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6 Inspiring Atheist Women and Atheists Of Color

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.

Frida Kahlo1: 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):

Your absence
kills me, making
a virtue
of your memory.
You are the nonexisting
God

Elizabeth Cady Stanton2: 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?



A. Philip Randolph3: 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.

Zora_Neale_Hurston4: 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.”

Salman Rushdie5: 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.”

Natalie Angier6: 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.

Comments

  1. says

    I would like to add one more to this list.

    Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. He wrote the Indian Constitution. And he was an atheist. Also? There is Periyar whose brand of skepticism and early militant atheism would have put most of us to shame (He was kind of like James Randi only doing the body mutilation stuff that many Sadhus in India did).

    Nehru was private about his beliefs but he was probably an atheist too as was Indira Gandhi…

  2. bibliobecki says

    I just have to ditto Crommunist’s question. She seems incredibly out of place on this particular list.

  3. says

    Ian beat me to it. The two reasons that I would cut Stanton a little slack (very little) is because (1) this perhaps was the view of her time (still unfortunate that she could not overcome that) and (2) because all the good she did do. Hirsi Ali’s views, on the other hand, seem radical (and not in a good way) compared to the norm of the present day and I don’t see her doing a lot of good otherwise.

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    Hirsi-Ali probably still belongs, both for her heroism and her unsavory alliances. As atheists, our sensitivity and/or honesty about forbidden subjects (e.g. the evil of Islam) can put us into the orbit of people with whom we don’t share other basic principles.

    Ibn Warraq has written about finding himself speaking at events with Xian wackos. He also tells of a Muslim friend finding and skimming Russel’s ‘Why I am Not a Christian,’ and crowing with delight at its contents without grasping that Russel’s arguments were equally applicable to Islam.

    In a dark alley, I am on Hirsi-Ali’s side. On a podium, I am almost certainly not.

  5. Greta Christina says

    Crommunist @ #2 and bibliobecki @ #4: I didn’t know that about Elizabeth Cady Stanon. Sigh. Another fucking hero… As a rule though, I do cut more slack to people from the past for holding reprehensible views that were commonplace at the time. I’m almost positive that I have some views that, two hundred years from now, people will consider reprehensible (possibly the fact that I’m not vegan?). I would hate for future generations to entirely dismiss me or my writings simply because I’m not as morally advanced on all issues as I ought to be. I cut significantly less slack for people whose reprehensible views are significantly out of step with the morality of their day.

    nickstancato @ #3: There are links in the piece to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s troubling political views. The most thorough one I’ve seen is in this guest post by Andrew Tripp on Daylight Atheism:

    And now:

    Can we please, please, not have the conversation about inspiring atheist women and atheists of color focus AGAIN on the ones that people don’t like? I’m not going to censor comments of that nature, but if that happens again, it’s going to make me very cranky. Some other possible topics for conversation: Other awesome examples who didn’t make this list, discussions of why atheist women and atheists of color aren’t more prominent in our iconography, what we can do to make our movement and the leadership in our movement more diverse. Thanks.

  6. says

    Greta, the issue is not simply that she had views that seem out of step by today’s standards, it’s that she used black people to advance her own politics, then threw them (us) under the bus when it was convenient. And you worked your exclusion of Ayan Hirsi Ali into your post – I’m not sure what principle I have violated that you have not. Stanton’s anti-black views stand out in a list that is explicitly geared toward people of colour, and failing to mention those does a severe disservice not only to those who were demonized by beliefs like that of Stanton’s, but the other people you’ve included on this list.

    I’ve just purchased a biography of Henry Hubert Harrison, a black renaissance freethinker. It’s worth noting that there are humanist themes throughout much of early 19th-century black scholarship, and most of the prominent voices (WEB DuBois among them) were avowed feminists, many learning the language of oppression from women. Alice Walker is a still-living humanist whose contribution should stand out more than it already does.

  7. Andrew Tripp says

    I’m glad you found my piece worthwhile, Greta. I was very flattered that Adam asked me to write it, and really depressed after finishing it, because damn. I started that piece only knowing the Breivik bit, and steadily found the rest.

    As for Stanton, I have to agree with Crommunist, though I find her white supremacism deeply confusing, given how close she was to Frederick Douglass; after all, he spoke at women’s suffrage conventions with her, campaigned for the vote for women, and when he married Helen Pitts, she was one of their staunchest defenders. She even wrote the eulogy read at his funeral, which Susan B. Anthony read aloud. All that from here: http://winningthevote.org/FDouglass.html

  8. says

    Ah, HHH is on your list already, as is DuBois. Reading fail on my part.

    And my position isn’t that Stanton should be struck from the list because she fails some kind of purity test, I just found her inclusion on this particular list a bit strange, given her other beliefs.

  9. Greta Christina says

    Crommunist @ #8: I guess I wasn’t clear enough, so I’ll restate it, hopefully more clearly: I didn’t know that about Elizabeth Cady Stanon. Sigh. Another fucking hero. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have included her on this list. I do cut her somewhat more slack than I do AHA, based on the “cutting more slack to historical figures for having reprehensible positions that were nevertheless common to their time” principle. But not enough to include her on this particular list, if I’d known that about her. Sorry.

  10. tychabrahe says

    If you haven’t seen it, rent the film 10,000 Black Men Named George, about the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was definitely movie-of-the-week quality, but a fascinating story, although I admit to wanting it redone as a miniseries, as there’s only so much you can do in a two-hour production.

    I’m confused about the original inclusion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I was under the impression that she was a Christian. I can’t see an atheist calling for the conversion of one religious group to another.

  11. Robert B. says

    “The wide belt of the universe has no need of finger-rings.”

    What a line. I’d like to put that on my wall, if I could find or make a sufficiently nice-looking version. Reading the article was worth it just for that sentence, never mind the other cool stuff. (Most dangerous black man in America? Badass. I wish I was the most dangerous gay man in America. Lemme guess, was it lovely old J. Edgar who gave Mr. Randolph that title? It sounds like his sort of thing.)

  12. johnthedrunkard says

    For MOST of our culture heroes, if we dig enough, we may find views on race and gender that make our teeth ache.

    In my own narrow field, Aldous Huxley and John Dewey both made casual allusions that assumed black inferiority. While these statements were based on ignorance/acceptance of contemporary norms of opinion, and were usually tangential to the topics they were writing about, sometimes you just have to grit your teeth to support people who really are on your side in important matters.

  13. johnthedrunkard says

    Addendum:
    I have followed the link to the Stanton article. I note that the quotes in the article have no attribution. All seem to be the ‘she might have said,’ or ‘her views were,’ sort.

    Stanton was struggling for her cause, in the bare-knuckle politics of 19th century America. We don’t dismiss Martin Luther King because he didn’t campaign against global warming. We don’t scour the writings of abolitionists to make sure that they all toed the line on women’s suffrage–though to a surprising degree they did.

    We shouldn’t allow political correctness to diminish the real accomplishments of heroes. You can’t tell what assumptions guide your thinking today, that may be exposed as ridiculous or sordid tomorrow.

  14. Greta Christina says

    johnthedrunkard @ #15 and #16: No, we don’t dismiss MLK because he didn’t campaign against global warming (which I don’t think we even knew existed at the time he was alive). But if he had actively and vehemently campaigned for global warming denialism, it would be entirely reasonable for modern environmentalists to point that out.

    As for gritting your teeth to support people who are on your side in important matters: Yes, sometimes we have to do alliance work on issues we agree about, with people who we strongly disagree with on other issues. If we insisted on total agreement on all issues before we could work with people, we’d never get anything done. But it’s not up to you — or me — to tell other people what their dealbreakers should be. And it’s not up to you — or me — to tell other people what the important matters really are. I don’t like it when other atheists tell me to suck it about about some prominent atheist’s sexism, because atheism is obviously a more important issue than sexism. So I’m not going to tell African-Americans not to care about Stanton’s racism, on the basis that her feminism and atheism are what’s really important.

  15. says

    Stephen K. Amos is a British/Nigerian comedian, who is gay and an atheist. Jim Al-Khalili is an Iraqi-born professor of physics at the University of Surrey, a BBC science presenter and has today been named as the new President-elect of the British Humanist Association. Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a professor of ancient religion at the University of Exeter, an atheist and occasional BBC presenter. Shappi Khorsandi, who is a British/Iranian comedian, atheist, feminist and a Depeche Mode fan. Does anybody have her number?

    As for offering any suggestions, I fear I should resile and do what I find always helps in these situations: shut up, listen, not immediately affect to have hurt feelings when I’m told I’ve got something wrong and accept that, when it comes down to it, I really don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a woman, or a person of colour. As a working class man from a low socioeconomic background in the UK I know there’s plenty of things that hurt poor white people too — if I felt otherwise I wouldn’t call myself a socialist — but I long ago understood not everything is analogous to the treatment meted out to woman and minorities.

    Anyway, the important thing here is Shappi Khorsandi’s phone number. Greta, please make contact with her under the auspices of an interview and then tell her you know this cool English guy who loves Depeche Mode too.

  16. Curt Russell says

    For the record, Darwin was not an atheist. in 1879 he wrote that “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally … an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” (Letter 12041 – Darwin, C. R. to Fordyce, John, 7 May 1879)

    His position reflects the concept that it is not possible to “know” that there is not a god. One would have to be all-knowing to make that statement. Therefore, to say definitively that there is no god is a faith statement in and of itself… no stronger or weaker than saying definitively that there is a god.

    Curt

  17. says

    WOMAN, CHURCH AND STATE:

    By Matilda Joslyn Gage.

    [1893]

    Before Elizabeth appears on this list Ms. Gage needs to be here. She pushed hard for the suffrage movement to expose the role religion played in suppressing women. When this forced a schism in the movement Elizabeth turned on Matilda and acquiesced to the religious right to preserve their momentum. Ms. Stanton did not have the courage of her convictions when push came to shove, Ms. Gage did.

  18. says

    Re: Ms. Stanton
    She (and many others) worked themselves almost to death, wheeling and dealing in smoke filled back parlors negotiating for suffrage. They had reached a point when they were assured the vote would come to the floor. They were shocked and betrayed when instead African American MEN received the vote instead. Her racist rant was a gut reaction to the evisceration they had just experienced. Yes, she was bitter and yes she may have shared the unconscious attitude that, though human, the “black man” was not first in line to receive this long sought after prize.
    She was a political animal and held a grudge about this betrayal. She was no saint, she had her agenda. However, the suffrage movement was thrown under the bus by Congress, she was just exhibiting the age old proverb that “piss flows down.”

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