The best books on atheism

9 authors have picked their favorite books about atheism and why they recommend each book.

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Without God, Without Creed

By James C. Turner,

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

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.

Without God, Without Creed

By James C. Turner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Without God, Without Creed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Until the 19th century, atheism and agnosticism were viewed as bizarre aberrations. But atheism emerged as a viable alternative to other ideologies. How and why it became possible is the subject of this cultural revolution.


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.

The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins,

Book cover of The God Delusion

This was the book that impelled me to write my own account of superstition. I could have also recommended his masterpiece, The Selfish Gene, which I read as a teenager and got me into science in the first place but this unforgiving attack on religion spurred me to write a more balanced view that considered religion as a naturally emerging consequence of cognitive development. In fairness, The God Delusion does briefly mention evidence in support of a natural inclination, but this is outweighed by an agenda (that I do not share) to eradicate religion as pernicious indoctrination. Whatever your opinion of Dawkins, he is undeniably one of the most gifted science writers with a clarity of argument combined with a poetic beauty of prose.

The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The God Delusion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The God Delusion caused a sensation when it was published in 2006. Within weeks it became the most hotly debated topic, with Dawkins himself branded as either saint or sinner for presenting his hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types.

His argument could hardly be more topical. While Europe is becoming increasingly secularized, the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the Middle East or Middle America, is dramatically and dangerously dividing opinion around the world. In America, and elsewhere, a vigorous dispute between 'intelligent design' and Darwinism is seriously undermining and restricting the teaching of science. In many countries…


Who am I?

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the supernatural and wanted to believe in the paranormal. On reaching university, I discovered there was no reliable evidence for such phenomena but rather there was a much more satisfying explanation based on the weaknesses and wishes of human psychology. Development is critical to human psychology and as I specialized in children’s thinking, I found more reasons to understand the natural origins of the peculiarities of our reasoning. SuperSense was my first popular science book to expound my ideas, but all of my subsequent books apply similar novel ways of explaining human behaviour from surprising perspectives. 


I wrote...

Book cover of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable

What is my book about?

Would you willingly wear the cardigan of a killer? Do you think you can tell when you are being watched by someone you can’t see? Do you believe in ghosts or spirits? Even in this modern scientific era, most people believe in phenomena that if true would violate the laws of Nature. Even individuals who are not religious hold supernatural beliefs even though they may not be aware of them. In SuperSense, I trace the origin of magical thinking to the development of children’s thinking. Rather than indoctrination, I argue that children are naturally inclined to infer the presence of hidden structure, energies, essences, and all manner of causal entities that lay the foundation for later adult magical beliefs that can operate implicitly in our thinking. 

Pure

By Jo Perry,

Book cover of Pure

This is a risky choice because the author is my old university colleague and later television writing partner, to whom I’ve been married for 41 years. I feel comfortable about it because of the number of fine British and American writers who have recommended this and her earlier books. I picked it because it’s the first novel I’ve read that makes a credible artistic attempt to grasp the experience of the current Pandemic. It’s a murder mystery that takes place during those first few months, when what was happening in the world seemed unthinkable, going out meant breaking a lockdown, and contact with anyone might be fatal. The amateur investigator, a young woman with an aimless and undisciplined past, takes a deep expedition into death, and it galvanizes her into taking charge and being really alive. 

Pure

By Jo Perry,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"Faultlessly imagined and beautifully written, this is one of the best novels I've read all year." –Timothy Hallinan, author of the acclaimed Simeon Grist series

Caught in a pincer movement between the sudden death of Evelyn (her favourite aunt) and the Corona virus, Ascher Lieb finds herself unexpectedly locked down in her aunt’s retirement community with only Evelyn’s grief-stricken dog Freddie for company.

As the world tumbles down into a pandemic shaped rabbit-hole Ascher is wracked with guilt that her aunt was buried without the Jewish burial rights of purification.

In order to atone for this dereliction of familial duty,…


Who am I?

Thomas Perry is a 74 year old writer who is working on his 30th novel. His books have won a number of honors and awards, including the Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for The Butcher's Boy, the Gumshoe for Pursuit, the Barry for The Informant, and again for Eddie's Boy. Metzger's Dog was voted by NPR's listeners one of "100 Killer Thrillers--Best Thrillers Ever." He has always believed that a writer's most important job is learning to be a better writer.


I wrote...

The Left-Handed Twin: A Jane Whitefield Novel

By Thomas Perry,

Book cover of The Left-Handed Twin: A Jane Whitefield Novel

What is my book about?

Jane Whitefield helps people disappear. Fearing for their lives, fleeing dangerous situations, her clients come to her when they need to vanish completely—to assume a new identity and establish a new life somewhere they won’t be found. And when people are desperate enough to need her services, they come to the old house in rural western New York where Jane was raised to begin their escape.

On a Pale Horse

By Piers Anthony,

Book cover of On a Pale Horse

This is the first in his Incarnations of Immortality and I read this book when I was likely in middle school. While I was disappointed in later books in the series, On a Pale Horse still holds up pretty well. An ordinary guy shoots Death and then must take up his mantle. He has no idea how to do the job. While not laugh out loud funny, like Pratchett, Pale Horse has its moments of humor—the scene where Death collects the soul of an atheist comes to mind. It asks the questions about what life means, examines what might happen in the afterlife, and wonders if death/Death is really something to fear.

On a Pale Horse

By Piers Anthony,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On a Pale Horse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this first novel of the Incarnations of Immortality, Piers Anthony combines a gripping story of romance and conflicting loyalties with a deeply moving examination of the meaning of life and death. This is a novel that will long linger in the reader's mind. 

Shooting Death was a mistake, as Zane soon discovered. For the man who killed the Incarnation of Death was immediately forced to assume the vacant position! Thereafter, he must speed over the world, riding his pale horse, and ending the lives of others. 

Zane was forced to accept his unwelcome task, despite the rules that seemed…


Who am I?

I am a hybrid author (both traditionally and independently published), mother of one kid and three cats, and an avid gamer. I’ve been doing the publishing thing since 2012 though I’ve been writing for much longer than that. I have an advanced degree in Medieval Literature and still read things in Middle English for fun.


I wrote...

An Unkindness of Ravens

By Jeanette Battista,

Book cover of An Unkindness of Ravens

What is my book about?

I have not (yet!) had Death as a character, though I suspect that I will one day. My books range from YA to adult fantasy novels, usually with something supernatural in them. I’ve written werecreatures of all types, ghosts, demons, with a dragon or two sprinkled in here and there.

This book may not have Death in it, but it has plenty of the lowercase kind. An Unkindness of Ravens centers on Denevah, a poisonous girl whose very touch can kill. She’s been created for one thing—vengeance—and she’s about to be unleashed on a city that doesn’t even know she exists.

Unapologetic

By Francis Spufford,

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

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.

Unapologetic

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…


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.

Book cover of Seven Types of Atheism

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.

Seven Types of Atheism

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…


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.

The Ball and the Cross

By G.K. Chesterton, Ben Hatke (illustrator),

Book cover of The Ball and the Cross

This madcap story involves a militant Christian and a militant atheist who decide to fight to the death over the question of the existence of God. The trouble is that no one in the world will let them do it. When I first read it, much as I enjoyed the two central combatants and their repeatedly baffled zeal, I was even more delighted by the framework of the novel. The Ball and the Cross begins in a spaceship containing a mad scientist named Lucifer and a holy monk named Michael. The theological-cosmological setting seems clear, but this is not a twee presentation of the battle of the angels (cf. Revelation 12:7–10). These two have rich personalities and Michael in particular had a huge impact on me regarding the proper depiction of goodness.

The Ball and the Cross

By G.K. Chesterton, Ben Hatke (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ball and the Cross as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.


Who am I?

I’m an omnivorous reader, a literature teacher, a novelist, and a homeschooling mother of five. I’m a firm believer that literature should be delightful and instructive, and that reading wonderful books should inspire a growth in virtue. At the same time, I loathe cloying, proselytizing presentations of goodness. This is one of the many reasons I love the Gothic; the genre permits me to play around with good and evil, virtue and vice—without preachiness. I am also absolutely terrified of the task of writing a book list and am now going to bury my face in a book before I have time to second-guess any of my own choices.


I wrote...

Brother Wolf

By Eleanor Bourg Nicholson,

Book cover of Brother Wolf

What is my book about?

For Athene Howard, the only child of renowned cultural anthropologist Charles Howard, life is an unexciting, disillusioned academic project. When she encounters a clairvoyant Dominican postulant, a stern nun, and a recusant English nobleman embarked on a quest for a feral Franciscan werewolf, the strange new world of enchantment and horror intoxicates and delights her—even as it brings to light her father’s complex past and his long-dormant relationship with the Church of Rome. Can Athene and her newfound compatriots battle against the ruthless forces of darkness that howl for the overthrow of civilization and the devouring of so many wounded souls?

In this sister novel to A Bloody Habit, the incomparable Father Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P. returns to face occult demons, gypsy curses, possessed maidens, and tormented werewolves.

Book cover of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Five Novels in One Outrageous Volume

There are several “big questions” that have long been contemplated by prophets, philosophers, and me. “Does life have meaning? What’s my place in the universe? How can God do all those things people say He’s done?” Even though Douglas Adams was a dedicated atheist, his trilogy provides answers to these and more while keeping his readers laughing. The atheist helped me understand God.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Douglas Adams,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First a legendary radio series, then a bestselling book, now a blockbuser movie, the immensely successful Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy needs no introduction. Reissued to coincide with the film's release, this hardback omnibus edition include all five parts of the trilogy, incorporating for the first time, Mostly Harmless, along with a guide to the guide and essential notes on how to leave the planet.

This single hardback edition is indispensable for any would-be galactic traveller and for old and new fans of Douglas Adams, Doctor Who and bestselling science fiction books.


Who am I?

I grew up believing that all men are brothers and that in our hearts we all hold the same values. It’s not true. It presumes that western cultural values are the best mankind can aspire to. In fact, it’s an act of aggression to project my values onto others. I love to explore other cultures by living amongst them or reading a good book about them. As a religious, trained anthropologist, I try to discern their big questions about life, the universe, and everything. Do they have any bearing on my questions?  After all, the quest is for better questions, rather than comfortable answers (like ‘42’ - see Hitchhiker’s Guide…).


I wrote...

Quantum Cannibals

By Nathan Elberg,

Book cover of Quantum Cannibals

What is my book about?

Reincarnation and time travel are the scaffold of a five-thousand-year saga of exile, love, and loss. In an Arctic wasteland, a quantum biologist is transformed into a vengeful warrior when her husband is butchered and served at a feast. In Bronze-Age Mesopotamia she is a teacher and community leader trying to cope with the violent animosity between tribes. In a modern city, before she is born her father is expected to stop an invasion by demons holding a five-thousand-year-old grudge.

Greed and bigotry challenge grace, generosity, and empathy. It’s a struggle fought with humor, magic, lasers, stone knives, and nuclear weapons. It’s a struggle worth immersing yourself in.

Is God a Delusion?

By Eric Reitan,

Book cover of Is God a Delusion?

Philosopher Eric Reitan offers a spirited rebuttal to Dawkins by arguing that belief in God isn’t necessarily irrational or harmful. In particular, Reitan defends the progressive faiths that are based on universal love rather than sectarian division and superstition. I especially enjoyed Reitan’s discussion of atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who compared religious faith to a belief in the existence of a “celestial teapot” that travels around the sun in an orbit so distant that it could never be observed by telescope. You can’t disprove its existence, but doesn’t it seem ludicrous? Can you explain how it got there?   

Is God a Delusion?

By Eric Reitan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Is God a Delusion? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Is God a Delusion? addresses the philosophical underpinnings of the recent proliferation of popular books attacking religious beliefs. Winner of CHOICE 2009 Outstanding Academic Title Award Focuses primarily on charges leveled by recent critics that belief in God is irrational and that its nature ferments violence Balances philosophical rigor and scholarly care with an engaging, accessible style Offers a direct response to the crop of recent anti-religion bestsellers currently generating considerable public discussion


Who am I?

I should make it clear that I have no religious agenda. I’m not a believer, but I’m not a committed atheist either. For ten years, I was an editor at Scientific American. During that time, we were diligent about exposing the falsehoods of “intelligent design” proponents who claimed to see God’s hand in the fashioning of complex biological structures such as the human eye. But in 2008 I left journalism to write fiction. I wrote an international bestseller about Albert Einstein (Final Theory). I wrote a trilogy of Young Adult novels about teenagers who become robots (The Six). And ideas about God kept popping up in my books.


I wrote...

Saint Joan of New York: A Novel about God and String Theory

By Mark Alpert,

Book cover of Saint Joan of New York: A Novel about God and String Theory

What is my book about?

Saint Joan of New York is a novel about a modern-day Joan of Arc, a 17-year-old math genius who becomes obsessed with discovering the Theory of Everything. Joan Cooper is a lonely, confused high-school student in New York City, but she also has an extraordinary gift for mathematics. Traumatized by the recent death of her older sister, Joan tries to rebuild her shattered world by studying string theory and the efforts to unify the laws of physics. But as she tackles the complex equations, she falls prey to disturbing visions of a divine being who wants to help her unveil the universe’s mathematical design. Joan must enter the battle between science and religion, fighting for her sanity and a new understanding of the cosmos.

Becoming Atheist

By Callum G. Brown,

Book cover of Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West

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.

Becoming Atheist

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…


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.

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