The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief edited by Tom Flynn, Foreword by Richard Dawkins (Prometheus Books) Successor to the highly acclaimed Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985), edited by the late Gordon Stein, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief is a comprehensive reference work on the history, beliefs, and thinking of America’s fastest growing minority: those who live without religion.
As in the previous edition, this work does more to define a necessary cognitive and social critique of religion that is couched in a naturalistic avowal of culminative, demonstratable scientific enquiry and skepticism toward magical characterizations of transcendental aspirations. Personally I feel this critical stance toward religions should show greater tolerance for the innate conservatism of human longing for certainty and consolation. By taking an forceful secular stance against all religion, the importance of unbelief is marginalized in the very areas where its critique is likely to thrive. For instance the Society of Evangelical Agnostics, which for 12 short years starting in 1975, united well over 1000 agnostics in a loose fellowship around Huxley's understanding of the meaning of agnosticism, and other such initiatives.
All-new articles by the field’s foremost scholars describe and explain every aspect of atheism, agnosticism, secular humanism, secularism, and religious skepticism. Topics include morality without religion, unbelief in the historicity of Jesus, critiques of intelligent design theory, unbelief and sexual values, and summaries of the state of unbelief around the world and within religions. More than 130 respected scholars and activists worldwide served on the editorial advisory board and over 100 authoritative contributors have written in excess of 500 entries.
In addition to covering developments since the publication of the original edition, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief includes a larger number of biographical entries and much-expanded coverage of the linkages between unbelief and social reform movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the labor movement, woman suffrage, anarchism, sex radicalism, and second-wave feminism.
Unfortunately the volume does not cover the arts or major
poets and writers many of whom deal extensively with
implications of unbelief in their work. The poet Philip Larkin
or John Asbury to name a few, even William Blake can be read as
a satirist rather than a prophet. 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. It is stupifying to open up a book purporting itself to be a "new" encyclopedia of unbelief, and being unable to find an entry for, say, "the flying spaghetti monster," or "richard dawkins." And even though there is an article on atheist periodicals, there is nothing on atheists on the internet. And even though you can find articles on literature and non-belief, somehow you can look far and wide for anything on film or contemporary pop culture and unbelief. in other words, this 21st century "new" encyclopedia has missed the dominant art medium of our times (film), the dominant communication vehicle of our times (the internet), and the dominant cultural phenomenon of our times (capitalist pop culture). Non-belief is represented in all these spaces in ways interesting for academic study, and yet they are not included in a purportedly contemporary encyclopedia.
My advice to the editor of future volumes: don't just listen to, or solicit articles from, academics over fifty. Spice it up. How about an entry by or about that fire-breathing atheist, Camille Paglia? She'd set some old geezers' knickers aflame if you set her loose on an entry titled, "sex and non-belief."
The major religions are covered with some credibility except for the egregious entry on unbelief in Buddhism which totally ignores the radical critique of Nagarjuna that has an antimetaphysical discernment in its long tradition. Eventually trends in the sciences and philosophy need to be considered within the frames of unbelief; and the entry on unbelief and the neglect of social and behavioral sciences to investigate it as a cultural and social phenomena may hopefully prod many a graduate student research project.
Unbelief is an important social and cultural style of diffidence toward totalizing ideologies and dogmas that attempt to dampen the brash realization of human dignity and freedom includes to know things for ourselves and not just by obedience to asserted authority. Unbelief attempts to allocate our resources toward social and political, environmental schemes that will maximize our efforts to the greater good of all. Unbelief has a long pedigree in skepticism and an important future in religious as well as secular thought. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief continues to offer a guide in the necessary direction of human freedom in the ability to doubt, questions and rework reasons for understanding and avowal.
The distinguished contributors—philosophers, scientists, scholars, and Nobel Prize laureates—include Robert Alley, Joe Barnhart, David Berman, Sir Hermann Bondi, Vern L. Bullough, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Paul Edwards, Barbara Ehrenreich, Antony Flew, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Peter Hare, Van Harvey, Susan Jacoby, Paul Kurtz, Richard Leakey, Gerd Lüdemann, Michael Martin, Martin E. Marty, Kai Nielsen, Steven Pinker, Robert M. Price, Richard Rorty, John R. Searle, Peter Singer, Ibn Warraq, Steven Weinberg, George A. Wells, David Tribe, Sherwin Wine, and many others.
With a foreword by evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins, this unparalleled reference work provides comprehensive knowledge about unbelief in its many varieties and manifestations.
With a foreword by evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins, this unparalleled reference work provides comprehensive knowledge about unbelief in its many varieties and manifestations.
The volume before you is the successor to The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, which was edited by Gordon Stein and published by Prometheus Books in 1985. The original Encyclopedia was something that had never before existed: a comprehensive reference to unbelief in religion. (The most comprehensive prior works were Samuel Porter Putnam, Four Hundred Years of Freethought (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1894); and George E Macdonald, Fifty Years of Freethought, 2 vols (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1929). Both are widely cited by New Encyclopedia contributors writing on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century freethought, but they are limited by their focus on freethought, a significant "sect" within unbelief, but still only one sect.) Stein was his generation's foremost historian, bibliographer, and literary collector in atheism, agnosticism, freethought, and related domains. He was the perfect choice to edit the original Encyclopedia, which enjoyed the success it richly deserved and immediately became the field's standard reference.
SO, WHY A NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA?
There are several reasons why I believe this volume was not just important, but necessary:
First, the twenty-two years since the original work appeared have seen more than their share of history unfold. On the world stage, the fall of Communism utterly reshaped the context in which religious unbelief is understood. The United States, too, has seen significant developments, from the grisly death of raucous atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair (See O'HAIR, MADALYN MURRAY; UNITED STATES, UNBELIEF IN THE) to the rise of a vigorous, academically respected secular humanist movement. (See SECULAR HUMANISM)
Second, there have been multiple reorientations as regards the role of religion in society worldwide. Once again, there was the fall of Communism. With the collapse of regimes committed to dialectical materialism and the near-disappearance of Marxist academics, Western atheists and humanists found themselves more nearly alone on the barricades of unbelief than they had been in more than a century. Meanwhile, Western Europe was freed from the intellectual and physical threat entailed in its immediate proximity to the Soviet empire. It responded by becoming openly post-Christian; the United States moved in the opposite direction, and is now the only first world society that displays third world levels of religiosity. (For this and all demographic claims made in this introduction, see DEMOGRAPHY OF UNBELIEF) Strong growth in public piety, brazen reentanglement of religion and government, and heightened acceptance for strident religious expression in public venues came to dominate the American scene after 1990. Yet during the same period, the number of Americans who told pollsters and social scientists that they reject any formal religious affiliation more than doubled. While all of this was taking place, radical Islam greatly expanded its influence, becoming a focus of social turmoil not only in the Middle East but across Indonesia, the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Europe, even as it furnished the worldwide background for the so-called war on terrorism. During the same years, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam all began to exhibit a disturbing trend: In areas where religious practice was expanding, the type of religious practice that expanded most rapidly tended to be socially and doctrinally conservative and theologically literalistic. Often such expansion occurred at the expense of more historically and scientifically sophisticated, theologically moderate outlooks. It was as though in all four traditions, great ages of liberal secularism were drawing to a simultaneous close. In the United States Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals shouldered aside "mainline" Protestant denominations and sharply marginalized religious liberalism. In India an aggressively nationalistic Hindu fundamentalism threatened to supplant progressive, secularizing viewpoints prevalent since the days of Nehru. (See INDIA, UNBELIEF IN) Across the Jewish Diaspora, Orthodoxy—which had not long before seemed poised for extinction—regained robust vigor; in Israel Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy attained a position from which they often oppressed more liberal forms of Judaic practice. In the Muslim world secularizers in the mold of Kemal Ataturk were reviled by fundamentalists and in some countries dared not raise their heads. (See ISLAM, UNBELIEF WITHIN) If the religious environment has changed so radically, then irreligion too deserves fresh scrutiny.
The third and final reason to compile a new encyclopedia is less high-flown: there were just some things about the 1985 Encyclopedia that I (or members of the Editorial Advisory Board) wished to approach differently. Compared to its precursor, the current work relies less heavily on survey articles. There are more biographical entries. A greater effort has been made to place unbelief—in particular, nineteenth-century freethought—into a richer context vis-à-vis its companion radical reform movements, including anarchism, socialism, labor reform, feminism and woman suffrage, sex radicalism, and even Spiritualism. (7. See ANARCHISM AND UNBELIEF; BIRTH CONTROL AND UNBELIEF; LABOR AND UNBELIEF; SEX RADICALISM AND UNBELIEF; SOCIALISM AND UNBELIEF; SPIRITUALISM AND UNBELIEF; WOMAN SUFFERAGE MOVEMENT AND UNBELIEF) Care was also taken to present a balanced portrait of twentieth-century American unbelief, including the unsavory digressions some activists made into eugenics, racism, and fiscal opportunism. (See AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF ATHEISM; JOHNSON, JAMES HERVEY; SMITH, CHARLES LEE; TELLER, WOOLSEY; TRUTH SEEKER, THE; O'HAIR, MADALYN MURRAY)
Over the years since the original Encyclopedia's release, some parts of it aged better than others. Stein included as appendices directories of unbelieving groups and publications; these became obsolete too quickly in an otherwise enduring work. For that reason, and because directory-style information is now so easily obtained from the Internet, tables of groups and publications have been omitted from the New Encyclopedia. Another appendix to the 1985 work combined a bibliography of unbelief and a directory of publishers. In view of the pending release of Bruce Cathey's mammoth worldwide bibliography of unbelief, whose scope far exceeds anything that could have been attempted here, the present work contains no bibliographic appendix.
The word strikes some as clumsy and negative. Why call this volume—or its predecessor—an encyclopedia of unbelief? It is a question I heard often, and one that Stein anticipated in his introduction to the 1985 work:
In the English language about the closest synonym for unbelief, as it is being used here, is heterodoxy. That word, in turn, can be said to mean "not holding orthodox beliefs or traditional opinions"—on religious matters, in our context. . . . This is the history of heresy, blasphemy, rejection of belief, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and rationalism. In many respects, it is also the history of the intellectual progress of the human race. (Gordon Stein, introduction to The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Gordon Stein (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985).
In a movement with a rich, sometimes contentious sectarian history, unbelief is one of the few labels no major faction ever claimed. For that reason one hopes it can be equally inclusive toward atheists and agnostics, deists and freethinkers, religious humanists and secular humanists, Ethical Culturists and infidels. Unbelief covers the conceptual floor they all share, heedless of disputes between reductive materialists and rational mystics, deaf to the arguments between moral nihilists and secular humanists who claim objective validity for their ethical moral codes. Despite their differences, they all share a foundational disbelief in any religious system or supernatural domain. They're all unbelievers, and the New Encyclopedia is for—and about—them.
A few notes are in order concerning the policies that shaped the New Encyclopedia's structure, compilation, and editing.
As a rule, articles do not cite online sources. This decision was made because of the work's long anticipated shelf life relative to the ephemerality of Internet addresses.
In order to qualify for a discrete, named biographical entry, individuals must be deceased. Individuals who died after November 2005 could not be included. In order to qualify for a discrete, named subject entry, organizations and institutions must be defunct, or must have operated continually for more than fifty years as of November 2005. This is intended to prevent the accumulation of evanescent directory-style information about current groups and institutions. Individuals and organizations denied coverage in freestanding entries may of course be discussed in other entries, and may be located using the index.
Certain issues regarding unbelief are controversial among unbelievers. On several such matters the New Encyclopedia unabashedly reflects a "house stance," though contributed articles expressing divergent positions have been welcomed. For example, the New Encyclopedia accepts the definitions of the words atheism and agnosticism defended by Stein in the 1985 work and elsewhere. (See particularly Gordon Stein, "Atheism," in The Encyclopedia of Unbelief) It interprets a-theism in accord with its Greek roots: the absence of belief in a supernatural being. On this view, in order to be an atheist one need not deny the existence of God; it is enough to be without belief that God (or, by extension, a supernatural order) exists. This position has interesting implications. For one, it rejects the popular view of atheism and agnosticism as adjacent points along a single continuum of religious belief and disbelief. This is the notion that underlies flippant accusations that atheists are just agnostics who have grown too sure of themselves, or that agnostics are atheists who don't trust their own judgment. In contrast, this work views atheism and agnosticism as independent qualities. Atheism pertains to the belief or disbelief that a god or a supernatural order exists: a question of fact. In contrast, agnosticism pertains to whether we can have reliable knowledge that a god or supernatural order exists: what philosophers call a question of epistemology. From this it follows that a person can be simultaneously an atheist and an agnostic without contradiction. The New Encyclopedia's view is not shared by all the authorities, or even by all of its contributors. Some explicitly characterize atheism and agnosticism as adjacent points on the same continuum, or hold that to be an atheist one must actively deny the existence of a god. Where a distinguished contributor holds such a view, compliance to the "house line" is not demanded—only internal consistency and integrity of argument.
Other "house stances" include:
1. Secular humanism is in no sense a religion.
2. Religion, properly understood, necessarily entails supernaturalism. This rejects Paul Tillich's identification of religion with any "ultimate concern," under which even such things as a passion for fly fishing might be spoken of as one's religion. Similarly rejected is John Dewey's attempt to endow the words religion and religious with independent meanings, such that any deeply felt commitment might be termed "religious." The New Encyclopedia relies on a definition of religion that I offered in 1996: Religion is "a life stance that includes at minimum a belief in the existence and fundamental importance of a realm transcending that of ordinary experience. (11. Tom Flynn, "Why Is Religious Humanism?" Free Inquiry (Fall 1996). See also Flynn, "Watching Our Language," a sidebar to "A Secular Humanist Definition: Setting the Record Straight," Free Inquiry (Fall 2002). See also RELIGION)
3. Science and religion can genuinely stand in conflict. This rejects Stephen Jay Gould's view that, properly understood, religion and science occupy "non-overlapping magisteria" whose agendas never collide. On the contrary, in the New Encyclopedia's view, religion and science offer competing, mutually exclusive accounts in many areas, including cosmology, the origins of life, and even certain moral conundrums. (See DARWINISM; EVOLUTION AND UNBELIEF; REGLION IN CONFLICT WITH SCIENCE; DRAPER, JOHN WILLIAM; WHITE, ANDREW DICKSON)
4. So-called religious humanism merits coverage in this work—even though to the degree that it is religious as defined above, it is not a form of unbelief. (See RELIGIOUS HUMANISM; ETHICAL CULTURE; JUDAISM, UNBELIEF WITHIN; UNITARIANISM TO 1961; UNIVERSALISM TO 1961; UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM; SOUTH PLACE ETHICAL SOCIETY; AMERICAN HUMANISM ASSOCIATION) One reason for this inclusion is historical. From deism to Unitarianism, Universalism, and Ethical Culture, among others, movements that fell short of full "unbelief' have played key roles in countering orthodoxy and in opening social spaces wherein religious doubt could openly be expressed. The second reason to include religious humanism is that many of the contemporary movements and personal commitments that accept the religious humanist label in fact carry no supernatural content. Think of a Unitarian Universalist humanist who has no belief in a cosmic designer, an immortal human soul, or the efficacy of prayer; much as he or she might self-describe as a "religious humanist," such a person simply isn't in any rigorous sense religious. (In many US Unitarian Universalist churches, naturalistic humanism—powerful since the early twentieth century—has been or is being supplanted by neo-paganism, Wicca, generic "spirituality," and in some congregations a resurgent Christianity) A label that includes that word might bring comfort or improve one's perceived standing in others' eyes, but it is a misnomer. For both of these reasons the New Encyclopedia includes substantial coverage of religious humanism, undeterred by the handful of its contemporary expressions that truly are religious in the rigorous sense embraced here. These include forms of humanist practice that consider a glorious future for the human species guaranteed (not knowable through purely natural means); that effectively elevate humanity to godlike status (rare); that endorse paranormal claims including divination, astrology, extrasensory perception, and traditional healing; or that impute independent agency or quasi-supernatural powers to such abstractions such human love, élan vital, or the march of history. Historical examples of genuinely "religious" humanisms would include Comtean positivism and pre-Soviet Marxism. Naming contemporary examples here would be needlessly provocative.
The reader who peruses multiple New Encyclopedia entries and comes away with the impression that issues of this character are being treated inconsistently will often be correct, but this divergence reflects actual diversity of opinion on these subjects among unbelievers—and contributors. Caveat lector.
WHY DOES A NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA OF UNBELIEF MATTER?
In my personal opinion, it matters because unbelief itself matters—admittedly a contentious stance. Many Americans might disagree, noting that religiosity seems so pervasive and is rapidly expanding throughout public life. Some Europeans might disagree also, noting that religiosity has shriveled and now seems socially irrelevant. The very fact that unbelief seems unimportant for opposing reasons—and that merely within the confines of Western culture—should give us pause before we consign unbelief to history's bulging dustbin. It is true that many of unbelief's most prestigious recent advocates—labor reformers, political revolutionaries, and academic Marxists—have largely melted away. It is true, and already noted here, that atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, old-line freethinkers, and anticlericals stand increasingly alone on the barricades of radical reform. Despite these historical developments, the fundamental stance that all unbelievers share, the conviction that the everyday world of matter, energy, and their interactions is either all that exists or all that matters, has an inescapable significance.
We can grasp this significance by considering how important it would be if unbelievers' naturalistic worldview were definitely proven wrong—say, by some demonstration that one of the conventional theistic worldviews was inarguably true. Imagine for the sake of argument that the core contentions of Christianity were somehow proven correct beyond any possibility of question. If the universe really is intentionally designed, and the designer knows and cares for us—if each of us truly hosts an immortal soul that will know an eternity of ecstasy or pain determined by our behavior during an eyeblink sojourn on earth—if this and the rest of the Christian worldview is true, then the knowledge that this is true is the most important item of knowledge any human being could possess. No scientific discovery, no mathematical theorem, no artistic expression, no secret to success, no avowal of love could ever be as significant as the knowledge that gave us accurately the key to eternity.
But now imagine (as unbelievers hold to be the case) that no conventional theistic worldview is true—but that millions of people still order their lives, allocate their resources, and make decisions as though some form of theism were true. Knowing this is terribly important, too, if for a different reason. To believing readers, I propose a thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that unbelievers are correct. Suppose that each human being is nothing more than an accidental and temporary convergence of pattern . . . that nothing is eternal . . . that the only values we can hold authentically are the ones we create and embrace for ourselves. Suppose most of all that this life is the only one that any of us will ever have. If those things are true, then the most important item of knowledge any religious believer could ever possess is the knowledge that his or her faith is groundless. Denied that knowledge, ardent believers—perhaps we should think of them as misbelievers—will go on squandering the precious hours and days of their only lives pursuing otherworldly rewards that will—that can—never be theirs. In addition to making empty investments in ineffectual prayer and ritual, misbelievers may forsake harmless pleasures (think Mormons and coffee) or even disdain highly beneficial practices (think Christian Scientists and medical care, or Muslims and commercial credit). Recall again that the fastest-growing pieties tend to be literalistic and retrograde, and to grow at the expense of liberal strands within the same faith community. Mere decades ago, religious liberalism held out the promise that it might tame religious conviction, making of it something with which naturalists could effortlessly coexist. Sadly, religious liberalism no longer commands much momentum; in almost every religious community the momentum lies much further to the right. The odds are greater today than at any time in nearly a century that a randomly chosen believer will be a literalist, if not an outright fundamentalist, within whatever tradition he or she inhabits. If false beliefs are so likely to be taken so seriously by so many, then we cannot avoid this harrowing conclusion: if unbelief is true, countless misbelievers are stunting their only lives in tragic and eventually irremediable ways. Consider the deep-felt pain of men and women who have thought their way from piety to atheism, but achieved this only in their old age—there is no reclaiming a lifetime dissipated in service to a god who never was. That is one reason why unbelief matters very much.
Or consider this: Across our world, billions embrace one religion or another. Tens of billions of person-hours, hundreds of billions of dollars, are devoted to affairs of faith. How much might the human prospect have been improved had this energy and these resources been even partially redirected down the centuries toward improving the human prospect in this world? What technological innovations do we live without today, what medical breakthroughs remain undiscovered, what dazzling philosophical and artistic ideas remain unconceived? (Keep in mind that I'm not even talking about the way some faiths engender hostility toward scientific discovery or the social application of its products—for now I'm focused solely on the diversion of resources.) If unbelievers are right and no religion is true, why wait another moment before striving to deflect so much human passion and wealth into channels at whose end some real benefit can result?
Finally, consider how much we might learn about the human brain and "human nature" by studying the cognitive mechanisms through which religions exert their extraordinary power. (See COGNITIVE SCIENCE AND UNBELIEF) What is it that endows religious ideas—all of them, on this view, untrue—with a compelling psychological resonance so far exceeding that wielded by any of the other sorts of untruths and wild surmises that human beings have seen fit to make up over the ages? Why does religion tug at us (at least, some of us) so urgently? Equally important, why does religion leave some individuals cold? Why does the size of the apparently "faith-resistant" population vary so widely between cultures? (Think of the United States, with its relatively modest unbelieving population, compared to western Europe or Japan, where strong faith is quite exceptional.) From my vantage at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine more important questions for the social sciences to examine. (In this connection the entry UNBELIEF, EMPIRICAL, NEGLECT OF IN THE BEHAVIORAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCES is most provocative)
Believers may find these suggestions shocking—which merely underscores the significance of the gulf between the ways believers and unbelievers look at the world. Most (though not all) believers see human nature as a duality of body and spirit; they see their brains not as what they are but as things they have. They see the universe as planned and purposive, as something understood in its totality by a force that is essentially benign. (See EXISTENCE OF GOD, ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST) Many see morality as definite, inflexible, and ordained. Most view reality as eternal and attach primary significance to the countless eons that they expect will come after our earthly sojourn. While unbelievers are far from homogeneous, most would disagree with this cluster of views. Most unbelievers see human nature as monistic; consciousness is simply what goes on in our brains as viewed from the inside, and, yes, Virginia, we are our brains. Many reject any idea of "spirit" or immaterial causation; everything is physics. Most unbelievers see the universe as unplanned, as purposeless, as something that has never been understood in toto and probably never will be, unless one day human beings (or other intelligences of equally natural origin) rise to meet that challenge. Far from benign, unbelievers see the universe as coldly neutral—or they may discern, as Bertrand Russell did, a mute hostility in the relentless, uncaring order of the cosmos. On morality, opinion is diverse. Some unbelievers feel that morality must be utterly flexible and relative. Some argue that without God all things are possible, so we should launch ourselves headlong into every possible alternative, run every experiment, test every option, break every barrier. Others conclude that we can discern the outlines of an objective moral code that best serves the welfare of human communities because it is best fitted to the way humans think and interact. What almost all unbelievers agree on is that no part of morality has been ordained, there being no entity in a position to do the ordaining. As for cosmology, unbelievers generally draw their cosmic outlooks from science, which says that our universe had a distinct beginning and predicts it will one day end. On the best available evidence, eternity is not in the cards. This brings us to what is perhaps the most fundamental difference between believers and unbelievers: whereas most traditional religious believers claim to attach primary importance to eternity, unbelievers necessarily attach primary—indeed, sole—importance to this life. Hence the sick anguish so many of us feel as we watch our believing fellow citizens throw away vast chunks of their only lives—lives whose very solitary and precious finitude their faiths render them impotent to grasp.
Believers often have enormous difficulty "getting their heads around" the way unbelievers see the world—so much so that in countries as generally devout as the United States, it may seem convenient to deny that unbelievers actually exist in anything more than token numbers. By contrast, unbelievers seem to have less difficulty internalizing the believer's mind-set, perhaps because so many unbelievers were once believers themselves; in their lives they've seen both sides (I number myself in this group). Yet in reality, unbelievers exist in great numbers. Even in the pious United States, unbelievers form one of the largest identifiable minority groups. Around the world, despite the fall of "official" atheism in the Communist bloc, unbelief in all its forms continues to gain ground. No religion—not even Islam in its militant youth—has enjoyed sustained growth on the scope that unbelief has experienced since the turn of the twentieth century. (Once again the reader is directed to DEMOGRAPHY OF UNBELIEF)Unbelief, I conclude, matters very much. Its contentions, its implications, and its history merit study. Its findings deserve respect and broader advocacy. If I have succeeded in my work as editor of this New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, I hope that it has done some small justice to the importance of its subject. Perhaps it will be a portal through which at least some believers can better come to understand how unbelievers see the universe. And perhaps it will aid in liberating a few more human beings from the seductions of misbelief.
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