The best books about atheism and religion

Alec Ryrie Author Of Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
By Alec Ryrie

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Dominic Erdozain

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

Why 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.


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

By Ethan H. Shagan

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

Why 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.


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Seven Types of Atheism

By John Gray

Book cover of Seven Types of Atheism

Why 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.


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

By Francis Spufford

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

Why 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.


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Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West

By Callum G. Brown

Book cover of Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West

Why 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.


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