The 10 Most Brilliant Atheists of All Time
Atheism is generating quite a lot of attention these days. Prominent atheists are getting the word out about their views in increasing numbers and generating lots of public debate on the proper place of religion in governments and societies in the modern world. And now more than ever, atheists have been able to network together and join forces because of the Internet.Today about 2.3 percent of the world's population identifies themselves as atheist, and nearly 12 percent more (a number that is quickly growing) describe themselves as nontheist - non-believers in any deity. The ranks of scientists boast probably the largest concentration of atheists, and many of those have been recognized as among the most brilliant of human beings for their work. But there are atheists in all walks of life and throughout history as well.Here's a look at 50 of the most prominent atheists of all time who also happen to be recognized as some of the most brilliant members of our species.
As a note of clarification: we've ordered this list chronologically and we use the term "brilliant" to mean "brilliant at their craft" - not just pure brainiacs;-)
Democritus was an ancient Greek philosopher, the most prolific and influential of the pre-Socratics and whose atomic theory is regarded as the intellectual culmination of early Greek thought. For this atomic theory, which echoes eerily the theoretical formulations of modern physicists, he is sometimes called the "father of modern science." He was well known to Aristotle, and a thorn in the side to Plato - who advised that all of Democritus' works be burned.
A cheerful and popular man with the citizenry for his uncanny ability to predict events, his was known among his fans as the "Laughing Philosopher," a title that may well have referred more to his scoffing rejection of assigning to gods the mechanistic operations of nature itself. His cosmology and atomic theory held that the world was spheroid, that there were many worlds and many suns, and that all things manifest in nature were comprised of atoms bound together. There are varying accounts of his age at death, ranging from a ripe 90 all the way to 109 years.
2. Diagoras of Melos
The first and most ancient of recognized atheists must include a 5th century b.c.e. poet and sophist from Melos known as Diagoras the Atheist. Not content to simply speak against the popular pantheon of Greek gods, he also criticized the Eleusinian Mysteries. He became a disciple of Democritus after that notable philosopher paid a hefty ransom to free Diagoras from captivity following the subjugation of Melos in 416 b.c.e.
Prosecuted by the Athenian democratic party for impiety in 415 b.c.e., he was forced to flee the city and died in Corinth. None of Diagoras' own writings survive, but in the 1st century b.c.e. Cicero wrote that one of Diagoras' friends tried to convince him that the gods did exist by citing the many people saved from storms by their pleas to their favorite gods, to which Diagoras was purported to reply, "there are nowhere any pictures of those who have been shipwrecked and drowned at sea."
Born in 341 b.c.e. in Athens, Epicurus established the school of philosophy known as Epicureanism, and was a follower of Democritus even though his own philosophy denied the influence of strong determinism and often denounced other philosophies as confused. He was an important figure in the early development of the scientific methodology, insisting that nothing which cannot be tested through direct observation and defended through logical deduction should be believed.
For Epicurus the purpose of philosophy was to attain peace of mind and a happy life, freedom from fear and absence of pain. He considered pleasure and pain the measures of that which is good or evil. He insisted that there were no gods to reward or punish humans after death, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that all things are ultimately material in nature. Epicurus himself was never able to escape a life of pain or a painful death, as he suffered greatly from kidney stones and died at the age of 72 of complications from that ailment.
4. Theodorus the Atheist
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Theodorus the Atheist from Cyrene lived around 300 b.c.e. He was banished from Cyrene in his early years, and moved to Athens to become a follower of the younger Aristippus. He also managed to get himself banished from Athens which caused him to go into the service of Ptolemy in Alexandria. It was in this service that he was sent as an ambassador to Lysimachus, who became offended by Theodorus' free speech as a lack of respect and decorum.
Theodorus taught that the aim of human life was to obtain joy and avoid grief, and that joy comes through prudence while grief arises from folly. Prudence and justice represented good, their opposites evil. Laertius complained that Theodorus "did away with all opinions respecting the Gods," but he may have just rejected the notions of deity popular in his time.
5. Andrew Carnegie
He wrote many books on the subjects of wealth and its responsibilities, on social issues and on political philosophy. He self-identified as a positivist, and kept away from organized religion due to his distaste of sectarianism. Carnegie preferred naturalism and science, saying in his autobiography that, "not only had I got rid of the theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution."
6. Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov [1849-1936] was a Russian physiologist, psychologist and physician. He won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1904 for research on the digestive system. It was his investigation of the saliva of dogs that first led him to notice that the animals salivated more when they expected food, a phenomenon he termed "psychic secretion." He was particularly interested in studying conditioned behaviors as an experimental model of the induction of neuroses. His approach became known as "behaviorism," and after his death his work was extended by William Sargant and others in an attempt to develop a systematic method for brainwashing and implantation of false memories.
Pavlov died in Leningrad, his laboratory in St. Petersburg was carefully preserved by the Soviet government as a museum. He had one of his students attend him on his deathbed to record the circumstances of his dying, as if it were just another psychological experiment.
7. Sigmund Freud
Born Sigismund Schlomo Freud [1856-1939], Freud was an Austrian psychiatrist founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. Using his theories of the unconscious mind and defense mechanisms of repression, his psychoanalysis sought to cure sufferers of psychopathology through a dialogue between the patient and his psychoanalyst. He had an elaborate system for interpretation of dreams as indicators of unconscious desires, and did early neurological research on cerebral palsy.
Despite his ideas falling out of favor or being modified in later years, his methodology and theoretics continue to exert influence in the humanities and some social sciences. Freud's family escaped after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and moved to London. He suffered more than 30 operations for oral cancer in his late life, and convinced his physician friend Max Schur to assist his suicide in 1939. His philosophical writings established his strong advocacy for an atheistic world view, and he was eulogized as "the atheist's touchstone" for the 20th century.
8. Clarence Darrow
Clarence Seward Darrow [1857-1938] was an American lawyer, a leading member of the ACLU and a notable defense attorney. Starting out as a corporate lawyer for a railroad company, he soon jumped the ideological tracks and represented the leader of the American Railway Union in the Pullman Strike of 1894.
His most famous case was the defense of Tennessee teacher John Scopes in the "Monkey Trial" against the state law that barred the teaching of evolution. The prosecution side was argued by William Jennings Bryan, the the trial served as the story for the play and later film, Inherit the Wind. During the trial Darrow self-identified as an agnostic by saying, "I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure - that is all that agnosticism means." Yet he wrote essays with titles like "Absurdities of the Bible" and "The Myth of the Soul," suggesting that his agnosticism was strong enough to be considered atheism.
9. Richard Strauss
Richard Georg Strauss [1864-1949] was a brilliant German composer who began writing music at the age of six and continued almost until his death. He was noted for his "tone poems" and operas such as Salome and Elektra, which made use of dissonance and generated much public outcry. During the Nazi period he was appointed president of the German State Music Bureau and composed the theme song for the infamous 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He produced the opera Friedenstag in 1938, a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich. He is said to have stretched his influence very thin in his efforts to protect his son and Jewish daughter-in-law and their children from the Nazis.
Strauss was dubious of all religion, except perhaps the religion of reason. "I shall never be converted, and I shall remain true to my old religion of the classics until my life's end," he declared shortly before his death.
10. Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Arthur William Russell [1872-1970], 3rd Earl of Russell, was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, pacifist and social activist. Russell led the revolt against idealism in the early 20th century and is considered along with Wittgenstein and Frege a founder of analytic philosophy, which considers formal logic and science as the principal tools of philosophy. Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950.
Russell was not fond of organized religion, but expressed some difficulty in defining himself as an agnostic or an atheist. In his 1949 speech, "Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?" Russell admitted that he could not prove the non-existence of God any more than he could prove the non-existence of the Homeric gods. But in his autobiography he stated, "At the age of eighteen, ...I read Mill's Autobiography, where I found a sentence to the effect that his father taught him the question "Who made me?" cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question "Who made God?" This led me to abandon the "First Cause" argument, and to become an atheist."
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