Atheist Reading List
I am an atheist. I wasn’t raised in a religious household – though I did my first Communion and went to a couple Sunday School classes because my grandparents insisted- but certainly never believed in what I picked up about Christianity through osmosis. Before I starting thinking about it properly, I believed there was ‘something more’, but was never able to really define what that meant. I used to facetiously say that I believed in The Force.
When I was 19, I saw the film ‘Jesus Christ Superstar‘ (US) and said to my friend, ‘Judas is so cool!’. She laughed and I had no reason why. I hadn’t learned that Judas was hated by Christians for betraying Jesus. When I learned this, it seemed truly bizarre:
- Surely, Jesus ‘foresaw’ Judas’ betrayal (according to the lyrics in JCSS: ‘One of you here dining/ one of my twelve chosen/ Will leave to betray me…’ or in Matthew 26: 21: and as they were eating, he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’), so, clearly, Judas had no freewill in the matter. Why should he be ‘damned for all time’ if he had no choice?
- I didn’t understand why, exactly, Judas should be damned for being a vital part of the Saving of Mankind. Clearly, according to the rules of Christianity, Judas was created by God specifically to ‘betray’ Jesus. Doesn’t seem right to me.
- Why did Jesus, on the cross, say about the men nailing him up, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do,’ but poor Judas was damned for eternity?
These logical flaws were the start of my interest in religion.
It’s incredibly easy to accept the ‘truths’ of religion if you a) don’t know very much about the Bible or b) don’t know very much about history or c) don’t know very much about science or d) actively work to delude yourself. If you’re a rational, intelligent person who hasn’t been brainwashed since birth, the second you start to read the Bible, alarm bells start ringing. The more you learn about the historical reality of Israel and the Roman Empire at the time, the more unlikely it all starts to sound. The more you learn about pagan myths the more unlikely Jesus, Son of God, becomes. The more you learn about science, the more ridiculous the ‘miracles’ sound. If you are an educated and intelligent person who is also religious, you must delude yourself in order to remain religious.
I’ve spent 15 years or so devouring books on science, artificial intelligence, technology, psychology amongst many other topics which provided me with a grounding in “reality”. Whenever I’d look at religion and saw what people believed, I’d be shocked and astounded at their, well, to be frank, their ignorance. I have, however, only recently started reading books on Atheism specifically. I’ve subsequently learned that a lot of my own ideas about religion had already been voiced by many people before me.
I thought I’d make a list of a few of my recent favourite books on atheism, in case any of you are interested in reading more.
MY ATHEIST READING LIST
This isn’t about atheism directly. It’s about the scientific method. It teaches you how to use logic and rationality to recognise reality from ‘baloney’. Every school kid should sit an end-of-year exam on this book. If you only read one book on my list, make it this one. It’ll give you a good grounding in how to think.
This is, for me, the best place to start reading about atheism. The title essay was originally given as a talk in 1927 just down the road from me in Battersea. The other essays were written by Russell between 1899 and 1954. This, I think, is the most logical and simple book on the ridiculousness of religion you can read. It’s unencumbered by modern politics like the other books on this list. Some of the arguments have moved on since then, so those of you who are still actively deluding yourselves with religion may have a few ‘ah! ha! That’s wrong because…’ moments. I would, however, invite you to read the rest of the books on my list before feeling smug.
Now, I love Christopher Hitchens for so many reasons. Mainly because he cracks me up. In this book, he has chosen excerpts from some of his favourite writings on atheism. From Spinoza to Mark Twain; from John Updike to Carl Sagan, this book is filled with brilliance. Each chapter stands on its own so you can jump around throughout the book as you wish. This is the perfect ‘taster’ book.
The God Delusion
I’ve got to put this one here as it’s the one everyone knows. It’s not my favourite on this list, to be honest, though he wrote some very good things on morality and children in this book (I, too, called religion ‘child abuse’ a few years ago) and find the book incredibly readable. I don’t find his arguments as deep as other writers’, but he’s always incredibly clear. I honestly think that if you read this and you’re still religious afterwards, then you are definitely delusional.
Hitchens again. Oh, how he makes me laugh. (don’t think he’s funny? Watch this.) If you’ve read the first three books, you’ll definitely be ready for this one. This book is sharp and biting and often very, very funny. This was clearly written to start arguments. I heard recently that Hitchens said he’d be upset if we all woke up tomorrow and no one on the planet was religious. When asked why, he responded, ‘The I’d have no one to argue with.’ I love him.
THE END OF FAITH
This one is for ‘advanced atheists’ who enjoy digging a bit deeper into the whole topic OR people who’ve moved on past seeing the ridiculousness of Christianity and have moved onto the silliness (and/or violent insanity) of religious fundamentalism. This is probably my least favourite book on the list, but I mainly enjoyed it for the ‘thought experiments’ (at one point, he actually condones torture… and admits he wasn’t expecting to end up doing that). Most people who have criticised this part of the book have clearly never engaged in similar thought experiments themselves (you can learn quite a lot when you challenge your own beliefs). I also genuinely enjoyed his thoughts on how you can be an atheist AND spiritual (which is something I truly know to be possible). I was also interested to read that he sees religion as a form of mental illness (if I were doing a psychology PhD, I’d be researching the connections between religion and schizophrenia).
THE NEXT BOOK I’M READING
Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos (US) was what really kick-started my interest in science. When Brian and I first met and started writing science programmes together, we’d always stop and think ‘What would Carl do?’ We still do that.
We were truly and deeply honoured to have met Carl Sagan’s widow and long-time collaborator Ann Druyan in New York in May. One of her friends had seen Brian speak at TED, so arranged for us all to meet up for lunch when we were at the World Science Festival in New York. For both Brian and I, it was a really huge ‘meeting a hero’ moment.
We saw Ann most recently at SciFoo. She and I took part in a ‘Religion and Science’ discussion there and afterwards I told her how brilliant she was in the discussion, so strong and clear. She flattered me by complimenting me on what I said during the discussion, too. *blush* We then talked for ages about being both scientific AND spiritual people and how we couldn’t see that there is a conflict between the two at all. We talked about our kids and how, when they aren’t brought up with religion, they see religion for what it is perfectly clearly by the age of 5. She talked about Carl. I love when she talks about Carl… God, she must miss him…. I’ve got a total girlcrush on her in the biggest way. I absolutely want to be her when I grow up.
Anyway, let me know if you decide to read any of these books or, if you’ve read any of them already, what you thought of them.