A Most Splendid Volume

Peter Atkins

The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59102-391-3) 897 pp. Cloth $199.00.


Richard Dawkins, in his cogent and engaging foreword to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, reflects on the peculiarity of having a huge volume devoted to the absence of something. In fact, I was reminded immediately of not one but two volumes on my own shelves, that constitute the Encyclopedia of Ignorance (Pergamon Press, 1977). I recall being highly gratified on purchasing that work to note that while the Encyclopedia Britannica extends to twenty-nine volumes even without its yearbooks and indexes, our current ignorance could be captured by a mere two. Perhaps an even more impressive measure of our progress in knowing what there isn’t is the fact that Hermes Trismegistos, who was said to know everything and to have written it down in 365,000 volumes, presumably squeezed ignorance into an even smaller compass. Focusing on unbelief is indeed odd at first sight, but, as Dawkins goes on to say, unbelief has a liberating, positive dimension, particularly the specific flavor of religious unbelief.

This encyclopedia is the child of The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Gordon Stein and published in 1985. My immediate reaction on being invited to review this version was doubt: I did not think that unbelief had progressed sufficiently in two decades for it to warrant a full-scale reassembly of articles. I need not have worried: unbelief needs to be buttressed, especially these days, and, after receiving the book and spending time inside it, I have found it a rich source of pleasure and recommend it without hesitation to anyone who is interested in the intellectual curiosity that is religion and needs to arm himself or herself with weapons of opposition or take comfort from not being alone in the rational wilderness. But I admit that I have not read every one of its roughly 750,000 words in its hundreds of articles: reviewing an encyclopedia is more a process of sampling and ferreting rather than cover-to-cover reading. Nevertheless, I know that I shall return frequently to its pages, and I expect to find that the pleasure that has come from extensive sampling will grow as more and more of its entries find a home in my mind.

Its editor, Tom Flynn, is as appropriate in his role as editor as Gordon Stein was in the 1980s. One can only marvel at the range and depth of the articles he has cajoled from his literary volunteers, all of whom seem to have realized that they were contributing to a work of seminal importance as we teeter dangerously yet again on the brink of a Dark Age.

As Flynn points out in his introduction, there are several reasons publication of a new version of the Encyclopedia is appropriate. First, there have been unprecedented social upheavals as regimes once thought unassailable have vaporized, changing the cultural complexion of the age and the world. Second, in the land of plenty, “[s]trong growth in public piety, brazen re-entanglement of religion and government, and heightened acceptance for strident religious expression in public venues came to dominate the American scene after 1990.” Such a frightening emergence of superstitious intrusion into government, with its worldwide and long-term consequences unfolding before us as I write, entails that rational folk everywhere need to muster all the weapons of intelligent argument to prevent the negative consequences of religious belief from destroying the world. The third reason for the new tome that Flynn identifies is the need to realign the articles of the former version. This version relies less heavily on survey articles than its predecessor; there are more biographical entries, and an effort has been made to locate freethought in the matrix of the movements of radical reform. Various other ephemeral appendages of the earlier version have been allowed to wither on the vine, so there are no directories or exhaustive bibliographies of unbelief (only specific bibliographies accompanying individual articles); these witherings will not be mourned. Flynn’s introduction also describes the criteria for the selection of articles and inclusion of biographies, which itself makes interesting reading. Those of you who turn to where you hope your biography will be will remain disappointed until after you are dead.

Within the span from “Abbot, Francis Ellingwood” to “Zalenski, Tadeusz” 815 word-packed pages later, there are both small and large articles. There are appropriately in-depth articles on “Biblical Criticism” (spanning nearly eleven pages) and the “Existence of God” (eight pages), and all the other great issues wherein belief has played a role and is ripe for ejection by unbelief. Although there are a mere eight pages on “Reason,” the Encyclopedia itself is in a sense a self-referential entry of that name. There are lots of short biographical entries, mostly of the barely known, but none of them can really be said to be slight. I must admit to never having heard of a rather high number of dead American libertarian activists who find their memorials in these pages. Indeed, there is perhaps a slight overrepresentation of Americans, but that does perhaps appropriately represent the relative lack of participation in these matters in Europe and countries of the Middle and Far East. There are several articles on “X, Unbelief In,” where “X” is a geographical entity. I did not expect to find an entry where “X=Antarctica,” but I was a little disappointed not to find one where “X=Japan.”

I turned with interest to “Scientists, Unbelief Among,” as it has always puzzled me that despite their calling, some notable scientists still cling to superstition. I was unnerved by the opening remark that “Science and religion are not necessarily at loggerheads,” for surely they are intrinsic enemies both in principle and practice. It was interesting to see an analysis of trends in belief over the span of the twentieth century but depressing to see that some scientists still cling to the extraordinary notion of an afterlife. It is surely significant that the most unbelieving scientists are sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists.

Unbelief in Christianity looms large, as one might expect, presumably because the penalties of unbelief found within its literature are less harsh than in Islam—where Kufr, essentially unbelief, heads the list of the seventeen great sins (murder is a rather lame fifteenth). Although Christian unbelief is emphatically predominant in the encyclopedia, aspects of unbelief in other systems of superstition are also represented. I wasn’t sure that I would find an account of “Buddhism, Unbelief Within,” but there it is, and I now know more about what I should not have known in the first place.

The underlying tenor of the entire volume is one of patient, scholarly erudition. Flynn has assembled a galaxy of authoritative stars, and we should be grateful to them all for the time they have spent and the elucidation they bring to addressing what is not worth knowing in the first place. The sad irony of the volume is that so much human effort has gone into the construction of fake knowledge and spurious thought. Where would civilization be now if the erudition of the ancient scholars had been guided by reason?

In short, this is a splendid volume; one that should be at the elbow of every person interested in reason. Perhaps more important, it should be on the bedside tables of every bishop, rabbi, and imam for secret nighttime reading.

Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins is a fellow and a professor of chemistry at Lincoln College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous books on science and has written and spoken on humanism, atheism, and the incompatibility of science and religion.


The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59102-391-3) 897 pp. Cloth $199.00. Richard Dawkins, in his cogent and engaging foreword to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, reflects on the peculiarity of having a huge volume devoted to the absence of something. In fact, I was reminded immediately …

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