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Tom Flynn (Amherst, NY) is the editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism’s First Amendment Task Force, and the author of The Trouble with Christmas, Galactic Rapture, and Nothing Sacred.
This book will prove highly useful to serious students and researchers as well as just those who want to learn more about the history of freethought. Omitted from the more critical reviews here on Amazon is the very important fact that each entry in this work is accompanied by an informed and very useful bibliography ie. other sources to pursue. While the one or two critics here have some useful points, no single-volume work can ever hope to be either comprehensive or exhaustive, nor does this volume claim to be.
However, while intellectual honesty requires that I disclose my own contribution to this book in the form of the entry on Thomas Paine, it is equally important to add that in close to 25 years of research, public history, and writing in the field of freethought history, democratic reform, and (yes) that most glorious agitator, Tom Paine, I know of no single work on its subject that even approaches THE NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA OF UNBELIEF for usefulness and scholarly integrity.
Yes, I have a copy at ready hand on the shelf and yes, I use it. And no, I did not, nor will I ever, receive so much as a penny for my contribution to it or for this review. With best wishes to you all.
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At minimum, an encyclopedia should: (1) convey accurate information; and (2) be written by contributors who are authorities in their fields. On these two scores, this encyclopedia succeeds. But I must confess my ambivalence for this volume. There is a great deal missing here that ought not to be, and there is a good deal of material included that is of questionable value. For example, somehow an "Encyclopedia of Unbelief" has managed to miss completely the great British poet, Phillip Larkin, and yet manages to give a full entry to Steve Allen, a mediocre American entertainer who happened to be an atheist. Also, Ayn Rand merits an entry (and rightly so), but she was surely not a novelist of the literary caliber of George Eliot. And yet Eliot fails to win an entry of her own (she is mentioned, briefly, in the article on British Literature and Unbelief). Likewise, Emily Dickinson gets only the briefest mention in the "American Literature and Unbelief" article, but receives no in-depth treatment. I'm sorry, but George Eliot and Emily Dickinson deserve far more space in such an encyclopedia than Steve Allen.
In terms of energy and entertainment value, the editor also made what I would regard as some fatal decisions. He decided not to include stand-alone entries concerning still-living non-believers, and he decided not to include internet references or contemporary atheist groups. This constitutes just pure timidity and laziness on his part. The effect of this is to give the volume the feeling of having been written in the 1980s, and not the 21st century. It thus gives off a dusty, historical, and non-contemporary feel.Read more ›
As a contributor (article: Life, Origins of, and Unbelief) I may be biased, but I find this densely packed volume a surprisingly rich resource on topics as diverse as history, literature, science, biography, and even theology. Browsing through this volume, I have discovered among many other things an African-American literature going back to the 1770s, a witty and critical evaluation of David Hume (which I think David Hume himself would have enjoyed), a meticulously evenhanded account of ways in which believers can handle the problem of evil, a history of secular Judaism, and an analysis of the ever-popular myth of "deathbed conversion" that attaches itself to prominent unbelievers.
I am in two minds about the decision not to give direct references to web sites (although some are mentioned in the text). Such references may be convenient, but the resources referred to may disappear, or, worse, deteriorate in quality, and the articles themselves are of course a rich source of search terms.
At its current price, this impressively produced volume is probably beyond the reach of most readers, but would be a valuable addition to any library, and I look forward to the appearance of a paperback edition directed at the individual purchaser.
The encyclopedia should appeal to any reader who seeks a lucid, authoritative, and comprehensive guide to the history, past and present, of unbelief. The book constitutes a treasure trove of engaging articles on such diverse topics as atheism, agnosticism, biblical criticism, blasphemy, the historicity of Jesus, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Darwinism, intelligent design, ethics, women's suffrage,immortality, the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the demographics of unbelief, speaking in tongues, resurrection, prayer, nihilism, stoicism. Included, too, are numerous entries on notable unbelievers in a wide range of disciplines: philosophy, physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, journalism, theology, history, belles lettres. One can read about unbelief in Aristotle, Lucretius, Epicurus, Freud, Nietzsche, David Hume, Galileo, Edward Gibbon, Clarence Darrow, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and such women freethinkers as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ernestine L. Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anne Hutchinson, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
Having written a few entries on literary figures for the new encyclopedia, I may be vulnerable to the charge of biased reviewing. I, of course, don't see it that way. Having read books on unbelief for a half century, I think I can separate the wheat from the chaff.
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