Icons of Unbelief: Atheists, Agnostics, and Secularists, edited by S.T. Joshi (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-313-34759-7) 463 pp. Cloth $75.00.
The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words, edited with commentary by Nancy K. Frankenberry (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-691-13487-1) 523 pp. Cloth $29.95.
Here are two books for general readers that are of special interest to secular humanists. S.T. Joshi’s opus, Icons of Unbelief, by a wide range of authors includes biographical essays on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bradlaugh, Dawkins, Dennett, Dewey, Einstein, Freud, Sam Harris, T.H. Huxley, Paul Kurtz, Corliss Lamont, H.P. Lovecraft, Mencken, J.S. Mill, Kai Nielsen, Nietzsche, Russell, Sagan, Leslie Stephen, Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, and Voltaire. (Disclosure: The section on Ingersoll was written by Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn and “The Founding Fathers,” the longest one, by this reviewer.)
While most of the biographical sketches are of unbelievers and/or humanists of one sort or another, this extraordinarily rich anthology shows considerable diversity among its subjects. This diversity cannot be illustrated in any review of reasonable length, but that’s why we have an anthology.
The weakest section in the book is the treatment of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, which grossly exaggerates the importance of her accomplishments and ignores the damage she inflicted on the causes of humanism and church-state separation.
Nancy K. Frankenberry’s book, The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words, has a different aim. It explores the quite diverse religious views, or views about religion of such founders of modern science as Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Whitehead, showing how some evolved from various forms of orthodoxy to very humanistic stances. Then she takes on the views about religion of such “Scientists of Our Time” as Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Steven Weinberg, John Polkinghorne, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies, E.O. Wilson, Stuart Kauffman, and Ursula Goodenough. These scientists’ views of religion range from the traditional Christian perspective of Polkinghorne to the incredibly rich heterodox views of the other moderns.
Frankenberry’s method is to introduce each scientist, rate his or her contributions to science, and then abstract his or her thinking about religion or religious topics in his or her own words. It is apparent that among scientists we might all consider humanists there exists an astonishing diversity such that simplistic generalizations do not hold.
It would have been interesting if Frankenberry had commented on the survey of the religious views of scientists conducted by psychologist and humanist James H. Leuba in 1914 (as summarized in his 1950 book, The Reformation of the Churches, the final revision of which was by Unitarian minister E. Burdette Backus, the second president of the American Humanist Association), surveys replicated in 1996 by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham with results published in Nature.
In 1916, Leuba found that 41.8 percent of scientists believed in a personal god, 51 percent believed in personal immortality, and 73 percent had a “desire for immortality.” In 1996, Larson and Witham found that belief in a personal god remained about the same at 39.3 percent while belief in personal immortality slid to 36 percent and “desire for immortality” dropped to 35.8 percent.
In 1998, Larson and Witham replicated Leuba’s survey of the beliefs of “greater” scientists. Of these, Leuba had found in 1914 that only 27.7 percent believed in a personal deity, and 36.2 percent believed in personal immortality. In 1998, Larson and Witham found that belief in a personal deity had fallen to 7 percent with only 7.9 percent believing in personal immortality. Their results were published in the July 23, 1998, Nature.
The books by Joshi and Frankenberry, while limited to the complex and nuanced views of a relative handful of noted scientists, seem to back up the cruder but broader findings of Larson and Witham.
The Joshi and Frankenberry tomes are very much worth reading, especially in the light of the opinion surveys of Leuba and Larson and Witham spanning a century.