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A Historical Bibliography> Table of Contents> Introduction

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This bibliography is focused on the English-language literature generated by and representative of the history of Unbelief in the Western World from the sixteenth century to the present. While there is a longer tradition of non-theistic belief reaching back to the ancient Mediterranean Basin, especially ancient Greece, such belief was largely nonexistent in the Middle Ages and had to struggle to reassert itself. As James Turner noted in his study of Unbelief [in God] in America, until the sixteenth century questioning the belief in God was extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any length of time. Disbelief in God emerged somewhat tentatively in the seventeenth century and could be found among the elites of the intellectual world through the eighteenth century. Through the nineteenth century, the situation changed significantly and the first atheists, even a few atheist groups, emerged in public. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was, as Turner put it, “a fully available option.” As the twenty-first century begins, Unbelief (operating under a number of names) has become a dominant option for thinking about the world in several countries and a prominent if still a minority option throughout the Western world. Its core spokespersons are enthusiast about its future and believe that (1) atheism to be the coming majority way of comprehending the universe and (2) that belief in God will drop by the wayside as a basis for organizing human society.

The steps by which the Western World has reached such a situation—in which large numbers of people can celebrate Unbelief, work for its coming, and fervently believe in its future—now stands as one of the great stories in intellectual history. That story begins in the sixteenth century where, in the context of the Protestant Reformation, a spectrum of more radical reformers appeared, including a small number who began to challenge core items constituting what had been orthodox Christian faith since the fourth century C.E. Most notable among the radical reformers was one Michael Servetus (1511-1553), who wrote a book on the Christian doctrine of the Triune god, which he found without biblical support. He compared the Triune God with the three-headed hound of Hell. He also joined the Anabaptists in their subversive attack upon the then existing institutional church by challenging the practice of infant baptism. For his effort, he would be arrested, tried, and executed.

Servetus’ challenge to the state church—both its theology and practice—would find its life in the circle of inquirers that formed around the Italian Faustus Socinus (aka Fausto Paolo Sozzini, 1534-1604), a small groups of Eastern European believers known as the Polish Brethren, and the original Unitarian church in Transylvania. Together, these variant strains of non-Trinitarian Christianity became known as the Socinian movement, and from Eastern Europe, Socinian thought would spread to Western Europe and find a home in England among both left-wing Puritans (the Baptists) and within the Church of England where the attempt to unite Protestants and Catholics through the Prayer Book, left space for dissenting theological speculation among those who found both perspectives lacking.

Meanwhile, as Unitarianism penetrated church life in England, a new form of dissent emerged in Germany. Rosicrucianism, the first form of post-Reformation Esotericism to gain a following, would provide a very different challenge to the dominance of Christianity, but would, if more indirectly, challenge the doctrine of the Trinity. It did not so much directly challenge the doctrine, as ignore the Trinity in its affirmation of a single transcendent and somewhat distant deity. Early circles of discourse for the discussion of the new Esotericism would give way in the eighteenth century to the speculative Masons and its Great Architect of the Universe.

Freemasonry and Unitarianism provided the main currents upon which the next major challenge to the pervasive Trinitarian theology of both Catholic and Protestant churches—Deism. Deism would draw out the implication of the esoteric model of the deity—utterly transcendent and distant from creation—especially as such a deity related to prayer, miracles and providential care. One could perceive an important difference between the Deists and their Unitarian predecessors. That difference would make them the first upon whom their critics would impose the label “atheist.” Deist thought seem to lead to something that could be imagined as synonymous with belief in no God at all. Such a belief could also lead to radical displacements in society such as the French and American revolutions and their radical introduction of secularism into their running of the government.

Deism would also be a major product of the Enlightenment and it’s privileging of reason as the overarching principle for observing the universe, organizing society, and maintaining a personal life. The Enlightenment built upon the Protestant attack on the Catholic miracle theology and the privileging of proximate causation over remote causation, and culminate in the religion of Reason briefly advocated following the French Revolution. The Enlightenment thinkers would, of course, provide long-term inspiration to the rationalist strain in Unbelief.

Deists struggled with the issue of organizing a religion that affirmed a transcendent unresponsive god. Some advocated a religion whose remaining function centered upon the perpetuation of a moral society in which sermons would be replaced by lectures on ethics and moral behavior. Deism would become a temporary transitional movement that would be superseded by, on the one hand, an international Unitarian movement, and on the other a full-blown atheist (Freethought) movement.

Deism did, of course, find a more permanent home in Freemasonry whose affirmation of the Great Architect of the Universe is purely deistic, and continue as the dominant perspective within masonry to this day. In 1877, the French branch of Masonry separated from England and began admitting atheists and the leading French Masonic organization remains officially atheistic to the present. It has, at the same time influenced a variety of European lodges to adopt its position.

During the nineteenth century, at least in North America, emerging atheism seems to have been built around subscription lists to Freethought publications and circles of discourse they nurtured.  Freethinkers, like the popular orator Robert Ingersoll, could sell numerous books and pamphlets (transcripts of lectures), but they headed no organizations to facilitate the further integration of his ideas in the society.  Many Freethinkers found a home in various Esoteric groups whose attacks on specific beliefs like hell and the rigidity of personal Christian ethics resonated with many Freethinkers (who perpetuated deistic and agnostic views).

However, through the nineteenth century, especially after the formal organization of the American Unitarian Association a whole spectrum of organizations would appear to the left of the Unitarians including the Universalists, the Free Religionists and groups accepting such names as Freethinkers, Secularists and Liberals. Britain’s National Secular Society (founded 1866) appears to be the oldest organization promoting Unbelief still in existence, and rightfully has a prominent place in the history of Unbelief. From it, modern organized Unbelief can be said to arise, and through it secular perspectives spread throughout the United Kingdom and to former British colonies such as India and Hong Kong.

One cannot, of course, write the history of Unbelief without reference to Karl Marx, his close associates like Frederick Engels, and the formation of the Communist movement. The whole Socialist movement (including Marxist Communism) became wedded to Unbelief and anticlericalism (though Marx’s opinion of religion was far more complex than the catch phrase about “opium of the people” implied). A significant portion of the current community of Unbelief consists of Marxists, or increasingly, post-Marxists.

In the last half of the twentieth century, Unbelief made giant strides. In those countries of North America and Europe, where Marxism never became a majority perspective, a revived community of Unbelief emerged around a set of issues that found resonance in the larger society—separation of church and state, the denunciation of pseudoscience, the articulation of a secular moral perspective, and the promotion of human rights. At the same time, the contemporary community of Unbelief rejected its longstanding alignment with the Esoteric community, with whom it had shared a mutual challenge to Christian orthodoxy.

The contemporary Unbelief community finds its unity in a mutually agreed upon atheism—a simple observation that having observed the universe (through various scientific lens) and thought about reality (in post-Enlightenment modes), no basis remains for affirming the existence of a deity. At the same time, the community is divided on a number of important issues. Is Unbelief simply a perspective to be affirmed, or a cause to be organized, promoted, and perpetuated? Is a non-theistic religion (such as religious humanism) viable, or is all religion to be opposed? Should atheists align with older non-theistic belief systems such as Confucianism, Jainism and Theravada Buddhism? Where does secular non-theistic beliefs fit within a pluralistic religious world? Does Unbelief constitute a position protected by law in the same manner as religious perspectives? How far should government go in protecting religions? What is the meaning of (implications of) separation of church and state for atheists and for others?

Looking Backward

At one level, the contemporary community of Unbelief is difficult to grasp. It is not religion, but at the same time is a community largely defined by its stance toward not so much religion in general but the Western Christian manifestation of religion. It is not religion, but fills the role religion has primarily supplied for most individuals in the West for the last two millennia. It is a very diverse movement as once having abandoned Christianity and Judaism, a wide variety of perspectives remain and differences within the community can frequently be as intense as those between unbelievers and believers. The intensity of differences within the Unbelief community has been on full display through the twentieth century as Marxist thought emerged, rose to prominence and then abruptly fell as the century ended. Religion began to expand rapidly in China following the Cultural Revolution and in Russia and Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Apart from the short-term gains and losses for unbelief in the last decades, the long-term view shows a monumental rise of the community of Unbelief from nonexistence at the beginning of the sixteenth century to a perspective held by hundreds of millions. One can see as step-by-step growth of a community first created by those who wished to establish a form of Christianity that challenged key items upon which Christian orthodoxy had organized its thought and practice. Both the new Protestant community and the Catholicism that emerged from the First Vatican Council saw a spectrum of dissent and paid relatively little attention to the Socinian/Unitarian strains (except to end its short-lived period of influence in Poland). Unitarians, like Mennonites and Baptists, hid in the spaces between the competing larger churches and slowly spread from country to country and gained adherents.

In the seventeenth century, Deism would emerge as a new movement among intellectuals, nominally members of the larger churches, who presented their thought as part of the spectrum of the intellectual endeavor of the elite. Finding their main support among individual readers of their pamphlets and books, the Deist writers rarely sought to mobilize a following by organizing a society or club that sought to perpetuate a Deistic perspective. They were content to bring discomfort to those who would settle; into a weakly thought-out theology or rest on an ill-defined tradition of church life. Most chose their battlefield for attacking the religious consensus with extreme care, quite respectful of the power of a church wedded to the state power that had shown its ability to suppress theological dissidents. Essential to the history of the rise of unbelief was the changing punishment for the crime of blasphemy—death to imprisonment, to civil penalties, to its decriminalization altogether.

Prior to 1800, Unbelief would appear primarily as Unitarianism or Deism. Through the nineteenth century a whole spectrum of belief would appear under a variety of names, each suggesting a slightly different emphasis—Freethought, secularism, rationalism, agnosticism, liberalism, Marxism, skepticism—all words suggesting what few would actually accept as a label—atheism. Only in the twentieth century, would atheism become a widespread and popular self-designation.

Early in the twentieth century, two prominent strains of atheist thought would emerge in prominence. The first continued the Freethought-rationalist-secularist strain of the nineteenth century as represented, for example, in the Secular Union in Europe and the Liberal League in the United States. The second strain was represented in the Marxist movement and the associated socialist political program, which took diverse forms from country to country.  Outside North America and Western Europe, Marxism became the cutting edge of atheist thought and carried it to power in such diverse places as Albania, China and Ethiopia. It remains a significant element in atheist thought in the Western world, though noticeably on the decline.

The two main atheist strains would be joined by a new strain of non-theistic thought in the first half of the twentieth century. Ferment on the leftwing of Judaism and then of Unitarianism would lead to the emergence of a new non-theistic theology with intellectual centers in New England and Chicago. The new Humanists dispensed with theism, but retained a central focus in creating a new ethics–centered religion.  The “Humanist” movement began with Felix Adler and the Ethical Culture community in New York City, and later blossom among Unitarian leaders in the Midwest.

In the last half of the twentieth century in North America, the community of Unbelief would recoil from both the post-World War II religious revival that would bring millions into church membership, pushing it upwards by almost 20 percentage points, and an accompanying national attack upon “godless Communism” that aligned with American foreign policy during the cold War. The first sign of an atheist pushback from what appeared as a widespread cultural attack, came from an unexpected source, an aggressive, even abrasive female, a single  mother opposed to mandatory “Christian” prayer conducted in the classes in the public school to which she sent her son.

In 1960, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995) filed a law suit challenging the practice of have short devotional services (usually including prayer and Bible reading) as part of the exercises beginning the school day in most public schools across the United States.  The suit became the focus of a crusade fought out on the public stage as a movement to rid the public schools of prayer. Conservative religious leaders saw in O’Hair an appropriate target upon whom to vent their rage. The issue made O’Hair a celebrity, especially after the Supreme Court essentially accepted her position in its 1963 ruling in a like case—Abington School District v. Schempp—in 1963. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Austin, Texas, and founded American Atheists, which became the largest atheist organization in the country. Even as atheists gathered around and found new life in their new identity, O’Hair’s abrasive style of leadership led many to leave her, and American Atheists became the catalyst for numerous additional atheist groups to form, most notably the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Then in the 1970s, a set of issues in the American Humanist Association, including a debate over the religious nature of humanism, led to a split by one of the movement’s prominent intellectual and organizational leaders, philosopher Paul Kurtz.  Kurtz founded the Council for Secular Humanism, which became the parent of a set of organizations that together mobilized one of the largest segments of the Unbelief community.  Not unimportant in that endeavor was the growth of Prometheus Press, also headed by Kurtz, into the most prominent publisher of Unbelief literature in the world. Additionally, the Council was responsible for initiating a new movement battling pseudoscience.

While the Unbelief community was experiencing a new stage in its organizational growth, a new movement appeared within the Jewish and Christian community. Spurred largely by discussions of the extent of the Jewish Holocaust, a new debate over the problem of evil was punctuated by a set of religious scholars announcing the death of God. Though a relatively short-lived movement, the affront caused by a group of Christian and Jewish theologians identifying themselves as atheists (for whatever reason) created a significant controversy at least within liberal Christian circles over how far the secularization of Christianity could proceed.

The Unbelief community entered the twenty-first century on an optimistic note. In a mere half century, it had taken significant steps forward, even as the Marxist world underwent notable setbacks. It had brought forth a set of large stable organizations, found some international voice heralded by the formation of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and appeared to be gaining measurable support in the general population, even in North America. That growth, however, was not enough for some atheist spokespersons, and by the middle of the first decade of the new century, a cadre of atheists had emerged with a new aggressive stance marked by a heightened level of shrillness and willingness to distance themselves from any form of religion. While energizing some elements of the Unbelief community, it yet remains to be seen whether the new movement will prove effective catalysts in growing the Unbelief community.

A Note on Labels

The label “Unbelief” is a term that has gained acceptance in the last generation as a comprehensive term to designate a wide variety of self-chosen labels to describe the various forms of non-theistic perspectives that have emerged in the west over the last few centuries. Some, like atheism, were originally derisive labels placed on people more or less appropriately by religious (primarily Christian) polemicists.  Like unbelief, it is a negative term that defines a position over against a believing majority in the social environment. In the process of attempting to communicate a positive stand-alone position, which incidentally makes no room for the supernatural affirmations of the majority, a variety of different names have been appropriated—Freethought (as opposed to free thought), rationalism, naturalism, secularism, skepticism, and humanism. Each of these terms also has other popular uses and may at times not communicate clearly. Naturalism means something very different in the world of literature or even biology and environmental studies. Skepticism has come to refer not just to religious skepticism, but to the battles against pseudoscience, which involves many, possibly a majority, who are not otherwise unbelievers. Humanism means something very different in the sixteenth century than it implies in the English-speaking world of the twenty-first century.

Modern Unbelief also does not arise in a historical vacuum, but struggles to make a place for itself out of the challenge to the orthodox Christian hegemony of the sixteenth century. That challenge began as questions were raised against the Christian doctrine of the Triune God, God’s providence over the world, the existence of miracles, the possibility of prayer, and the integrity and authenticity of the biblical text. That criticisms initially produced forms of belief that competed with Christian orthodoxy, and atheism initially arose among people who had moved to a non-Trinitarian system of belief and/or one that accommodated a God who had only limited contact with the world.  Over the centuries, a form of non-Trinitarian Christianity has continued to exist and at times thrive, and it has periodically been the environment, which has nurtured new non-theistic perspectives, most notably twentieth-century humanism.

Throughout this bibliography, we will use Unbelief in this larger meaning and the terms Freethought, rationalism, naturalism, secularism, skepticism, and humanism as terms denoting the various forms of non-theistic thinking, as opposed to their other uses.

This Bibliography

This bibliography looks at the literature that has been produced by and about the Unbelief community through the last 500 years. Even though Unbelief remains a minority tradition in Western culture, it has been a literary tradition and produced a sizable body of material. In addition a large number of observers have commented upon it. Given the large amount of material available, this bibliography had to be highly selective. It is initially limited by language—it focuses on the English-language material. Even within that limitation, it makes no pretense of being exhaustive; rather, for each subtopic considered, it attempts to produce a selective list of material representative of the best items available. 

Second, this bibliography has been developed and arranged in such a way as to manifest the growth and development of the Unbelief community over the last five centuries. The appearance, evolution, and spread of Unbelief have not been without controversy. In fact, it has often appeared that the literature commenting on the movement from a critical polemic position is far larger than the body of material produced by the movement itself. It is, to some extent, impossible to understand the growth of Unbelief without reference to the on-going debates, and the claims and counter-claims made by opposing authors. Indeed, there is a modern tradition of staged debates between believers and unbelievers on the central topics raised by atheists over the existence of God and the viability of religion. This bibliography is, however, primarily concerned neither with the truth claims of the Unbelief community nor the counter claims of theists.

Rather, this bibliography is narrowly focused upon the historical development of a tradition of skepticism and Unbelief in God and the parallel appeal to reason as an alternative way of organizing one’s intellectual life and social community throughout the Western world. It attempts to define the major currents of the developing movement in those countries that have taken the leadership in its emergence. It also attempts to identify the major spokespersons of the tradition and present the most important primary and secondary sources on each. We successively deal with the origins of the movement in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and then with its Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment development on France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia, before moving to its evolution in North America. Given the emphasis on English-language literature, the sections on the United States and the United Kingdom are proportionately larger.

A final section of the bibliography explores the contemporary scene, with a listing on some recent movements and on the literature that is currently generating significant interest. This section also includes a sub-chapter with a selection of sociological literature reflecting on the present state of Unbelief. The size of the Unbelief community, and possibility of its becoming the majority community in different places is both a major topic of concern and very much a contested issue among Unbelievers. Its self-image is tied to its hope of moving from its present minority status to one in which the majority accept the truth claims its presents. Recent sociological literature has built a growing body of material examining this issue from a variety of starting points.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the development of Unbelief has been tied to some extent with the battle to place the findings of science in the forefront while simultaneously pushing aside of both (1) pre-scientific views of the world and (20 false views of the world built on flawed science, i.e., pseudoscience. Two closely related efforts, one focused on creationist views of the world and the idea of biological evolution of the human species, and the other opposing a variety of paranormal claims based on reputed empirical observations have developed in the last decades of the twentieth century and are explored in a final section of the bibliography.

Interaction

In the end, it was decided to publish this bibliography on the Internet. Such a placement allows it to remain a living document always open to growth by addition of titles, development of topics covered, and correction of errors. The author invited the input of any readers with suggestions for its improvement. Suggestions may be sent to jgordon@linkline.com.

The production of bibliographies such as this one is very much affected by the most recent developments in publishing. Several print-on-demand publishers including but not limited to Nabu, Kessinger, and BiblioLife have moved to reprint an extensive number of out-of-copyright books, including many in the Unbelief tradition. Of particular importance to this particular bibliographical work is the EighteenthCenturyCollectionsOnline or ECCO Project from Gale Research/Cengate Learning, the large reference book house in suburban Detroit. The ECCO Project is preparing digital texts of works written and published between 1700 and 1800 in England and its colonies, including the British editions of the English translations of many German and French Enlightenment treatises. As this project got off the ground, Gale partnered with BiblioLife to produce publish-on-demand editions of a large number of eighteenth century texts. Those using this bibliography, after locating items, which they might like to consult, will likely find that relatively inexpensive print and/or digital forms of the item will be available for purchase or through inter-library loan.

In addition, some less formal efforts have succeeded in publishing a large number of relevant texts of unbelief on-line. Most notable are the many items available at The Secular Web’s Library at http://www.infidels.org/library/ and the positive Atheism site at http://www.positiveatheism.org/.  Surfing the web also reveals many additional items on different sites. Increasingly, the items listed below, especially as they move out of copyright, will become available online, and an online search is the first place to look for any particular item cited below.

January 2011
J. Gordon Melton
Santa Barbara, California

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