The best books on religion in an age of doubt

John Loughery Author Of Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century
By John Loughery

Who am I?

Like many Americans, I consider myself uncertain about religion, though that may be less true now that I have come to know the life of Dorothy Day, the radical Catholic activist. She has that effect. Along with the writers below, Dorothy Day has brought me back to thinking of faith in terms that I could find meaningful, to a sense of religion that is about something other than a set of rules and doctrines based on narrow readings of the Bible and the rigidity of men (yes, always men) in positions of power. I grew up a deeply religious child, became a confirmed atheist for decades, but now, in part because of this book, find myself in a different if still uncertain place.

I wrote...

Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century

By John Loughery, Blythe Randolph,

Book cover of Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century

What is my book about?

Telling the life story of Dorothy Day (1897 – 1980) was like falling down the rabbit hole. How was it possible for a woman born to a conservative, racist, anti-Semitic family with no interest in religion to become America’s staunchest advocate for the homeless, most determined pacifist and critic of capitalism, a supporter of civil rights, a believer in civil disobedience willing to go to jail to protest the arms race – and an orthodox Catholic. The paradoxes of this woman never ceased to intrigue me. Her journey from her hard-drinking, sexually active, unsettled youth in Greenwich Village to her conversion and founding of the radical Catholic Worker movement is the subject of the book I wrote with my co-author, Blythe Randolph. Day is a person who made a mark in her time, as both a critic and champion of her Church, a unique figure in women’s history and religious history in this country, and a charismatic individual too little-known today. She is the anti-Trump of modern America.

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The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

By William James,

Book cover of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

Why this book?

The most famous work by the great American philosopher and psychologist, The Varieties of Religious Experience is anything but a dry chronicle or an exercise in religious propaganda. It’s more a record of a personal intellectual exploration. Though an agnostic himself, James asks us to clear away any preconceptions, favorable or critical, about religion to ponder the link between faith and strength of mind, faith as a critique of modern materialism and a release from egotism, the challenging history of mysticism, and the likelihood that human concepts of God necessarily and rightly evolve over time. Almost disdainful of dogma or institutions or arguments to “prove” the existence of God, James has a different concern. He’s interested in what he calls “prayerful consciousness” as the key to the compassion and heightened awareness that a true, generous faith might inspire. This is a book that can press “Pause” on a lot of easy stereotypes and prejudices about religion. It meant the world to Dorothy Day. 

The Case for God

By Karen Armstrong,

Book cover of The Case for God

Why this book?

Armstrong has written brilliant histories of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Chinese spirituality, biographies of Buddha and Mohammed, and a memoir of her own spiritual struggles as a nun who left the Catholic Church. Her reputation as the foremost scholar in our time of the history of religions is well-earned. The Case for God is an erudite account of a human need that has existed through all of recorded history and the thwarting of that need, especially in our own polarized time, by fundamentalism, arrogant misreadings of spiritual texts, and notions of God at odds with the selflessness, creativity, and compassion faith is meant to inspire.

Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America

By James C. Turner,

Book cover of Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America

Why this book?

Turner asks a great question. How did the United States go from being the deeply religious society of the Puritans and the Founders to a culture of widespread unbelief, especially among the well-educated? His astute analysis of 19th-century America explains why and how agnosticism and atheism gradually became socially acceptable alternatives to faith. As Turner sees it, attempts to “explain” God and fit the Divine into a more rationalistic, scientific, and anti-mystical framework, and the deadening hand of dogma, helped pave the way for a culture resistant to the very idea of God.

Why I Am a Catholic

By Garry Wills,

Book cover of Why I Am a Catholic

Why this book?

Garry Wills, a scholar of Jefferson, Lincoln, modern politics, and religious history, is a major thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. He’s critical of that institution’s checkered past, the questionable primacy of the pope, and the social and political narrowness of its bishops. Yet he is a devout Catholic, a confirmed believer. He sees no contradiction in that. This is a blunt, persuasive book about reconciling an urge to faith in a higher, transcendent power with a sharply critical perspective on an institution that, in Wills’ view, is often less about the teachings of Jesus than a corporate structure pretending to more spiritual authority and infallibility than it has any right to assert.

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

By Peter Brown,

Book cover of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

Why this book?

Saint Augustine is probably the one figure in the history of early Christianity that modern readers, of any faith or no faith at all, need to know about, and no one knows more about this fifth-century Catholic bishop and theologian than the author of this book. A Princeton professor, Brown is one of the world’s foremost historians of Christianity in the ancient world and his research is formidable, but he writes with remarkable elegance and ease. There’s a great openness in all his work, but especially in this biography, to the needs of any curious, educated reader – believer, skeptic, or atheist. Augustine of Hippo also anticipates all of the modern-day issues we might have with Augustine, particularly his unease about sex and development of the questionable concept of original sin, and treats them with a clarifying balance and perspective.

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