Introduction to Atheist Studies

In 2007, the World Fact Book of the United States stated that there were an estimated 157,529,444 people worldwide who were atheists.  Translated to the current population statistics, there would be about 170, 088, 267 atheists in the world today.  Approximately 16% to 20% of Americans do not identify with a particular religion.  Of that group around 2/3 identify themselves as secular, agnostic, or post-atheist (indifferent to theist propositions.) (See Atheist Demographics) In the United States around the 1900’s there were a few thousand avowed atheists.  Today there are a few million. 

The time of atheism has come of age.  Atheists desire not only activism and community with others of like mind, but knowledge of our history, our value and philosophical systems, and our life stance, based on science and rationality.  Freethinkers need to take their place politically, intellectually and socially. Atheists have a proud and defiant history; their successful future is unfolding.  We are slowly growing. With new studies a positive picture of the atheist is emerging.  We are generally better educated and better with language skills.  We have, in general, higher salaries and less guilt concerning sex. (See Atheist Demographics.) We are more tolerant, as well.  Atheism is at an opportune moment in history, when the miasma of ignorance is being pushed back by what the ancient Greeks called “the Sweet Light of Reason.”

The decision to offer a free, online website featuring Atheist Studies came from the fact that there was no Atheist Studies Program on the web.  Pitzer College in California began offering a Secular Studies Program in the fall of 2011, which students may major in. There are a few excellent online courses offered concerning non-belief by the Center for Inquiry.  But there is no single site on the Web for the atheist who would like to engage in a comprehensive study of atheism in its many aspects.  There is no one place to find either the information or the book titles with which to begin. Many websites offer a plethora of books on various aspects of atheism, but they are not grouped into subject areas, with full reviews of each volume related to a specific area and further readings.  Our purpose is to fill that gap. 

An atheist might wish to learn more about the philosophy, history and various aspects of the atheist life stance she/he has embraced.  It might be an intellectual activity, but at the same time learning about atheism in its many manifestations can be a means of securing one’s identity in a firm foundation of secular thinking.  An additional purpose for undertaking an Atheist Studies Program might be to be able to engage meaningfully and confidently with theist thought and with people who might question the atheist’s irreligious belief and moral value system.  It is always an advantage to be prepared in advance with a calm and intelligent, rather than a defensive, explanation of one’s position.  An exchange with theists when one is knowledgeable and ready to answer questions in order to refute non salient arguments is invaluable.  Not only will atheist scholars gain confidence from such exchanges, but they may increase respect for the secular position.

The atheist who plans to be an activist needs a grasp of atheist history, law, philosophy, sociology and more.  Whether activism is confined to writing letters to the Editors of newspapers for the atheist cause, or a more concerted attempt to engage doubters and theists in debates, at information booths or other venues, having a solid background in atheist scholarship is an invaluable asset. The atheist cause needs proponents who can answer questions readily and clear up misunderstandings concerning secularism.  People with an interest in atheism will feel more inclined to become involved with secular organizations when engaged with personable and knowledgeable proponents.

The study of Atheist History, Atheism and the Law, Atheist Sociology, and other topics is exciting, interesting and empowering. Our Course goes far beyond the denial of god and philosophical negation. Our proud and defiant history has been in the shadow of theism, defined negatively as a reaction to theism.  It has been understudied and omitted from general histories of religion, sociology psychology and many other courses.  If a small study of atheism is included in a text, there is often a negative slant against secularism rather than an objective approach.  Such an egregious situation is altering. 

The 21st century has seen books by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2004,) Sam Harris, The End of Faith (Norton 2004,) Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell (Viking 2006,) and Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great (Twelve 2007.)  These were books by major thinkers and they were issued by major publishers. They achieved the best seller lists and reached millions of people. There were thousands of unbelievers in the United States alone, who found a focus and a voice in such works.  In 2007, the Cambridge Companion to Atheism and The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief were published, both lucid and dignified works of reference containing thoughtful essays that have increased the respect atheist Studies is attaining.

The Atheist Scholar believes it is important to know from where atheism came, what atheists thought in the past and what they believe now, and who we are.  Along with degree programs, both on campus and online, we need scholarly research in the area of non-belief.  Many categories listed in the Atheist Scholar need comprehensive histories and bibliographies.  Such areas as atheist history and law lack all-inclusive texts and updated bibliographies.  There is great need for an exploration and expansion in all the fine arts, such as literature and film, to discover works that reflect the atheist point of view. Children’s literature is a very important subject area, where an inclusive, annotated bibliography would be very welcome.  Secular parents lack support in guiding their children non-prescriptively toward an understanding of the life style and philosophy of the secular family. We need atheist centers, with our own buildings to offer courses, lectures, workshops and seminars in atheist topics.  Such centers would not only provide social and intellectual activities for atheist adults but would be a place for the children of freethinkers to meet and learn with children from like-minded families.  There are many projects for interested scholars or activists to undertake. The Atheist Scholar hopes to create a gateway for engaged atheists to explore the major subject areas related to atheism and non-belief.

The Atheist Scholar is structured so that the reader can open any subject area.  There is no subject sequence.  A person may begin anywhere intellectual interest leads. Each document follows basically the same pattern.  The book list is includes the most informative or meritorious books in the subject area.

While any list is necessarily somewhat idiosyncratic, there is an attempt to include books not merely for merit, but also for accessibility to the reader.  It is generally noted whether a book is most suitable for a beginning reader or one who is more advanced.

 “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.  The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one.” 

Mark Twain