The best books on religion

8 authors have picked their favorite books about religion and why they recommend each book.

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Wise Blood

By Flannery O'Connor,

Book cover of Wise Blood

William Faulkner might have been the father of Southern Gothic, but Flannery O’Connor was the master. This is one of those books that makes you thankful for genius. Because everything about this book is genius. The story is about a young man named Hazel Motes who struggles to avoid his relentless fate. O’Connor’s writing is filled with religious extremism, grotesqueness, and mental illness—all the things that make America great. If I could have written a single book—this would be it.  

Who am I?

When I completed one of my early novels, a really demented one called Factory Town, a fellow author emailed me with great concern for my mental health. He was convinced I was heading down a dark cave that I couldn’t be rescued from. But it wasn’t true. Writing and reading these dark novels doesn’t make me depressed. It makes me feel creatively revitalized. Dark literature reminds us that being alive is painful—but it’s also wonderful. I hope to never spend any real time with people as terrifying as the ones I’ve found on these pages. But I’m incredibly thankful they were a part of my imagined world for a time. 

I wrote...

Beneath Cruel Waters

By Jon Bassoff,

Book cover of Beneath Cruel Waters

What is my book about?

When Holt Davidson learns that his estranged mother has taken her own life, he returns to his hometown for the funeral, hoping to make peace with the past. He spends the night at his childhood home, but instead of nostalgic souvenirs, he discovers a gun, a love letter, and a Polaroid photograph of a man lying in his own blood.

Who is the dead man? Was his mother the one who killed him, and, if so, why? Who sent the love letter? And what role did his sister, institutionalized since she was a teenager, play in this act of violence? As his own traumatic memories begin to resurface, Holt begins an investigation into his mother’s and sister’s pasts—as well as his own.

The Great Angel

By Margaret Barker,

Book cover of The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God

This book was published in 1992, prior to the recent revolution in our understanding of Jewish and Christian origins, but no book has done more to revolutionize my own understanding of Jewish and Christian origins than this one. What is so important about this book is not any specific fact or revelation, but rather the framework that Margaret Barker establishes for understanding the complex development of Jewish concepts of divinity. Barker shows how the polytheistic roots of Semitic religion led to ongoing turmoil within ancient Judaism and interpretations of the scriptures in ways that indicated there were two or more divine beings, not one.

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by the Bible since my earliest days in Sunday school, coloring pictures of Noah’s Ark. Yet, even as a young child I was very skeptical of the Christian interpretation of biblical stories, seeing that they couldn’t possibly be true. But I’ve always respected the Bible as a literary work and sought to understand its details. In my years of researching the Bible and Christian origins, several works stand out as being particularly important in shaping my understanding of Judaism and Christianity. These are those books.

I wrote...

Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed

By R.G. Price,

Book cover of Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed

What is my book about?

The Christian Bible is one of the most fascinating and important literary creations ever produced. Like many ancient works, the Bible is filled with literary puzzles, secret codes, hidden references, and masked allegory. Deciphering the Gospels examines many aspects of the Gospel of Mark to show that the story is a fictional allegory, based not on the life of Jesus, but rather on the life of Paul. It goes on to show how understanding the fictional scenes in the Gospel of Mark changes our understanding of everything we think we know about Jesus.


By Jeff Swenson,

Book cover of Freethunk

This is a very daring collection of cartoons. (And Jeff actually sent me a signed copy of it!) It includes cartoons previously published in Freethunk! The Complete Edition: Cartoons from 2000-2007, but also includes cartoons from 2008 and 2009. Mention of anything specific will be a spoiler, but... 'Let there be light' involves God and a lightbulb...

Who am I?

I was raised to be a Roman Catholic. I was not raised to think very deeply, but I did anyway. Eventually.  When I was around fifteen, I started asking questions that irritated my parents. They referred me to our priest. Who basically patted me on the head and showed me the door. When the Pope said 'no contraception,' the shit really hit the fan. I haven't looked back. And I'm quite vocal about it because, damn it, religious beliefs and religions do damage, not the least of which involves hurting and killing people. (As for being funny, that's just icing on the cake.)

I wrote...

The Blasphemy Tour

By Jass Richards,

Book cover of The Blasphemy Tour

What is my book about?

Two Canadian atheists go on a cross-country speaking tour of American Bible Colleges. No, seriously. The Blasphemy Tour — where philosophy essay meets stand-up comedy.

(In The Road Trip Dialogues, the prequel, Rev and Dylan are charged with blasphemy for adding “‘Blessed are they that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stone.’ Psalms 137:9” to a Right-to-Life billboard just outside Algonquin Park. As a result of a well-publicized court trial, the American Atheist Consortium makes an offer...)

Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible

By Jack Kuhatschek,

Book cover of Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible

The most practical book I’ve ever encountered for applying the Old Testament in the New Testament age and for dealing with culturally foreign parts of the New Testament as well. Outlines a process for extracting timeless principles from culture-specific passages and then finding equally concrete contemporary applications, even if we might not literally ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’! Jack was an editor with three major Christian publishers, a personal encouragement when I was writing my commentary on 1 Corinthians and his approach was the most influential resource I had when I was writing on application for my co-authored Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.

Who am I?

I have just retired after teaching 35 years in the New Testament department at Denver Seminary. I have authored, co-authored, or co-edited thirty books related to New Testament studies and more than 150 peer-reviewed journal articles or chapters in multi-author books. I have learned that most of the reasons people don’t believe in part or all of the Bible is because they don’t understand it properly, so my passion is to try to rectify that. The New Testament changed my life for the better, as it has hundreds of millions of other people. I just want to help that number continue to grow.

I wrote...

Making Sense of the New Testament

By Craig L. Blomberg,

Book cover of Making Sense of the New Testament

What is my book about?

Can I believe the contents of the Christian New Testament or is it just religious fiction? A careful historical analysis yields a resounding affirmation of reliability. Wasn’t St. Paul rather than Jesus the real founder of the Christian religion? No, despite superficial differences, there is a lot in common between the teachings of these two men. If I do believe in the New Testament and want to apply it to my life, what do I do? Realize that it is made up of all kinds of overall genres and embedded literary and rhetorical forms. Each has some special keys to its interpretation and application. This book is short, to the point, has stayed in print, and has been translated widely.

The Derveni Papyrus

By Gábor Betegh,

Book cover of The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation

The Derveni papyrus (500 BC), an ancient Macedonian papyrus that was found in 1962, and was finally published, just recently, in 2006. Derveni Papyrus, is now at Thessaloniki Museum, Greece. This version was published in 340 BC and it is an Orphic book of mystical initiations.

The scroll was carefully unrolled and the fragments joined together, thus forming 26 columns of text. which was used in the mystery cult of Dionysus by the 'Orphic initiators'. It is a philosophical treatise written as a commentary on an Orphic poem, a Theogony concerning the birth of the gods, compiled in the circle of the philosopher AnaXagoras.

The scroll contains a philosophical treatise on a lost poem describing the birth of the gods and other beliefs focusing on Orpheus, the mythical musician who visited the underworld to reclaim his dead love. The Orpheus cult tells us of a single creator god, of the…

Who am I?

Nataša Pantović holds an MSc in Economics and is a Maltese Serbian novelist, adoptive parent, and ancient worlds’ consciousness researcher. Using stories of ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophers and ancient artists she inspires researchers to reach beyond their self-imposed boundaries. In the last five years, she has published 3 historical fiction and 7 non-fiction books with the Ancient Worlds' focus. She speaks English, Serbian, all Balkan Slavic languages, Maltese and Italian. She has also helped build a school in a remote village of Ethiopia, and has since adopted two kids, as a single mum!

I wrote...

Metaphysics of Sound: In Search of The Name of God

By Nataša Pantović,

Book cover of Metaphysics of Sound: In Search of The Name of God

What is my book about?

Join Nataša Pantović on a mind-boggling tour of history and sounds - from the Ancient Sumerian Priestess Sin Liturgy right up to the development of Ancient Greek and Cyrillic alphabet. This new novel contains a dialogue between two European cultures, Roman and Greek from an Ancient Slavic perspective, an intimate encounter of Balkan, its history and culture, a glimpse into the evolution of Ancient Egyptian’s, Ancient Maltese, Ancient Greek - Yonic and Slavic sounds. A Brief History of the world Beyond the Usual (the subtitle of the book) contains the historical overview of the development of people, sounds, and symbols as frequencies.

Hidden Mind of Freedom

By Tarthang Tulku,

Book cover of Hidden Mind of Freedom

Tulku wrote a great resource to facilitate learning and practicing meditation and opening up the mind to its innate healing powers and abilities to center and calm the soul. Another book that deserves to be read more than once.

Who am I?

Solan McClean has developed the practice of present moment awareness through the experience of driving using the PRND method and is best know as the author of Learning to Drive into the Now: PRND. He is active in many areas of self-realization including Zen meditation, Vipassana meditation, Kripalu Yoga, Dharma Yoga, and of course mindful driving.

I wrote...

Learning to Drive Into the Now: Prnd

By Solan McClean,

Book cover of Learning to Drive Into the Now: Prnd

What is my book about?

If you have ever desired to become a more attentive, compassionate, and liberated human being...NOW is the time. In the pages of this book you will learn to overcome your egoic mind patterns, and discover the path to finding your True Self. You will develop a practice of mindful driving in the current moment with dynamic awareness, and reveal the Truth of your Higher Self. By applying the techniques and practices illustrated by Solan McClean in "Learning to Drive", you will not only learn to drive with more attention, serenity, and compassion, but you will learn how to use your experiences to transform your life outside of your car. "Learning to Drive into the Now: PRND" is a great program for those who are new to self discovery, meditation, and practicing mindful awareness. If you've ever tried sitting meditation and couldn't put together a meaningful practice because you didn't have the time, were bored, or didn't feel you were getting results...this is the practice for you If you already have a meditation practice, you will find "Learning to Drive" a great addition to your learning library.

Peace Is Every Step

By Thich Nhat Hanh,

Book cover of Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

This slender book is my “bible” for inspiration as well as mindfulness. (One can’t go wrong with a book that includes a foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama!) The first essay, “Twenty-four Brand-New Hours,” reminds me that each day affords an opportunity to bring “peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.” Thich Nhat Hanh, described in the introduction as “a cross between a cloud, a snail and a piece of heavy machinery—a true religious presence,” humbly offers simple ways to be present in the moment (the only moment we have, btw!). “We are very good at preparing to live,” the author reminds us, “but not very good at living.” The essays in Peace Is Every Step inspire me to breathe more, think less, wake up, and feel alive.   

Who am I?

I strive to inspire others through my writing, yoga card decks, and workshops; therefore, I’m passionate about finding inspiration and passing it on to others. For me discovering a dose of wise counsel or learning how someone else endured and overcame challenging times is a lifeline…especially when I feel hopelessly stuck. These 5 books are a balm for the soul, quieting the negative self-talk long enough to clear a path to joy, optimism, and creativity. I hope these recommendations bring the same sense of inspiration for you…just when you need it most! 

I wrote...

Essential Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Over 100 Yoga Poses and Meditations

By Olivia H. Miller, Nicole Kauffman (illustrator),

Book cover of Essential Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Over 100 Yoga Poses and Meditations

What is my book about?

Have you ever opened a yoga book intending to do yoga only to end up reading about yoga instead of actually practicing? That’s where Essential Yoga comes in. Designed to get you on the mat, this reference guide features over 100 hatha yoga poses, breathing exercises, and meditations. Detailed illustrations accompany concise, bulleted instructions and descriptions of the many physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of a regular yoga practice. The interactive book, featuring a lay-flat binding for ease of use, also includes 6 classic yoga routines, 10 yoga sessions, and 48 mini-sequences geared to supporting specific activities and/or alleviating various health conditions. Whether new to yoga or a long-time practitioner, Essential Yoga helps users prevent injury and keep their practice interesting and alive!

When Things Fall Apart

By Pema Chodron,

Book cover of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

I learned in my grief that the experience of loss can open the door wide for personal growth and transformation. Pema Chodron’s book brings the possibility of gentle healing through the lens of Buddhist practice. After the first year of loss, as I was beginning to regain some stability, this book helped me find my way into new spiritual practices. I used it to expand beyond old beliefs that no longer served me and into new ways of thinking and being. It grounded me in the context of suffering, helping me to see that I wasn’t alone; that suffering was nothing to be ashamed of. And her stories offered some practical ideas that I hadn’t found in my Christian spiritual practice.

Who am I?

As I formed my self-identity I considered myself a spiritual seeker, always straying beyond the boundaries of my more conservative Christian communities. As a minister’s wife, I had a wide experience of Christian-based faith and community. When my husband died instantly of a heart attack, my entire spiritual foundation seemed to crumble. This book is a memoir of my journey to rebuild a new spirituality, founded on the remnants of my original faith and expanding to meet my new and changing experience of who I am. I have a master’s degree in English so the study of literature, mythology, and poetry also strongly influenced my journey, my story, and this memoir.

I wrote...

Do You Want to Be Well? A Memoir of Spiritual Healing

By Christine Christman,

Book cover of Do You Want to Be Well? A Memoir of Spiritual Healing

What is my book about?

When trauma disrupts your foundational beliefs, the journey to a new way of being can be daunting and lonely. In this poetic memoir, Christine brings hope to the possibilities of spiritual healing. During a period of expansive inquiry into a variety of spiritual traditions, her husband’s sudden death created a longing to return to the Christianity of her roots. Finding the patriarchal religion of her upbringing no longer served her, she sought alternative Christian perspectives through a new lens of grief, healing compassion, and the sacred feminine. In Do You Want to Be Well, Christine helps readers courageously explore the spaces where religion fails us, where facing tough realities is necessary, and how self-love is discovered and nurtured.

The Mind of Clover

By Robert Aitken,

Book cover of The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics

Robert Aitken was the first American born Zen teacher to be ranked an equal among the first generation of Zen missionaries from East Asia. Several of his books count as classics, but Mind of Clover stands out for its clarity while introducing Zen's ethical precepts as an essential container of Zen practice. 

Who am I?

James Ford is a Zen teacher and the author or editor of five books on Zen history and spirituality. His history of Zen in the West, Zen Master Who? captured the personalities who formed our emerging Western schools, while the Book of Mu, which he compiled and edited with Melissa Myozen Blacker is considered essential for any contemporary student of koans, Zen’s arcane spiritual discipline.

I wrote...

Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons

By James Ishmael Ford,

Book cover of Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons

What is my book about?

An indispensable guide to koans, teaching the reader about the importance of lineage, the practice of “just sitting,” and koan practice as paths to awakening. The power of koans, these 'public cases' from China, has never ceased to enrich his own experience of Zen. They are a medium of exploration of the history, culture, and view of Zen, but most importantly are a medium of awakening.

Conversations with Ogotemmêli

By Marcel Griaule,

Book cover of Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas

At first glance, a difficult read. Griault shares many of the faults of French academic writing, opaque and ambiguous in turn. But it is worth the effort. The elderly sage, Ogotemmêli, is patient with outsider obtuseness, and the book is a fascinating look into the complicated and sophisticated cosmology of African spirituality, so different in tone and structure from those we are familiar with in the west. In the end, this book easily puts the lie to commonplace western notions of African religions, that they are mere animism, or obsessed with ancestors. As the Times Literary Supplement put it at the time, ‘… [this] will prove of interest and enlightenment to those still inclined to underestimate African subtlety and sophistication." Too true.

Who am I?

I was born in Africa and have been infatuated with its history and cultures all my life. Of the 48 countries sharing the African mainland, I have spent time in all but four. True, a few only for a laughably brief stay (I wandered across the Cameroon-Equatorial Guinea border once by mistake, not knowing I had crossed; there was no sign of a border post or any guards. I stayed only for the rest of the day, never leaving the beach, before wading back to Cameroon.) But others I have lived in for years, and have travelled extensively to famous and obscure regions alike, especially in the Sahel

I wrote...

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

By Marq de Villiers, Sheila Hirtle,

Book cover of Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

What is my book about?

Perhaps no other city in the world has been as golden—and as deeply tarnished—as Timbuktu. Founded in the early 1100s by Tuareg nomads, it became a wealthy metropolis and a nexus of the trans-Saharan trade. Salt from the deep Sahara, gold from Ghana, and money from slave markets made it rich. In part because of its wealth, Timbuktu also became a center of Islamic learning and religion, boasting impressive schools and libraries that attracted scholars from Alexandria, Baghdad, Mecca, and Marrakech.

The arts flourished, and Timbuktu gained near-mythic stature around the world, capturing the imagination of outsiders and ultimately attracting the attention of hostile sovereigns who sacked the city three times and plundered it half a dozen more. The ancient city was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1600, which began its long decline; since then it has been seized by Tuareg nomads and a sad variety of jihadists, in addition to enduring a severe earthquake, several epidemics, and numerous famines. Why does this faded metropolis matter now? Timbuktu’s relaxed, inclusive and cosmopolitan version of Islam still has lessons to teach the world about tolerance and accommodation.

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