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Atheism in the early twenty-first century is a much-discussed topic. From New Atheism’s explosion onto bestseller lists and bus sides in the mid-years of the “noughties,” to ongoing human-rights abuses both of non-believers in some highly religious countries and of religious believers by officially atheistic ones, to a steady stream of surveys showing the rapid rise of non-religiosity in parts of the world, to – well – a great deal else besides, the topic is often in the media, and thus the public eye. This is not, in itself, a new phenomenon. Particular issues, campaigns, movements, philosophies, and people, relating to atheism in various ways, might come and go. But they have been coming and going for an awfully long time, and in a very wide spread of cultures and contexts. Atheism was “a much-discussed topic” in fourth-century BC Athens, second-century AD Asia Minor, eleventh-century France, thirteenth-century India, seventeenth-century England, and nineteenth-century South Africa.
Two informed estimates of the numbers of atheists and/or agnostics in the world, each published in the last fifteen years by reputable social scientists in major reference works, place the figure around or above half a billion people (Zuckerman 2007; Keysar and Navarro-Rivera 2013). Both rely, in very large measure, on what their authors readily admit to being reasonable guesswork. There is no shame whatsoever in this. Rigorous, nationally representative surveys don’t exist in large swathes of the world. In many places where they do, respondents may have reasonable anxieties about declaring, even on a seemingly confidential poll, a politically ‘wrong’ answer – in either direction. For example, China and Vietnam are the world’s first and fifteenth most populous countries, both are officially atheist, and neither is famous for freedoms of conscience or religion.
The two-volume Cambridge History of Atheism offers an authoritative and up to date account of a subject of contemporary interest. Comprised of sixty essays by an international team of scholars, this History is comprehensive in scope. The essays are written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including religious studies, philosophy, sociology, and classics. Offering a global overview of the subject, from antiquity to the present, the volumes examine the phenomenon of unbelief in the context of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish societies. They explore atheism and the early modern Scientific Revolution, as well as the development of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and its continuing implications. The History also includes general survey essays on the impact of scepticism, agnosticism and atheism, as well as contemporary assessments of thinking. Providing essential information on the nature and history of atheism, The Cambridge History of Atheism will be indispensable for both scholarship and teaching, at all levels.