, painstaking, no-joke research, she conveys the hard facts about science with excitement, passion, clarity, humor, and… well, joy. Her love for the physical world, in all its complexity and profound weirdness, is infectious, and entirely inspiring.
And she is an outspoken, even ferocious atheist. From her piece in the New York Times magazine, Confessions of a Lonely Atheist:
So, I’ll out myself. I’m an Atheist. I don’t believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself, which seems quite high and powerful enough to me. I don’t believe in life after death, channeled chat rooms with the dead, reincarnation, telekinesis or any miracles but the miracle of life and consciousness, which again strike me as miracles in nearly obscene abundance. I believe that the universe abides by the laws of physics, some of which are known, others of which will surely be discovered, but even if they aren’t, that will simply be a result, as my colleague George Johnson put it, of our brains having evolved for life on this one little planet and thus being inevitably limited. I’m convinced that the world as we see it was shaped by the again genuinely miraculous, let’s even say transcendent, hand of evolution through natural selection.
Important note: This isn’t meant to be the six best women and atheists of color, or the six most famous, or the six most important. Just six who happened to catch my attention and capture my imagination. Just an almost-random six… out of the countless others who equally deserve to be recognized and celebrated.
And there are countless others. If I had space here, I could have told you about W. E. B. Du Bois. Wafa Sultan. Kenan Malik. Hubert Henry Harrison. Susan Jacoby. Simon Singh. S.T. Joshi. Hector Avalos. Rebecca Goldstein. Sikivu Hutchinson. Maryam Namazie. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. Diego Rivera (“I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.”). Julia Sweeney (“After I stopped believing in God, I realized it was completely up to me to create my own meaning and my purpose was my own.”). Arundhati Roy (“[Do you] think that there’s a god overseeing [your] life?” ” No, I am just like an animal. I have no religion.”) .
So when someone tells you that atheists have no morality, no joy, no purpose to their lives, no reason to care about others, no reason to work for the greater good… remember these people. And the next time someone tells you that atheism is a white men’s club… remember them. These are the faces of atheism, too. And they are some of the most remarkable faces in our history.
NOTE: When this piece was originally published, it was a list of seven, not six: the seventh was Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In reprinting the list here, I’ve edited it down to six. I’ve done this partly because I’ve been persuaded, by the original discussion of this piece when it was first printed as well as by other sources, that as inspiring as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s personal story may be, her political views are sufficiently troubling for her not to be included here. And I’ve done it partly because, frankly, I was distressed at the degree to which the original discussion of “awesome atheist women and atheist of color” was focused on the one person on the list that some people didn’t like, and I wasn’t up for having that happen again. Just in case anyone was wondering.