Today’s post is on a bit of a spicy topic: atheist book recommendations. It goes without saying that regardless of your religious views, I would recommend these books to you (you don’t have to be an atheist to appreciate them– and maybe some of them will change your view).
I grew up Catholic but recently deconverted, and many of these books were instrumental in my journey away from religion.
Here are my recommendations for books every atheist should read:
1) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
Starting out with perhaps the most iconic atheist book on this list: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. While there’s a certain stereotype associated with this book (I personally have nicknamed it the Bible of the Reddit atheist), it still is a worthy addition to the catalogue of atheist books.
Dawkins does not pretend to take the idea of religion seriously, and this book has been criticized for its relative lack of philosophical sophistication. However, the snark is at times entertaining, and depending on how religious or how easily-offended you are, you’ll either love it or hate it.
As a general primer on why not to believe in God, this book remains a good place to start. However, if carrying it around in public, I’d ditch the fedora.
2) Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”
I had a hard time deciding which Christopher Hitchens book to include on this list, and while God is Not Great is pretty good, I ended up going with his final book, Mortality. Hitchens wrote this book as he was dying of cancer, before he passed away in 2011. It is an eloquent examination of mortality without religion and a very powerful book that will make you examine your life and stop taking moments for granted.
3) Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
I read this book quite recently, and though it is a hefty length, I tore through it within a day. I could not put it down. Hirsi Ali’s memoir follows her life from her childhood in Somalia, her experiences of violence, religious fundamentalism, and practices like FGM, to her immigration to the Netherlands and eventual deconversion from Islam. As an outspoken critic of the religion she has been met with threats to her life and accusations of Islamophobia, but she continues to champion freedom of speech.
4) Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
“I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”
I am a fan of Sam Harris; I listen to his podcast, and one thing I appreciate about him is that although he approaches things from a secular perspective, he still prioritizes mindfulness practices like meditation. Letter to a Christian Nation is a succinct but well-written treatise on the problems with Christianity and the Christian Right in America specifically. The one criticism I have for this book is that it’s not entirely clear who the audience is supposed to be, as conservative Christians themselves are unlikely to pick up this kind of books, but people who are fans of Sam Harris already don’t need to be convinced not to be Christians. However for those of us still in the process of extricating ourselves from Christianity, the book is very helpful.
5) Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
“What we do know, and what we can assert without further hesitation, is that the universe had a beginning. The universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago. We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is not as explicitly atheist of a book as the others on this list; its primary focus is on science, not religion– but I am nevertheless including it because it does touch on the subject, and because my interest in astronomy and astrophysics was one of the first things that caused me to start doubting the existence of God.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book provides an engaging and layperson-friendly overview of major topics in astrophysics, and if you are at all interested in space (and who isn’t!) I would highly recommend it.
6) Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, ‘Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.’ And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. ‘What is the purpose of all this?’ he asked politely.
‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God.
‘Certainly,’ said man.
‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God.
And He went away.“
No list of atheist book recommendations would be complete without an least one Vonnegut book. For this particular list I decided to go with Cat’s Cradle, his nihilistic, dark-humor-laden satire on humanity’s seemingly inexorable will to use science to come up with more and more destructive weapons rather than doing something useful and the perpetual meaningless of existence. But the arms race, the dark side of innovation and humanity’s search for meaning aren’t the only targets of Vonnegut’s biting wit in this novel– Bokononism, the fictional religion that openly admits its deceptiveness but is followed nevertheless because of its usefulness– features prominently in the novel.
7) Small Gods by Terry Pratchett*
“Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that’d happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn’t a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time…”
And finally for the last book on this list of atheist book recommendations! Another rather hilarious satire, Small Gods takes place in a fantasy world in which various gods– “small gods” if you will– are constantly competing for the attention and worship of the populace. The tribalism of religion is featured heavily and expertly satirized, and though Pratchett’s writing style and dark humor shares a lot of similarity with Vonnegut’s, Small Gods is noticeably more uplifting than Cat’s Cradle.
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*small disclaimer for this one–I read half of it before my library loan elapsed, so I have yet to finish it which is really sad–but in the mean time, as I wait for my hold to come back, I still put it on the list due to how much I loved the first half.