Whatever your views on the nature of this tragicomedy of errors we call existence—whether you believe in something divine, supernatural, spiritual, inexplicable, flying and made of spaghetti, or nothing at all— the world’s largest organised religious have been and will likely continue to be some of the most powerful organisations in the world. People realized long, long ago that questioning life, where it came from, where it goes and what it means along the way is something of an integral part of homosapien’s nature. We all consider the question at some point in our existence, and where culture goes, business follows. Every gold cross on a chain, every jewel-encrusted sculpture of Ganesha, every postcard of the $2.4 billion St. Peter’s Basilica and every politician who ever said “God Bless America” will testify to that.
Of course, the business side of things doesn’t necessarily render the beliefs any less valid: After all, it’s fair to say the enterprising minds among us will find ways to profit from just about anything, however sacred. And indeed, in today’s age of ideas and information, there’s a new kind of business model designed specifically by and for the avid non-believer: the 21st century Atheist preacher.
Now – perhaps more than any time in history – denouncing, refuting and criticising organized religion publicly has become common. The growth of information technology lets everyone talk as they want – from one-to-one to one-to-millions, and for the most part pretty anonymously. This perhaps explains why people aren’t as cautious about exploring their existential beliefs as they once were, even (or perhaps especially) when it means stepping on the toes of others’ beliefs. Us kids of the information age are all about getting rational and getting critical, and the age-old infrastructure of religion is an easy, lucrative target for critical attack.
The 21st century militant Atheist tends to preach that people born into an existing belief system of organized religion haven’t had the chance to answer the burning existential questions for themselves. Instead, the question gets replaced by a preexisting answer; one that’s commonly accepted, and one that allows for a concentration of power. The power of organised religion, atheists may say, is responsible throughout history for wars and destruction, wealth and construction. Militant Atheists preach a form of rationality, that denounces these organized beliefs as simply a tool of power and control— essentially, a big business.
That’s one more extreme side of militant atheism. There are countless variations; indeed, several schools of atheism have a purely metaphysical objection to religious ideals, without directly opposing the tradition of organised religion. The level of intensity, criticism, passion, scientific-substitution, or nihilistic bleakness that plays out in the atheistic dialogue varies as much as do people’s beliefs, but the kind practiced by the atheists on this list—the kind that apparently garners the most fame and controversy —vocally denounces religions and their institutions.
These 8 pop-culture powerhouses have gone to great lengths to have their atheistic voices heard. For some of them, their atheism rests at the core of their wealth and their success, while some others on our list have used their celebrity status as a platform from which to express their views.
7. Christopher Hitchens – Estimated net worth: $2 million
Atheism wasn’t enough for Christopher Hitchens – iconic journalist, writer, debater, all-round intellectual, the Hitch wanted to be called an antitheist. He might be remembered more for his sharp, smooth wit and fiery arguments in many a political talk show panel, but his hugely popular 2007 book God is Not Great certainly had some blistering pages to add to the new book of non-believers. Hitchens’ charges against organised religion included violence, irrationality, intolerance, racism, ignorance, bigotry and contempt for women. The result: Number one New York Times Bestseller by its third week.
6. George Carlin – Estimated net worth: $6 million
No one managed to make controversy and social criticism so entertaining and downright hilarious as Carlin did. Alongside venomous attacks on consumerism, celebrity and political culture, corporatism and conservative values, the legendary stand-up performer dedicated substantial portions of his immensely successful books and comedy specials to condemning the power of religious convictions. He often quipped that he prayed to Joe Pesci rather than a deity, because his prayers were answered just as often. Apparently he had Joe Pesci to thank, then, for his $6 million success.
5. Kathy Griffin – Estimated net worth: $15 million
Another celeb who’s capitalised on controversy, this self-described ‘militant atheist’ has provoked her fair share of outrage from religious groups for her comedy. Though the fuss usually doesn’t get in the way of her triumphs, there was a particularly hairy incident during her 2007 Emmy acceptance speech where she proclaimed “suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now”, and managed to offend enough people to get censored by the academy. Griffin‘s $15 million comedic career has seen her also actively crusades for LGBT rights and other social issues.
4. Stephen Hawking- Estimated net worth: $20 million
As a theoretical physicist, he’s said quite a lot about people’s convictions in a higher power. But Stephen Hawking’s outspokenness is more an extension of his devoutly rational-scientific understanding of the universe than a ripping social, cultural or religious critique. His latest book The Grand Design told the world that the concept of God is unnecessary to understand existence, because spontaneous creation works just fine. But there’s also sign of a less apologetic non-believer in the popular scientist; in 2011, he told an interviewer that heaven is a ‘fairy story for people afraid of the dark’.
3. Sir Ian Mckellen- Estimated net worth: $55 million
This actor has never explicitly stated his atheism, but has spoken out vehemently against certain aspects of the Christian faith; and what could be a more militant than tearing apart the Christians’ sacred doctrine? That’s right—the beloved Sir Ian takes such issue with the anti-homosexual component of Christianity that he has a reputation of ripping out certain pages (Leviticus 18:22, if you feel like following suit) from hotel Bibles. Though he’s not quite so active in the greater atheist cause, the knighted Shakespearean actor certainly warrants his reputation as one of the biggest LGBT rights champions in Hollywood, and with that, comes some unapologetic anti-religiousness.
2. Richard Dawkins- Estimated net worth: $135 million
Though first and foremost an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins is probably the most prolific atheist figure alive today, with his 2006 novel The God Delusion having sold more than two million copies in 31 languages to date. Richard Dawkins is so passionate about the atheist cause that he spearheads a so-called Out Campaign—inspired by the gay rights movement—which encourages “closet” atheists to vocalize their non-belief. The $135 million scientist remains the quintessential Atheist preacher; he’s even been called a “fundamentalist” by his academic peers.
1. Seth MacFarlane – Estimated net worth: $150 million
Anyone who saw early Family Guy seasons will remember Jesus Christ as a recurring character, prone to all kinds of neat party tricks poised as “miracles”. You might’ve since lost track of all the hugely successful shows Macfarlane has produced, but they’re wont to have the potential to offend on just about every sensitive issue. When it comes to religion though, the cartoonist has more on his mind than silly gags. Multiple public appearances reveal his vocal interest in the “atheist movement” and the advancement of, in his words, “knowledge over faith”. Regardless of whether you share the belief or not, some of (what are generally viewed as) the funniest television moments in recent history owe their inspiration to this wealthy cartoon tycoon’s irreverence.
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