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Obituary : Gordon Stein

Gordon Stein was a leading activist in the English-speaking free- thought movement.

He was born in New York into a middle-class Jewish family, and educated as a scientist. He took degrees in Psychology and Zoology, and a doctorate in Physiology; and later took masters degrees in Management and Library Science. He was proud of his academic background, always signing himself and insisting on being addressed as Gordon Stein PhD.

His family were involved with the Ethical movement, the semi-religious humanist organisation which started in 1876, and he became a keen student and supporter of the broader free-thought movement. For many years he worked for technical publishers and reference libraries, but he was eventually able to earn a living in the movement. He was associated with the American Rationalist Association and the editor of its paper, the American Rationalist, for 20 years.

He later helped to found the best paper in the American free-thought movement, Free Inquiry, and was a senior editor for 15 years. He contributed hundreds of articles and reviews to it and other magazines. He also lectured and debated widely, especially to student audiences. He was a consultant to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and also a member of several humanist organisations in Britain.

His main activity, however, was the acquisition and production of books on free-thought and the paranormal. He built up an expert knowledge about and an extensive collection of publications in both areas, and became a considerable scholar in a movement which contains many considerable scholars.

His own work began with bibliography, and he compiled annotated guides to the great American free-thinker Robert G. Ingersoll (1969), then (with Marshall G. Brown) Freethought in the United States (1978), Freethought in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth (1981), and finally God: Pro and Con (1990). He went on to anthologies, and compiled An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (1980) and A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (1987), both concentrating on old British and American texts.

He turned to encyclopedias, and edited The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985), The Encyclopaedia of Hoaxes (1993), and The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (1996), all detailed reference guides to their fields. He also wrote The Sorcerer of Kings (1993) on the case of the psychic Daniel Dunglas Home and the scientist William Crookes.

This impressive programme was marked by formidable ambition, but it was marred by a frequent lack of attention which led to an unfortunate number of errors and omissions as well as other eccentricities and made these remarkable books less valuable than they should have been. In 1993 he became the founding Director of two libraries at the new Center for Inquiry associated with the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism at Amherst, New York, ending his career by laying the foundation of what is planned to be the largest collection of free-thought and sceptical literature in the world.

Stein was an unusual personality among Americans and humanists, being rather introverted and taciturn, but he was a loyal colleague and a stimulating if abrasive conversationalist. He was a severe critic of work by other people, yet sensitive to criticism by others. He suffered defiantly from cancer for some time, and worked as conscientiously as ever almost to the end. He was remembered at a humanist ceremony at the Center for Inquiry, and will be missed as a key figure in a growing movement.

Gordon Stein, free-thinker: born New York 30 April 1941; married Barbara Laika (one daughter; marriage dissolved), Eve Triffo (marriage dissolved); died Buffalo, New York 27 August 1996.