December 19, 2009

Atheism 210: An Intermediate Reading List

The_Portable_Atheist_Essential_Readings_for_the_Nonbeliever-119187672369907.jpgYou've finished most of the books on my Atheism 101 reading list, and you are ready for more. You have already learned quite a bit about atheism and the dangers of religion in the modern world, but many questions remain. How is it that people come to believe all this religious nonsense in the first place? Can someone really be good without gods? In this post, I'll provide another reading list, this time to help you explore some of the excellent intermediate work in this area.

Like my previous reading list, I recognize that not everyone is going to want to read all of these. Therefore, I'll try to give you some information about what I am recommending to help you choose. Although I am not intentionally using the word "intermediate" to reflect increased difficulty as much as I am to indicate that most of these books probably aren't your best starting points to learn about atheism, it is true that a couple of them are somewhat more challenging reads than most of what was on the introductory list.

Introduction to Intermediate Atheism

We have to resume our study of atheism somewhere, and few books provide a better overview than The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens. In this impressive volume, Hitchens has pulled together many of the foundational readings on atheism from a variety of sources and periods in history. There is so much good stuff in this one that it should be on everyone's wish list.

Philosophical Atheism

There are so many excellent possibilities in this area that it is tough to know where to start. However, given theists' obsession with viewing atheists as morally deficient, it probably makes the most sense to focus there. For those with a particular interest in the question of whether we can be good without gods, Richard Carrier's Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism is easy to recommend. It was a bit more cumbersome than some of the other books you'll find here, but that is more the result of poor editing than inherent complexity.

If increasingly complicated philosophical arguments do not deter you, also consider Michael Onfray's Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Scientific Atheism

In my Atheism 101 reading list, I recommended that everyone start with one of my personal favorites, Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Just thinking about this one makes me want to go back and read it again! If you liked it and are ready to pursue scientific atheism, consider Michael Shermer as an excellent next step. Start with Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. If you like that one and want to read more from Shermer, consider How We Believe, 2nd Edition: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. Not all of his books are this good. In fact, I'm reading one now that I don't especially care for, but these are both solid picks.

Should you find Shermer a little too basic, which you probably will if you have a few college-level science courses under your belt, consider Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Those with a physics background will especially appreciate this one, but I found it a great read even without such a background.

Explaining Religion

For those interested in better understanding why and how religion came to be, I have two recommendations: Daniel Dennet's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. I would suggest starting with Dennet because Boyer struck me as a more difficult read even though I also thought his book was the better of the two. Boyer is a cognitive anthropologist who also brings some evolutionary psychology to bear in explaining religion. Those of you already familiar with these areas may want to jump directly to Boyer, but Dennet is probably a bit more accessible to most people.

Another book I'll place in this category that I cannot recommend highly enough is Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus. As you can gather from the title, Doherty's central thesis is that Jesus probably never existed. He provides a compelling case indeed. Another book along these lines that focuses more on the Christian bible and how it was written is Bart D. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus).

Society, Culture, and Politics

Some of what you'll find in this section is a bit dated since it focus on the period of time during which we in the U.S. were under the thumb of the Bush regime. Still, there are many excellent books here that help to demonstrate the perils of mixing religion and politics. One of the easier and more compelling reads is John Bice's A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America: Essays on Religion, Science, Morality, and the Bush Administration (Revised and Expanded Edition). I read the previous version, so it is good to see that Bice has updated it a bit.

You may also want to check out Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in this category. Of the books written by the big-name atheist authors, this one is probably my least favorite. However, Hitchens really is a talented writer who deserves to be read.

If you are up for something completely different that is virtually guaranteed to leave an emotional impact, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel is a must-read (see my brief review here).

If you think I've missed any good ones (and I'm sure I have), please feel free to recommend them in the comments section. Of course, please understand that recommending books that you personally wrote is unlikely to be taken as seriously as recommendations from impartial readers.

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