Here are some of the best known figures associated with atheism, in the UK and more generally: Richard Dawkins. Daniel Dennett. The late Christopher Hitchens. Peter Atkins. James Randi. Simon Blackburn. Sam Harris. Colin Blakemore.
Reader, are you noticing a pattern?
Not only are they uniformly white and male – most of them are over 50 (with a couple of exceptions), most of them are straight (with three exceptions – hence Gerard Phillips makes the list below) and at least half of them attended private schools.
That this is a problem is not something I should have to say. Unless changes are made, as Greta Christina put it so well, the atheist movement will end up like the gay community, which has remained monoethnic and androcentric throughout its recent history, strengthening its own opponents by alienating thousands of potential allies.
How many black British atheists stay quiet about it because all the other black people they know of are practicing Christians? How many British atheists are there of Muslim, Sikh or Hindu backgrounds who stay quiet about it too, again because they know no one from their own communities who lives without God?
How long will it take, furthermore, for women atheist bloggers to stop getting rape threats – rape threats, for fuck’s sake, from other atheists online – because they’re not acknowledged as integral members of the movement?
If you have a problem with ‘affirmative action’ because you don’t think race or gender matter, try comparing Richard Dawkins’ hate mail, filled with amusing spelling mistakes, with Rebecca Watson’s, filled with threats of sexual assault and genital mutilation. However biologically similar or different men and women are, the lived experiences of women atheists are different. They have different things to say. (Incidentally, isn’t it funny how it’s always men who don’t think gender matters? Also, white people who think race no longer matters. You get my point.)
The same goes for race, as it does for class. Yes, I’m a white male to all practical extents and purposes – but if you wanted to know what it’s like to be poor in religious communities, who would you ask? The four horsemen, all of them private school alumni, or me, who grew up in a council house? My views on religion are at least in part unreconstructedly Marxist, for that exact reason, which qualifies me to talk about it in ways none of them ever could.
When you’re sat planning atheist speaker events, or writing literature about atheist role models, or at your student society’s pub social, you wouldn’t only want to include scientists. You wouldn’t only want to include ex-Christians either. If you’re only representing the atheist perspective of one group, you’re limiting yourself.
For exactly the same reason, we shouldn’t only (or predominantly) include old, white, privileged straight men. We need to make conscious efforts to connect with atheist figures who are women, who are queer, who are young or who are from ethnic minorities for exactly the same reason we need to consciously involve non-scientists and former members of non-Christian religions.
Hence this list.
When Jen McCreight published her large list of awesome female atheists, it was brilliant. But not only do we need to think about diversity in wider terms than gender – most of the atheists on her list were US-based.
Thus, most of the people below either live in the UK full time or have some recent history of appearing here. Not all of them are female, and many are white; some are privately educated, many are straight; some are scientists, and lots are from Christian backgrounds. But this last contains no one who is all these things. Whoever is listed on it is from an underrepresented group, and has something to say.
Invite them to your events, alongside better known and privileged speakers if needs be. For those who don’t do speaking engagements, link to them online and recommend them. Post quotes from them, instead of from the privileged atheists everyone knows.
If nothing else, learn about them. I certainly learnt a great deal compiling this list, because many of them are simply brilliant.
Mina Ahadi, Iranian ex-Muslim and Secularist of the Year 2007. Spoke at One Law for All’s Conference on Apostasy, Sharia Law and Human Rights in December 2010.
Jim Al-Khalili, physicist, BHA distinguished supporter and campaigner against creationism in schools. Spoke at this year’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, presented BBC documentary Science and Islam and interviewed Rowan Williams at Surrey University; born in Iraq to Muslim and Christian parents.
Tariq Ali, British Pakistani historian and Guardian columnist. Author of Mullahs and Heretics: a Secular History of Islam and critic of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Co-produced the documentary Hell’s Angel, criticizing Mother Teresa, with Christopher Hitchens.
Stephen K. Amos, black comedian. Appeared as an atheist on 4thought and presented the documentary Batty Man in 2007, including investigating Jamaican churches’ attitude to homosexuality.
Bidisha, novelist and feminist critic of an Indian background. Wrote a series of ‘thoughts for the day’ in The Guardian this month, appeared as an atheist on The Big Questions earlier this year and has written previously on prayer.
Siana Bangura, black history student at Cambridge, blogger and partipicant in Channel 4’s Living with the Amish. ‘Sparred with the Amish’ in her own words and ‘got hell for it’.
Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Secular and Humanist Student Societies and speaker at the 2011 Rally for a Secular Europe. Appeared on The Big Questions in January 2011.
Susan Blackmore, memeticist, writer, advisor to The Skeptic magazine and Centre for Inquiry UK and BHA distinguished supporter. Holds the 1991 CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award and signed the 2010 letter opposing the papal visit.
Tessa Blackstone, Baroness Blackstone, Labour life peer, supporter of the Accord Coalition and BHA vice president.
Baba Brinkman, rapper and writer. Created the Rap Guide to Evolution as a science education tool and performed at Lessons and Carols 2009. Also known for his Rationalist Anthem, originally performed at Geek Pop.
Jenny Bunker, philosophy lecturer at Roehampton University (previously Oxford and Southampton) and New Humanist contributor.
Aroup Chatterjee, Indian doctor and author of Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict. Testified against her beatification with Christopher Hitchens in 2003, appeared on The Big Questions to criticize her and spoke skeptically of faith healing on 4thought.
Jenny Colgan, novellist and former stand up comedian. Raised in a Roman Catholic family, and contributed to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas in 2009.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Guardian correspondent in Iran. Frequently reports on the Iranian government’s actions including its recent treatment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.
Shirley Dent, Associate Fellow at the Institute of Idea, blogger at The Guardian and New Humanist contributor. Writes frequently on literature and the wider arts, including the far right’s use of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ and Satan’s heroism in Paradise Lost.
Carol Ann Duffy, first woman (and lesbian) to hold the post of Poet Laureate. Stated as an atheist that poetry takes the place of religion in secular societies, and authored a new series of Christmas carols in 2007.
Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and NSS honorary associate. Currently 68th on The Independent on Sunday’s 2011 ‘pink list’ of the country’s most influential gay men and lesbians.
Sally Feldman, former broadcast journalist at the BBC, council member at the Media Society New Humanist editorial team member and contributor, Rationalist Association trustee and Dean of Media, Arts and Design at Westminster University.
Edna Fernandes, British Indian journalist, New Humanist contributor and author of Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism and The Last Jews of Kerala.
Shreela Flather, Baroness Flather, British Pakistani crossbencher (formerly a Conservative life peer) in the House of Lords, BHA distinguished supporter and NSS honorary associate. Appeared as an atheist on 4thought in 2011.
Wendy M. Grossman, founder of The Skeptic magazine, committee member at the Association of British Science Writers and fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Discussed claims of past life regression on The Big Questions in 2011, and has written in The Guardian on the origins of atheism and whether religion is dying.
Goranka Gudelj, Iranian activist, Outreach Coordinator at One Law for All and speaker at their 2010 Conference on Apostasy, Sharia Law and Human Rights.
Rumy Hasan, senior lecturer at Sussex University, columnist, author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths and critic of the term ‘islamophobia’. Spoke at One Law for All’s Conference on Apostasy, Sharia Law and Human Rights.
Natalie Haynes, comedian, writer and BHA distinguished supporter. Performed at Lessons and Carols 2008, contributed to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas and is a regular contributor to New Humanist.
Lez Henry, black sociologist and historian. Appeared on The Big Questions discussing the Bible’s use in the slave trade, and has written and has worked with the British Council to combat Christian-Islamic friction in mixed communities.
Richard Herring, comedian and BHA distinguished supporter. Performed at Lessons and Carols 2011 and previously attracted Christian protestors at his Edinburgh show Christ on a Bike – the Second Coming.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali-Dutch politician and ex-Muslim. Her memoirs Infidel and Nomad discuss her experiences of genital cutting, excommunication and having a fatwa issued against her.
Darcus Howe, black political activist and writer born to an Anglican priest in Trinidad. Has argued in New Statesman for religion to be kept out of the media’s youth coverage.
Deborah Hyde, editor of the skeptical blog Jourdemayne as well as The Skeptic magazine. Speaks regularly at Skeptics in the Pub meetings and will be taking part in QEDcon 2012.
Virginia Ironside, journalist and NSS honorary associate. She has written in criticism of the Catholic Church’s social attitudes, opposed the Pope’s 2010 state visit and taken pro-euthanasia stances publicly.
Lindsay Johns, black broadcaster and columnist in The Telegraph and The Guardian. Suggested any existing god would be a racist in a 2010 4thought appearance, and previously reviewed Kenan Mailk’s From Fatwa to Jihad for New Humanist in 2009.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, black dub poet raised in Christian Jamaica. Described to New Humanisthow he questioned religion while reading Marx and discovering Christianity’s historical support for slavery; later wrote ‘Reality’.
Patrick Jones, gay poet and playwright whose novel Darkness is Where the Stars Are drew protests from Christian Voice which caused Waterstones to cancel his book launch. His response was published in New Humanist.
Owen Jones, blogger and author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class. Discusses the role of the churches in determining Conservative Party support from the poor in the 19th century.
Jackie Kay, black lesbian poet and novellist. Has spoken about encountering extreme religion in Nigeria and adapted a book of the King James Bible in 2011 for the 66 Project to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Helen Keen, science-based broadcaster and comedian. Features in the Radio 4 series, It is Rocket Science! and performed at Lessons and Carols 2011.
Shappi Khorsandi, Iranian-born comedian, from a family exiled for critizing the Islamic revolution. Has campaigned against stoning with Amnesty, written in New Humanist about being an atheist comedian and performed in Lessons and Carols 2009.
Glenys Kinnock, Baroness Kinnock, Labour life peer in the House of Lords and honorary associate of the NSS.
Paula Kirby, atheist activist at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and columnist at The Washington Post. Spoke on the ‘women in atheism’ panel at the World Atheist Convention 2011 and takes theists’ questions at asktheatheists.com.
Adam Knowles, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. Spoke to the Central London Humanist Group in February 2011 with the title, ‘The End of Gay?’
Josie Long, actor and comedian. Organised two events (‘Darwin’s Birthday Spectacular’) with Robin Ince in 2009 and performed at Carols and Lessons in 2011.
Kenan Malik, Indian-born writer, broadcaster, neuroscientist and BHA distinguished supporter. Appeared on The Big Questions in January 2011 and published From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its Legacy.
Zoe Margolis, feminist and author of the sex-positive blog Girl with a One-Track Mind. Has opposed Nadine Dorries’ campaigns for abstinence based sex education in her Guardian and New Humanist columns and taken an anti-faith schools position.
Christina Martin, comedian, blogger and New Humanist contributor famous for her creation of God Trumps in 2008. Appeared on 4thought in 2010 defending Jesus as a subject for humour and performed at the Secularist of the Year 2007 ceremony.
Rhys Morgan, 17 year old skeptical blogger, critic of alternative medicine and winner of the TAM London Grassroots Skeptic award. Came to broader attention in 2011 after criticizing the Burzynski clinic in Houston, Texas and being subject to threats of legal action from them.
Maryam Namazie, human rights campaigner, blogger, spoke for One Law for All, the Council of ex-Muslims in Britain and Iran Solidarity. Spoke at the Protest the Pope march in 2010 and the World Atheist Convention in 2011.
Jo Neary, writer, actor and comedian. Appeared in Lessons and Carols 2010 and in December 2011 on the New Humanist podcast.
Pragna Patel, writer and feminist of an Indian background and founding member of Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism. Has written on the importance of secular safe spaces and spoken at Protest the Pope and at One Law for All’s seminar on Sharia law.
Christina Patterson, writer for The Independent and The Huffington Post, and BHA distinguished supporter. Past articles include commentary on multiculturalism and integration, irrationality and contemporary Iran.
Laurie Penny, feminist blogger and New Statesman columnist. Reported for NS on Protest the Pope in 2010, having supported it, and has since written on Christian pro-life campaigns and misogynistic fundamentalism.
Grayson Perry, ceramic artist, known for sexual imagery and crossdressing. Told The Times he feared reprisals from Islamists and described himself on Radio 4 as favouring ‘fundamentalist atheism’. Set to argue for ‘religion for atheists’ with Alain de Botton at Intelligence Squared.
Gerard Phillips, NSS vice president. Supported the March for a Secular Europe in 2011 and spoke on 4thought about his experiences leaving the Catholic Church because of its stance on homosexuality and about prayer in public bodies.
Lucy Porter, comedian, actor and writer. Appeared on 4thought in December 2011, responding to the question ‘Can atheists enjoy Christmas?’
Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials series and more recently The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, BHA distinguished supporter, NSS honorary associate and advocate for the Secular Europe Campaign.
Laurie Pycroft, student and founder of Pro-Test, a pressure group in support of scientific animal testing, in 2006 aged 16. Appeared on The Big Questions in 2011, discussing whether religion would survive in the future.
Hassan Radwan, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain committee member, blogger and vlogger. Taught for 15 years at Islamia Girls Secondary School and owned a Da’wah bookshop, and spoke at the One Law for All Conference on Apostasy, Sharia Law and Human Rights.
Michael Rosen, poet and broadcaster, previously Children’s Laureate (2007-2009). Previously took part in a documentary series, Why Atheism? – later distributed on DVD by the NSS – including interviews with Philip Pullman and Roman Catholic 6th form students.
Gita Sahgal, British Indian feminist and human rights activist, founding member of Women Against Fundamentalism, suspended from work at Amnesty International after critizing its relationship with Islamists. Spoke in 2011 at One Law for All’s International Conference on Women’s Rights, Sharia Law and Secularism.
Angela Saini, science writer, Guardian columnist and blogger of an Indian background. Has written in New Humanist about Indians’ rationalizing of religion and elsewhere of the country’s status as a ‘geek nation’.
Terry Sanderson, NSS president, journalist and gay activist. Spoke at Protest the Pope in 2010 and at the ‘London for a Secular Europe’ rally in February 2011, also endorsing the March for a Secular Europe in 2011 and One Law for All’s 2009 rally.
Sathnam Sanghera, journalist and memoirist of an Indian background. Appeared on 4thought in December 2010 critizing the animal rights movement, and has previously been accused of betraying Sikhism and written about Sikh fundamentalism.
Alom Shaha, science teacher, writer for The Independent, The Guardian and Inkling magazine and blogger. Has written The Young Atheist’s Handbook, due for publication in 2012, spoken online about science’s merits, being a Bangladeshi atheist and the monoethnicity of the godless community.
Simon Singh, science writer and Guardian columnist of an Indian background, author of Trick or Treatment, campaigning for libel reform since facing a court case from the British Chiropractic Association. Spoke at TAM London in 2010, and currently working with Sense About Science and the Nightingale Collaboration.
Barbara Smoker, former NSS president and vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. Spoke at GALHA’s 30th anniversary celebrations and the NSS’s ‘Which way for secularism?’ conference in 2009.
Kate Smurthwaite, pro-choice activist, stand up comedian and NSS member. Appeared on The Big Questions in 2009 and 2011, discussing Mother Teresa and the existence of Heaven. Led the Protest the Pope march in 2010.
Clare Solomon, student and education activist. Raised in a Mormon family, later converting to Islam after marrying a Bengali man; now a non-religious ex-Muslim. Drew attacks from Jewish groups by criticising Judaism and the state of Israel.
Bahram Soroush, Iranian civil rights activist, campaigning against Sharia in Britain. Spoke at One Law for All’s Conference on Apostasy, Sharia Law and Human Rights.
Francesca Stavraokpoulou, theologian and broadcaster. Presented the BBC documentary The Bible’s Buried Secrets in 2011 and previously contributed to Channel 4’s The Bible: A History. Discussed biblical historicity on The Big Questions.
Samantha Stein, freelance writer and director of Camp Quest UK. Appeared on The Atheist and the Bishop in 2009 and spoke at Denkfest 2011 in Switzerland, critiquing the current UK schools system.
Hayley Stevens, skeptical paranormal investigator and blogger. Author of the popular Hayley is a Ghost blog, writer at shethought.com, frequent visiting speaker at Skeptics in the Pub meetings and co-host of the Righteous Indignation podcast.
Peter Tatchell, queer human rights and democracy activist. Spoke at Protest the Pope in 2010, supported the March for a Secular Europe in 2011, took part in One Law for All’s and appeared on 4thought addressing Christian claims of persecution.
Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and BHA president. Has written previously that ‘sex and death lie at the poisoned heart of religion’ and in opposition to British faith schools as well as launching the Atheist Bus Campaign in 2009.
Marco Tranchino, Italian gay rights activist and member of the Central London Humanist Group. Presided at the 2010 Protest the Pope rally and supported the 2011 March for a Secular Europe.
Byron Vincent, slam poet and comedian. Winner of numerous well known slams, and enjoys mocking the values of the Catholic Church.
Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock, philosopher, columnist, crossbencher in the House of Lords, author of Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics. Stated on 4thought in 2011 that Christians should side with protestors at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Anne Marie Waters, lawyer and One Law for All campaigner. Endorsed the March for a Secular Europe in 2011 and took part in the panel discussion on women in atheism at the World Atheism Conference in Dublin and the International Conference on Women’s Rights, Sharia Law and Secularism.
Phillipa Willitts, disabled feminist blogger at The F Word. Has written on Pope Benedict XVI’s track record and contributed a segment, ‘Madness Gone Politically Correct’ to The Pod Delusion in August 2011.
Jeanette Winterson, lesbian novellist raised in a fundamentalist Christian home and author of Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Published a secular version of the nativity (The Lion, the Unicorn and Me) in 2010 and reviewed Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ in 2010.
Keith Porteous Wood, NSS General Secretary and holder of the 2007 Distinguished Services to Humanism Award. Criticized the Vatican at the United Nations in 2009 and spoke at One Law for All’s rally the same year.
Paul Zenon, street magician and ‘professional trickster’. Once made a living posing as a psychic, and is set to speak on the subject of mediums at CFI’s ‘Beyond the veil’ day conference and QEDcon 2012.
Benjamin Zephaniah, black poet and playwright known for refusing the OBE on anti-imperialist grounds. Raised in a Christian environment, he recently stated religion is ‘killing us’.
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