This list of a dozen atheists who made powerful contributions in 2011 will actually be a baker's dozen for reasons that will become obvious when you reach number 5. Let's hand out some tributes.
Note that the contributions don't have to be specifically for the cause of atheism if they are more generally in support of a science-and-reason based, naturalistic view of reality.
Those listed below are not in any order - well, except for the first name on the list. There was only one atheist of the year for 2011, though sadly he is no longer with us. Of course, it's...
1. Christopher Hitchens - for his courage, energy, and dignity right up to the end, as death approached.
2. Leo Igwe - for his strong and courageous campaigning on one of the most crucial issues of religious oppression in the world right now: the witch hunting of women and children in Africa. I hope to meet up with him in 2012.
3. Maryam Namazie - for her tireless campaigning for the the rights and freedoms of women in the face of political Islam.
4. Steven Pinker - particularly for The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is my "book of the year" and a monumental contribution to our understanding of history and ourselves, and more generally to the cause of reason.
5. Michael Nugent and Grania Spingies - for their efforts in running the major atheist convention in Dublin, by all accounts one of the biggest and best freethought gatherings ever.
6. Leslie Cannold - she continues to hold down her position as one of Australia's most prominent and outspoken intellectuals. Her new book, The Book of Rachael, is an important contribution of its kind.
7. Richard Dawkins - you can't ignore his words and actions last year or any year. Always a huge presence as one of the major public intellectuals in the world, and with an important new book, The Magic of Reality, explaining science to children and young adults.
8. Cristina Rad - she was suddenly everywhere in 2011. To be honest ... she has a bit to learn, as shown in a TV appearance in Australia where she got talked over by her opposition, but 2011 was a breakout year for her.
9. Tanya Smith - deserves all credit for her work with Atheist Alliance International, for which she is currently President and General Manager.
10. Geoffrey Robertson - agree with it or not, we mustn't overlook his campaign to bring the pope and the Vatican to face international justice (continuing in the wake of the publication of The Case of the Pope in late 2010).
11. Jane Caro - this list is a bit Aussie heavy, but attribute it to the fact that we Aussies have been punching above our weight. She was a huge media presence in Australia last year, and has been outspoken (and effectively so) as an atheist. Arguably the star of the Intelligence Squared debate on atheism.
12. Udo Schuklenk - chaired the Royal Society of Canada panel that recommended legalising physician-assisted suicide. Whatever ultimately comes of this, it is the kind of towering intellectual, yet practical, contribution that merits recognition and honour.
Obviously there are many others who deserve to be on such a list. For example, I'm conscious of being somewhat out of touch with many current events in the world. For example, a more considered list would have to take account of what the likes of Prabir Ghosh have been doing lately. Much is happening throughout the world, all the time, and it would be a difficult job continually keeping tabs. My apologies in advance for any glaring or stupid omissions.
There are also people who would have been on a similar list for, say, 2010, but who appeared (to me at least) to have relatively quiet years in 2011. That probably means that they were hard at work, and that we'll see the fruits of their work later. Daniel Dennett comes to mind in this category. So does Taslima Nasrin. But perhaps their most recent activities have simply gone under my radar.
In any event, my listed 12 (or 13) all made particularly noteworthy contributions in 2011, even if there are others whom I've missed and who are equally deserving. Loud cheers for them all, please! And now let's astonish the world as we defend reason, freedom, and science in 2012.
Edit: And as so often happens, I want to make an addition. A.C. Grayling should have been on the list somewhere. I was thinking that his The Good Book came out in 2010 and that 2011 was a quiet year for him by his usual standards. But that book actually came out in early 2011, apparently, so my mistake.