The Books That Pushed You Toward Atheism April 25, 2008

The Books That Pushed You Toward Atheism

When I asked you which books helped you become an atheist, I expected a couple selections to pop up repeatedly. Instead, you all provided a variety of selections that led you to atheism.

I grouped your picks into a few broad categories; it’s also worth noting that many people said it was a combination of the books (not just any one in particular) that pushed them away from their childhood religion.

Here is the list for your perusal. (The list has been updated since the original posting.)

Even if you’re an atheist already, they may be ones you want to add to your reading list.

Atheist Lit:

The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett

Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker

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

Atheist Universe by David Mills

Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney

Why Atheism? and Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith

The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong


Mythology by Edith Hamilton (A collection of the Greek myths)

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by James George Frazer and Robert Fraser

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and Cosmos by Carl Sagan.

The Faith Healers by James Randi

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

History/Criticism of the Bible:

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard E. Friedman

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture by John Shelby Spong

Christian Lit:

The Holy Bible.

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek

The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

The Language of God by Francis Collins

General Literature:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

1984 by George Orwell

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The books on the list seemed to influence more than one person. There were a couple books that immediately came to my mind that no one mentioned at all; perhaps the New Atheist books have taken their place.

Are you surprised by selections on the list?

What books were omitted from the list and should be included?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • “What books were omitted from the list and should be included?”

    Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett.

    And probably Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell.

  • Hmmm…I didn’t expect to see Gödel, Escher, Bach on the list. I absolutely love the book, but it didn’t strike me as having any sort of atheistic intent. On the other hand, since so much of it makes a convincing case for the mind having a completely material source, I suppose it is fitting.

  • I mentioned GEB (perhaps others did as well). That was the first book I read that set me on the path of inquiry that eventually led me to the idea that there is no non-corporeal or supernatural soul. So in a round-about way, it led me to atheism.

  • Siamang

    Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney isn’t a book. It’s a play. The link you have is to an audio recording of the play.

    You probably know that, but I thought I’d clarify it for readers.

    There is a performance film of it upcoming. I wonder how that’s coming along.

    AHA, checked her website. Pretty soon!

    “Letting Go of God” will premiere at the Seattle Film Festival in the middle of June. Probably June 13 & 15, but stay posted as dates may change.

  • Paul

    The CD version of “Letting Go of God” includes a printed book. Either way, it is powerful and inspiring.

  • Paul beat me to the punch. The CD does include the script of the play.

    And in the original post, no one replied with Daniel Dennett’s book! That’s why it’s not on the list. It was one of the surprises for me.

  • The following books were crucial to my de-conversion from Catholicism:
    “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew”, by Bart D. Ehrman
    “Atheism: the Case Against God” by George H. Smith
    “How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God” by Michael Shermer

    Those are the Holy Trinity of books that led me away from theism. Additionally, I have just finished a splendid book by Jerome W. Elbert, Ph.D. entitled “Are Souls Real” a book I wish I had read a long time ago.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Oh, yes please. “Breaking the Spell” needs to be on the list.

  • Meg

    I can’t believe no one else has brought up Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. I started reading that shortly after I read A Demon-Haunted World, and it was never clearer that the early Jews were just a bunch of guessing nomads and that their “god” (and by extension that of the Christians and Muslims) was one of many that just happened to get lucky.

  • jonathan

    I’m really surprised that Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” isn’t on the list.

    ETA: I see Meg beat me to it.

  • Darryl

    The Collected Writings of Carl Jung

    Myths To Live By, J. Campbell

    Anthology of writings by A. Schweitzer, Ed. C. R. Joy

    Thomas Jefferson, F. M. Broadie

    Collected Works of Wallace Stevens

    Beyond Good and Evil, F. Nietzsche

    The Republic, Plato

    Sex, Art, and American Culture, C. Paglia

    A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking

    The Essential Thomas Jefferson

  • Cthulhu

    ‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell was a biggie for me…

  • I’m surprised that “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith didn’t make the list. I think at least two people, including me, listed it in the last entry. I’m even more surprised that Smith’s more recent work “Why Atheism?” did make the list. The former is my all-time favorite atheist book and the latter was really disappointing to me.

  • mikespeir

    Richard Carrier’s Sense & Goodness Without God

  • Matthew

    Not a book, but New Scientist magazine got me thinking “why do we need God if everything just works on it’s own”.

  • Sudo

    Are there are a number of people here who have come to atheism only recently? It seems like there were a quite a few who were influenced by the writing of the ‘New Atheists,’ which are all fairly recent in origin (comparatively speaking.)

    I felt the New Atheists’ books (God Delusion, God is not Great, et al) were good reads, but I doubt I’d have been convinced by them if I were not already an atheist, so I’m curious about what was in them that motivated people or convinced them that atheism is true.

  • Rachel

    Thanks, Hemant! I really enjoyed Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard E. Friedman, and just ordered How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel.

    Apparently I find modern Biblical scholarship fascinating. Go figure.

  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

  • Robin

    The Narnia books by CS Lewis.

    When I was a lad in elementary school, a teacher read a few of these aloud to the class. Now, I was way into fantasy and science fiction, but these books provoked a visceral “I-don’t-like-this-at-all” response from my ten or eleven-year-old mind.

    It was only much later that I could put my finger on what was bothering me so much–Lewis’s arrogance and narrow-mindedness.

    So, in a very real way, CS Lewis actually pushed me in the direction of atheism.

    But then, so did Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End”, but in a very positive way.

  • Yes, I feel like Arthur C Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” did the same for me, but I read it at such a young age (13) that I didn’t realize that’s what it had done until rather recently.

  • I mentioned GEB (perhaps others did as well).


    That was the first book I read that set me on the path of inquiry that eventually led me to the idea that there is no non-corporeal or supernatural soul. So in a round-about way, it led me to atheism.

    I’ve been heading on a path towards monism for a few years now. GEB has been the first book to give me some really good, solid arguments against the necessity of souls. From number theory no less.

    Interestingly, a few years ago I might have been so stubbornly theistic that I would have completely ignored all the subtle nuances in this book and written it off as atheist propaganda.

  • I should have mentioned A New Kind of Christian by Brian D. McLaren. It opened me up to the possibility of actually listening to alternate viewpoints. Another book I happened to pick up right around the same time I was tossing around similar ideas.

  • Terrence

    I have to tell you your atheist list sucks.

    Richard Dawkins? The guy that is passing off rehashed 19th century Hegelianism as biology? The guy who real behavioral scientists with a working knowledge of psychiatry and neurology laugh at?

    And your whole Mythology/Superstition list have all been roundly discredited. Simply put, you know how nearly every situation in society and politics can be compared to the Nazi’s? Well, that’s pretty much what’s wrong with the Golden Bough. By ignoring the differences and stretching the similarities beyond all common sense, sure you can make the case that religion is all unconscious symbolism. Unless of course you take into account that Jung and Freud have been thoroughly discredited as well.

    I’m not even going to justify discrediting Ayn Rand. The only people who are weak enough to believe her bullshit are sheltered, pale, skinny little man-children who have never grown up enough to take responsibility in their communities. Weak pathetic morons.

    (The not so friendly atheist)

  • One book that I really like and find myself rereading at least once a year is “Natural Atheism” by David Eller.

  • I agree with SecularPlanet. George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God was one of the main reasons I became a serious atheist. I mentioned it in the original post and I really think it should be on this list. I haven’t read Why Atheism but I doubt it’s as good as that one, which is probably the best technical book on atheism that I’ve ever read (although I have a long way to go).

  • Oh, and Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett should definitely be on here. He was one of the Three Musketeers (later The Four Horsemen when Hitchens’ book came out). His book didn’t reach as many people, but it definitely was part of the New Atheist trend.

  • I’d include John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. I was already deeply uncertain about all the God-claims when I read the book at fourteen. Milton’s God is such a jealous, petty, vindictive creation that I was tipped over into certainty that God is one of man’s more stupid inventions.

  • Mitchbert

    Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth.

  • One more for me, that I was just reminded of by some of these comments:

    Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View by Garry Friesen

    This book got me to start seeing that there are different ways to interpret the Bible and the one I’d been taught all of my life might not be right. I’m pretty sure the author would not be happy with the end result of my discovery!

  • Terrence: “I have to tell you your atheist list sucks.”

    It’s a list, though, of books that did bring people to atheism, not necessarily a list of what should have brought people to atheism.

  • Just curious… are some of you simply listing books you like and further bolstered your own point of view?

    Or did these books actually help you become an atheist?

  • The list has been updated!

  • Sudo

    Hemant Mehta said,

    April 25, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Just curious… are some of you simply listing books you like and further bolstered your own point of view?

    Or did these books actually help you become an atheist?

    That’s what I’d like to know, too. =)

  • The two books I mentioned actually changed the way I thought about things and moved me closer to being an atheist.

    BTW, you didn’t add “Decision Making and the Will of God” to the list, but I’m sure that’s an outlier so, it may not really belong.

  • Paul Flocken

    Although I was already an atheist before I read this, I think it is a good book for your history category.
    The Bible Unearthed

  • Thanks for adding a few more to the list.

  • Ken McKnight

    I mentioned Inherit the Wind in response to your original request. It definitely pushed me over the edge and I would be willing to bet it has had the same effect on countless others.

  • Zack

    Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ” should definitely be added.

  • Sheri

    The beginning of the end for me was Randall Keynes’ Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (the curiosity stage). I knew my faith was in deep trouble after reading A.J Froude’s novel Nemesis of Faith (the point I became genuinely scared out of my mind). Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason reinforced what I knew in my heart but was afraid to admit out loud (I was gaining confidence.) But it was Julia Sweeney’s audio Letting Go of God that gave me “permission” to be a happy unbeliever instead of the disappointed, terrified, ashamed doubter I had become. I guess you could call me The Happy Atheist.

  • Matthew

    Hah I can’t believe His Dark Materials aren’t anywhere on the list. Turns out Christians were worried about their children seeing the movie and reading the books for nothing.

  • Curtis

    I was born an atheist and was able to declare it in my ‘teens without reproach from my parents. The first book I read, awhile later, was “Why I Am Not a Christian” by Russell. In 1960 I read “Atlas Shrugged” and discovered what atheism really means.

  • Gryffyn

    I’m with Curtis.. although I think technically we’re all “born atheists” hah. I was raised Catholic. I did the sunday school thing and even did my first communion, but not my confirmation. I don’t ever remember actually beliving in any kind of God or cosmic puppetmaster. I respected the rites and traditions and thought the ceremonies were kind of interesting and quaint, but never really bought into it.

    My early exploration of the world lead me down many paths that eventually lead me to a lot of these books and I’m still interesting in religions as something to study, but don’t really go out of my way to read atheistic material. I’m already convinced..hah I prefer books with good stories or that explore reason and logic and philosophy.

    I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand and Robert Pirsig. Zen/Motorcycle Maint is an amazing book for those who can get into it and it’s followup Lila is great too.

    Anyway, good topic and good list!

  • A few of the books listed ended up allowing me to affirm theism. In particular Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: in that if a bishop was free to question anything and remain in the church I shouldn’t have to fear my own questions. I could remain in the church *and* doubt, rethink, reformulate religious ideas with the best of what we know about the world. It gave a kick start to a whole religious journey. This is an interesting topic and I may make a version of it for my blog.

  • Mechelle

    the bible

  • Mechelle

    Although, I can’t say that a book, alone, “pushed” (and I really don’t like using the word “pushed” because I don’t feel forced in my lack of belief of a god) but it happened slowly over a period of several years for loads of reasons.

  • Rest

    Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing by William Sargant.

  • Rest

    Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing by William Sargant.

  • Bertram

    A lot of those books are pretty recent, especially of course the “New” atheist books.

    So anyone who claims to have been an atheist for years can not have been influened to atheism by them, now can they.

    But you know what veered me away from atheism as I was wavering?

    Atheist blogs. Especially the ones that ridiculed me and actually threatened me for even considering theism.

    I have had it with fundamentalists theists and fundamentalist atheists.

    Friendly? My ass.

  • Roxanne

    Mere Christianity- Lewis
    The Age of Reason- Paine
    Asimov’s Guide to the Bible- Asimov
    Those got me started.

  • Alejandro

    “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived”
    – Isaac Asimov

    I initially read “Fundamental Lies of the Catholic Church” by Pepe Rodriguez. That with a knowledge of mythology, comparative studies of religion and science got me on the atheist path.

  • Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt, which really means this interview.

  • Andrew

    Strobel’s Case For Christ, without a doubt. To this day, it remains the most vile, insipid, lying piece of trash I’ve ever read.

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