The best books about atheism and religion

Who am I?

I’m a recovering atheist: a Christian convert who has more sympathy with some of my former atheist brethren than with a lot of my fellow believers. And I’m a historian by trade, which means I believe in the importance of trying to get inside the heads of people living in very different times – but who were still people. I’ve chosen polemical books by atheists and by believers, but in my own writing I try to get sympathetically inside the heads of both. I find that I get on better if I listen to the other side rather than banging the drum for my own – whichever ‘my own side’ is.


I wrote...

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

By Alec Ryrie,

Book cover of Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

What is my book about?

We think we know the history of faith: how Christian belief declined as philosophy and science blossomed and a secular age dawned. But human beings, intuitive creatures that we are, don’t actually make decisions that way. The choices that really matter for our lives are ones we make emotionally, with our whole selves. It’s true when people choose faith; and it’s true when people reject it.

This book is a history of atheism with the emotion put back in: a story of how anger at a corrupt priest or anxiety in a turbulent moment have kindled religious doubt, a story that reaches much further back into the past than we normally think and which still drives what how we believe and how we doubt today.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx

Alec Ryrie Why did I love this book?

This is a wonderfully mind-expanding book which gently takes the history of philosophy that you think you know and turns it on its head. Most of the great critics of Christianity – Spinoza, Voltaire, Tom Paine, they’re all here – were not really, it turns out, atheists trying to tear it all up: they were idealistic, reforming believers who weren’t satisfied with churchy orthodoxies and wanted to purify religions that they thought had become corrupted. That made them maybe even fiercer in their criticisms, and it certainly meant they had unleashed forces they couldn’t control. But it means the moral force that drove anti-religious criticism during the Enlightenment was the desire, not to destroy religion, but to perfect it.

By Dominic Erdozain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Soul of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is widely assumed that science is the enemy of religious faith. The idea is so pervasive that entire industries of religious apologetics converge around the challenge of Darwin, evolution, and the "secular worldview." This book challenges such assumptions by proposing a different cause of unbelief in the West: the Christian conscience. Tracing a history of doubt and unbelief from the Reformation to the age of Darwin and Karl Marx, Dominic Erdozain argues that the
most powerful solvents of religious orthodoxy have been concepts of moral equity and personal freedom generated by Christianity itself.

Revealing links between the radical Reformation…


Book cover of The Birth of Modern Belief: Faith and Judgment from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment

Alec Ryrie Why did I love this book?

This book’s idea hooks you from the start. Why, he wonders, when people say, "Do you believe in God?" do we never reply, "…what do you mean, believe?" It turns out that ‘believing’ has, down the centuries, meant some pretty radically different things. Is ‘belief’ the same as ‘knowledge’ or ‘opinion,’ or is it the opposite of them? Ethan Shagan’s disarmingly simple idea is to track how the notion of belief shifted from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. If we do believe in God nowadays, we don’t do it the way our forebears did. And if we don’t, it’s not because God has become unbelievable, but because belief itself has become so much harder than it used to be.

By Ethan H. Shagan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Birth of Modern Belief as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An illuminating history of how religious belief lost its uncontested status in the West

This landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be.

Shagan shows how religious belief enjoyed a special prestige in medieval Europe, one that set it apart from judgment, opinion, and the evidence…


Book cover of Seven Types of Atheism

Alec Ryrie Why did I love this book?

Sit up straight, button your coat, and get ready for a blast of cold air. John Gray doesn’t take prisoners, but except for the moment when his sniper’s rifle is pointing right at you, it’s a wonderful performance to watch. The book isn’t an attack on religion, something that he thinks so obviously ridiculous it’s hardly worth discussing (he goes through the motions, briefly). It’s an attack on his fellow atheists, most of whom he accuses – convincingly, mercilessly – of practising religion by other means. Personally, I find the realities that are left once he has shredded the soggy and wishful thinking that characterises most modern humanism a little bit too stark. But I hugely appreciate the brutal clarity of his vision.

By John Gray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seven Types of Atheism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

WINNER OF THE CATHOLIC HERALD BOOK AWARD FOR RELIGION AND THEOLOGY

A NEW STATESMAN BOOK OF THE YEAR 2019

'Wonderful ... one of the few books that I started to reread a couple of minutes after I'd finished it.' - Melvyn Bragg

A meditation on the importance of atheism in the modern world - and its inadequacies and contradictions - by one of Britain's leading philosophers

'When you explore older atheisms, you will find some of your firmest convictions - secular or religious - are highly questionable. If this prospect disturbs you, what you are looking for…


Book cover of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

Alec Ryrie Why did I love this book?

The anti-John Gray – and, in purely literary terms, the best writer on my list, which is saying something. It’s not, Francis Spufford says, an apologetic, a reasoned defence of faith. It’s a personal account of why his Christianity makes emotional sense to him, and why it might make emotional sense to other people too. Worth reading for his retelling of the life of Jesus alone. He doesn’t deal with the intellectual questions of religion vs. atheism (though he has some sly hints). What he does is explain why you might want to deal with those questions. So it’s an ‘unapologetic’: both, because it’s about emotion and not narrow reason, and also, he says, because he’s not sorry. Read it, and you won’t be either.

By Francis Spufford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Unapologetic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Unapologetic" is a brief, witty, personal, sharp-tongued defence of Christian belief, taking on Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great". But it isn't an argument that Christianity is true - because how could anyone know that (or indeed its opposite)? It's an argument that Christianity is recognisable, drawing on the deep and deeply ordinary vocabulary of human feeling, satisfying those who believe in it by offering a ruthlessly realistic account of the bits of our lives advertising agencies prefer to ignore. It's a book for believers who are fed up with being patronised, for non-believers curious…


Book cover of Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West

Alec Ryrie Why did I love this book?

Callum Brown is a card-carrying humanist and one of the greatest (and most combative) historians of modern secularism. This book’s concept is very simple: he’s conducted 85 in-depth interviews with self-identified atheists in Europe and the United States about how they got that way, how they understand their world and construct their values, and how they relate to the religions that some of them used to embrace. I think his celebration of these good people blinds him to the very particular historical processes at work here, but I challenge anyone to read this book and not acknowledge that our world has profoundly changed in the past half-century.

By Callum G. Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Atheist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Western World is becoming atheist. In the space of three generations churchgoing and religious belief have become alien to millions. We are in the midst of one of humankind's great cultural changes. How has this happened?

Becoming Atheist explores how people of the sixties' generation have come to live their lives as if there is no God. It tells the life narratives of those from Britain, Western Europe, the United States and Canada who came from Christian, Jewish and other backgrounds to be without faith. Based on interviews with 85 people born in 18 countries, Callum Brown shows how…


You might also like...

Katie’s Gamble

By Kara O'Neal,

Book cover of Katie’s Gamble

Kara O'Neal Author Of The Princess's Knight

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Teacher Writer Hopeless romantic Optimistic human

Kara's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Katie's Gamble is an unexpected, unique story about a young woman who's trying to support her younger siblings by keeping her family's confectionery shop open.

In order to do that, she has to take on her older brother, who's a notorious gambler in Louisiana. Additionally, she has to outsmart Rowdy Denton, her brother's hired gunslinger, who wants nothing more than to protect her and keep her from entering a dangerous gambling tournament.

Katie’s Gamble

By Kara O'Neal,

What is this book about?

Katie's Gamble is an unexpected, unique story about a young woman who's trying to support her younger siblings by keeping her family's confectionery shop open.

In order to do that, she has to take on her older brother, who's a notorious gambler in Louisiana. Additionally, she has to outsmart Rowdy Denton, her brother's hired gunslinger, who wants nothing more than to protect her and keep her from entering a dangerous gambling tournament.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in atheism, Christianity, and God?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about atheism, Christianity, and God.

Atheism Explore 39 books about atheism
Christianity Explore 583 books about Christianity
God Explore 225 books about God