What Makes a Great Atheist?

What Makes a Great Atheist? January 5, 2012

There’s a controversy brewing over Staks Rosch’s candidates for Atheist of the Year at the Examiner.  There are no women on the five person shortlist and Rosch explained the omission by saying any woman he included would have only been a ‘token woman’ and isn’t that really the worst kind of misogyny?  Ophelia Benson already wrote a dead-on takedown of his position, so I’m just linking you there and moving to a new question: What kind of actions should an Atheist of the Year award recognize?

Benson gives a hint to the kinds of metrics she would consider when she wrote in response to Rosch’s defense:

Oh, poor Neil Tyson, not quite good enough to measure up to Ricky Gervais. How does that work? What “efforts” would Tyson have to “continue” to be good enough for Rosch’s list? …Greta Christina would be a token candidate because all that public speaking and writing wasn’t merit enough? Especially compared to the enormous merit of Ricky Gervais and George Takei? Rebecca Watson’s only claim to fame was Elevatorgate because all that public speaking and writing and podcasting wasn’t?

There are a lot of attempts to divide the atheist community into accommodationists and firebrands, which tends to prompt a discussion about the different goals atheists have when operating in the public sphere and how best to achieve them.  Or, more frequently, there are screeds about how bad every other point on the spectrum is.

Thinking about the idea of giving awards to atheists, I’ve got a couple different ideas about groupings that I’d appreciate you noodling over in the comments.  I’m not dividing people up according to their level of antipathy toward organized religion (which seems to be at the heart of the accomodationist/firebrand distinction).  I’m focusing on the different spheres you might work in, each of which has rather different metrics for success.  There’s room for a variety of rhetorical styles in each of the categories.

Public Atheists

People who are out as atheists, even if it’s not the main thing they’re known for.  These are folks that you’re proud to say are on the team and whose high-profile presence makes it harder for religious people to keep thinking of us abstractly or as inaccurate stereotypes.

Contenders in this category might include: Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Terry Pratchett, Barbara Ehrenreich, etc


Political Atheists

Non-believers who focus their advocacy on specifically secular or atheist causes.  Their focus could be on church-state separation, rolling back laws that discriminates against atheists (anything from statutes that ban atheists from holding  public office or more common-law type problems, like the tendency for some judges to award custody to the religious parent by default).

There are a lot of ways to do advocacy, so this category might include anyone from Dave Silverman (the head of American Atheists) to Jessica Ahlquist (a high schooler who called out her school for the inappropriate use of prayer with students).  Activism can be organizing a protest, running a fundraising campaign, raising awareness of the law, or using writing and public appearances to shape the debate.  To be included in this category, the basic idea is that the atheist community or the rule of law generally would have been worse off without your work in the past year.


Philosophical Atheists

Knowing what you don’t believe in is useful if you’re taking a process of elimination approach to the question, but eventually you need to start hashing out your system and get ready to defend it.  This is the component that the atheist blogosphere tends to neglect and I’d love to single these folks out for recognition.

Tackling Young Earth evangelicals or anyone else whose beliefs are practically self refuting tends to let us shrug off our duty to put our own cards on the table and admit we have something to defend.

I don’t imagine this category as limited to academic philosophers, it would be for anyone who was trying to deal with ethics and metaphysics in a systematic way.  And this category would also be open to nihilists, as long as they were trying to make a case for nihilism and engaging with the arguments on the other side, not just taking it for granted as the default.

I wasn’t sold on the desirism pitched by Luke of Common Sense Atheism, but he and Yudkowsky would be my favorites in this category.


No one has an obligation to specialize in any of these categories or to restrict him or herself to only one goal, but the atheist movement will benefit from covering all these bases.  And recognizing each of these goals as worthwhile could help interest people in these problems and reduce sniping of the type: “Your methods, although well tailored to your goal, are poorly suited to mine, which I assume is everyone’s first priority!”


Are there categories I left out that you think are important?

Are there atheists you think are exemplars of these roles?

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  • Jay Schweikert

    I’m curious where you would put the classic “New Atheism” advocates like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitches, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett (i.e., the “Four Horsemen”). Your “public atheist” examples seem more like public intellectuals who are also atheists, rather than public intellectuals who are substantially engaged in atheist advocacy themselves (although I admit I’m not super familiar with all of them). Would you count Dawkins & Co. as the philosophical atheists? Surely they are well-versed in the standard theological arguments, but it seems like a lot of what they do is focused more toward taking down and de-legitimizing the “practically self-refuting” views that so many people hold.

    Perhaps we should divide up “public atheists” into two camps, something like public anti-theists and public non-theists. The former would be Dawkins & Co. types who actively focus on challenging religious beliefs directly, while the latter would be people whose work reflects implicit non-theism, and who bring respectability and normality to the atheist perspective. Anyway, just a thought.

  • @b

    Sure I’ll have a go. Let’s take ‘best’ to mean…
    1. who’s meme infected the most minds in 2011?
    2. who’s rhetoric was considered most compelling to those no longer theistic?
    3. who’s activism influenced the most practical progress in social justice?
    4. which (new) spokesperson is most revered by non-atheists?

  • Anonymous

    How bout a category for the Atheist that actually lives up to and believes his or her atheistic worldview. Like John or Jane Doe that works at the local pizza hut or car wash smokes pot on the weekend and has just enough of a moral code to keep themselves out of jail. All the while not giving a shit about pseudo-religious pursuits like social and economic justice.

  • Anonymous

    Whoever does win Atheist of the year is really just the biggest poseur.

  • deiseach

    If he really can’t think of a contemporary woman atheist, how about a historical nomination? Mary Wollstonecraft, for example; I’m not certain she was exactly an atheist, but according to one of her charges when she acted as governess, “She had freed her mind from all superstitions”, which should be good enough, and I imagine the authoress of “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”, “The Vindication of the Rights of Man” and “The Vindication of the Rights of Women” could hold her own in a public debate with Mr. Rosch.

  • 1) artists (who make art which in some way reflects or flows from their form of atheism). So Terry Pratchett might fit here, Leah!

    2) people whose way of life is inspiring to others–like, the atheist equivalent of saints? Again, the way of life should have some intelligible connection to the atheism, even if religious believers also do similar stuff. So this category could overlap with the “social justice activist” suggestion above, but with a different emphasis: It’s not about who did the most good (by whatever standard you judge “good”) but whose life appeared to create a path or provide a model which other atheists could follow. It’s about acts of leadership, basically.

    If we suggest categories, do we get a post with your nominees in those categories?

  • Gary

    Can the person be fictitious? If so I nominate “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski

  • Hibernia86

    I think that bloggers deserve their own recognition. They really keep the atheism movement active far more than any of the groups listed above because they provide a daily conversation on the issue which keeps people connected.