Are only 3 out of 50 “brilliant atheists” women?

Do we really need to keep having this conversation?

Apparently, yes.

Part of me feels like I shouldn’t care about a random “The 50 Most Brilliant Atheists of All Time” list on a website I’d never heard of. But it’s making the rounds on Facebook, and I cringe that it perpetuates the myth that female atheists done exist. I mean, really? You could only come up with three brilliant atheist women when you have all of written history to work with?

It’s especially aggravating when you look at the choices. Okay, I’m not personally a fan of Ayn Rand, but I’ll concede that one. But Katherine Hepburn and Jodie Foster? Don’t get me wrong, I love these ladies. But it seems like a slap in the face when you can only dig up two actresses compared to dozens of male scientists, philosophers, writers, and visionaries. Where are women like:

  • Hypatia of Alexandria, philosopher and mathematician
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragist and abolitionist
  • Susan B. Anthony, suffragist and civil rights activist
  • Margaret Sanger, American birth control activist
  • Ernestine Rose, suffragist and civil rights activist
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, writer, politician, and activist
  • Gloria Steinam, feminist, journalist, and activist
  • Marie Curie, Nobel prize-winning chemist

And that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure you guys could come up with even more brilliant atheist women.

Look, I don’t expect a list that’s looking at historical atheist figures to have a 50/50 gender ratio. It’s obviously going to be skewed male, since women have historically been oppressed and not as able to partake in intellectual pursuits associated with atheism. But when you have some obvious examples, don’t leave them off.


  1. says

    Emma Goldman springs to mind, and I’m not sure 100% (correct me if I am wrong) but were Mary Shelley and Simone De Beauvoir Atheists?
    Either way, I know there’s more than just two actresses and a very divisive author.

  2. satan augustine says

    I cannot concede Ayn Rand, not with the “brilliant” title. She may have had a few good ideas, but she had more crazy ones. I agree with you, Jen, that the women they did include were rather odd choices.

    In addition to the women you mention, I’d add Maryam Namazie and Susan Jacoby.

  3. scubachick says

    Even more aggravating is that so many influential and truly brilliant women are left out to include Mick Jagger? Really?

  4. Lynda M O says

    Excellent additions to the “list”. All respectable honorable and admired women. Can I toss out Harriet Tubman ?~!

  5. pinkboi says

    It’s surprising that Ayaan Hirsi Ali wasn’t on the list. Even if you weren’t making a point to include women, I’d think she’d be on anyone’s list of top contemporary atheists period.

    Emma Goldman came to mind for me, too. Really, if you lift up the anarchist and libertarian rocks, you get a lot of brainy female atheists. It really is tragic that only Ayn Rand is remembered, but that’s what you get for the relentless self-promotion.

  6. says

    Don’t forget Beatrix Potter, the mycologist who discovered penicillin decades before Alexander Fleming (and *pre* World War I, I might add!!!!! Think of how many lives could have been saved!!!), who later became an illustrator and children’s book author because, lacking a dick & balls, she couldn’t get published as a scientist in her own time. In 1997, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous formal apology for how it treated her research while she was alive.

    It should be noted that Potter was raised as a Unitarian (a type of Christian), although her personal religious views are unknown.

  7. Marella says

    Germaine Greer, however much one may disagree with some of her views, is no doubt a brilliant atheist woman, and very famous though possibly not in the US. She wrote “The Female Eunuch” and many others. I think her ideas about FGM are disgraceful but she’s undeniably brilliant.

  8. Manly Bowler says

    Harriet Tubman was an ardent Christian who even claimed to have religious visions and ‘consulted with God’ (granted, the head injury her former master gave her probably contributed to that). She gave herself the code name Moses when she went on a tour to guide more escaped slaves into freedom, and she rejected the parts of the Bible that encouraged slaves to be obedient but embraced the rest.
    Harriet Tubman was a kickass woman from start to finish, but she sure as hell was not an Atheist.

  9. Manly Bowler says

    While I agree with your sentiment I have to take umbrage to some of your examples. Marie Curie and Susan B. Anthony were apparently agnostic (though I have found contradictory claim for Curie). Of Gloria Steinem we only have two quotes critical of religion, which is still different from being an all-out Atheist, I think.

    As a fan of science fiction I’d like to toss in Angela Carter. Also Subhashini Ali, the current President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

  10. tort says

    Agnostics count. Most atheists don’t self identify as atheists, they call themselves agnostics or skeptics or rationalists or brights or non-theists or naturalists… Marie Curie fit the definition of atheist even if she did self identify as an agnostic (I don’t know that she did). If you only count people who identify themselves as atheists then you miss the majority of the atheist community.

  11. NewEnglandBob says

    It is a list that should be dismissed for several reasons. Half the people on that list do not belong and many other deserve to be there.

  12. ttch says

    I’m too lazy to go through this but Wikipedia has a list of (notable) atheists, organized by profession and by surname (they may not coincide):

    Wikipedia: List of Atheists

    And also lists of agnostics, humanists, former atheists, etc. All incomplete of course.

  13. jose says

    Does anybody know if Sofia Kovalevski was an atheist? I can’t seem to find that out on the internet. I may need *gasp* a book. The horror.

  14. Manly Bowler says

    I’m not so sure about that. Take someone like Bill Maher, wo is an outspoken critic of religion on grounds of “it’s silly/harmful”, and the is careful not to be put too close to us atheists. On the other side Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to like agnostics that much either, since he disparages them in “The God Delusion”.
    I’m of course aware that we should strife to work together instead of putting each other in smaller camps. But I wouldn’t want to be accused of blowing up our own importance by claiming to speak for groups who may not want to be that much associated with us either.

  15. jamesemery says

    Part of that problem would be that you have so many people who self-identify as agnostic, but still think there’s something higher-supernatural-deistic out there. Of course, I don’t know whether there are numbers available on this, but I’d be willing to speculate that they make up a sizable portion of the agnostic community (based on the anecdotal evidence that nearly all of the agnostics I’ve met in person have leaned theistic). While having great atheists listed is wonderful and inspiring, having ones that aren’t confirmed listed looks bad and makes us look like liars to those who might be leaning our way but haven’t taken the plunge, and CERTAINLY to those who seek to harm the atheist community.

  16. Riptide says

    Madalyn Murray O’Hair, anyone?

    This. Also Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and (possibly) Emmeline Pankhurst. Indeed, the origins of the labour and feminist movements in Europe are replete with atheists, including (and in some cases especially) female ones.

  17. says

    Sorry, but any list that has Ayn Rand as brilliant is an epic failure.

    So, I wouldn’t worry too much that they couldn’t find more than 3 women atheist. Because let’s face it, they really weren’t trying very hard.

  18. Tom Singer says

    Not to mention, it’s likely an insult to people who wouldn’t identify themselves as atheists, particularly the ones who have died and don’t have any say in the matter. Look at the reaction to the Mormons baptizing dead Jews.

  19. Tom Singer says From 1957. She may have been an atheist at some point in her life, but here, Margaret Sanger self-identifies as an Episcopalian. When asked whether she believes in a divine being who rewards or punishes people after death, and says “Well, I have a different attitude about the divine. I feel that we have divinity within us, and the more we express the good part of our lives, the more the divine within us expresses itself. I suppose I would call myself an Episcopalian by religion, and there’s many other – if you travel around the world, you get quite a bit of the feeling of, all religions have so much alike, in the divine part of our own being. And I suppose you just couldn’t put that into a book or you couldn’t put it to a phrase or a sentence.” I apologize, there’s no time code on the video, but it’s about 2/3 of the way in.

    Also, in 1957, the prediction was that the world population would increase by 1/3 in 50 years, and that we would have to optimize agricultural production, including using all available agricultural land, to feed us all. 54 years later, the population has more than doubled, and I just ate a sandwich.

    Other than that, it’s a very interesting video, if only to see Mike Wallace do ads for Phillip Morris cigarettes.

  20. Chris says

    I’m surprised they included James Watson on the list. I would have thought that his racial commentary would exclude him from any list of “brilliant” folks.

  21. Lotharloo says

    Agnostics don’t count even if philosophically they are identical to atheists. For example, Einstein was practically an atheists even if he hated the term and they did not include Einstein in their list either.

  22. msapa says

    Jen, are you sure that Hypatia counts as an atheist? As a philosopher she adhered to Neoplatonism, a definitely theistic school of thought. Her biography by Maria Dzielska states that Hypatia did not participate in pagan rituals or services and her students were a mixed, Pagan and Christian group, the aim of her teachings was almost certainly search for Divine.

  23. Velociraptor says

    Correct my if I am wrong, but wasn’t Hypatia of Alexandria a pagan? Some Xian writers, one a near-contemprary, seem to think so.

  24. John Horstman says

    “Atheist” = “not (a) theist”, so I think it’s fair to include anyone who doesn’t/didn’t believe that there is a divine entity or entities that intervene in day-to-day human affairs on the list; the criteria should be spelled out in any case. Using such a definition, a great many women could have been included. By definition any “best of” list is going to be biased, and in this case, the bias is sexist (in addition to other biases – 50 is a pretty short list for influential/”brilliant” atheists – no Mao Zedong or Matt Groening?). So, bravo for pointing out sexism, and bravo for using the discussion space for increasing the visibility of brilliant women and especially atheist women (though I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered “the myth that female atheists done [sic] exist,” having known many female atheists all my life; I HAVE encountered the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes,” which is an obvious lie).

    That said, I find the discussion of ascribed “atheist” identity and the larger conversation about ascribed identity/social categorization to be the most interesting result of this comment thread. While I think that e.g. transgendered people have articulated good reasons for respecting self-identity and not imposing (essentialist or marginalizing) classifications on anyone, I also think it’s a bit silly to allow other people to define one’s own organizational schema, as one will inevitably run into contradictory definitions of social categories and the categorizations will not be stable or uniform, and therefore not useful, if one simply goes by the self-identification used by each person in question. For example, I might insist that you call me ‘Black’, despite the fact that my skin is so light it’s practically translucent and none of my ancestors, as far as I know, ever identified as ‘Black’, or ‘Christian’, despite the fact that I’m hostile toward organized religion and believe in neither Yahweh nor any other form of the supernatural (if for no other reason than to highlight the absurdity of relying only or even primarily on self-identification to define social categories), but that’s not particularly useful if we’re trying to delineate aspects of my identity that inflect my social position and my identity performativity. I think the real problem is that ANY classifications are viewed as essentialized traits and not simply social categories or imposed organizational schema; if everyone accepted that ALL identities/traits/whatever are imposed social constructions and accorded them only as much meaning as that merits, we wouldn’t need to worry as much, because being grouped in a certain way for a specific (not oppressive nor exploitative) purpose wouldn’t be a big deal for anyone. In summary, Ted Haggard can claim to be ‘heterosexual’ all he wants, but I’m still not going to believe him or classify him as ‘heterosexual’ myself.

  25. KG says

    Alexandra Kollontai, Jen McReight, Jessica Mitford, Greta Cristina, Dolores Ibarruri, Rebecca Watson, Ruth First…

  26. Pali says

    You clearly haven’t heard Maher talk about his positions recently – he’s been calling himself an atheist for a while now. I seem to recall him acknowledging that he needed to be corrected on the use of the label before he accepted it on an episode of Real Time a month or so back, but the memory’s pretty fuzzy.

  27. HP says

    Mary Shelley’s husband Percy was undoubtedly an atheist, but AFAIK Mary was not, and became increasingly conservative and involved with the Anglican church in her later years.

    I still love her, though.

  28. Rieux says

    Also Katharine Hepburn, though the cited article makes the same mistake.

    Slightly more relevantly, my vote is for Stanton to top the list. She kicked ass—on a bunch of different big issues.

  29. JohnS says

    The title of the article is a clue that it was pulled from a fool’s hat. Titles like this one appear all over the internet these days, heralding “World’s Best xyz” or “The Greatest abc Ever”. The percentage of YouTube videos and articles like this one that justify such grandiose titles is close to zero.

  30. dasunt says

    > I’m surprised they included James Watson on the list. I would have thought that his racial commentary would exclude him from any list of “brilliant” folks.

    Why? He was a product of his times.

    It would be like dismissing Margaret Sanger because of her views on Australian aborigines.

  31. satan augustine says

    I don’t know, Tom. It would probably take a lot to make a dead agnostic feel insulted.

    …on account of the dead part.

    Smartassedness aside, I agree with your overall point, though it can be really difficult to know the religious views of someone long dead. That said, it makes that much more sense to include only those we’re certain of. I’m sure some theists would love to take an out of context quote and claim Einstein as one of their own. (In fact, I’m almost positive that some theists have already done this…repeatedly).

  32. satan augustine says

    Jen, didn’t you compile a very thorough and lengthy list of kick-ass, brilliant, prominent atheist women?

    It used to always be on the home page of your previous site. Is there any way you could do something similar on this, your freethoughtblogs site?

  33. Beowulf says

    Jen again you are confusing atheist with academics. They are not the same thing you know?! Hypatia and Marie Curie were not atheists, as far as we know. They are not by their own account, and they were definitely never outspoken atheists. They were outspoken academics, one was killed by a christian mob (an event that was politically motivated and had very little to do with religion as far as we know), while the other won two nobel prize for her research. But outspoken atheism, not on their CV’s I’m afraid!

  34. Cwayne says

    Not only an idiotic list but some insane praise of the individuals. Maryam Namazie should be on any list that concerns atheism. Sam Harris was also missing.. PZ made it because he is the dogs gonads and impossible to ignore.. I do like Greta Christina but PZ, Namazie and JT are the reasons I come to FTB.
    Love Natalie Angier, and Paula Kirby is spectacular: just read Evolution threatens Christianity at
    Oh and WTF.. Hitches can’t get a mention even on death’s door???

  35. Tom Singer says

    PZ seems misplaced on a list like this, which seems to be atheists who are brilliant in their fields. PZ’s field is biology, and PZ is not a brilliant biologist, by his own admission. He’s certainly in the top tier of people who blog about atheism, but I’m not sure that puts him on the same level as, say, Pauling, Turing, Feynmann. Or Marie Curie. Or Katharine Hepburn, for that matter.

  36. says

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali is brilliant, her book Nomad gave me so much respect for her. She’s definitely the bravest person in the atheist movement, the shit she dealt with under her Muslim family.

    Damn, didn’t even know that Margaret Sanger was an atheist, you learn something awesome every day when you read FTB

  37. says

    Ann Druyan? Anyone?
    Well, I think she’s brilliant.

    I haven’t heard about, or seen, this particular list. But, those choices are ridiculous. Some of the 47 gentlemen on the list are also poor choices (when others more deserving were readily available).

    I don’t understand why you share something like that on fb. Maybe just to show that the founder is an atheist?

  38. Tom Singer says

    Sanger describes herself as Episcopalian here: (at 20:15). It occurs to me that she may not have wanted to call herself an atheist (given that this was 1957 and a national TV interview), but she’s certainly very candid with her other views.

    It’s also possible that she changed her mind on this topic at various points in her life.

    (By the way, for the full interview, with Mike Wallace doing live reads for Philip Morris cigarettes, see )

  39. Azkyroth says

    Condoms are like capitalism. Really, the only way to make them appealing is to compare them to the alternatives. >.>

  40. nathanlee says

    Never heard of this “” place before – but it seems pretty funny. Seriously, who digs up some follower of Gandhi and Mick Jagger, and ignores Hipatia of Alexandria? Heck, the latter had a movie made on her that is thought of as an atheist version of the Passion of the Christ. There understandably are some brilliant middle-aged white male atheists there… but Mick Jagger? It boggles the mind.

  41. Icaarus says

    While I should not be offended by it, 12 are Physicists, 3 Mathematicians, 7 Biologists and 1 Chemist, that makes 23 scientists, and 9 philosophers. Jen I know you are rightfully put out by the lack of feminine perspective on the list. I am instead put out by how many of these people are still alive. I mean come on, 50 most brilliant atheists of all time and of the ones that are dead most died within the last 20 years. What about Percy Shelly? Half the Royal Academy? The naturalists of the 1800’s? Friedrich Nietzsche? I mean the list was supposed to be the 50 most brilliant, not 50 most popular (Sorry PZ). There are good people who have no right to be called brilliant (Carnegie was an amazing person, but not for his brilliance, same goes for Carlin). This list reads like it was written from wikipedia, not a survey of history. As with all wikipedia only research, this one should be filed and forgotten.

    Course this is from a website that also has published “10 Best Marijuana Strains” and “15 Cute Animals That Will Cause You Horrible Harm” on the same day, so what can we expect.

  42. Icaarus says

    Oh and forgot to mention, another vote for Hypatia, Agora was a great movie, but not nearly as great as the woman it tried to portray.

  43. sheenyglass says

    And yet both Watson and Crick are on the list. I just googled her religious affiliation this quote keeps turning up:

    “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment. . . . I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining”

  44. MarieBlue says

    One of the reasons for Hepburn’s staying power at the time of her popularity was her intelligence. She graduated college in 1928 and and took independent career women to an impressive level for that time period.

    Jodie Foster is arguably brilliant in addition to being an actress. You don’t graduate as valedictorian at prep school or Yale magna cum laude based on acting talent or looks.

    Being an actress and being brilliant are not mutually exclusive. Isn’t that a little sexist, saying that women who choose careers based on looks or in entertainment cannot also be brilliant?

    As for Rand, she was an interesting writer but I do not find her work all that great. Many people find her to be brilliant, however, and her ideas have certainly outlived her.

    Now if you were to argue that they could have easily found MORE brilliant atheist women, I 100% agree. Women were severely under-represented here. It’s a shame.

  45. ramswrsw says

    Actually, although Unitarian Universalism arose out of Christian roots, there are many atheist Unitarians. UU-ism is unique in that it encourages atheists, agnostics and believers alike to explore and embrace their beliefs.

  46. Elisabeth Robson says

    Was Margaret Sanger really an atheist? She was connected with the Eugenics movement in the 1920’s, which I thought had some basis in religion…

    Anyway, right on for pointing out the lack of women on the list, thank you.

  47. Kate says

    You think Margaret Sanger was brilliant, do you?

    “Slavs, Latin, and Hebrew immigrants are human weeds, a
    deadweight of human waste. Blacks, soldiers, and Jews are a menace to the race. Eugenic sterilization is an urgent need. We must prevent multiplication of this bad stock.”
    — Margaret Sanger, April 1933 Birth Control Review

  48. Just Me says

    Hypatia of Alexandria should definitely be on there. She was the head of the Platonist school in Alexandria and made significant contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. She was also murdered by a Christian horde.
    “Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy, which at that time prevailed. For, as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported, among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and, dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.”–Socrates Scholasticus

  49. Marmalade says

    As a Catholic who mucks around in history of ideas, I went to the list to see if there were any gems Id never heard of, like a McTaggart or a Meslier. What a disappointment (ahem, unless atheism is primarily about posturing with the 20th C Zeitgeist, rather cognitive activity focused on the God issue; in that case it is perfect, if a bit physicist-heavy).
    Hypatia was a pagan neoplatonist, whose neoplatonism had theurgic practices analogous to Catholic sacraments, from temple sacrifices down to amulets. Definitely not a Christian and not a believer in the vulgar greek pantheon, but also not an Atheist. David Hume would be a better candidate for the list, even as ironically-ambiguous about atheism as he was.
    I thought Rosa Luxemborg could have got on the list, but if one wants philosophers, and not only social activists, then Susan Stebbing, Mary Midgley, Judith Jarvis Thompson are good bets.
    I also second Nietzsche.

  50. ramswrsw says

    Agree that she’s brilliant. I think her “ideas” about FGM have been mischaracterized and misunderstood. Greer has stated repeatedly that she abhors the practise and wants it to end (as do I), but has tried to draw attention to the superior moral attitude adopted by Westerners who criticize Africans.
    I work professionally in a capacity that has brought me into contact with health workers and indigenous feminists from East Africa. The reality is that the issue of FGM is embedded within a range of far, far bigger issues than the cutting of women’s genitalia, or women’s right, or lack of, to refuse it.
    Many women do not want FGM for themselves or their daughters, but opt for it because the entire place of women in their societies is so tied to this practice that a woman with uncut genitalia has no place, no options, no way to survive, except through prostitution. However, Westerners focus on FGM as if it existed in a vacuum, and if we could make those “poor, benighted Africans” give up this practise, all would be well. But where are the Western dollars to support, educate and empower women who refuse FGM? We are talking about many millions of girls and women who would be entirely disowned and despised by family, friends and community. They would be ostracized, refused a place to live, refused work, shunned, treated as whores or witches. And witches are routinely killed in Africa.
    Moreover, as we sit on our high horses condemning Africans, young girls in our own Western countries are routinely subject to genital mutilation every day by the medical profession in its quest to ensure that female genitalia conform to accepted, male-defined norms. From an observer’s point of view, the difference between this and ritual FGM is one entirely of degree, and not at all different in kind. From the point of view of its victims, there is no difference at all: an intimate part of self has been forcibly cut from their bodies, without consent. The question Greer poses is, why do Westerners condone, and even approve of their pain, while pouring out their hearts for women elsewhere? The answers she arrives at — racism, classism, cultural superiority — make for very uncomfortable reading.

  51. says

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