They are all here, from
Jeppe Aakjaer, a Danish non-theist, to Randall Zwinge, better known
as The Amazing Randi, 1238 pages of biographical and factual entries
for the denizens of hell. Persons known for their independence from
supernatural nonsense are not the only entries. Add extensive
descriptions of subject matter, organizations and publications of
interest to unbelievers. Further, some people are entered in
distinct type for what they have said or written of interest,
although they themselves may not have been free thinkers. Print size
distinguishes between major entries and items of only peripheral
interest. In this way the author manages the problems of identifying
matters of unbelief versus issues of a merely secular nature.
How do we assess a specialized
encyclopedia? One way is to compare entries with a standard source.
A look at the listing for Philip Freneau (1752-1832) in the Microsoft
Encarta Encyclopedia provides an entire thumbnail sketch of the
Revolutionary era poet. This includes his middle name, which is
missing in Hell. But Encarta lacks the information
that he was an unbeliever, or at least a deist who accepted the need
for a prime mover but not the Christian God. Who’s Who in Hell
gives us not only that information, but cites a six stanza poem to
illustrate the case. Entries in this work differ from standard
sources in information, in size, and in emphasis, making it clear
that Hell fills a specialized need. Many standard
biographical sources simply do not inform the reader if the entry
represents a free thinker, an unbeliever, a unitarian, or a deist.
This one does, or, where there is doubt, at least discusses the
So who do we find in this compilation? Many
very famous and well known people. Our first four presidents along
with many Enlightenment thinkers definitely did not believe in the
standard Christian Deity. There is a long list of Nobel laureates in
Hell, peace winners: Angell and Nansen: literature: Shaw,
Camus, and Hemingway: science, Weinberg, Curie, and Pauling, among
many others. Many other scientists, artists, writers, and
philosophers have made the cut. Mark Twain (p. 220) truly had it
accurately: "Heaven for the climate, hell for the
company." We would also meet some rather unwholesome types.
Revolutionary thinker Karl Marx, a converted Jew was an atheist; and
some would claim he invented his own religion. Also present Iosif
Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili generally known as Stalin. Not, however,
Adolph Hitler, who despite many believers’ claims to the contrary
remained a Catholic to the end of his life. Also missing are Idi
Amin, because he was a Muslim, and Pol Pot, who probably should be
in the real Hell.
Any author who characterizes persons by
their degree of unbelief or doubt about god faces enormous problems.
In the first place he has to have some definition of god and
religion to identify those who deny them. In the second, persons may
say and write many different things over a long life, as well as
change their beliefs or attitudes over time. Finally, many important
persons had reasons to keep their doubts to themselves. Thus, some
biographers have denied that Darwin or Mark Twain were agnostics.
Some persons were quite critical of religion, without however
denying god or stating clearly were they stood. Not many modern
American politicians will admit to unbelief. The English novelist
Kingsley Amis is listed as having written some devastating
criticisms of Christianity, without ever being involved in
freethought. A similar argument applies to the Nobel laureate in
literature Selma Lagerlöf.
Smith struggles with these problems, and
many will be the criticisms leveled at him, but it is not useful to
dwell at length on errors. The book must be regarded as a valiant
pioneering effort, which will improve with revision. Where else
could you find the case for John Lennon’s atheism, Doris Lessing’s
progress from religion to Marxism to unbelief, or that Joe Levee
"is one of the more forward-looking secular humanists" (p.
— Wolf Roder