Overview

Many of history's most ethical, moral heroes were atheists, agnostics, and humanists. They ought to be recognized as such.

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Mother Teresa.

The Dalai Lama.

Martin Luther King.

Gandhi.

If you ask most people to think of prominent individuals who represent the highest of moral activism, the apex of humanitarianism, the aspirational essence of care, compassion, and justice —these are the names that will spring quickest from their lips.

It’s a fine list.

Aside from Mother Teresa—who had a wicked appetite for befriending dictators, enabling poverty, and valorizing suffering—the others have definitely earned their righteous reputation for fighting against injustice and oppression through non-violent means.

There’s something, however, about this superstar constellation of moral luminaries that is a non-incidental part of their reputation: they were/are all deeply religious. Mother Teresa believed in a magical deity who had to enable the execution of his own son in order to lift an eternal, fiery curse that he himself placed on humans because a rib-woman ate a knowledge-filled piece of fruit; The Dalai Lama believes in reincarnation; King believed in the existence of souls, angels, heaven, hell, and divine blood-sacrifice; Gandhi believed in karma. And, you know, that’s all OK. Frankly, we shouldn’t give a rat’s ass about what people believe; it is their intentions, actions, and behaviors that really matter. And in this regard, the Dalai Lama, King, and Gandhi have certainly done an impressive amount to try and end suffering.

But, as I said, their linkage to religion is a key part of their moral valorization. They popularly epitomize the idea that religion and morality are inherently, integrally linked and mutually enhancing. They aren’t. But such is one of the most widespread fallacies out there. And it is a fallacy that gains continual traction by only citing strongly religious heroes as moral leaders.

We need to disrupt this automatic, knee-jerk association in people’s minds about moral beacons only being religious. We need to debunk it. Not only does it present an inadequate and incomplete picture of the relationship between religion, secularity, and morality—but it distorts history, as well. The truth is that many ethical giants have been staunchly secular. These are individuals who rejected supernatural beliefs and went on to live out the values embedded within their atheism, agnosticism, or humanism, and fought courageously against oppressive forces and altruistically for the rights of others, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.

Below, I present 20 secular moral beacons. This is not a list of “famous atheists,” per se, e.g., nonbelievers who were gifted writers, actors, musicians, athletes, or painters. Rather, these are specifically ethical heroes: non-believing individuals who—though they had their flaws, blind spots, hypocrisies, and other such human warts—worked as activists to make this world a better, more just, more humane place, not for the glory of some eternal magical kingdom, nor out of supplicating obedience to a supreme deity, but for the happiness and well-being of people here on planet Earth.  

W.E.B. Du Bois

The founding leader of the first Civil Rights Movement in North America, the Niagara Movement, the founding leader of the N.A.A.C.P., and the founding leader of the Pan-African Congress, Du Bois publicly fought for the legal, voting, and human rights of African Americans for decades and was an unflinching activist against lynching, discrimination, Jim Crow, and colonial exploitation. He was also a brilliant writer, editor, historian, cultural critic, and sociologist. Although raised a Christian, he abandoned his faith as a young man, declaring himself a freethinker in his early twenties. “I do not believe in the existence and rulership of the one God of the Jews; I do not believe in the miraculous birth and the miracles of the Christ of Christians,” he proclaimed. He derided religious claims and Biblical narratives as “fairy tales.” He rejected the efficacy of prayer and did not believe in life after death. As he said, “I much prefer to do this one life reasonably well and stop.”

Emma Goldman

Pioneering anarchist and fierce critic of both American capitalism and Soviet communism, Goldman fought for worker’s rights, women’s rights, birth control, sexual liberation, and prison reform. Imprisoned herself, and eventually deported, she never gave up: as an old woman, she worked in Spain fighting against Franco’s fascist forces. Although ethnically Jewish, she was hostile to religious faith and saw religious organizations as part of the problem, not the solution. As she called it, “the philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation…. Only after the triumph of the Atheistic philosophy in the minds and hearts of man will freedom and beauty be realized.”

Nelson Mandela

Nobel Peace Prize laureate, anti-apartheid icon, Marxist, president of the African National Congress and then the nation of South Africa in the 1990s, beacon of racial reconciliation, fighter against poverty and HIV/AIDS, and prisoner for 27 years, Mandela was one of the greatest individual incarnations of human freedom triumphing over egregious oppression the world has ever known. Mandela was a socialist and humanist who – although raised within a Christian context as a child — eventually rejected religion and its supernatural claims. Dubbed the world’s “secular saint,” Mandela never publicly proclaimed himself an atheist or agnostic, and he had no interest in mocking or debunking religion. But it is clear from his autobiography that he was effectively secular; he never speaks of any faith in God or belief in an afterlife, nor does he ever refer to ever relying on any religious concepts or practices to help him cope with the struggles and injustices he endured.

Clarence Darrow

One of the nation’s most successful, progressive lawyers and a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Clarence Darrow gave up his lucrative career as an attorney for railroad corporations and instead devoted his legal talents to defending the rights of workers, unions, labor activists, and anarchists. He sought to give voice to “the weak, the suffering, and the poor.” He was a fierce defender of free speech and freedom of the press. He defended African Americans who were unjustly charged with trumped-up crimes, and he defended famous labor leaders such as Eugene Debs and John Turner, and — most famously — he represented a high school biology teacher’s right to teach the facts of evolution in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. He was also a public agnostic. “The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom,” he declared. And furthermore, “I don’t believe in God as I don’t believe in Mother Goose.” 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Leading light of the women’s suffragette movement, organizer of the first Women’s Rights conference held in Seneca Falls, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Stanton was also a vocal abolitionist and leading member of both the American Equal Rights Association and the American Anti-Slavery society. She was also a sharp critic of religion, proponent of the separation of church and state, and proudly secular individual. In 1895, she published The Woman’s Bible, which skeptically and sarcastically attacked and debunked the sexism and patriarchy of the Bible. “The Church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns woman,” she wrote. Within her diary, she said that her worldview was, “grounded on science, common sense, and love of humanity,” not “fears of the torments of hell and promises of the joys of heaven.” 

Furthermore: “You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman… I have been traveling over the old world during the last few years and have found new food for thought. 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.” 

Jawaharlal Nehru

Lawyer, leader of the Indian National Congress, fighter for the rights of peasants, and president of the All India States Peoples’ Conference, Nehru was arrested and imprisoned many times – but was ultimately victorious in his fight against British colonialism, becoming India’s first prime minister in 1947. He was an agnostic who possessed a strictly naturalistic worldview. He did not believe in an afterlife and he viewed religious piety and spirituality as absurdist forms of escapism. As a secularist, he saw religious dogma as divisive and antithetical to a pluralistic democracy. And as a dedicated humanist, he placed his faith in humanity rather than a non-existent deity. As he explained, “What the mysterious is I do not know. I do not call it God because God has come to mean much that I do not believe in. I find myself incapable of thinking of a deity or of any unknown supreme power in anthropomorphic terms, and the fact that many people think so is continually a source of surprise to me. Any idea of a personal God seems very odd to me.”

Grace P. Campbell

Humanitarian, dedicated community activist, radical feminist, gifted public orator, and the only female council member of the African Blood Brotherhood – a movement which advocated for the self-defense of African Americans in the face of persistent white violence — Campbell was the first woman (of any race) to run for public office in the state of New York. She was also the first African American woman to join the Socialist Party of America and the Communist Party of America. She donated much of her own salary to help found – and eventually run — the Empire of Friendly Shelter, a home for unwed mothers. She also worked as a leader in the People’s Educational Forum, America Negro Labor Congress, the Friends of Negro Freedom, and the Harlem Tenants League. A nurse in New York’s women’s prisons and monitored for her radical activities by the FBI, she was involved in various churches before becoming a full-blown atheist.

Francisco Ferrer

Spanish Republican revolutionary, Dreyfusard, educator, animal-rights activist, women’s rights advocate, anarchist, and ultimate secular martyr, Ferrer founded the Barcelona Modern School (Escuela Moderna), which offered a secular, progressive education as an alternative to the religious dogmatism that dominated the Spanish school system. He also founded the International League for the Rational Education of Children, which sought to radically change how children were educated – focusing less on exams and grades and more on ethical cultivation and love. The son of devout Catholics, Ferrer grew up to be a bold critic of the church and proud freethinker. As he declared: “we will not…lose our time praying to an imaginary god for things which our own exertions can procure.” Arrested many times, he was eventually convicted by a kangaroo court and executed by firing squad. “Aim well, my friends,” he proclaimed to his firing squad. “You are not responsible. I am innocent. Long live the Modern School!”

Asa Philip Randolph

Civil rights beacon, founding first president of the country’s first black labor union – the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — Randolph was also, along with fellow secular activist Bayard Rustin, a leading organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Arrested and jailed for his political activities, Randolph fought against racial discrimination in employment and in the military. The son of a preacher, he became an atheist who rejected faith in and prayers to God as a way to make the world a better place. Rather, humanism was his orientation; he received the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year Award in 1970 and was a signatory to the Humanist Manifesto II in 1977, which declares, in part, that: “We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural… traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. … No deity will save us; we must save ourselves….We are responsible for what we are or will be. Let us work together for a humane world by means commensurate with humane ends.”

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

Once described as “the ablest woman in Ireland,” Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was one of the first women in Ireland to graduate from university. She was a leading feminist, anti-war activist, workers’ rights supporter, writer, lecturer, founder of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and leader of both the Irish Women Workers’ Union and the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League. Arrested and imprisoned many times, and fired from jobs because of her activism, Sheehy-Skeffington fought for both Irish independence from the Occupying British, as well as for the equal rights of women. Her husband was imprisoned and later shot by the British. A firm atheist, she saw religion as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Her son, Owen, who would help found the Irish Humanist Association, said this of her relation to religion: “My mother said to me, some weeks before she died, that she would die ‘an unrepentant pagan’. Her spirit was one of the finest, most selfless that I have known. What she called ‘mumbo-jumbo’ would certainly not have added to her, had she returned to it, but would rather have sadly diminished her. I am glad she died free, as I shall, and as I hope my children will.”

Shri Goparaju Ramachandra Rao

Known commonly as Gora, he was born to a high-cast Hindu family in India and forced to marry his wife when she was only ten years old – given his religion’s insistence that girls marry before they have gone through puberty. A botanist and advocate of Indian independence, Gora was one of India’s most famous atheists who spent his life dispelling superstition, promoting humanist values, expanding educational opportunities, sharing scientific knowledge, and fighting against caste-ism and untouchability. Founder of The Atheist Centre, he declared: “Acceptance of atheism at once pulls down caste and religious barriers between man and man. There is no longer a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian. All are human beings. Further, the atheistic outlook puts man on his legs. There is neither divine will nor fate to control his actions…it is man that created god to make society moral and to silence restless inquisitiveness about the how and why of natural phenomena. Of course god was useful though a falsehood. But like all falsehoods, belief in god also gave rise to many evils in course of time and today it is not only useless but harmful to human progress. So I take to the propagation of atheism as an aid to my work. The results justify my choice.”

Vladimir Medem

Labor organizer, Social Democrat, anti-Communist, anti-Zionist, political theorist, and leading light of one of the largest organized body of workers in the early 20th century, Der Yidisher Arbeter-Bund [Jewish Labor Bund], Medem was arrested and imprisoned many times and eventually deported for his revolutionary activities. Within the Bund – an avowedly secular movement — he fought against anti-Semitism and for Jewish rights, gender equality, and the rights of workers to unionize. The Bund had one hundred thousand members at its apex, and ran a vast school system and scouting/sport organizations that served tens of thousands of mostly poor, underprivileged children. Members of the Bund were also among the most heroic ghetto fighters against the Nazis. The Bund was a Jewish workers association in an ethnic/cultural sense, not in a theological or religious sense; its members rejected religious worship, faith, and beliefs as mere superstition hindering human progress – a view which Medem himself helped advance and articulate. Medem rejected religious faith at an early age: “My religious feelings gradually exhausted themselves when I was in the upper grades of the gymnasium.” Like other Marxists of his day, he became a freethinker as a young man and remained one his entire life.

Harvey Milk

The first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, Milk was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While in office he worked hard to ban discrimination against homosexuals, provide more affordable childcare, support free public transportation, establish better civilian oversight of police, and control dog excrement in the city’s public areas. Prior to entering politics, Milk had served as a naval officer during the Korean War, but was forced to resign rather than face charges because of his homosexuality. He was also a small business owner and community activist in San Francisco’s Castro district. He also fought against homophobic bigotry, especially that which came from Christian conservatives. Milk was assassinated in 1978. His murderer claimed that the twinkies that he had eaten the night before caused him to do it; the jury agreed, and sentenced him to only five years. Perhaps the most famous fighter for gay rights, Milk was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. A proud secular Jew, Milk was a non-believer. In one of his recorded wills, he said of his funeral: “I hope there are no religious services. I would hope that there are no services of any kind, but I know some people are into that and you can’t prevent it from happening, but my god, nothing religious.”

Irena Sendler

One of the greatest heroes of the 20th century, Sendler was a Polish nurse and social worker during World War Two. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they forced all the Jews into ghettos before shipping them off to be gassed in death camps. But Sendler – despite a punishment of death if caught – managed to save approximately 2,500 Jewish babies and children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto and into the safety of Polish homes. In 1943, she was arrested, beaten, tortured and slated to be executed, but was able to escape just in time because her comrades bribed a Nazi official. Once free, she continued her underground humanitarian activities. After the war, she worked hard trying to reunite the Jewish children with their parents, but found that nearly all of them had been murdered. Sendler went on to become a member of the Warsaw City Council, the Commission for Widows and Orphans, the League of Women, the Society of Friends of Children, the Society for Lay Schools, and she was the director of the Social Welfare Department of the Union of Invalids. In the 1980s, she joined the Solidarity movement – becoming an anti-communist, pro-democracy activist. She was also a secular non-believer: “I was raised to believe that the question of religion, nation, belonging to any race is of no importance – it’s a human being that matters!”

Frank Kameny

Both arrested and fired for being gay back in the 1950s, Frank Kameny spent his life fighting against the legal and medical discrimination of homosexuals and for the equal rights of gays and lesbians. A World War Two veteran who fought the nazis, a holder of a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard, and the first openly-gay person to ever run for Congress, Kameny launched some of the earliest public gay rights events in the nation and helped found the Mattachine Society. He was also an atheist who wasn’t afraid to criticize those he called “Christianofascists.” Regarding his own personal identity, Kameny declared, “I have characterized myself as ‘a good pious atheist’. By this I mean that there is not a shred — not the smallest shred — of valid, credible, persuasive evidence for the existence of anything supernatural… there are no supernatural beings: God(s), angels, demons, devils, satans, souls; that there are no supernatural events: miracles, resurrections, afterlife; that there are no supernatural places: heaven, hell; AND that when you die you’re dead and it’s over for you permanently.” 

Olof Palme

Former two-time Prime Minister of Sweden, former president of the Nordic Council, and major leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Workers Party, Palme was a world leader, UN ambassador, human rights activist, women’s rights advocate, defender of democracy, war mediator, and outspoken critic of authoritarian regimes, as well as the US’s military involvement in Vietnam and apartheid in South Africa. Under Palme’s leadership, Sweden enacted some of the most progressive social welfare policies in the world, including improved social security, free education, health care, childcare, elder care, improved labor union power, disability rights, and affordable housing. Palme was also an atheist. “Human beings,” he explained, “will find balance when they do good things not because God says it, but because they feel like doing them.” He was assassinated in 1986.

José Mujica

Former President of Uruguay, revolutionary guerilla and radical icon, Mujica was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for 14 years by a military dictatorship. But once democracy came to Uruguay in 1985, he was freed and became a leader of progressive politics. In an effort to undermine drug criminals, he legalized marijuana in 2012—the same year he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He also made both same-sex marriage and abortion legal. Under his leadership, his nation’s economy thrived and workers gained tremendous rights, especially in terms of unionization and collective bargaining. Mujica has lived a humble life: his car is an old beat-up VW bug, and he has donated most of his earnings to charity. He has also publicly professed his atheism. “There are those,” he notes, “who believe that power is above, and they don’t notice that it’s actually in the hearts of the great masses.”

Ingrid Newkirk

The founding president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Newkirk has led the largest animal rights organization in the world. She is an author and activist, and has also worked as a deputy sheriff, successfully convicting many animal abusers. She has also helped craft and pass extensive animal rights legislation. The winner of both the Courage of Conscience Award and the Ahimsa Award, she has convinced many industries and companies to stop torturous animal testing, and she has exposed some of the most brutal and inhumane experiments done on animals in labs in the name of science. “I am an atheist,” she has proclaimed. “I don’t believe in God. I believe that the horrors in this world could not ever have been created by a loving God. I believe in kindness, I believe in personal responsibility, and I believe in being decent to people.”

Rashida Tlaib

Image by Stephanie Kenner / Shutterstock.com

Currently a US Congressional Representative from Michigan and former member of the Michigan House of Representatives, Tlaib is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and also an attorney who has made a career fighting the good fight: she has legally represented workers, led movements against polluters, fought abusive state agencies, and supported equitable community development. A vocal critic of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and former President Trump, Tlaib supports expanding Medicare to all Americans, women’s right to an abortion, green initiatives, and banning assault weapons. She is currently the only Palestinian-American serving in the House of Representatives.

As a wise politician, Tlaib knows that she cannot alienate her religious constituents; declaring herself a non-believer would be political suicide. However, the fact that she is such a public supporter of LGBTQ rights, and the even more notable fact that she is one of only 17 members of the Congressional Freethought Congress, which promotes reason and science, protects the secular character of our government by adhering to the strict Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, and opposes discrimination against atheist, agnostics, and humanists, provides a window into her secular worldview.  

Jacinda Ardern

The current Prime Minister of New Zealand and former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, Ardern was not only one of the world’s youngest female head of state, but she is the second leader of a democracy to give birth while serving in office. Her policies priorities have been impressively ethical; she has worked to enact sane gun control laws, fought against poverty, supported same-sex marriage, increased the length and pay for parental leave, improved support for orphan and foster care, provided free menstrual pads in schools, increased the minimum wage, worked with Maori indigenous leaders, sought to legalize marijuana, handled the COVID-19 crisis with wisdom, and fought against the climate crisis. Although raised a Mormon, Ardern rejected the LDS church, primarily because of its bigotry towards gays and lesbians. She is an agnostic, and her is well-pronounced. “I can’t see myself being a member of an organized religion again,” she has explained. “I have real respect for people who have a religion…and I respect people who don’t. I’m agnostic…I just think people should be free to have their personal beliefs and not be persecuted for it, whether they be atheist or staunch church members.”

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...