What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

Book Review: Letters From an Atheist Nation

April 29, 2012, 4:14 PM

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: A surprising, welcome reminder that atheism has a long and storied history in the U.S.

Letters from an Atheist Nation, edited by Thomas Lawson, is a compilation of reader letters printed by the Blue Grass Blade, a pro-atheist, pro-freethought newspaper published in, of all places, Kentucky in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its editor, Charles Chilton Moore, was a strange and colorful character: an ex-minister turned atheist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, women's rights advocate, and anti-gambling crusader who was repeatedly charged and occasionally imprisoned for libel, blasphemy, and obscenity (for printing ads for a pro-birth-control pamphlet). At its height, the Blade had several thousand subscribers from all around the country. Many old issues have been digitized and are available online from the Library of Congress.

In 1903, the Blade invited readers to submit letters on the theme of "Why I Am An Atheist". Dozens of replies ran in the paper over the following months, and Thomas Lawson has done us the service of tracking down these letters, compiling them into a book, and supplementing them where possible with biographical information about the authors.

The letters run the gamut, and in some ways, they're very different from modern atheist thought. There are a few mentions of Darwin, but only a very few. I assume this was the period when evolutionary theory fell into eclipse, prior to the Scopes trial and the emergence of the modern synthesis. There are also some very strange submissions, like one person who claims to be an atheist in contact with the spirits of dead people (they've told him there's no god in the afterlife, either). There is, as you might expect, some unfortunate racist language as well, although it must be said there's a lot less of it than I would have expected.

On the other hand, there are notable points of similarity as well. Robert Ingersoll is a major influence whose name is woven throughout the book, and arguments that are still mainstays of the atheist movement, like the argument from evil or criticisms of the genocidal morality of the Bible, are wielded with eloquence and flourish. And although the letters show that some definitional disputes have dogged us for over a century - like bickering about whether "atheist" or "agnostic" is the better label - most of the writers proudly claim the word "atheist" for themselves, even in an era where it was still technically illegal in some places. And they span a broad spectrum of diversity, including a remarkably high proportion that are from women (including one from, if I recall correctly, a 14-year-old girl!).

Letters from an Atheist Nation isn't an up-to-date compendium of atheist thought, of course. Its real value is historical, in reminding us that freethinking isn't a recent invention but a longstanding and proud part of the American story. In that respect, it's another part of our answer to history-blind apologists who are nostalgic for a past golden age of universal Christianity that never actually existed. The only real change is that religion's power to suppress differing views was greater in the past - and when that fades, as it's now doing, a community of free minds will always flourish.


Book Review: Letters From a...

Newsletter: Share: