Essential books for atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, or whatever

July 27, 2010 11:27 pm Published by 2 Comments

This is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, but I was inspired to finally do it by the American Freethought podcast. They put out a list of essential books, with the results taken from numerous important atheists/skeptics/freethinkers/whatevers. Their list is good, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I have no interest in, or I think is overrated. (On the Origin of Species is an important book historically, but there are far better books on evolution for you to read, with up-to-date science.)

The book that explains what religion is and why it exists at all:

How We Believe, by Michael Shermer

Shermer explains how religions form, what purposes they serve, and why they still exist. He examines religious belief from cultural, psychological, and scientific perspectives. (Quickie review)

Alternative: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett. But it’s really hard to read, and Shermer’s is much more entertaining.

The book that explains what science is, and why it’s so important:

Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, by Dr. Edzard Ernst & Simon Singh

The book focuses on examining alternative medicine, but at its heart is a brilliant examination of the scientific method and why it’s the best tool we have for figuring out the world around us. (Quickie review)

The book that explains morality and why it doesn’t come from religion:

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, by Michael Shermer

Religion lays claim to morality and ethics and says that our behavior is governed by their god or their teachings, but this book shows that morality is really something we evolved as a survival mechanism, rooted in empathy.

The book that’s such an obvious choice that I shouldn’t even bother listing it because you’ve probably already read it:

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

The most popular book describing atheism and the atheist point of view is popular because it’s so good. It’s extremely well-written, well-explained, and well-thought-out. Dawkins is a great educator and thinker, and this is him at his best.

Alternative: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens. You’ve probably already read this too. Whereas Dawkins is pro-atheism, Hitchens is anti-religion. Dawkins focuses on the science and arguments of logic, while Hitchens focuses on philosophy, politics and history, with a good strong dose of vitriol.

The book you should own just so you can lend it to friends and family:

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, by Guy P. Harrison

This is a warm, friendly, and accessible introduction to atheism. The author is only trying to inform, not to (de)convert or disprove anyone’s religion. (Full review)

The book that helps you understand the Bible and why it’s not a good guide to live your life by:

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman

This book could also be called “The History of the Bible”, because it explains how the various books were compiled, how certain texts were chosen over others, what has been changed either by accident or intentionally, and whether modern versions and translations are telling you what’s actually written.

Alternative: Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), by Bart D. Ehrman. I haven’t read it yet, but Ehrman’s work is top-notch, so it’s probably pretty good.

The book that helps you understand the minds of conspiracy theorists:

Them: Adventures with Extremists, by Jon Ronson

This is probably the most enjoyable book on this list. Ronson travels around the world, interviewing various people with various strange ideas about the people controlling the world. The results are strange, hilarious, and illuminating. His writing reminds me of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See.

Alternative: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, by Michael Shermer

The book that shows that God is scientifically unnecessary:

God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, by Victor J. Stenger

This book examines the claim that a god is necessary to explain numerous natural phenomena, and from multiple perspectives shows that no, a god is not necessary to explain anything. And it goes even further, demonstrating that a god cannot exist, or at least not the versions that most religious people worship.

The book that shows how the mind works:

How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

Understanding how our minds formed, how they operate, how consciousness works, and what we’re genetically or instinctually predisposed toward doing and thinking is essential for arming yourself against irrational or supernatural thinking, and this is a great resource for that.

Alternative: Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore. It’s a textbook, but it’s very accessible, and very useful.

The book that shows how evolution works:

I don’t yet have a definitive choice for this topic. I’d recommend all of Richard Dawkins’ books on the subject, but I’ve only read The Ancestor’s Tale and part of The Greatest Show on Earth. I’m still looking for the book on evolution.


I’m sure I’ll add more books to this list in the future (as I read them), so feel free to check back from time to time.

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This post was written by Bevans

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