Are there various kinds of unbelief, such as atheism, agnosticism, and humanism? How do they differ, or are they fundamentally the same?
They are most often different aspects of a single person's unbelief. "Atheist" describes my opinion that God does not exist; "agnostic" adds that I (like most atheists) am not certain; and "humanist" describes the philosophy of mutual care and responsibility that flows from the idea that we are on our own. It's like a religious believer describing herself as a theist, a Christian, and a Lutheran. Each emphasizes a different aspect of belief or a different degree of detail.
Is unbelief any more common today than in the past?
It's hard to know whether unbelief itself is more common, but saying it out loud certainly is. Much of Europe has gone from majority religious to majority nonreligious in three generations. In Scandinavia and the UK, the numbers run as high as 2-to-1 nonreligious. In the U.S., nonreligious identification has grown from 8 percent in 1990 to 20 percent today.
Is unbelief something negative—that is, a lack of belief—or is it more a matter of belief in something other than traditional religion?
It's negative only in the way "nonviolence" is. In renouncing one thing, it affirms others. In the case of nonviolence, what remains is peace and tolerance. In the case of unbelief, what remains is the natural universe. As an unbeliever in religion, what I believe is that this natural universe is all there is, and that we can and should build meaningful lives within that reality.
Do you think that unbelief is a type of religion? Does it meet any of the needs fulfilled by traditional religions, and does it have an organized structure?
Unbelief itself is too minimal to qualify as a religion by almost any definition. It's simply the belief that no God exists. Even belief in God isn't really a religion, just a basic assumption from which religion begins. Likewise, unbelief serves as a starting point for humanism. And though most humanists do not consider it a religion, others (including Ethical Culturists) point to their own humanist communities as the fulfillment of the same human needs satisfied by religions. Community, meaning-making, ritual, and connection to something greater than ourselves—in this case, humanity—are all elements of religion, and humanism can provide a satisfying basis for them.
How do you see unbelief figuring in today's political climate?
In most of Europe it has become normalized and destigmatized, even asserting itself (through organizations like the British Humanist Association) in the major social debates of our time. In the U.S., unbelief still bears an exceptional stigma. This is certain to change rapidly now that one in five Americans identify as nonreligious. There has even been conjecture that the nonreligious are on the cusp of asserting the same dominance over Democratic politics that the Religious Right asserted over the Republican Party in the 1980s and 1990s.
Did you discover anything surprising when writing Voices of Unbelief?
Two things never cease to surprise me: that everyday people in times that were very unfriendly to religious doubt mustered the courage to voice their honest opinions, and that any of those opinions actually made it through to us. From inquisition transcripts to letters to the editor of a 1903 newspaper in Kentucky, it's these regular folks who continue to surprise and impress me the most.
Voices of Unbelief
Documents from Atheists and Agnostics
Dale McGowan, Editor
Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics is the first anthology to provide comprehensive, annotated readings on atheism and unbelief expressly for high school and college students. This diverse compilation brings together letters, essays, diary entries, book excerpts, blogs, monologues, and other writings by atheists and agnostics, both through the centuries and across continents and cultures.
Unlike most other anthologies of atheist writings, the collection goes beyond public proclamations of well-known individuals to include the personal voices of unbelievers from many walks of life. While readers will certainly find excerpts from the published canon here, they will also discover personal documents that testify to the experience of living outside of the religious mainstream. The book presents each document in its historical context, enriched with an introduction, key questions, and activities that will help readers understand the past and navigate current controversies revolving around religious belief.
• Documents include book and diary excerpts, letters, blogs, and video and radio scripts, bringing historical settings and individual lives into focus
• A chronology helps place the writings and writers in history and in relation to each other
• Presents annotated documents by atheists and agnostics across 3,000 years and four continents
• Brings suppressed medieval voices into the conversation
• Widens the cultural scope beyond Europe and America by including documents from nonbelievers in China, India, Africa, and the Arab world
• Offers an accessible approach that will appeal to general readers as well as high school and university students