Don’t Bring a Knife to a Book Fight

Don’t Bring a Knife to a Book Fight May 8, 2012

Whatever your religious affiliation, what’s the first book you’d recommend to someone on the other side to open up a conversation to get them to eventually switch teams?

In other words, your pick doesn’t have to be a knock-out punch for your beliefs, it just has to open up a chink you plan to exploit later.  (Though if you’ve got a sure-fire book recommendation, for either side, by all means share).  I’ve certainly heard both sides cite the Bible.

Back when I was dating a nice Catholic boy, his team had plenty of books to recommend (some of which I got around to), but I had fewer to pass back.  And I tended to have Christians quote to me C.S. Lewis from Surprised by Joy that:

A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere… God is, if I may say, very unscrupulous.

So what would you guys bring to a faith fight?  Please mention in your comment the religious belief you’d be trying to bring people round to and a bit of an explanation of why this book feels so well suited to your purposes.  If you think your recommendation works only on a particular target group, that’s fine, just tell us which sect you think is susceptible.

As for me, I think I’d go with Gödel, Escher, Bach.  Maybe I’m giving a cheating answer to my own question, but I think that reading this book changes the way people think, and that new style of thinking is a lot easier for me to engage with.  GEB doesn’t set up much of the evidence I’m marshalling but it gives my partner some of the language and thought patterns that will ground any philosophical conversation we care to have.

Because GEB is about cognition and computer science, I do feel like it’s a particularly good grounding for a discussion of human nature and telos.  Trying to duplicate or improve human reasoning makes us ask a lot of hard questions about “what a piece of work is Man” and I’m largely in agreement with C.S. Lewis that human nature is the readiest tool at hand to start a study of philosophy.

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  • As a Catholic Christian, I have two that I would *love* every Protestant, atheist, or agnostic to read:

    1. “The Handbook of Catholic Apologetics” by Dr. Peter Kreeft – An airtight defense of basic Christian beliefs including the existence of God, objective morality, and the divinity of Christ and his Church. Kreeft is a a modern Lewis with plenty of Chestertonian wit.

    2. “Catholicism: A Journey of the Heart of the Faith” by Fr. Robert Barron – Kreeft’s book is winsome for its truth and goodness. Yet Barron’s book enchants through beauty. Using art, architecture, story, and song, he walks through several topics: Jesus, the Church, the saints, the sacraments, and more. Even if one finishes unconvinced of Catholicism, he’ll at least recognize its beauty and intelligence.

    • Kreeft is a little snarky and self-assured for my taste. But maybe that’s just his unconscious writing style, or maybe my own biases. Fr. Barron, though — that’s a grade-A genuine guy.

      • So was Chesterton–even more, I’d say. But if you see it more as confidence and snark than arrogant self-assurance, you can move past it.

        • Chesterton was joy. Kreeft is smugness. That said, I have not read this particular book, and I do admire him otherwise.

    • Brandon beat me to it. Handbook of Christian Apologetics is the way to go, with Fundamentals of the Faith as a Catholic-specific follow-up. Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa is a good first step for Aquinas. Lee Strobel’s books may be interesting introductions to some issues for the novice.

    • Jireh

      As an evangelical Christian . I would luv every Roman Catholic to read the Bible. The RCC’S marching orders seem to come from the Vatican / Magisteriun etc. The BIble is the only authority and not man-made rules / traditions. Sola Scriptura

      • Ah. What should I look out for? John 6, perhaps? Or is it Matthew 16?

      • Hidden One

        As a Protestant – and something of an evangelical – I was sufficiently concerned about the Bible (which I had read cover to cover) that I ended up reading a book called Where We Got the Bible… and became a Catholic because of it.

        So be careful, Jiren. The Bible could make you Catholic.

  • Philosoraptor

    Aristotle’s Metaphysics. A close, careful reading of this work paves the way for recognizing that a) truth is not up to us, b) evil is a privation of what is good, and c) that nature alone does not explain herself (though admittedly, Aquinas does a better job of this). These arguments and the natural theology he creates lay the foundations upon which divine revelation can profitably be lain.

  • David

    Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche.

    What Nietzsche figured out long ago–what people are still struggling to grasp–is that we are all atheists. From the poster above me to his Pope, every Catholic alive today is an atheist. In fact, unless you are a hunter-gatherer living in New Guinea, you are an atheist.

    “But I believe in God!” you protest. But you don’t.

    We–by which I mean the human species–used to believe in a God that lifted the sun into the sky each day. We believed in a God that made the rains come. A God that rewarded the just and punished the wicked–not in the afterlife, but here. Now. We told stories of miracles and deities that walked the earth in the form of men. But no one has believed in God like that for thousands of years.

    We developed science. We came to understand that the sun was just a giant fusion reaction in space with our tiny moist piece of rock orbiting around it. We learned that rain came from a complex system of shifting temperatures and pressures throughout the planet’s atmosphere. And we pushed God into the gaps between our newfound understanding and that which was still unknown. No longer did the gods walk among us. No longer did they pull the sun and moon with their flying chariots. We decided instead that God simply created the heavens and earth and the rules that guided them. And when we observed the complete apathy of the “created” universe toward our failures and triumphs–when we saw evil flourish while decency went unrewarded–we decided that “God moves in mysterious ways” and that the desserts of the afterlife balance the inescapable injustices of reality.

    As Nietzsche points out in his typically colorful fashion, we killed God. No one–no one–believes in God in the way of the primitive tribes that developed the oral tradition that became scripture. We simply know too much about the world to have that kind of belief. It’s gone, and there is no going back. And the history of civilization has been the history of our gradually coming to terms with this fact.

    • “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth….” David, I’m sure you know the rest. I am Catholic, but certainly not an atheist–except perhaps in the way the early Christians were considered atheists because they didn’t believe in the gods, but in this new God of theirs, a God who took on a human nature. Caesar was not their Lord, but Jesus was.

      I am not sure why you think that as humanity came to understand things more scientifically, it no longer needed God for those things. As St. Paul, quoting an ancient poet, said “in him we live, and move and have our being.” The God who created the universe that science seeks to understand also sustains it moment to moment so that we can continue to learn about it and him.

    • “No one–no one–believes in God in the way of the primitive tribes that developed the oral tradition that became scripture. ”

      Agreed. But that doesn’t mean they’re atheists. The two options aren’t Atheism or Primitive Pagan Pantheism. I’m not sure how you can claim that someone who believes in the Christian God–and is therefore a textbook “theist”–can in the end be an atheist.

      PS. God’s not dead; Nietzsche is.

  • At first I thought of books of basic Christian apologetics. But that may not be the best type of book to suggest to open up a conversation. So instead of CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” maybe his “Out of the Silent Planet” or “The Great Divorce”. A good biography like Fr. Walter Ciszek’s “With God in Russia” would show how Christianity can be lived–“show, don’t tell.”

  • mikespeir

    There are lots of good ones. But for someone who believes like I used to believe I’d recommend they start out with Ken Daniels’ “Why I Believed.” Once they’d read that one, I’d push David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained” on them.

  • Chris

    Great question to ponder. Not sure that I know of one to point out for Christianity. As I would
    Be supposing one wanted to “understand” rather than be “converted”. Thus Blue Like Jazz would be a good one. Christians (don’t) Dance. And a couple others I am blanking on…

  • Patrick

    The Bible. Or whatever holy text they putatively believe in.

    You can’t have a coherent conversation about the truth, morality, or coherency of someone’s religious beliefs, the reliability of the authorities from which those beliefs were drawn, or really anything at all if the person you’re talking to isn’t aware of their own basics.

    Ideally, I’d want an annotated Bible that referenced where all of the many Christian denominations get their primary source material for their more unique theological claims, with cross references to note contradictions in theology, and how they arose. I’m not sure any such book exists.

    If that recommendation is out, I’d want any basic book on human cognitive failures. I want things like the mind projection fallacy nailed down in the abstract before we start discussing anything specific.

    If that recommendation is out, any good, comprehensive history book on religious movements of the world, both in terms of their beliefs, and in terms of their history. Because again, the basic facts have to be nailed down before we can extrapolate from them.

  • Hmm. I know what I would give to a person who I felt was in a state of doubt and looking for alternative viewpoints (e.g., GOD IS NOT GREAT, excerpts from PORTABLE ATHEIST, THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD), but those might be viewed as needlessly combative to someone firmly in the theist camp. I’m honestly not sure.

    Probably CONTACT or TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER since they’re fiction, entertaining, and the “truth” presented in both are ambiguous and thereby free for open discussion.

    This does remind me how no matter how firmly you assure someone that you’ve read the bible, they never seem to believe you the first time. I’ve had the following conversation more than a few times after expressing my atheism:

    “Have you ever read the bible?”
    “No, I mean actually sat down and read it.”
    “Yes, in depth, many times, over the course of years of study.”
    “No but like …”

    And that’s not just theists, I’ve had that conversation with other atheists. I don’t know why some people think the bible is impenetrable or arcane in the western world. They’ve printed quite a few of them, you know.

    • That you put truth in quotes does not endear me to your worldview.

      • They’re both fiction. They’re not intended to provide a true worldview. Hence the quotes.

        • Fiction that does not present a true worldview? What writing could be worse?

          Surely the best thing about fiction is that it is essentially true without being particularly factual. Fiction must express truths in the mask of untruth — otherwise it falls flat.

          • Yeah yeah, that’s all nice and I agree with it generally, but if you look at what I’m saying above, I’ve listed two pieces of fiction that present ambiguous and conflicting visions of reality, neither of which I agree with as actual truth, for the purpose of sparking discussion. I realize there are modes of thought which legitimately seek to raise conflicting world views and say they are all truth, but I don’t cleave to that philosophy and I’m not sure you actually do either.

          • Very well, then, but then you’d be better off presenting solider against solider. It is iron which sharpens iron; lead does not do so well.

  • Loud

    I am Catholic. Yes, a papist. I am not sure what book I would give, I guess it depends on the person, and wether they were interested in the faith or just looking for a book. If they were just looking, for instance, I might suggest “The Ball and The Cross” by G.K. Chesterton.

    It is a fun fiction, dosen’t too heavey of arguments, and has the refreshing quality of having the guy the author obviously roots for being just as crazy as the guy he roots against. It is about a Catholic young man, who is a little too hotheaded, challanging a militent athiest, who is a little too obnoxious, to a duel to the death…. And, much to the dismay of the British authorities, the athiest accepts. A work of such crazy and fantastical fiction like isn’t going to convert anyone, but it introduces in a truthful way what some of the RCC’s teachings are and is funny, suspensful and mind-bending to boot! It is a book to get conversations started, alright; which, I think, was the purpose of this thread.

    • Loud

      Oh, yeah. “The Ball and The Cross” can be read here:

    • deiseach

      I really can’t think of any book I’d recommend as vital to someone (unless it was something like the Catechism as a handbook of “Okay, this is what the Church teaches”) but just because I always recommend it to everyone, regardless of the circumstances, yet another Chesterton recommendation – “The Man Who Was Thursday”.

      Just because I love that book to bits.

      Secondly, one of the recent modern translations of “The Divine Comedy” – though I’d be inclined to go “Skip the ‘Inferno’ and read the ‘Purgatorio’ first.” Indeed, if I had to say read only one of the three cantos, I’d say “Read the ‘Purgatorio’.” The ‘Paradiso’ is tough going and the ‘Inferno’ – well, let’s just say the recent EA adaptation of Dante’s Inferno is a great example of how it can be taken the wrong way – concentrating on the tortures and not the point behind the contrapasso.

  • I’d probably recommend either J.L. Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism” or Graham Oppy’s “Arguing about Gods”. Both are about as close to required reading as one can get in philosophy of religion.

  • Stephen

    I would strongly recommend John Henry Newman’s “An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent” for those who are up to the task. It is, in my opinion, Theistic epistemology at its best.

  • Nolan

    I’d suggest Paul Thagard’s “The Brain and the Meaning of Life.” Very easy read, and accessible to anyone who cares about the issue enough to read books. It paints an appealing, positive picture of naturalism that I hope would make a godless worldview more of a live option.

  • Loud

    Lol, leah, that pic reminds me of my friends old house. They had a moutain of books in the closet beneath their stairs. The closet had no door so I was always afraid it would fall over and kill me when I walked by. Book fight, indeed!

  • ted whalen

    GEB changed my life. I read and re-read it when I was in my tweens, and my dog-eared copy is always on my bookshelf. I’d recommend it to *everybody*.

    As a maybe-theist, I’d recommend some of the works of Simone Weil. “Gravity and Grace” and “Letter to a Priest”, probably. Apologetics are dominated by the orthodox, unfairly, I think.

    • Orthodox tend to be folks who believe what they profess, and that it matters. So it is no coincidence that they dominate the conversation.

  • Wow, that’s a tough one. I was an agnostic, but didn’t become a Christian because someone handed me a book. I actually started down the road to conversion by turning around and asking my fellow skeptics and non-believers questions. Many of the great works of apologetics came much later; at least reading them without going into it with ‘what a bunch of bunk.’ Sometimes I think it’s how we read the books as much as what books we read. Because of that, it might depend on the individual and where that person tends to hang his or her hat. Perhaps Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Of course C.S. Lewis is always as good as any, and a fun read, too.

    • Having just read Orthodoxy, I’m going to highly un-recommend it for the rationalist Atheist. It will probably drive you nuts (at least it drove me nuts) with it’s lack of epistemological exactness. I think it could be useful for the more romantically inclined, but if you’re an atheist because of arguments, this book isn’t going to help you much.

      • Emily

        I would say this about “Mere Christianity,” too. When I read it I kept thinking, “No, you can’t make an analogy between theology and everyday ‘common sense’ and then say that because something is ‘common sense’ in your daily life, it must be true for metaphysics too!” Also, it’s very much not self-evident that a household must have a head, and that head should be male. I distrust the common sense of a mid-century British man, I guess.

        • I agree. Moving vehicles should have two drivers at all times.

          (Also, there must be no preference to protect the one already busy with unique, coequal responsibilities from yet another full-time worry.)

          • I agree. Moving vehicles should have two drivers at all times.

            I agree. And governments should be run by a single person who makes all the decisions.

            Look! I can haz strawman too! 🙂

          • Emily

            Wait, what? I’m sorry but as a married woman I am just baffled by this. If there is some decision facing our household, I don’t want to be protected from worry, I am an adult and I want to be part of it. Frankly, if my “unique and coequal” responsibilities are going to involve me helping to carry out said decision, it would be sort of insulting to leave me out. A marriage is not like two drivers both grabbing a steering wheel and fighting over which direction the car goes (nice job illustrating my “just because something works on one side of an analogy doesn’t mean it works on both” though), it is like two people figuring out a destination together.

          • Absolutely. But someone has to finally make the decision. Otherwise you’ll squabble.

          • leahlibresco

            But not always the same someone.

          • Cogent objection! But this amounts to pushing back the issue to a more meta level, just as panspermia is no real answer to “Where did life come from?” Now, rather than arguing over the decision, we get to argue over who finally makes the decision. There must be time for something more lasting and meaningful than power worship. Indifference to power is the only solution, which is to say love. Even after indifference to power, though, there is a real responsibility which must yet be taken up. There is the last crown of thorns which even when not coveted must be worn.

            No, the solution of mutual love, mutual respect and (normatively, not absolutely) single headship is really the best solution. This headship lies with men not because men are better but because women are more important already. Why should she bear more labors than those she has? Surely, she is capable of many male responsibilities, but only as men are: If she concentrates on nothing else. Otherwise she has two full-time jobs, which as a burden is always a tragedy.

            For a theological take with similar themes, if anyone here has the stomach: Men, die for your wives.

        • I don’t know that it would be Mere Christianity. I was thinking of other works. For me, a person’s own testimony is a powerful starting place, whether one way or another, because there isn’t much to say but that’s how they came around. Perhaps start with Surprised by Joy. Then go from there, saving MC for once there’s a willingness to engage religious belief on its own terms.

        • leahlibresco

          Yup, a lot of Mere Christianity spoke to me, but not that chapter. Unless I’m much mistaken, Lewis was unmarried at the time he was making the Mere Christianity radio broadcasts, right? The ‘how on earth will this work without someone who always makes the final decision’ seems like a question you might answer through practice.

          And, to dispense with the driving and dictatorship analogies, it seems like we run into this problem in other kinds of relationships (two close friends, siblings deciding how to take care of an aged parent) without needing a general rule whereby one person has rightful authority over the other.

          • Yeah. I ignored this particular teaching too, and have much the same reaction. But you and I are both single, as Lewis was — what do we know? It wasn’t until Mdm. Fulweiler wrote positively on the subject that it clicked together.

            Judging by the falling outs I’ve seen between two close friends and family trying to take care of an aged parent, I’m not sure your counterexamples do anything less but strengthen the case for headship. But then, all such data you and I have on those such points is anecdotal.

            From those I’ve read who’ve taken it on faith, it works out more often than not. And when it doesn’t, we still have St. Monica.

          • … and had much the same reaction …

            As a more concrete example: Family Trusts name trustees, and most name only one, for exactly the reasons which dominate single headship.

          • Patrick

            But as a contrasting piece of evidence, Ubiquitous, the proliferation of belief in rightful authority held by one party over another and unreviewable except by God and by similarly situated authority figures, is literally the reason your dudes keep raping little kids and getting away with it.

            I’m not kidding about that, nor am I just hating. There is a direct causal relationship between the nature of authority structures in a community, and the abuses of authority in that community. You can’t take the good and ignore the bad on these things.

          • Particular words jump out at me: That “keep” is in the present tense, that “your” artificially restricts the pool of culpable to Catholics despite similar issues in other religious and wholly secular communities, that “getting away with it” is merely an action of an abuse of power, even though in most cases the families desired it be kept quiet. Nonetheless, that

            There is a direct causal relationship between the nature of authority structures in a community, and the abuses of authority in that community.

            … is why you should be careful about who you marry, the subject at hand.

          • … and who said anything about unreviewable? Have you ever heard of a CFO who did not challenge a CEO? No, on every point the latter may be challenged, though in the realm of large issues in which the CEO has declaratory power he has the final say.

            So we’re not talking about coverups of sexual malfeasance when talking about single headship. We’re talking about budgets, and whether to move back East, and things of that sort.

          • Patrick

            You don’t seem to know what “unreviewable” means. If the challenge to someone’s decision is judged by the same person who made that decision, then the decision is unreviewable.

            Not saying that no one else abuses authority. You can put away your desperate and rather tragic little apologetics. Just saying that there’s a causal connection between the structures of authority, and the frequency and manner in which that authority is abused. This is fairly basic stuff.

          • Then to use your own language, there is very little structure in single headship.

          • … and what forestalls the cause of abuse is the love of another. This is the least theological reason why the Church since at least the Middle Ages frowned on swapping sons and daughters for merely dowries, preferring instead a love match of man and wife. (That this would be later distorted into the summum bonum of all social life in the 16th century and unrefined into the whims of passion by the 19th century, each in its own way paving the way for the excesses of the 20th, causes me a great deal of grief.)

            If I am desperate, it is to share a glimpse of the scheme I think I’ve seen. If I am tragic, it is because I do not enjoy the general bitterness, brittleness and hatreds of the world and those living merely the precepts of our age. I will wear these labels.

      • That’s why I said it would depend on the person. An atheist who believes, for instance, that the physical sciences are all reality, and all reality is the physical sciences, probably wouldn’t get into Orthodoxy, or most apologetics that don’t start on that particular doorstep for that matter.

        • So for them books on the anthopic principle, i.e. Spitzer’s New Proofs … and the like. Feser’s Aquinas also springs to mind, but that’s more a platform for giving the Dumb Ox — and classical philosophy — a fair shake.

      • Even a romantic aesthetics-above-all type like me found a lot of ORTHODOXY to be twee and melodramatic! I strongly agree with the person above who said the way we read makes as much difference as what we read, and I know I just wasn’t at the right point in my life for ORTHODOXY–many of my friends have gotten a lot out of it, and I accept that they read it better than I did. But I continue to think it’s one of the weakest of his well-known books. I’d recommend his biographies of St Thomas and St Francis first.

        • That’s my problem with this. I didn’t read many works of apologetics until *after* my conversion. I actually spent more time questioning and reading skeptics, and listening to them, as I moved toward the faith. And that move didn’t involve reading apologetics as much as history and basic theology and religious studies. So I was already there the first time I picked up works that many look to as front doors. For me, just reading history did a lot. Who knows, maybe a good old history book might do it!

  • Joe

    I would suggest reading “We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace: The Memoirs of Raissa Maritain. The book tells the life story of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, two famous french Thomist philosophers, that converted from atheism to Catholicism. There is just enough philosophy to get you questioning and just enough romance to remind you that religion is more than a philosophical system.

  • Emily

    Ooh. Three ideas.

    1) “Miracles” by C.S. Lewis – with the caveat that it is not amazingly scientifically or philosophically rigorous, so you should NOT read it for those purposes. Why, then? It was the first book that really gave me a sense of why Christianity is beautiful, in a mythological and sort of mathematical way, and sparked my curiosity about it.

    2) “Introduction to Christianity” by Joseph Ratzinger – exactly what its title says, and the best I’ve ever read (I say this post-conversion, too, so it’s not just for people who know nothing at all about Christianity).

    3) “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky – there’s a lot of messiness and some major questions that are not answered directly, and that’s what Christian life is like (although not as dramatic for most of us). It’s a passionate and beautiful and compelling book that still says “I don’t know” about some big issues. Honestly, if someone were to read it and say “I just thought it was boring/weird/stupid/etc,” there would be no “faith fight” because I would have nothing to say to them.

    • Introduction to Christianity — for German theologians. Or so goes the commonest charge against it. Great theology, but hardly an introduction.

      • Maiki

        Introduction to Christianity is a bit deep — I would recommend it to the right sort of atheist, one that wanted her terms concretely defined and was smart enough to tackle a graduate theology text. But I would not recommend it to someone off the street. It isn’t an apologetics book, but it does define the terms in the conversation so we are likely not talking past each other when we go have a fight.

        Miracles is good, but something always bothers me about C.S. Lewis. But it does the “Defining terms” thing well.

        Basically, it depends on the sort of person I’m talking to. Someone more wishy-washy and less rigorous I’d go with GKC or Lewis, maybe, but someone with a graduate degree I might pick a Ratzinger/Pope Benedict encyclical or book — Spe Salvi, or Jesus of Nazareth maybe, to clearly define what we are talking about.

        • Maiki

          I might also recommend some Augustine, but I’m not positive what. City of God is like a gazillion pages long.

  • Just to be different, I’ll suggest a book of lives of the saints. They make interesting ethical examples. I can’t think of a particular one, perhaps someone else here can recommend one. A book with a variety of saints, and especially a few more recent ones like Damian of Molokai, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, and so on, could be very interesting. Though of course the old saints are pretty interesting too.
    I also like negative examples, as Patrick recommended above for religious texts. I would recommend just about anything by Nietzsche, but _Beyond Good and Evil_ stands out, as does _Ecce Homo_ and the _Will to Power_. Yes, Christianity changed history. Nietzsche hated that. But I rather think it was a good idea.

  • Unusual one: A Canticle for Leibowitz. Because fiction seeps in where non-fiction cannot.

    Another, more obvious choice in the same vein: The Lord of the Rings.

    • leahlibresco

      Fixed your HTML. What is everyone loves so much about Canticle anyway? I love theology and scifi and it took me two goes to get through it. Can you (or anyone else) tell me a bit about why you loved it?

      • I read it ten years ago so I only have a vague impression left. I appreciated it’s theme of hope in the midst of disaster. And repeat, more disaster, yet hope still endures. I liked that the dehumanized post-apocalyptic world still had some very very human people in it. I found it to be quite funny also, such as a shopping list becoming a holy relic. It’s depressive, absurd, clever, pessimistic about human nature, and despite it all, hopeful. And I think that for Catholics there might be a particular draw to the idea of the parallel post-apocalyptic experiences of the monks after the fall of Rome and the monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz after the Flame Deluge. And the ending is good given the world it’s set in (I hate stories with poor endings). The story of the author’s participation in the destruction of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII provides good background too. Lastly, getting the online Latin guide helps A LOT… hey and now its even on Wikipedia!

      • FWIW, what I loved about CANTICLE was that the first section really took me away from my cluttered New Haven apartment and into the stillness of the post-apocalyptic desert, the world where everything you saw around you was handmade. There was a sense of solitude/loneliness, quiet, and hard but intelligible work at everyday tasks, all of which are pretty remote from my own daily life.

        The ideas are also really interesting, and certainly the statue of Compassion is a chilling and useful object for your mental gallery, but what I actually loved was the immersiveness of that first section. So if that part didn’t grab you I can see why the book overall wouldn’t work for you!

        • Indeed, it was how Canticle captured the faith. It seemed to authentically capture how religious characters would act. It was not a caricature of Catholics.

          • It was not even a caricature of the Culture of Death, for that matter.

          • I think here of a specific character in a specific act, sometime in the section which describes novices “with a martyr complex.” (I try not to add spoilers.)

      • If you were expecting theology you would be, necessarily, disappointed. Canticle is not theology except by means of that presentation of truth abstracted from our times which is the foundation of all great fiction.

      • To answer your question: It is true. Elegiac, wry, somber, and solid.

        To answer by contrast: Compare Anathem, a didactic navel-gazing fantasy if ever there was one. Materialist monks? Really? But what rings false and partisan in Stephenson is even and fair in Miller. In Canticle, no man is an ogre, and no man is an angel, and those who are saints seem lost to our time.

        To answer on a personal level, which at first was more forceful than any of the above reasons: It was a fascinating view of a Church of pre-Conciliar trappings in a post-apocalyptic world, and every note seemed true. It was also, powerfully for myself, a catechesis in ecclesiastical Latin.

        But writing like this makes me shamed so near Mdm. Tushnet. I forget myself.

        • leahlibresco

          Honestly, I felt the same way about Anathem as I did about Canticle. I was interested in the logistics of the worldbuilding, but unmoved by characters or plot.

          • This is my complaint with almost all canonical sci-fi I have ever read. (But not watched: Battlestar Galactica passes muster wonderfully.) I have Canticle sitting on my shelf, and I did mean to read it soon. Now I’m disheartened.

          • It is not so much that I was moved or unmoved by the characters of Canticle — though I was — but that I recognized so deeply the marks of Anathem‘s First Mover.

  • I first started seriously questioning my family’s beliefs after reading Pratchett’s Gods Trilogy omnibus, particularly Small Gods. Just a little humorous, irreverent speculative fiction was enough to get the ball of though rolling for me. It’s obviously not some sort of theological end-all be-all, but it is exactly the sort of thing a budding skeptic in a small Southern Baptist town is hungering to read.

    — from a wavering agnostic, for up-to-now unquestioning young theists

    • leahlibresco

      I loved Small Gods! But I’ve actually never heard someone refer to a Gods Trilogy within the Discworld series. What else is included?

      • Patrick
        • deiseach

          Oddly, I came at those from the opposite end – and I’d throw “Monstrous Regiment” and “Carpe Jugulum” in there as well.

          For an agnostic/atheist, he has a very sympathetic approach to religion and to believers; in “Monstrous Regiment”, with his portrayal of the Duchess of Borogravia that (in spite of himself) he was getting the idea of the veneration of saints.

          Ah, well: just shows everyone has their own opinion!

  • Kim mcardle

    Biblical Nonsense. Should be mandatory reading.

  • Ah, I just remembered a prime negative example on my journey from atheism to theism: Michael Martin’s _Atheism: A Philosophical Justification_. [ ] It’s a very comprehensive critique of the arguments for theism and promotion of the arguments for atheism. But after reading it I realized that everything depended on the initial premises, and those were precisely the matters in question. No amount of rationalizing on top is going to solve the problem – the question is the axioms themselves. Getting through that and realizing that atheism could not defend itself tore down many obstacles to Christianity. I think this would be a good starting book for discussion from either side though, since it poses a mirror to the reader: does this look correct to you or not, and why? And from there discussion can begin.

    • leahlibresco

      We have this quasi-in common! I hated Michael Martin’s The Impossibility of God which had really picayune and flawed disproofs of God’s existence. I could definitely imagine reading such a weak attack might push an agnostic closer to theism out of sheer embarrassment, if nothing else.

  • Tobias

    I teach high school students and I sometimes sense a Christian who is open to larger questions. I then give them a ratty paperback copy of Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. It is a quick and simple read but it opens the door to an awful lot of questions that lead in the right direction. It leaves a magnificent (but unconcerned) ‘Is” in place of god for the comfort of the christian, but emphasizes that each of us is our own messiah and as such responsible for our own meaning and purpose. My kids always come back with plenty of enthusiatic questions that I can feed with questions of my own. As an agent of the government, I try to be opened ended and challenge them to think for themselves. To me, that seems to be a fruitful beginning.

    Some people here have suggested great books, but some of them are pretty heavy for the not-yet-even-beginning skeptic. Thus Spake Zarathustra and other metaphysics books were important parts of my development, but they are difficult first choices for the average novice. They require a certain prerequisite commitment. Illusions will suck newbies into the conversation subtly and lead to the deeper discussions that we are trying to foster.

    • deiseach

      Oh, deities above and below, Richard Bach??? Even in my mid-teens desperation to read all and anything that even smacked of SF/Fantasy, and despite that we’d been shown the film of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in my convent school, I was sorry I read the guy. And yes, I read “Adventures of a Relucatant Messiah” and wanted to smack the title character, but I settled instead for wishfully hoping for a bad flying accident when he encountered a mountain and his Jedi mind-tricks didn’t work.

      What can I say? At that age, I even read the ‘poetry’ of Rod McKuen and had much the same reaction to both: it may be words on a page, but it ain’t writing.

  • Joe

    Does reading “GEB” require a rigorous math background?

    • leahlibresco

      Nope! But don’t be discouraged if you don’t make it all the way through the first time. I didn’t.

  • Amy Rustand

    This is a hard question. Mostly because I don’t know if many atheists really understand that the basis of Christianity is LOVE. Anyone can come to a belief in God using logic/metaphysics/reasoning, whatever. But it would be a stale, sterile belief – and it would certainly not be FAITH. Christians believe that Faith is a gift from God, we don’t come by it on our own, it is given to us. The best a book can do is to help the believer/unbeliever to be open to God’s gift of grace so that he/she is moved to have Faith (our free will being at work here). And an important component of faith is Love, because having faith in God is having a relationship with Him, a loving one. And I really don’t see how a book (or three) can convey that to someone who is only looking for answers to metaphysical questions and some sort of cold, hard analysis for why God exists.

  • Ryan

    Books, eh? I have three that I think would be neccesary to get my point across:
    1)Dao De Ching
    2)The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers- I reccomend the book, the televised interview is intensely boring, which is strange, given that it is the exact same series of words. Must be something about how Joseph Campbell spoke.
    3)The Baghavad Gita- but not that atrocious translation by Swami Prabhupada. That is nothing but Hare Krishna propoganda.

    Then again, my goal wouldn’t really be to convert anyone, as in my religion proselytizing is discouraged. My goal would really be to let someone understand my religious worldview enough to get that I should be left be, as it is well founded enough to not be subject to a mind change by argument.
    Of course, when it doesn’t matter whether you believe in a god or not, even though you do, it makes your viewpoint significantly more… stable, as disproving/proving a deity isn’t so dire…

  • One of my favorites is “Making Senses Out of Scripture” by fellow Patheos blogger Mark Shea. He starts out by comparing life and the Bible to the video game “Myst.” Though I wasn’t familiar with “Myst,” everything he said about it made it sound similar to the TV series “Lost” which I was VERY familiar with. Relating faith to popular culture is generally a good way to get my interest – and sure enough, from there on, I was hooked and happy to discover Mark’s analysis was clear and understandable. It made sense to me and helped me better understand Scripture from a Catholic perspective.

  • Miller

    “The Reason for God: Belief in an age of skepticism” by Timothy Keller. Mr. Keller is a pastor of a large church in New York City and has heard all the objections for faith from the diverse New York population. This book addresses these objections.

    • I recently read this one as well. My two cents:

      This reads more like two books than one. The first half is a defense against a bunch of challenges Athiests have to the Idea of God. Basically, he’s trying to answer the major objection like “How can a good God allow for evil”, etc. In the second half, he goes on the offensive, and goes through his reasons for why it makes more sense to believe in a God than not. He makes a bunch of arguments for God, as opposed to defending against arguments against God.

      To be honest, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the first half. I felt that he spent way to much time arguing about definitions, and saying that the question itself didn’t make sense, as opposed to actually answering the question. I walked away thinking that I could think of better arguments than the ones he used, and that even the ones he used were not very well supported.

      The second half was decidedly better (in my opinion). The last chapter offers an interesting view into the Trinity as an expression of love, and scored some points in my book for Christianity vs. All Other Religions (though not so much Christianity vs. Atheism)

  • Nordog

    “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers.

    • Joe

      Awesome book. His conversion to communism, ironically, is also very moving.

      • Nordog

        Do you mean “from” communism?

        • Joe

          While communism is a destructive philosophy and one he abandoned for good reason, he became a communist out of love for the poor and his telling of how he came to love the poor is the moving part. I should have been more specific.

  • Heart

    While I don’t have any books to recommend, can someone explain to me why C.S Lewis’ stuff is held up as great apologetics? Because, although I will give him that he writes well, it really just highlights the weakness of his arguments, such as `the existence of a desire for God proves God exists`, his constant attempts at very strangulated metaphors where, somewhere along the line, he forgets that he was making a comparison and not a mathematical equation and claims that because X exists, the spiritual Y he was comparing it to must exist, and that Christians are more moral than atheists…but we can’t examine this because bad Christians might be worse atheists and good atheists might be better Christians.

    • You’re reading Lewis wrong, dude.

      • Heart

        How should I read Lewis then? Assume he’s right and start from there?

        • You could assume nothing, reading him without armors or scalpels ready for battle. Lewis does not come at the reader with a pitchfork and mockeries, and is not meant for the sort of argumentation which begins with that.

          • Heart

            But if I assume nothing, then most of his arguments either become worthless because he has made assumptions in them that I don’t agree with, or become worthless because he’s used an assumption to prove said assumption is true, which without an assumption to start with is a bit like trying to draw a circle without putting your pencil in place to start it.

            And I’m going to disagree with the claim `he does not come at the reader with a pitchfork`, because, frankly, with his claims about atheism, he often does.

          • His aren’t arguments. Lewis writes in images.

          • Though if you disagree with the “coming at the reader with a pitchfork” when it regards atheism, you very well could be right on that point. It may be a case of theist privilege that I do not see it. I will say in response only that Lewis did not convert to Christianity from a vacuum. He was an atheist. Perhaps some bitterness at the self-delusion he inflicted upon himself causes effects in his writing you notice and I do not. Or it could be that you are overly sensitive because, self-consciously, you know it’s true. I honestly do not know which, and I do not mean to accuse you of either.

            But surely we can agree that Lewis is nothing if not agreeable. It is quite out of character. Nonetheless, on his behalf, I apologize without excuse. (I have said the above only to console wounds caused by inexcusable behavior, not to absolve him of any culpability.)

        • As Kat below says:

          Where he really shines, I think, is in his grasp of human psychology and spirituality.

          As Ash below says, it is also “a message focused on morality.” It is not, and radio talks could not be, anything but illustrative. He does not say “X, therefore Y,” but says rather “the closest thing I can compare X to is something very much like Y.”

      • Patrick

        I think you underestimate how hatefilled and wacky religion can appear to outsiders. Think, for a while, of the implication of Lewis’ belief that nonbelief, held for life, is necessarily culpable. Think of how that appears to a non believer, particularly given that we have direct, irrefutable evidence of the falsehood of the concept of culpable nonbelief (but of course, maybe I’m just lying to you about this because I hate God, lolz).

        It makes Lewis both wrong, and an ass.

        • Hatefilled? Have you spent much time talking to Christians? In person?

          Maybe I misunderstand, but how is your experience of unculpable nonbelief in your particular case refute the possibility of culpable nonbelief in someone else? For that matter, if someone could refute your intellectual objections, would you honestly change your behavior?

          • Patrick

            1. I not saying that religious people are hatefilled. I’m saying that the things they say often appear so from the outside. To pick just one relevant example: presuming that everyone who doesn’t believe as you do either will, by the end of their life, come to agree with you, or else is guilty of a morally culpable refusal to admit a belief they actually do hold, in secret. That’s kinda hateful, viewed from the outside. At the very least, its a nasty, vicious little thing to believe about other people if its not true, and as far as I can tell, its not. It would be like believing that all your neighbors are secretly racists- if they are, so be it, but if they’re not, that’s a crabbed and wretched little thing to think, and its a crabbed and wretched little faith that demands it of its adherents.

            2. I don’t need to demonstrate that no one has culpable non belief, I need to demonstrate that at least one person has culpable non belief. Oh look! I have first hand knowledge of my own beliefs. Either I convert by the end of my lifetime, or I begin to have culpable non belief, or Christianity (as understood by those who hold that all non belief is ultimately culpable) is demonstrably false. I may not be able to communicate that utterly undeniable, 100% guaranteed proof of the falsehood of Christianity to others, but then, I’m not the one who constructed the syllogism.

            3. If someone could actually prove that Christianity was true, sure, I’d change my behavior. But I’m not even sure what that would look like. You probably can’t simultaneously prove “love is an objective concept,” “God is love,” and “in ancient times God told his prophets to let his people engage in rape raids.” Something’s gotta give. And that’s just one place that the problem of incoherence crops up. You can’t prove an incoherent idea without amending it first.

          • 1 and 3. So it is a question of the appearances. Well, considering that your standards of hate are descended from Christian sensitivities, forgotten through cheesecloth of Western secularism, I would in part agree. But I can say so coherently.

            2. You misunderstand. It would indeed take one exception to disprove a rule, but it would take a preponderance of exceptions to disprove a rule of thumb and a unanimity of exceptions to disprove an even more general observation.

    • Ash

      Lewis’ arguments aren’t generally very good, but they’re no worse than most apologetics. I think the key to his popularity is his accessibility. He writes in a very clear style (remember several of his books are adaptations of radio broadcasts) that doesn’t require any kind of theological, philosophical, or mathematical background (compare him to Swinburne, for instance). You really don’t even need more than a cursory knowledge of the Bible. His most popular books focus on morality without wandering into areas of contention between different sorts of Christians, so both Catholics and Prosperity Gospelizers can think “ah, exactly!” when they read him.

      He’s particularly effective today, when many people believe in belief (I really ought to be a Christian and go to church) as much as they actually believe. A message focused on morality that doesn’t require any heavy lifting is tailor-made for that.

    • Kat

      I personally don’t feel that Lewis is particularly strong as far as apologetics go, either, for reasons that other posters have noted. Where he really shines, I think, is in his grasp of human psychology and spirituality. The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters are simultaneously amusing and terrifying for their spot-on depictions of human nature and how we relate to the sublime/divine. But in order to fully appreciate the insights one must be a believer of some sort, so I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend either work to an atheist or agnostic.

  • As a Liberal Christian, I’d recommend Keith Ward’s What The Bible Really Teaches as helpfully explaining this point of view. And to Christians who reject evolution, I’d recommend Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God.

  • The two books I always keep on hand are C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man and G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man.

    But tailoring my response for Leah Libresco my instinct (since I don’t really know her well) is to suggest Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox.

  • William Reed

    “The Reason for God” By Tim Keller. Great Book! It takes on most of the modern liberal objections to Christianity in our day.

  • Simon

    Wonderful question, thanks to Leah for posting it. Travelling out of the US, watching my Internet time drain away at a web cafe, but as far as I could scan, I saw no reference to Eastern Orthodoxy. May I suggest one book in particular, of many excellents ones: Mountain of Silence, by Markides.

    A US academic’s conversations over several years with the abbot of a monastery on Mt. Athos, who is now an influential hierarch in the Cypriot Church. Brilliant, accessible, amusing. And an insight into an (for Westerners – Christians, agnostics, atheists, pagans…) entirely unsuspected world of Christianity and Christian theology. I found the episodes and concepts in this little book so gripping that I eventually journeyed to Mt. Athos myself, and found how accurately Dr. Markides (though not a believer himself) portrayed the world and the faith he found there. By the way, I have been an Orthodox Christian for seven years now, to my immense joy and wonderment. This book was that influential in starting me on this journey.

  • Oh, and one more! (I hope someone’s still reading this thread, because this is a humdinger.)

    The Golden Age series concludes with perhaps the finest novel of ideas I’ve read. If nothing else, it provides a popular vocabulary for certain trends in philosophy; as if this weren’t enough it provides a well-conceived, mind-blowing backdrop of a post-singularity transhumanist farfuture. This is the sort of book I think Leah would necessarily want to read, and on the conceits alone.

    Incidentally, it was written by an atheist, so it’s going to be common ground in a way that Douglas Adams or C.S. Lewis cannot be. (As a Catholic, only two or three points jumped out as false-to-facts, and none in a way crucial to the plot.)

    If this blog has a book club, this series should be the first read.

  • Jacob Therakathu

    Oh!! this is interesting..
    The Golden Age author John C Wright is no longer an atheist.. he became catholic long ago.. And now Leah too..