The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, with over 80% of respondents in a recent national survey saying that they believe in God. However, there were also a significant number of Americans, about 12%, who identified as atheists. Here are five of the most prominent modern Americans who openly proclaimed that they did not believe in God.
Probably the most famous inventor of all time, Thomas Edison was a philosophical skeptic who was critical of religious belief. The creator of the incandescent light bulb once bluntly observed, “All religion is bunk.” Edison was especially critical of the religious education of children by churches, which he considered to be equivalent to teaching them that superstition is fact. He also spoke openly against the teaching of religion in the public schools.
Pat Tilman is a true American hero whose decision to give up a lucrative career with the National Football League in order to join the Army and fight in the Iraq War earned him wide admiration. After Tillman was killed in action in 2004, an important detail about him surfaced – he was an atheist. Interestingly, few biographical articles about Tillman mention that he openly stated on numerous occasions that he did not believe in God.
Considered one of the best poets of the literary movement known as The Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was a strong critic of religion in general and Christianity in particular. He believed that most religious people were hypocrites and that religion itself was a force for social oppression, especially of black people. Politically, Hughes was a communist, an ideology he admired in part because of its commitment to atheism, denounced by Karl Marx as “the opiate of the people.”
At the other end of the political spectrum from Hughes is Ayn Rand, the best selling novelist and philosopher who is considered a hero to many on the political right. What many conservatives may not know about Rand is that she was a confirmed atheist, believing that religious belief could not hold up in the face of logic and reason. She dismissed religion as a primitive form of philosophy that had no place in the modern world.
In much the same way as Rand, the famous American astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan rejected religion because it wasn’t based upon logic and reason. His scientific outlook on life compelled him to believe that religion was incompatible with the scientific method. However, he also said that a scientist is obligated to keep an open mind on every and any subject, so he stopped short of claiming that he was absolutely certain that God was not real, saying, “We would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no God exists.” Since he considered the issue unsettled, Sagan believed the most sensible course of action was for everyone to think for themselves, basing one’s opinions solely upon logic, reason and the facts of experience.
So even in a mostly religious country like the United States, there have been numerous prominent atheists. Ironically, their atheism has not been widely recognized, even by those who claim to be admirers of their life’s work.