Reading List

I’ve gotten a couple of questions from folks who are just starting to get into biblical criticism or atheistic philosophy and are wondering what books to read. Rather than answer individually, I thought we could share the books that made an impression on us when we first deconverted.

(I know we’ve done this kind of thing before, but it’s probably good to do it again every couple years as new books come out.)

I’m more interested in history than philosophy, so I’ll concentrate on books of biblical criticism. Obviously, these days the first name to come up when atheists are talking about the bible is Bart Ehrman. His Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible is a good introduction to some of the issues in New Testament studies. Of course, there’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, where he talks about the problems of textual criticism in the New Testament. And there’s his most recent work, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.

If you’re more interested in the Old Testament, let me recommend How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James Kugel. Kugel goes through the stories of the Bible, explaining what scholars think the original point of each story was, then what later Jews thought the story meant, and then how early Christian interpreted it.

And of course I have to mention The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) by Thom Stark. While he’s a Christian, Stark comes as close as anyone I’ve seen to producing a truly secular reading of the Bible.

That’s enough from me, I think. What are your favorite introductory books for budding young atheists?

Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
Onward Chitin Soldier
Do You Know Noah?
The Dome Overhead
  • BJ Marshall

    These books really helped me when I was a budding, not-so-young, atheist just a few years ago:

    “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith
    “The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails” by John W. Loftus
    “Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth” by Burton L. Mack

  • Charlie

    My journey to reality started with Steve Allen’s great book, “Steve Allen, on the Bible, Religion, & Morality. He takes the reader through each chapter and his comments are wonderful.

  • Charlie

    Also, “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine is a must read, Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations” and of course just about everything from Mark Twain.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Illustrated Stories From The Bible
    by Paul Farrell.

    With pictures.

  • Danny

    Below I pasted the list of books I read in the months leading up to my deconversion. Ehrman played a significant role, but Darwin is there too along with several Christian books.

    The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog by James W. Sire
    American Gods by Neil Gaiman
    How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
    Raising Holy Hell: A Novel of John Brown by Bruce Olds
    The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
    Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
    Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry
    The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
    The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich
    So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
    Darwin (Norton Critical Edition) by Charles Darwin, Philip Appleman
    Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
    State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward
    The God Who Is There by Francis A. Schaeffer
    The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
    The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins
    The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
    Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    Neuromancer by William Gibson
    The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
    The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart D. Ehrman

    • Francesco

      may I know how “The colour of magic” and “Harry Potter” helped you into de-converting?

  • Francesco

    Why we cannot be Christians (much less Catholics) by Piergiorgio Odifreddi

  • SDE

    The bible itself, from start to finish. (no jumping around)

    I like using the SAB version.

  • messiestobjects

    Obviously the first step in any deconversion process begins with an awakening, of sorts. The realization of rational thinking. It’s a huge step, and I assume we all came by it in different manners. The beginning of my own came at a Christian “Rock” concert, a performer named Carmen. He made a bunch of illogical, uninformed statements to an adoring crowd and normally I would have been right there with them, but for some reason, a sliver of doubt entered me that night.

    From there on out it was simply a matter of paying attention to the other Christians around me and the wacky shit they’d come up with. By the time I started reading to try and find another philosophy to live by, I already knew I needed it. But I read a whole bunch of wacky New Age junk before discarding that as well; I think the first thing I read that gave me a framework for understanding the pathos of Christianity from an outside perspective was a book by Elaine Pagels, ‘The Gnostic Gospels’. Obviously she doesn’t necessarily take an atheistic approach, however reading about the gyrations of the ancient Church to make gospel texts which they simply disagreed with disappear was a real eye-opener and was a good gateway to reading further about all the made-up bullshit of and surrounding the Bible.

    Also, though it probably seems obvious, ‘The God Delusion’ by Dawkins. It’s the most clear-minded account of the overall problem I’ve ever read.

    • Custador

      Fixed for you :-)

  • Noelle

    I don’t know that I can pin anything down on a few books. Certainly Sagan’s A Demon Haunted World had some influence. I also read Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon around the same time I shed the last bits of faith, though I don’t know that I can fault the book for any of it.

    I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do I prefer medical/science or human interest stuff instead (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example). Don’t care much for philosophy. I much prefer fiction.

  • rufus

    Actually reading the Bible was enough for me.

    • ZADL

      Me too. Plus going to Catholic school.

  • UrsaMinor

    Silly vorjack! Don’t you know that by providing people with links to resources that question Christianity, you have become a tool of Satan? Therefore God.

  • James

    Reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem gave me a subtle push in the right direction.

  • Steve

    “The End of Biblical Studies” by Hector Avalos.

  • Peter N

    For those who might be interested in where the Old Testament came from, I recommend the work of archaeologist William Dever, particularly “What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It?”, and “Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel”.

    There’s a very readable, 100-page essay about contradictions and absurdities in the New Testament, available for free as a PDF document : Ten Beautiful Lies About Jesus by David Fitzgerald. He makes a strong case that no one remotely like the Jesus of myth and fable could have actually lived in first-century Palestine.

    Getting farther afield from your charge to list our favorite books for those of wavering faith, I heartily recommend the Reasonable Doubts podcast, especially episodes 26 and 27“, Cross-Examining the Four Witnesses.

    • John C

      Good thing none of those ‘sources’ listed above are the Truth or we’d all be…Fatherless, orphaned and left for…dead (spiritually speaking). How dark and dreary a thought indeed, in complete contrast to the Truth, to the Light, to the Light of Truth.

      Awake, thou that sleepeth…

      • Sundog

        What an utterly arrogant statement. To believe one knows the truth is the beginning of error.

  • Levans
  • Paul

    Two that really put a lot of random pieces into perspective for me would be “Ishmael” and “The Story of B” – Daniel Quinn.

    While some of his points have been disproved, a lot of his timeline ideas, and especially biblical theories, really connected some dots that I didn’t even realize could be connected.

  • Mark F

    If you want a good book on biblical criticism/history I would recommend “The Bible Unearthed” by Finklestein and Silberman. As I have just finished reading it, it had no influence in my deconversion, but it blew me away to read how the bulk of the old testament is really just about the Judahites altering history and bad mouthing everyone else to make themselves look better/more pious.

  • john M

    I recommend any books written by two “Atheist Priests” Don Cuppit (England) and Prof LLoyd Geering (New Zealand) (Geering was tried for heresy in New Zealand )

  • Nox

    Even though Vorjack already mentioned them, “Misquoting Jesus” and “The Human Faces of God” should be on everyone’s reading list. Also try…

    “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine

    “Letters From the Earth” by Mark Twain

    “The Antichrist” by Friedrich Nietzsche

  • vasaroti

    I’m looking forward to Shermer’s “The Believing Brain.”

    If I remember correctly, “Why I Am Not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell was the first freethinker book I got hold of. A classic worth revisiting.
    “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright is a good intro to the sketchy past of the Judaeo-Christian god.

  • Keruso

    Many to choose from in earlier replies, i’ll add “50 Voices of Disbelief” & “The Portable Atheist” & Dan Barkers “Godless”. Note: books by former believers, whether scholar, preacher or priest tend to resonate louder with those flirting with disbelief. Bart Ehrman undermines the confidence and erodes the undeserved ascendancy believers place on the bible in every book he writes. With nothing more than the methods, discipline, honesty and attainments of a globally recognised biblical scholar. Apostates are far more dangerouse to religion than infidels.

  • Mike

    Karen Armstrong’s ‘A History of God’ is good – once you understand the Christian God was just the Israelite war god – one of several – until he got ‘promoted’ around 600 BCE, a lot of the OT makes much more sense.

    ‘Nailed – 10 Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All’ by David Fitzgerald is also an interesting read. Fitzgerald lays out the case that not only is there insufficient evidence for an historical Jesus, the evidence we have makes the proposition impossible.

  • Miscreant

    Atheist Universe – David Mills

    I strongly, strongly encourage everyone to read this book! It covers a wide variety of topics and is a fantastic, straight-to-the-point read. At times, it can come off as a slightly “aggressive” toward theism because the author writes speaks with full conviction of his worldview. But if you are looking to hear some solid, convincing arguments for atheism, this is definitely the book to pickup.

  • MisDefy

    Where’s the Sagan love?

    Carl Sagan, “A Demon Haunted World” covers all of it–from christianity to UFOs to astrology to ghosts…all of it. The true skeptic’s word.

  • Roger3

    I can’t believe there are so few recommendations for books on basic Logic.

    IMO, unless you understand WHY an argument works, and what the flaw in the attacked argument was, reading all the books about or against religion in the world isn’t going to help a whole lot.

    For starters, I’ve always recommended Logic by Wilfred Hodges. He’s a theist, but as far as I can tell, a typical English one.