The Atheist’s Desire To Learn March 8, 2009

The Atheist’s Desire To Learn

Remember the moment you realized the religious “truths” you were raised with were nothing of the sort?

Maybe, like me, when you became an atheist you realized there was so much you didn’t actually know — how evolution worked, what the Big Bang theory was all about, how you can make sense of the natural world without a God…

You couldn’t get your hands on enough books. It was just amazing to figure this stuff out for once.

Mark, the 40-year-old atheist, hasn’t lost that feeling, either. Ever since he lost his faith, he has been devouring information like nobody’s business:

It’s been almost a year since I became an atheist…

I’ve never before had such intense curiosity about the universe I’m so fortunate to live in. Actually, that’s not quite true — I haven’t had this sort of curiosity since I was a child.

It really is quite marvellous.

What books did you start reading after you became an atheist?

Which ones were the most enlightening for you?

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  • Tom

    I’ve always been an atheist, so the implicit assumption that I had a conversion and that this somehow changed my life is mistaken.

    And personally, I read a lot of science fiction. I particularly like SF that shows how humanity can create better worlds, improve our universe, and discover its wonders.

  • Devysciple

    For me, the whole process was quite the other way round.

    Though having been educated in a country where attendance of religious education was compulsory (at least up to the age of 14), I was lucky there was not much room for christian dogmata anywhere else in the curriculum.

    So I started as a “scientist”, wanting to know everything about biology/evolution, physics and especially cosmology. My parents and my teachers supported my hunger for knowledge, so I became a skeptic at the age of 16, an agnostic by something like 18 or 19 and a die-hard atheist since I was 25.

    This might also explain why I can’t recall a single, special book that finally “pushed me over the cliff”, but just more and more information piling up until I had to conclude that religion could not be the answer to anything.

  • Jesse

    After I realized that creationism and all the theology I studied was rubbish, I started reading up on the science I had previously ignored. The most influential books I read after becoming an atheist were:

    A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking,

    The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins,

    Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett, and

    The Mind of the Market, by Michael Shermer.

  • The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

    Was of the 1st books that I read when I left the fog of religion. It was brand new at the time. It was one of the best books I have ever read. Also Micheal Shermers Why People Believe Wierd Things, and James Randi Flim-Flam.

  • Javier

    The Plague – Albert Camus

  • Actually, my reading list didn’t change that much; about the only difference is that I no longer have the patience to read books that attempt to harmonize religion and science.

    I suppose that I am less tolerant of books that promote superstition.

  • Yes, yes, yes!
    The book that pushed me over was A Short History of Nearly Everything. I always found science boring because I didn’t understand, but this large book was written for the layman and I totally got it. Finally I understood wtf the Big Bang Theory was!
    Then I read the God Delusion.
    And I’ve read thousands of pages on the internet since.
    It’s great. I actually feel enlightened for the first time.

  • Eliza

    I’ve always been an atheist, so the implicit assumption that I had a conversion and that this somehow changed my life is mistaken.

    Same applies to me.

    I love to read. Enjoyed reading lots of science (& plenty of science fiction) in my college & grad school years (in science).

    Haven’t had much time in the past few years what with work and a child, though I did stay up till 4AM this morning finishing “Monkey Girl.” It was worth it 🙂

    My focus has generally shifted over the past few years to Biblical criticism & analysis, & reading the Bible w/ a critical eye. Having been raised without religion, this was a big hole in my education. Also, philosophy, something else I missed along the way.

  • Forkboy

    I’m like Devysciple…..I grew up Catholic and attended a Catholic school from kindergarten through eight grade. However, my parents (as well as the school) pushed science as I had expressed an interest in it, especially in relation to astronomy.

    It wasn’t any particular book that led me astray, so to speak, but something my 7th grade religion course instructor said: Man needs God far more than God needs man.

    I understood what she meant, but I took it in a whole new direction. I took it to mean that man needed God because he needed religion to organize his life (and to separate him from others).

  • kat

    Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan was one of the first ones i sought out. It’s about how our brains evolved and it’s great!

  • I read:
    The God Delusion by Dawkins
    God is not Great by Hitchens
    I just started “Don’t sleep, there are snakes” by Everett today. It’s fascinating so far.

  • Bart the Pirate

    Latest is Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus

  • I think that it is quite sad that religion seems to stifle natural curiosity. I read all sorts of things all the time. If there isn’t a book handy I read cereal boxes. I’ve always been an atheist though so I can’t comment on a difference.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I’ve been reading a lot about cosmology recently. I was always into the solar system and the universe, but since become a more active atheist (I’ve been one for a while, but I’m more of an active skeptic now, thanks to all the great people to talk to online), I’ve been inspired to read a lot more of it.

    I’ve worked my way through a few of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book (Death by Black Hole is a favorite). I also read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and re-read Douglas Hofstader’s Godel, Escher, Bach. I always had a problem understanding consciousness without some sort of intelligent creator, but I think Hofstadter’s explanation gives a good overview of ways it might work.

    And of course, I have my well worn copy of The Portable Atheist.

  • Kate

    Even though I grew up in a religious household, there was not an aversion to science. And since I was raised in a home with a grandmother that was more than willing to suit every whim I had, I was endowed with a seemingly never-ending supply of dinosaur and ancient creature books and tapes. My love of science and especially evolution was encouraged. Hell, my step-mother worked in a paleontology lab at the local museum.

    However, my leap into strictly Atheistic literature is only just beginning….

  • AnonyMouse

    I devoured the anti-conversion testimonies at It was so relieving to see that other people had had basically the same problems that I did. But once Mum found out that I was having teh dowbts, I was pretty much forbidden access to any content that might further my slide into darkness… not that that’s stopped me. Since I can’t get any books, though, I’ve been poring through atheist blogs, and I can’t get enough of the stuff.

  • Ender

    On the atheist side: The God Delusion, god Is Not Great, Letter To A Christian Nation, and The End of Faith.

    On the science side I didn’t actually read any books but started watching tons of documentaries (Dover Trial being one of my favorites) and all the videos from DonExodus2, Thunderf00t, AndromedaWake, Potholer54, ExtantDodo, and other youtubers who make science education videos.

    It truly was an exciting time when I first started learning about the REAL theory of evolution and not the fundamentalist one that I was brought up believing

  • Well, reading the “Holy Blood Holy Grail” made me into an agnostic. I’ve never been an atheist.

    But some “Post-Christian” books I’ve liked are:
    A History of God – Karen Armstrong
    Jesus for the Nonreligious
    and I’m currently reading God is not Great

  • llewelly

    Remember the moment you realized the religious “truths” you were raised with were nothing of the sort?

    For me it wasn’t a moment. It was a slow process that took several years.

    Maybe, like me, when you became an atheist you realized there was so much you didn’t actually know — how evolution worked, what the Big Bang theory was all about, how you can make sense of the natural world without a God …

    You couldn’t get your hands on enough books. It was just amazing to figure this stuff out for once.

    I came at it from the other direction. I have always read copiusly, and my reading has always included a great deal of reading about science and skepticism. From my science reading I realized there was great conflict between archaeology and the Mormon scriptures. Having read several Immanuel Velikovsky and Erich Von Daniken books (which I originally mistook as science fiction) and debunkings of these books by people like James Randi, I learned people could believe really strange stuff. Eventually I concluded that niether the book of Mormon, nor the Bible, nor the other Mormon scriptures could be literally true. I did not immediately become an atheist at that point; I continued to consider myself LDS for several years. My faith eroded gradually.

  • cassiek

    I was raised without religion, but hearing Carl Sagan speak at my college when I was 18 really opened my eyes to a whole world of scientific theory about the Universe. He made a huge impression on me. I have since read and reread all his books.

  • Jesse

    What books did you start reading after you became an atheist?

    I started to read Carl Sagans books.

    Which ones were the most enlightening for you?

    I love books of the universe and evolution.

  • the rebel teapot

    I’m only partway through The God Delusion, actually, and that’s all I’ve read so far, other than various atheist webpages.

    Living with a devout Christian roommate in my first year of college made me realize I wasn’t actually agnostic, as I’d been saying since I discovered that other people were religious. Idly selecting a class on the early history of the Bible a few years later has actually reminded me, and The God Delusion has a lot of answers where my class just raises questions… which is fine for people of faith because I think most of my classmates need to really examine the origins of their faith, but as someone raised outside of it all, I’m just finding it a huge struggle to understand.

    So when I get the chance, I’m picking up some more of the books in these comments. Thanks, all.

    But what I originally wanted to comment on was the Insatiable Atheist; I think it’s really cool when someone reawakens their curiosity and feels the wonder of a world not fully explained. When people try to point out that an atheist’s life must be boring and terrible, that’s my rebuttal. Or one of them, anyway.

    Thanks for linking, Hemant; I see a lot of stuff over there I want to read.

  • Todd

    Probably cliche, but I read tons of Nietzsche. I basically wrestled with nihilism and came to a draw.

    What was cool about reading philosophy, comparative religion, and science was that I no longer had to ask for someone else’s permission. My thought was truly my own. I’m not sure it’s the insatiable quest for knowledge that is best, but the ability to decide for myself.

  • Alexander

    All of Douglas Adams’ books.

  • Robert

    I did the same exact thing! I was ELATED when I renounced religion, cos I felt I was finally free to learn how life and the Universe truly began, without the fear of fire and brimstone in my future.

  • Josha

    I’ve always been a voracious reader and actively sought out new knowledge, but I definately noticed a change after I became an atheist. There were a couple of reasons: (1) There was just so much about the natural world that I now wanted to know. (2) I felt like I had to defend my non-belief which means I should be well-read. (3) I wanted to come as close I could to having a realistic picture of the world which meant putting all claims and beliefs up to much scrutiny. (4) My morals didn’t come from above and I had to understand why I made the moral decisions that I did.

    So my reading for the past year:
    -Demon Haunted World
    -God Delusion
    -Selfish Gene
    -Ancestor’s Tale
    -Portable Atheist (and philosophy online)
    -A Short History of Nearly Everything
    -A Brief History of Time
    -Scientific American

  • The Ultimate Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe.

    The Watchmen


    Plato’s Republic

    Thanks for this post. I’m going to check out a lot of the the literature that people here have listed.

    I tried to finish The Plague a couple years ago, fuckin’ hard man!

    XVX for life, R.A.S.H. ’til death.

  • Ann

    Got really into biology and astronomy and started reading a lot of SF books for fun. That was about 3 years ago. I’m still doing the same things. In the past year started to really enjoy “the Universe” a show on the History channel and developed crushes on all the scientists there!

  • Mathew Wilder

    It was majoring in theology that prodded me closer to atheism. The more I studied theology and church history, the less I believed that any of it could be true or as a god might have wanted it.

    Reading some of the stuff on Internet Infidels at the same time pushed me to the edge, and Camus’ The Plague pushed me over the edge.

    I subsequently read The Blind Watchmaker and The Demon-haunted World. I had already read the entire Hitchhiker series, which was also influential.

    I was a philosophy major as well, but it’s funny that it was only by reading Camus in my moral philosophy class that my philosophy major influenced my atheism. On my own towards the end of college, I started reading Nietzsche.

    A couple years later, after deep depression where I was feeling suicidal, I tried returning to religion, but could only keep that up for seven months before I gave it up again. Too much cognitive dissonance. Once the veil has been pulled aside there is no pulling it back. The house of cards came down after reading Shippey’s book J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century and a book about Jacques Mauritain. Eco’s The Name of the Rose cemented my return to atheism, to my “true” self, one might say.

    I also realized Camus and Nietzsche were too deeply engrained in me to uproot.

    I highly recommend Hitchens’ God is Not Great and Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto.

  • Brynn

    Eek – I am the atheist equivalent of a “Sunday Christian” or worse… I was born the product of two atheist parents and I have always had a hard time articulating why my beliefs ended up being what they are. While I’m 100% atheist, always have been, I wonder if that’s just because I did as I was told as a kid (though that theory doesn’t hold up in other areas: school, boys, makeup, piercings!) or if I just “knew” there was no god (though I hate that theory, too, because it’s tantamount to the blind faith a lot of Christians seem to have)… either way, I should probably get into some books, so maybe I’ll start with some recs from here.

    Great blog – I just discovered it – thanks for the thoughts!

  • Wendy

    Same thing happened to me!

    I’ve never really believed in god, but I never thought about it either, nor did I give ANY thought to ghosts, the afterlife, psychics, fate, all that baloney.

    It didn’t hit me that I was a true atheist and skeptic until two years ago. Since then I’ve become fascinated with (literally) every branch of science, and I’ve decided to go to school and score myself a PhD in astronomy! (Or astrophysics, or cosmology.. Some kind of space science! I have many, many years yet to decide.)

    Knowledge is power!

  • J. Allen

    Ishmael and The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn, were the nails in the coffin for me, but I really started losing faith once I started studying world history in high school.

  • I have been a voracious reader since second grade, and I’ve always loved science. But when I left religion at the age of 54, I did exactly what you said–trying to catch up on things I had paid little attention to for all those years.

    I began reading much more science, along with some philosophy. Some of my favorite books from the first few following years were:

    Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
    Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things (an excellent book on critical thinking)
    Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
    Per Bak, How Nature Works
    Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden
    Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures
    Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
    Jared Diamond, Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel
    Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens
    Nathaniel Branden, Taking Responsibility

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