Controversial Topic: Atheism

Atheism is defined as the absence of a belief in deities, or the rejection of a belief in deities, or the belief that no deities exist. These nuances underscore the complexity of individual views on religion and theology, and by extension, the complexity of this debate. The controversy over atheism concerns disagreement between those who believe in the existence of deities and those who do not believe in the existence of deities, and more specifically, how these divergent beliefs should be treated in public spaces. As a result, this controversy touches closely on issues of religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and freedom of expression.

Controversial Topic: Atheism

In a sense, the controversy about atheism is not about atheism itself, but is steeped in how atheism is regarded in American public life. The controversy does not necessarily pit atheists against religious individuals, but instead suggests an ideological divide between those who acknowledge atheism as just one of innumerable theological belief systems, and those who categorically reject the atheistic belief system as sacrilegious or morally abominable. Controversy sometimes arises based on differences of opinion over how spiritual beliefs should be treated in public contexts such as policy, education, healthcare, and more. Atheists tend to advocate for a secular public life, with a strict separation of church and state, whereas some “theists” may advocate for a merging of the public and spiritual lives. This sometimes brings the beliefs of atheists into conflict with certain religious groups.

Between the divergent viewpoints of atheists and theists are also countless complex nuances to the way that individuals and groups experience spirituality, which complicates the core definition of atheism and lends to some ambiguity about its meaning for each individual who claims to subscribe to, approve of, or object to atheism.


To state it more bluntly, there are those who object to the fact that there are Americans who subscribe to atheism, and there are those who are supportive of this right.

This frames a conflict between subscribers to atheism and those who would use religious or ideological grounds to impede on the freedom to express atheist views, those public institutions whose actions blur the line separating church and state, and those institutions public or private who would otherwise violate the right to religious freedom stated in the Constitution and consequently according the Constitutional right to identify, organize, publish, and practice as an atheist.

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A Brief History of The Issue

Ironically, the controversy over atheism in America must begin at the same historical point that initiates our discussion on Freedom of Religion. This is because the freedom to practice no religion at all is bound to the same language that protects the freedom to practice any religion.

Take a look at our Freedom of Religion Controversy, #10 overall on our list of the 25 Most Controversial Topics Today.

The Constitutional Era

In a Constitutional sense, the freedom to reject the belief in deities is identical to the freedoms of religious practice and worship. Religious freedom was a matter of great consequence to the Founding Fathers as they debated the terms of the fledgling U.S. Constitution. As early as 1779, Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill that would guarantee legal equality for Virginia citizens of all (or no) religions. Jefferson wrote on the subject, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Jefferson’s sentiment—and particularly his reference to the worship of “no God”—would voice an important perspective on the subject, even if this perspective failed to gain immediate traction. Jefferson’s bill did not pass, but it was an ideological predecessor to James Madison’s important 1785 document entitled, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”, which argued “that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

A particularly important element of Madison’s writing was the idea that freedom of religious expression also meant freedom from having the religion of another imposed upon oneself. This gave rise to the concept of “separation of church and state,” and in doing so, provided philosophical grounding for the idea that a secular society is one in which adherents are equally free to practice no religion as to practice a religion of their choosing.

Jefferson and Madison would help to lay the ideological grounding for the Bill of Rights, which states in its First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This Amendment forms the basis for the freedom accorded to atheists to openly advocate for the view, or practice the concept, that there are no deities. The very same Establishment Clause which forbids the government from establishing its own form of religion or favoring one religion over another demands that it treat atheism the same way that it would treat a religion. Thus, for Constitutional purposes, atheism may be thought of as a religious ideology presupposed on the absence of deities.

With this in mind, we invite you to dip into our history of religious freedom in America, which outlines the path from state-run churches during the Revolutionary era through a host of critical 19th and early 20th century court decisions which have alternately advanced public secularism and which have defended certain religious expressions in public spaces. This dichotomy surrounds the issue of religious freedom and while many of the cases identified there do not explicitly concern atheism, their precedents do have direct bearing on the legal treatment of atheism.

For more, check out our take on the Religious Freedom controversy.

The Establishment Clause and Atheism

An array of late-20th Century court cases around atheism have confronted this two-part question: whether or not atheism should be treated as a religion; and, if so, whether or not the Establishment Clause protects atheism in all the same capacities that it protects religious freedom.

Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)

Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black opined that a Maryland Declaration of Rights provision that would prevent anyone from holding public office who did not affirm their belief in God was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. Justice Black argued that “neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. Neither can [they] constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can [they] aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”

Lynch v. Donnelly (1984)

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, wrote an endorsement of a majority opinion upholding the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s right to produce a Christmas manger display on public city space. Ironically, part of O’Connor’s opinion has been widely cited in the years since as a basis for protecting atheism. O’Connor wrote that the “Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community ... [A] direct infringement [of the clause would be a] government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. Disapproval sends the opposite message.”

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, in arguing the unconstitutionality of Alabama’s effort to proscribe a daily one-minute silent voluntary prayer in all of the state’s public schools, that “the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.”

Kaufman v. McCaughtry (7th Cir. 2005)

Judge Diane Wood, of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, opined on behalf of the plaintiff, an incarcerated atheist whose efforts to organize a religious group of atheists was denied by a prison warden. Judge Wood found that “Atheism is Kaufman’s religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being.”

This statement in particular–“Atheism is Kaufman’s religion”–establishes an important precedent that remains in place today regarding atheism, and expressly identifies atheism as a religion in the context of Constitutional protections.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Atheism Debate

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of atheism in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our rankings produced a list which is divided between philosophers, authors and biologists who have held and advocated for atheist beliefs, and those theists who publicly reject and renounce atheism on the basis of strongly held religious and spiritual constructs.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Atheism Debate
Rank Person
1 Richard Dawkins
2 Christopher Hitchens
3 Daniel Dennett
4 Alister McGrath
5 William Lane Craig
6 Friedrich Nietzsche
7 George Hugh Smith
8 PZ Myers
9 Sam Harris
10 Antony Flew

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Atheism

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of atheism in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is composed both of texts by philosophers and thought leaders who espouse atheism and by the spiritualists, religious leaders, and Christian apologists who explicitly reject the tenets of atheism.

Top Ten Most Influential Books About Atheism
Rank Book Title
1 The God Delusion
2 The Necessity of Atheism
3 Atheism: The Case Against God
4 The Rage Against God
5 God Is Not Great
6 The End of Faith
7 The Moral Landscape
8 Mere Christianity
9 The Dawkins Delusion?
10 The Twilight of Atheism

The Current Controversy

The number of individuals identifying with either atheist or agnostic beliefs has grown over the last several decades, though the number of individuals subscribing to these views remains among the smaller demographics on the American spiritual landscape. Wikipedia notes that “According to the 2014 General Sociological Survey, the number of atheists and agnostics in the U.S. grew over the previous 23 years. In 1991, only 2% identified as atheist, and 4% identified as agnostic; while in 2014, 3.1% identified as atheists, and 5% identified as agnostics.”

According to a study published in the Journal of Social Forces in 2015, atheists are ranked as the most widely disliked religious demographic by their fellow Americans. The study found that:

  • 44% of Americans disapprove of non-religion
  • 33% of respondents fall into a broad “religious nones” category: 3.8% as atheist, 3.5% as agnostic, 7.1 % as “spiritual but not religious,” and 18.5% as “nothing in particular.”
  • 27% of Americans say that atheists “don’t share my morals or values.

The respondents to this survey question don’t represent a unified movement, nor do they point us to an organization or activist group whose aim is to impede the spread of atheist ideology. Instead, this reflects a cross-demographic rejection of atheism and a negative mainstream view of the belief system. Some survey respondents may have affiliation with religious groups, political organizations, or activist groups that do explicitly reject atheism as a belief system.

However, the deeply personal nature of one’s perspective on spiritual orientation—and the widespread rejection of non-religion as cited above—makes it difficult to ascertain what percentage of respondents would make the leap from disapproval of atheism to practical, political, or legal opposition. However, there is a fairly tangible tug-of-war between those atheists who promote the goal of a more secular public life in America and those, such as political evangelists and Christian apologists, who believe religious faith should play an active and visible part in American public life.

A Quick Overview of Our Method

Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.

This subject requires us to consider key terms such as “atheism” and “American Atheist,” as well as key organizations who are involved in advocacy for atheism such as the “American Atheists” and the “Freedom From Religion Foundation.” Identifying forces on the opposing end of the spectrum was slightly more difficult, particularly because those who might oppose the concept of atheism are not necessarily part of an organized ideological movement. However, we selected “political evangelism” as a counterpoint because many of its adherents openly practice a merging of their public and spiritual lives. This practice sometimes brings political evangelism into direct confrontation with the core atheist support for the separation of church and state. Likewise, while “Christian apologists” are not part of a unified movement which is practically opposed to atheism, the spiritual and intellectual orientation of this group toward the defense of Christianity against skepticism does place it in ideological opposition to atheism.

Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the issue of atheism using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.

For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.

Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:

Key Terms

Atheism

Atheism is defined as the absence of a belief in deities, or the rejection of a belief in deities, or the belief that no deities exist. Adherents to some variation on this view tend to be philosophers, academics, activists, and artists, all of which is evidenced in the selection of influencers here below.

Influencers:

  • Douglas Krueger is an American philosopher, academic and author. He is best known as a proponent of atheism and an advocate of skepticism regarding supernatural and paranormal claims. Krueger has been a featured speaker at numerous atheist and humanist conventions and gatherings and is a co-founder of the Fayetteville Freethinkers, a secular humanist organization in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His book, What is Atheism: A Short Introduction, is a critique of religious belief, especially Christianity. He has discussed his atheistic views on numerous radio shows and participated in more than a dozen debates across the United States on the existence of God and secular ethics. Learn more…
  • Sikivu Hutchinson is an American feminist, atheist, author/novelist and playwright. She is the author of Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical, White Nights, Black Paradise, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, and Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles. Moral Combat is the first book on atheism to be published by an African-American woman. In 2013 she was named Secular Woman of the year and was awarded Foundation Beyond Belief’s 2015 Humanist Innovator award, and the Secular Student Alliance’s 2016 Backbone award. Learn more…
  • Walter Arnold Kaufmann was a German-American philosopher, translator, and poet. A prolific author, he wrote extensively on a broad range of subjects, such as authenticity and death, moral philosophy and existentialism, theism and atheism, Christianity and Judaism, as well as philosophy and literature. He served more than 30 years as a professor at Princeton University. Learn more…
  • American Atheist

    Another general term used to spotlight atheist influencers in the United States, those identified by our search engine include activists both in the area of religious freedom and on a host of other civil liberty battlefronts.

    Influencers:

  • Matthew Wade Dillahunty is an American atheist activist who is the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, a position he had previously held from 2006 to 2013. He has hosted the Austin-based webcast and cable-access television show The Atheist Experience since 2005, and formerly hosted the live Internet radio show Non-Prophets Radio. He is also the founder of and a contributor to the counter-apologetics encyclopedia Iron Chariots and its subsidiary sites. Learn more…
  • Anne Nicol Gaylor was an American atheist and reproductive rights advocate. She co-founded the Freedom from Religion Foundation and an abortion fund for Wisconsin women. She wrote the book and edited The World Famous Atheist Cookbook. In 1985 Gaylor received the Humanist Heroine Award from the American Humanist Association, and in 2007 she was given the Tiller Award by NARAL Pro-Choice America. Learn more…
  • Aron Ra is an American author, podcaster, and atheist activist. Ra is the host of the Ra-Men Podcast and a regional director of American Atheists. He had previously served as president of the Atheist Alliance of America and ran as a Democratic candidate for Texas’ District 2 Senate seat. Learn more…
  • American Atheists

    The use of the term American Atheists here refers directly to an actual advocacy group, the most prominent among those organized around atheist principles. Leaders and members of this group—including those identified as influencers here below—have played a direct part in an array of legal and judicial challenges around the issues of religious freedom and separation of church and state, and have helped to provide community-based support to those who lack a traditional religious community due to their atheist views.

    Influencers:

  • Frank R. Zindler is an American atheist who served as interim president of the atheist organization American Atheists in 2008. Prior to his involvement in the atheist community, he was Chairman, Division of Science, Nursing, & Technology, at Fulton-Montgomery Community College of the State University of New York. After the abduction and murder of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and granddaughter Robin Eileen Murray-O’Hair in 1995, he became editor of both American Atheist magazine and Director of American Atheist Press. In 2009, he retired as editor of the magazine but continues as Director of American Atheist Press. In the spring of 2011, he published a multi-volume anthology of his short essays and other works. Learn more…
  • Madalyn Murray O’Hair was an American activist supporting atheism and separation of church and state. In 1963 she founded American Atheists and served as its president until 1986, after which her son Jon Garth Murray succeeded her. She created the first issues of American Atheist Magazine. Learn more…
  • Edward Milton Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He was succeeded in this post by David Silverman. Learn more…
  • Debbie Goddard is an American atheist activist and speaker, and the director of African Americans for Humanism . In 2019 she took on the role of vice president of programs at American Atheists. Learn more…
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation

    A non-profit watchdog group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is primarily concerned with protecting the right to “nontheism” by ensuring separation of church and state. The influencers cited here below include activists, organizers, and journalists.

    Influencers:

  • Daniel Edwin Barker is an American atheist activist and musician who served as an evangelical Christian preacher and composer for 19 years but left Christianity in 1984. He and his wife Annie Laurie Gaylor are the current co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He has written numerous articles for Freethought Today, an American freethought newspaper. He is the author of several books including Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. Learn more…
  • Ruth Hurmence Green gained notability within the atheist community with the publication of her book The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible in 1979. This book has since been the best selling publication from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She was also the author of many other essays which were published posthumously in The Book of Ruth in 1982. Learn more…
  • Annie Laurie Gaylor is an American atheist, secular and women’s rights activist and a co-founder of – and, with her husband Dan Barker, a current co-president of – the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She was also the editor of the organization’s newspaper, Freethought Today until 2015. Gaylor is the author of several books, including Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children and, as editor, Women Without Superstition: No Gods No Masters. Learn more…
  • American Secularist

    The phrase “American secularist” refers to those academics, thought leaders, and legal professionals who have taken an active interest in preserving a secular public life in the United States. Those who identify as secularists typically also subscribe to atheism, though endorsement for secular life in the United States may also be a Constitutional position held by those who do adhere to some level of personal theism.

    Influencers:

  • Felix Leopold Oswald was a Belgian American physician, naturalist, secularist and freethought writer. Learn more…
  • Mangasar Magurditch Mangasarian was an American rationalist and secularist of Armenian descent. Learn more…
  • Susan Jacoby is an American author. Her 2008 book about American anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason, was a New York Times best seller. She is an atheist and a secularist. Jacoby graduated from Michigan State University in 1965. She lives in New York City and is program director of the New York branch of the Center for Inquiry. Learn more…
  • Edwin Frederick Kagin was an attorney at law in Union, Kentucky, and a founder of Camp Quest, the first secular summer camp in the United States for the children of secularists, atheists, agnostics, brights, skeptics, naturalists and freethinkers. He served as the National Legal Director of American Atheists from 2006 until his death in 2014. Learn more…
  • Political Evangelism

    The term “political evangelism” was selected as a counterpoint to the atheism advocacy groups selected above. By definition, “evangelism” refers to the proliferation of Christian theology and values through preaching and proselytizing, and therefore may be regarded as a force opposite to that of atheism. Moreover, many of its adherents openly practice a merging of their public and spiritual lives. This practice sometimes brings political evangelism into direct confrontation with the core atheist support for the separation of church and state.

    Influencers:

  • Carol Miller Swain is an American academic who was professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. A frequent conservative television analyst, she is the author and editor of several books. Her scholarly work has been cited by two associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Her interests include race relations, immigration, representation, evangelical politics, and the United States Constitution. Learn more…
  • Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry was an American evangelical Christian theologian who provided intellectual and institutional leadership to the neo-evangelical movement in the mid-to-late 20th century. His early book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, was influential in calling evangelicals to differentiate themselves from separatist fundamentalism and claim a role in influencing the wider American culture. He was involved in the creation of numerous major evangelical organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, Evangelical Theological Society, Christianity Today magazine, and the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies. The Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity International University seek to carry on his legacy. Learn more…
  • C.E. Matthews was an early pastor of Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He “was recognized as one of the great pastor-evangelists in the Southern Baptist convention”. Matthews took the church from less than 50 members to over 3000 in a 30-year period, beginning in the 1920s. He was director of evangelism for the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board at a time when baptisms were being reported in record numbers. A former accountant and baseball player, he converted to Christianity in his early 30s. Matthews believed that either personal or mass evangelism were the only two forms of evangelism, and that mass evangelism was the most productive. Learn more…
  • Christian Apologetics

    The term “Christian Apologetics” refers to the defense of Christianity against criticism and skepticism. There are those who subscribe to this view as a matter of spiritual philosophy and those who, as academics, religious organizational leaders, and clergy, make apologetics a central aim of their activities. While apologetics doesn’t always imply a confrontation with those practicing atheism, it does as a matter of guiding principle, reject, oppose, and offer counterpoint to the ideas guiding atheism and may be therefore considered an ideologically and intellectually oppositional force to atheism.

    Influencers:

  • Walter Ralston Martin , was an American Baptist Christian minister and author who founded the Christian Research Institute in 1960 as a para-church ministry specializing as a clearing-house of information in both general Christian apologetics and in countercult apologetics. As the author of the influential The Kingdom of the Cults, he has been dubbed the “godfather of the anti-cult movement”. Learn more…
  • Dan Kimball is an author and was a leading voice in the beginning years of the Emerging Church movement in the USA. Kimball’s writings focus on encouraging churches and Christians to creatively make any changes needed in order to break the negative stereotypes of church and Christianity that inaccurately may exist. Kimball focuses on doing this through the arts, apologetics and Christians removing themselves from the Christian subculture. Kimball began using phrases such as “Vintage Faith” and “Vintage Christianity” which are used to express the desire to be returning to the historical and missional values of the original Christian Church and teachings of Jesus. Learn more…
  • Kenneth G. McLeod is a Christian apologist, radio talk show host, teacher, writer and founder of the Christian apologetics ministry: Faith Worth Defending. He is an Evangelical Christian and the author of A Well Reasoned Faith: A Rational Defense of God, Jesus and the Bible; Evidence for Skeptics: Answering the Biggest Challenges to Christianity; College Christian: How to Get Your College Degree Without Losing Your Christian Faith, and other titles. Learn more…
  • Alex McFarland is an American public speaker, author, educator, and advocate for Christian apologetics. He currently serves as Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Greenville, South Carolina and as organizer of the Truth for a New Generation Conferences. He also co-hosts the radio program “Exploring the Word” that airs on American Family Radio. Learn more…
  • Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of this debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:

    Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!