Five Inspirational Female Nonbelievers to Recognize during Women’s History Month

Since 1987 the US government has recognized March as Women’s History Month, a time to pay tribute to the achievements of women around the world. Unsurprisingly, many women who are notable for their accomplishments as activists, writers, actors, scientists, and a host of other professions are also critical of religion and have identified as atheists and humanists. Here are just a few famous women who were or are good without a god.

1. Sandra Faber

An astronomer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Sandra Faber has made innumerable contributions to our understanding of the beginnings of our universe, the formation of galaxies, and the origins of our planet. In 2013, President Obama recognized her notable achievements with the National Medal of Science. She is also a staunch atheist who finds meaning not in religious doctrine or deities but in the beauty of the natural laws of science. In an interview with PBS, she stated that there are only two possible explanations for the origin of the universe: “One is that there is a God and that God made it that way. The only other approach…is to argue that there really is an infinite, or a very big, ensemble of universes out there and we are in one.”  In the interview Faber asserted her preference for the latter materialistic explanation rather than theistic faith in a creator, adding, “I take comfort in the fact that it is a beautiful universe, and we belong here and that we fit. This is our home.”

2. Emma Goldman

Polarizing in her own time and still controversial today, Emma Goldman was an early twentieth-century political activist who advocated for anarchism, free expression, sexual liberation, birth control, and worker’s rights. Some of her most brazen statements, however, concern her criticisms of religion. In an essay titled “The Philosophy of Atheism,” published in her radical journal Mother Earth, Goldman accused religion, and Christianity in particular, of making humanity too complacent in this life to create the real individual and social change necessary to improve people’s lives. “Have not all theists painted their Deity as the god of love and goodness?” she asked, countering that “after thousands of years of such preachments, the gods remain deaf to the agony of the human race.” Goldman’s atheism didn’t just criticize religion, however. Goldman also put forth a vision of society that, underneath her fiery rhetoric, is humanistic in its assertion that human beings themselves have the capacity to make the world a better place. She defined atheism as “the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities.” In boldly speaking out against religion, Goldman affirmed ideals that continue to resonate with humanists today.

3. Katharine Hepburn

Known for asserting herself in a time when actresses were expected to be submissive, Katharine Hepburn forever changed America’s image of women in not only the movies but also in society. Both on screen and off, she exuded independence, intelligence, and style. Her professional persona challenged the notion that women could only be featured in films as sex objects or love interests. Instead, she championed the perception of women as serious actors, and she continued acting well into her seventies. Hepburn wore men’s shirts and trousers, considered scandalous in the 1940s, and often appeared in public without makeup. Given her unconventional views, her atheism seems unsurprising. In a 1973 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, she expounded on her godless worldview, saying, “I don’t think you go anywhere [after you die]…I’ve never felt the slightest interest in the next world. I think it’s here. And I think anything good that you’re going to do, you should do for other people here and not to make yourself have a happy time in the next world.” For her trailblazing film roles and her humanist outlook, the American Humanist Association honored Hepburn with its Arts Award in 1985.

4. Zora Neale Hurston

Many people might remember Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a staple of high school literature classes across the country. However, Hurston was not only an accomplished writer but also an anthropologist and an atheist. She attended Barnard College as the only African American student, where she worked with noted figures such as Margaret Mead. She researched the American South, the Caribbean, and South America. She not only collected folktales from these regions but also shed light on the persistent racism and sexism of these cultures. Perhaps her experiences visiting many parts of the world influenced her disbelief in a deity, as she is credited with the quote, “Gods always behave like the people who created them.” Further evidence of her atheism exists in her autobiography, in which Hurston describes prayer as “a cry of weakness” and an attempt to avoid responsibility for one’s own life. She also dismisses “organized creeds” as “collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.” In her brilliant novels and poems, Hurston drew inspiration not from a higher power but from the uniqueness of human experience and culture.

5. Diana Nyad

Distance swimmer Diana Nyad made international headlines on September 2, 2013, when she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. Her accomplishment was remarkable, and even more so given her age (sixty-four) at the time, but Nyad is certainly no novice when it comes to hardship, having survived sexual abuse and overcome discrimination directed as her for being a lesbian. Shortly after her historic swim Nyad made headlines again, this time for coming out as an atheist on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday show. Her discussion enlightened not only Oprah but also America about atheists’ ability to feel wonder and awe at the grandeur of the natural world without the need for a higher power. “I don’t understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that,” Nyad said. “My definition of god is humanity and the love of humanity…I’m an atheist who’s in awe,” she continued. Her sense of wonder echoes the sentiments of many humanists who find meaning in the experience of being human and not in religious traditions.


There are certainly many more remarkable women throughout our history who have openly professed a disbelief in a god. Which atheist and humanist women inspire you?

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