Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Freethought library (1)

Today I received a request for literature on the history of atheism. This reminds me that I wrote a series of reports on the scattered items in my collection as I unearthed them a year or so ago. Here is the first of those reports.

20 Jan 2008

The most valuable of [my] books are the historical surveys, which reveal not only the richness and complexity of the tradition, but the preponderance of efforts for social reform and progressive social causes, something you'd never learn from the libertarian vermin that infest our ranks. And a lot of this history is far more interesting and progressive than anything the "new atheists" have to offer.

I am especially impressed by:

Tribe, David H. 100 Years of Freethought. London: Elek, 1967.

[Note: On my web site: extract from Chapter 2 (Philosophical Outlook, section on humanism), pp. 46-61.]

This is an historical, global survey of ideas, movements, and organizations. It is far less provincial that much of what you'd read in the USA. The author is an Australian who apparently migrated to the UK, where this book was published. There is a heavy concentration of information on Britain and Europe but also on other countries, and it is not restricted to the provincial American perspective. It is remarkable how much information is packed into the chapter on philosophy alone, which is quite sophisticated though compact, and covers the history of the various labels--atheism, rationalism, humanism, agnosticism, materialism, etc.--and the ideas and controversies associated with them.

There is quite a bit of territory covered, including chapter on freethought's considerable contribution to social reforms.

I also learned from several of the books consulted, including this one, that "freethought", far from being a wishy-washy subterfuge (i.e. compared to "atheism"), has actually been quite militant. While so many people shy away from the term "atheism", it had not occurred to me that "freethought" (whose meaning is not transparent from the word itself) might be more of a fighting term. In contrast, "humanism" has always been fraught with ambiguities and not always accepted by freethinkers, and "agnosticism" was received with quite a bit of skepticism (no pun intended), as it was bound up with disputed philosophical ideas before it passed into more restricted general usage as applied to a position solely regarding the existence of God (what you will hear from people on the street ...).

The other most important historical book I dug out was:

Berman, David. A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell. London; New York: Croom Helm, 1988.

I should also mention:

Courtney, Janet E. Freethinkers of the Nineteenth Century ... With Seven Portraits. London: Chapman & Hall, ltd., 1920.

But there's no doubt the most important book of recent vintage is:

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

I attended Jacoby's book talk at Politics & Prose and asked her a research question about the civil rights movement.

In addition to consulting my own library, I've been doing some literature searches on the relevant history and sociology and have uncovered a few gems.

One interesting thing I've discovered: there are differences in researching the history of "atheism" and "(secular) humanism". While there is no real demarcation between them, there are some differences as recognizable traditions, perhaps because of the historical emergence of what we now term humanism from religious liberalism, even before the Cold War (and McCarthyism) had its effect on atheists/freethinkers/humanists in the USA and abroad. Curiously, most of what I'm reading of the relevant social history of the whole shebang comes from "freethought" books. (The journal literature is another matter.)

Postscript, 10 Feb 2009

Do not miss out on these magnificent anthologies:

Gaylor, Annie Laurie, ed. Women Without Superstition: "No Gods—No Masters": The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997.

Whitehead, Fred; Muhrer, Verle, eds. Freethought on the American Frontier. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1992.

These reference books are also to be kept in mind:

Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism, & Humanism by Bill Cooke

The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief edited by Tom Flynn

The Encyclopedia of Unbelief edited by Gordon Stein (old edition, 1985)

See also:

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress

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