October 1, 2008

Atheism 101: A Reading List

The New Atheists @ Creepy LibraryImage by ~C4Chaos via FlickrOne question frequently asked by those just discovering atheism is, "What books would you recommend to someone just beginning to explore atheism?" Not only is this an excellent question, but it is one I remember wanting desperately to ask at one point in my life. Unfortunately, I could not find anyone to ask. I am happy to see this question around the atheist blogosphere, as it shows me that times have indeed changed with regard to the availability of atheists and information about atheism. In this post, I'll provide a reading list to get you started.

I recognize that everyone's needs will be different, so I am not going to simply provide a list of books and instruct you to read them. Instead, I am going to explain what you will find in each book and make some suggestions about the order in which to read them. Your time and resources may be limited, so my goal is for you to have enough information to choose wisely.

Where to Start

In learning about any new phenomenon, it is helpful to begin by understanding why the object of one's study is important. Atheism is no different in this regard. I recommend starting with a book that will both provide a decent overview of the subject matter and help the reader understand the perils of religious belief. Thus, I suggest beginning with one of the following books:

If I was to pick one of these, it would be The End of Faith, but both are worth reading. For the reader who has already read one or both of these and is seeking a broad overview of atheism, check out Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism.

Philosophical Atheism

Some of the best writing on atheism comes from the philosophers, and indeed, most well-rounded atheists will be familiar with many of the philosophical arguments for and against theism. This domain is a great one to explore next. There are many excellent places to start, and nearly any text in the philosophy of religion will be worthwhile. However, I do have a couple favorites in this domain, both of which are very easy to recommend:
Scientific Atheism

Not everyone enjoys reading scientific books, and not all atheists will want to delve far into the scientific arguments against religion. However, there is one book from this domain that I strongly recommend to all readers, including those without any science background whatsoever:
Carl Sagan was gifted at promoting science to lay audiences, and this outstanding book demonstrates the beauty of science as a means of understanding our world as well as any other I have encountered.

History of Atheism and Freethought in America

Precious little is new about the "new atheism" with which the mainstream media was recently obsessed. Nonbelievers were making important contributions long before Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens were born. Even in the so-called "Christian nation" of America, many influential atheists had a critical role in history.
Society, Culture, and Politics

Given the widespread bigotry faced by atheists from believers, no introduction to atheism is complete without addressing the social, cultural, and political context in which we find ourselves. There are so many excellent books to recommend in this area, but I will limit myself to these three:
This should be plenty to permit a reasonably thorough exploration of this broad domain, even though it takes every ounce of self-control I can muster not to recommend many more.

Once again, this reading list is designed for persons wanting to learn about atheism and in the early stages of their exploration of atheism. At some point, I will do a follow-up post in which a provide additional suggestions in these domains for the intermediate to advanced atheist wanting to explore one or more domain in depth.

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