Atheist Substitute for the Bible?
October 17, 2010 3:59 AM   Subscribe

What's a good atheist substitute for the Bible? I'm looking for something I can read periodically that encourages me to step back from all of the hecticness, and to think about how to lead a good life and how to be a good person. It doesn't have to be infallible, just something that helps me to think about what's important. Accumulated wisdom, explained simply, is a bonus.

I guess it's pretty hard to find a perfect substitute for one of the most influential books in history, but if you are not religious, do you have some recommendations? Perhaps not even a book, but a group of different activities or behaviours?

posted by surenoproblem to Religion & Philosophy (83 answers total) 207 users marked this as a favorite
I'd think you could get a lot of mileage out of the sacred texts of the various eastern religions--minus Hinduism which is poly-theistic, seemingly a move in the wrong direction--which while not strictly atheistic are certainly non-theistic. Taoism and Confucianism in particular would seem to be what you're looking for, as Buddhism as I understand it has spiritual/supernatural overtones that those seem to lack.
posted by valkyryn at 4:14 AM on October 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

While not strictly atheist per se, the texts of the Stoic philosophers may fit the bill, especially the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
posted by misteraitch at 4:17 AM on October 17, 2010 [12 favorites]

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations?
posted by vers at 4:19 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're looking for The Dhammapada
posted by Biru at 4:27 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Prophet
Buddhism Without Beliefs
The Power of Now
Self-Esteem (has some surprisingly good chapters about compassion and nonjudgement that are some of the best I've ever read)
The Sacred Depths of Nature (this one I haven't read so I can't vouch directly for it, but it's on my wish list)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:42 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

What about poetry? We had a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse when I was growing up and I used to dip into it and "meditate" on some of the more profound pieces. Any sort of anthology of the classics would do the trick, I think.
posted by lollusc at 4:52 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm going to third The Meditations.
posted by atrazine at 5:17 AM on October 17, 2010

nthing marcus aurelius. seneca. the romantics (keats, byron, shelley) are good for this. shakespeare is actually good for this. also, milton's paradise lost. which, i realize, tells a religious story, but has a lot of good nondogmatic food for thought.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:23 AM on October 17, 2010

I'm an atheist, but I really love the Desiderata, as cheesy as it is.

Aside from religious stuff, read a lot of philosophy, particularly the existentialists.
posted by empath at 5:31 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.

""We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."
posted by drlith at 5:32 AM on October 17, 2010 [17 favorites]

also, enlightenment writers like rousseau, the essays of montaigne, and swedenborg, who inspired the big guns in the u.s.: emerson and thoreau.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:38 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

How about Emerson, or Thoreau?
posted by Buffaload at 5:42 AM on October 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Why not the Bible? Invest in the Oxford Study Bible- It's the standard Bible, plus lots of outside info, historical context, apocrypha etc. that'll help make it more digestible in a historical, as opposed to religious, context.

Even as a believer it's my go-to. I think you'll find great wisdom in it, start with Ecclesiastes, it's got a great deal of casual inspiration without too much of the God stuff.
posted by GilloD at 6:01 AM on October 17, 2010

For that matter, Proverbs is stoked with tons of practical wisdom.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:04 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something that has helped me is to write down passages that inspire or move me, whether they come from a novel, a philosophy text or a poem. I write them out in a small journal, and when I need a lift, I page through for something that strikes me at the moment, knowing that everything in it has (or once had) relevance to my life, and to my wish for a better self.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:07 AM on October 17, 2010

Bertrand Russell - The Conquest of Happiness

John Stuart Mill - Utilitarianism (free text)

Mary Warnock - An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics

Susan Neiman - Moral Clarity

Peter Singer - How Are We to Live?

Theodore Zeldin - An Intimate History of Humanity

Julian Baggini - What's It All About?
posted by John Cohen at 6:13 AM on October 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

One more:

Kwame Anthony Appiah - The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen

It just came out, and I haven't gotten around to reading it yet, but it's supposed to be excellent. Here's a taste of it.
posted by John Cohen at 6:22 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thank you for asking this question. This might fit the bill.
posted by cynicalidealist at 6:23 AM on October 17, 2010

I have always used Richard Bach's illusions. It has a mystical undertone but speaks to the power of the individual to create their own spiritual world.
posted by elationfoundation at 6:35 AM on October 17, 2010

The Tao of Pooh
posted by awenner at 6:40 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Apology of Socrates (by Plato). I teach it 2 or 3 times a semester, and it makes me a better person every time I teach it. And I swear to you I am calmer and actually sleep better for several days every time I teach it!

(And I'm a Christian and it still holds this place in my pantheon of books-to-be-a-better-person!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:05 AM on October 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Aesop's Fables.
posted by mippy at 7:10 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Apology of Socrates, and if you do read it, consider this: there are a lot of parallels between the life of Socrates and the life of Jesus. They both devoted their lives to inculcating a new way of thinking. They both wrote no books and are only preserved through other writers' stories about them. They were both executed for their teachings. Of course, Socrates got there first.
posted by John Cohen at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's interesting, all of the suggestions above - Taoism, Stoicism, Christianity, Socratic texts, utilitarianism, Rousseau - are favorite punching bags of the guy I came to suggest: Nietzsche.

to think about how to lead a good life and how to be a good person. It doesn't have to be infallible, just something that helps me to think about what's important.

I think Nietzsche fits the bill, except the "how to be a good person" bit.
posted by phrontist at 7:17 AM on October 17, 2010

There are lots of translations of the Tao Te King so it's worthwhile acquiring several of them to triangulate on. The James Legge version is in the public domain. More modern translations might be either more scholarly or more poetic.

A translation of Marcus Aurelius is also on Gutenberg.

That said, both of these books assign a certain power to "heaven" or "the gods" so while not heavy-handedly insisting on one's creating some kind of relationship with a god, the assumption is there.
posted by zadcat at 7:24 AM on October 17, 2010

Despite what evangelicals may tell you, you don't HAVE to believe in the Bible. It's ok to just read it for the morals/teachings. It really makes sense for a westerner (I'm assuming you're either American or European) to find solace and meaning in the teachings of the Bible -- historically, it is probably the most important text in our culture!

If you can't handle the miracles and all that stuff, I'd recommend Thomas Jefferson's revision of the Bible. It keeps the teachings of Jesus without all the unbelievable stuff. Basically, it's "love thy neighbor" without the virgin birth.

(Don't tell the Tea Party that one of our founding father's wasn't born again!!!)

If any kind of religion is too much for you, I find Nietsche to be quite uplifting. He's a good writer, which also helps in his ability to be read from day to day.
posted by chicago2penn at 7:38 AM on October 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you held a gun to my head and told me there was only one book I could share the rest of my life with, I'd have to take Leaves of Grass.

But for me, one of the great things about being an atheist is that we don't *have* to be bound to any one text. We're free not to set our hearts and minds to any one book... we're free to have *all* of them.
posted by Noah at 7:39 AM on October 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Actually, that's kind of the function AskMe serves for me. So many ethical dilemmas, relationship tangles, and protocol questions.

I enjoy considering the questions themselves, and reading everyone else's answers, weighing the various options, seeing what people consider to be the "right thing to do," and so forth.

It's easy to say "Murder is wrong," and know that you shouldn't kill people (unless you really really have to). It's a lot harder to consult your moral compass for a question about, say, "my coworker did this awful thing, what should I do?"
posted by ErikaB at 7:46 AM on October 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm going with the collected works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, specifically his novels. I tried to pick just a couple (Mother Night, Bluebeard, Slapstick although I have not finished it yet), but everyone has their favorites.
posted by muddgirl at 7:51 AM on October 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Definitely, definitely the Tao Te Ching.
posted by threeants at 8:11 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't forget Montaigne's Essays.
posted by washburn at 8:40 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Also, I recommend Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a book in which a prophet, about to go back to his home after spending twelve years in a coastal town, first shares his enlightened wisdom with the townspeople. In very poetic language, he speaks to the townspeople about all of the following: beauty, buying and selling, children, clothes, crime and punishment, death, eating and drinking, freedom, friendship, giving, good and evil, houses, joy and sorrow, laws, love, marriage, pain, pleasure, prayer, reason and passion, religion, self-knowledge, talking, teaching, time, and work. Each lesson is shared through a couple of pages of very beautiful and insightful prose. This book really spoke to me. It is always good for rereading, and it's definitely what I'd consider a wonderful non-religious, non-dogmatic substitute for the Bible.
posted by datarose at 8:45 AM on October 17, 2010

Yeah, I'm surprised it took to threeants #31 comment to mention Lao Tzu. I'm particularly fond of this translation.

I can see some nonbelievers getting put off by the seemingly mystical language that is used; the concept of "the way" itself can seem mystical. But I don't really believe it's that. For me the book represents a wise thinker's careful, empirical observation of the natural patterns at work both in our natural world and our human world, how those patterns manifest, and how to best approach working within the pattern (although it's all pretty abstracted). It presents a profoundly rational but sometimes counter-intuitive perspective. I personally think it is a very humane text as well.

Anyways, there's my two cents.
posted by dubitable at 8:47 AM on October 17, 2010

Whoops, I guess others did mention it before threeants, sorry...
posted by dubitable at 8:48 AM on October 17, 2010

Lots of great recommendations so far. I think Krishnamurti might belong on this list too.
posted by chez shoes at 8:50 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and also, I feel like Camus's novels gave me a foundational appreciation for the responsibility required of an existentialist perspective when I was a bit younger...I highly recommend The Plague and of course The Stranger (although it's been a while since I've read those, I'll admit).

(On preview, chez shoes that's funny as I've been reading a lot of Krishnamurti lately, especially his stuff on fear, love and loneliness...some of it is really on point, some of it is rambling...but that's the nature of the transcribed lectures I guess).

And finally, you mention at the end of your question "Perhaps not even a book, but a group of different activities or behaviours?" I would say more than anything the two things that have helped me as far as activities have been meditation, and therapy. I would say a third would be getting out there and doing things for other people than yourself (volunteering and whatnot, which is something I need to do more of). The first two have given me the ability to comprehend myself and how I relate to others, and helped me to make positive changes towards being the person I want to be, and the last has helped me realize I probably shouldn't spend so much damn time thinking about myself in the first place.
posted by dubitable at 8:57 AM on October 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi. It's a very simple and direct little book.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:58 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always liked Alan Watts. His Tao of Philosophy is probably my favorite collection of his essays.
posted by mr.ersatz at 8:58 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Reading dubitable's post reminds me that The Little Prince is a wonderful summary of some of Camus' philosophy. Doing right because it is right, enjoying beauty for beauty's sake, living the absurd life (lamplighter=sisyphus?). Twee as it may be, it really is one of the formative books of my personal philosophy.
posted by chicago2penn at 9:18 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Call me a gloomy undergrad, but I'm gonna throw Spinoza's Ethics and Zarathustra out there.
posted by rhizome at 9:39 AM on October 17, 2010

Loving the recommendations here, thanks for asking the question.

Two books that I found influential but don't see above: Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture and Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.
posted by richyoung at 9:50 AM on October 17, 2010

nthing the Tao Te Jing (there are probably a dozen versions worth reading), and Montaigne is a very, very good idea.

Came here to suggest Kenneth Rexroth. His Classics Revisited essays could helpfully be read as an extended answer to your question, and he was in general I think one of the great writers of the last century.
posted by brennen at 9:52 AM on October 17, 2010

if you are not religious, do you have some recommendations?

Yes. The Prophet.
And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.
And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain.
You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.
I'm not religious, don't believe in any invisible bogeyman. But this I like.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:01 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something completely different: No Boundary by Ken Wilber. It's short (about 150 pages) but "chewy" in the sense that you can read a few paragraphs and put it down and think for a while.
posted by ambrosia at 10:10 AM on October 17, 2010

Pretty much anything by Carl Sagan. I particularly enjoy Pale Blue Dot and Demon Haunted World. I find that astronomy is very good at altering my perspective on life for the better.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:14 AM on October 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is a very good question.

Growing up, I found three works by Carl Sagan that provided all the perspective and wisdom I needed.

I just spent the past half hour trying to find one quotation in particular to back that up, then I hit Preview and saw LG's recommendations. I'm not going to stop looking for the quote, though.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 10:42 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Epictetus is perfect for this. At difficult times in my life, I have found reading his "Golden Sayings" (or anything else attributed to him) very comforting. Everybody recommends Marcus Aurelius's "Meditations"; Epictetus is better.
posted by Mr. Justice at 10:51 AM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Based in ancient Toltec teachings but really the distilled knowledge of all the world's major traditions. the good part is that all the "magic" bullshit is left out. Believe nothing, the truth always survives.
posted by txmon at 10:54 AM on October 17, 2010

James P Carse _ Finite and Infinite Games
posted by hortense at 11:07 AM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is along the lines of the expression "if you have to ask the price, it's too expensive". If you need a sacred text, you're not an atheist.

Obviously a lot of "wise" or "inspirational" texts exist out in the world. A real atheist would probably find their own instead of needing a spiritual club to join.

For what it's worth, from an agnostic/half-assedly-paganishly-spiritual perspective: I try to do yoga and meditate, and when I want inspirational words to run through my brain I will probably go to either the Upanishads (a religious text) or something blissfully simple from my childhood, like To Kill A Mockingbird or Little Women.

Getting out into nature and away from the city is also very centering to me and can help me realize for myself the right course of action in a difficult time. I look to the people around me for wisdom.
posted by Sara C. at 12:04 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Krishnamurti.
posted by Paris Elk at 12:04 PM on October 17, 2010

I really love Garrison Keillor's two poetry anthologies: Good Poems for Hard Times and Good Poems. Which is strange, actually, because I'm not a fan of any of his other work. But Keillor has a good ear for poetry, and there's a lot of stuff in both books that has helped me quite a bit. And, also surprisingly, I really love the introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times. The whole thing is lovely, but this is the bit that rattles around in my head the most:

"The meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right. Poets have many motives for writing...but what really matters about poetry and what distinguishes poets from, say, fashion models or ad salesmen is the miracle of incantation in rendering the gravity and grace and beauty of the ordinary world and thereby lending courage to strangers."
posted by colfax at 12:09 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thoreau's Walden.
posted by The Toad at 12:19 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

+1 for Carl Sagan, Marcus Aurelius, and Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Also, I find the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to be exceedingly moving (especially his nature sonnets and "terrible" sonnets, that latter of which chronicle his crisis of faith), even with all the overt Catholic/religious imagery, but YMMV -- I'm a former Catholic, so the imagery still has an emotional resonance that it might not have for you.
posted by scody at 12:39 PM on October 17, 2010

I find David Foster Wallace's commencement speech (known as 'This is Water') to be good for this. It was packaged into this book, but there are pre-book transcriptions out there.* Of course your DFW millage may vary.

*Which I may have saved. If you are interested memail me.
posted by grapesaresour at 1:57 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
posted by TBoneMcCool at 2:31 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Book of Virtues
posted by goodnight moon at 2:52 PM on October 17, 2010

Great suggestions thus far on this post. Nthing anything by the Stoic philosophers, who basically espouse a view that is in many respects a Westerinzed version of Taoist / Buddhist beliefs. Also nthing Emerson, Thoreau, and pretty much anything by Alan Watts. Some of these will be reiterations:

Meditations by Marcus Arelius
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Compare Tao Translations Online a WONDERFUL free resource. Has all the major translations of the Tao, and you can compare them to one another on the same page! Fantastic!
The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts
Change Your Thinking Change your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao by Wayne Dyer (self-help alert! But still, a good "everymans" perspective on the Tao)

Buddhism: The Religion of No Religion by Alan Watts. Fantastic.
Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in an Uncertain World by David Miche. A tough call, but VERY accessible to Westerners curious about Buddhism.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

The Four Agreements By Don Miguel Ruiz. Good but very close to "woo woo spiritual." Take what you will.

The Art of Worldly Wisom by Balthasar Gracian. Old Jesuit teachings condensed into fairly secular wisdom. Great little book full of life axioms.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton. Life Changing for me. Helps to redefine what "success" is in contemporary society - ie. not material / not prestige / not ego. Obvious points that are important to reiterate.
posted by jnnla at 3:55 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm agnostic, not atheist, but my go to list:
- anything by Joseph Campbell
- the footnotes in Robert Graves Greek Mythology
- Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
- The Frog and Toad collection by Arnold Loebel
posted by Gucky at 4:22 PM on October 17, 2010

To garner a sense of awe about the world (which is how I personally conceptualise "spirituality" from within my own atheism):

Anything by Douglas Adams -- sampling here

Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'
posted by prettypretty at 4:45 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

You write your own.

One of the reasons I'm an atheist is because I adore so many other faiths, religions, and mythologies. They all have good ideas. Lots of people have good ideas. But only certain ones strike a chord with me, and there is only one way to get all of those ideas in one place: write them down myself.

Make this fun. Invent your own religion with your own god or gods-- you can use Ceiling Cat or just some symbol you find amusing or important, it doesn't matter as long as you have fun-- and fill it with beliefs, practices, codes, and values that are all important to you. Bringing your own mythology to life with poetic language, metaphors, and small stories. Write and think from the perspective of someone who is going to teach others these values, because you are: you, when you're in a bad mood or life's got you down.
posted by vienaragis at 5:02 PM on October 17, 2010

While the author himself is pretty profoundly Christian, as a lapsed Jew turned agnostic, Wendell Berry has written some fantastic essays on the environment, on being decent, and is in general a pretty fantastic person with a strong viewpoint. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community is a pretty good place to start, as is The Gift of Good Land.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:04 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Marshall Rosenberg's "Non-violent Communication" remains deeply worthwhile and restorative to me. It is painfully corny/cheesy/trite at times in its phrasing, but never its meaning or intent. I read it as a refresher when I stop seeing the human needs behind the actions of others.

Fantastic question, by the way—I'm certainly benefiting from the outpouring of suggestions.
posted by alexandermatheson at 5:16 PM on October 17, 2010

I recommend Ernest Becker's Birth and Death of Meaning

To a lesser extent, Joseph Campbell's Power of Myth was also helpful in providing a way to tolerate the religious beliefs of others. Religion as myth as story, and as such, capable of providing relevance even to the irreligious.

Finally, although I haven't re-read it in a long time, Tom Robbin's Jitterbug Perfume was a great meditative book for me at an important time.

I would also recommend starting a quote collection. There are some doozies out there. I'll start you off with this one:

"One viewed the existence of man then as a marvel, and conceded a glamour of wonder to these lice which were caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb."
— Stephen Crane
posted by zueod at 5:17 PM on October 17, 2010

Hey, look --I managed to chop off that first sentence even after previewing.

I specifically mention the Becker, because the last chapters speak to "a group of different activities or behaviours" that work toward ascribing meaning to our lives.

As a skeptic, my skepticism extends to Becker as well. I include it here because as I read his work, in my head I have an argument with him, and I find such arguments very useful.
posted by zueod at 5:39 PM on October 17, 2010

As said The Jefferson Bible is the Christian Bible without a supernatural element and although you say that your chosen book doesn't need to be infallible that revision of the bible retains passages that regulate slavery, women, and many other immoral teachings. As literature it has the same problem that most supernatural texts have of justification by fiat rather than by consequence of reasoned arguments. The result, in my opinion, is a text that's not "explained simply" as you say that you'd prefer.

Socrates has stood the test of time, but as a Pythagorean he occasionally strays into metaphysical nonsense about geometric shapes being magical. That's rather harmless and rare in his text though so I'll join others in recommending the most excellent So-Crates.
posted by holloway at 5:46 PM on October 17, 2010

I'm a Catholic of sorts, but I'm going to second Vonnegut - Bluebird specifically. (Though there is a lot to think about in Breakfast of Champions as well.) And any of his speeches you can find online, or interviews.
posted by kensington314 at 5:47 PM on October 17, 2010

Yudkowsky's sequences. They're sometimes long-winded, but certainly inspirational.
posted by novalis_dt at 5:52 PM on October 17, 2010

This is such an incredible list of suggestions. Many I've read myself. Others I will pick up now.
I turn to Epictetus, Tao Te Ching, Emerson, Seneca, the existentialists, The Art of Worldly Wisdom.
As as a contributor above, I write down meaningful passages as I come across them, from literature philosophy. But so many times I held on with Lao Tzu.
posted by Summer05 at 7:06 PM on October 17, 2010

As Wikipedia says, and as lollusc suggests, the Oxford Book of English Verse was once called the Atheist's Bible. Lots of great stuff there.

De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), by Lucretius (a really fabulous ancient Roman Epicurean poet) is partly about physics and partly about why you shouldn't be afraid of death even though there's no afterlife and all your many atoms will just disperse. There's a good translation by Humphries that you should be able to find.

Plato's Dialogues also touch on lots of different philosophical and ethical topics in an interesting and readable way.
posted by rustcellar at 7:54 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps not even a book, but a group of different activities or behaviours?

Grow a garden and sit in it. This is every religion. This is life and death, birth and rebirth, metamorphosis, reaping and sowing. The caterpillar becoming the butterfly, the snake changing its skin, the grasshopper in the summer grass, the bird nesting and laying and hatching and fledging, the ant and bee working all day for the good of the many, the spider waiting in the web. Sun and earth, wind and rain. A thousand flowers and a million seeds. The gardener and the garden.
posted by pracowity at 3:28 AM on October 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's not out yet, but philosopher A.C. Grayling is working on a book intended to be precisely this called The Good Book.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:34 AM on October 18, 2010

The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron is a book I find I can turn to repeatedly for guidance of the kind you described.
posted by doctord at 7:47 AM on October 18, 2010

I'm going with the collected works of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, specifically his novels. I tried to pick just a couple (Mother Night, Bluebeard, Slapstick although I have not finished it yet), but everyone has their favorites.

2nded. Funny enough, Vonnegut himself calls Bartlett's Quotations the "atheist's bible" in one of his novels.

No one has suggested The Complete Works of Shakespeare? Nobody? That is the closest thing to a humanist bible I've ever come across.

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.

""We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
posted by Ndwright at 8:12 AM on October 18, 2010

ACIM - A Course in Miracles
posted by Manylives at 11:55 AM on October 18, 2010

This is something I read this morning. A stranger's take on the meaning of life and such on Reddit. It sums things up very nicely.

by sometimesitrip on reddit
posted by jstarlee at 12:52 PM on October 18, 2010

An Ethical Philosophy of Life, by Felix Adler.

The principal problems considered are:

1. How to establish the fundamental ethical dictum that every human being ought to count, and is intrinsically worth while. This dictum has been denied by many of the greatest thinkers, who assert the intrinsic inferiority of some men, the intrinsic superiority of others. The practice of the world also runs most distinctly contrary to it. How then is it to be validated?

2. The problem of how to attach a precise meaning to the term "spiritual," thereby divesting it of the flavor of sentimentality and vagueness that attaches to it.

8. How to link up the world's activities in science, art, politics, business, to the supreme ethical end.

4. How to lay foundations whereon to erect the conviction that there verily is a supersensible reality.
posted by sulaine at 2:46 PM on October 18, 2010

Awareness by Anthony de Mello changed my life. You can either read the book, or hear it spoken at a live conference.
posted by Ryogen at 10:18 PM on October 19, 2010

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard
posted by moonbird at 8:38 PM on October 20, 2010

The Church of Skepticism has had many apostles. Doubt: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson by Jennifer Hecht gives you a wonderful historical overview of these intellectual heroes and what they thought living a good life meant. I have read some of the classics referenced above (Aurelius, Socrates, Mill, Nietzche, and so on) but I find that these texts are artifacts of the past in some ways. I now prefer the essences of their work conveyed to me through a modern sensibility. Hecht does a beautiful job. She ends her book as follows:

Theistic religions all have in them an amazing human ability: belief. Belief is one of the best human muscles; it can be very good. The religions are all beautiful and horrible, filled with feasts, sacrifices, miracles, wars, songs, lamentations, stained glass, onion matzos and intense communal joy: everyone kneeling, everyone rocking, everyone silent, everyone nose to the floor. The religions have also been the energy behind much generosity, compassion and bravery. The story of doubt, however has all this, too. It also has a relationship to truth that is rigorous, sober and when necessary, resigned--and it prizes this rigorous approach above the delights of belief. Doubt has its own version of comforts and challenges. From doubt's beginnings, it has advised that...[we] accept that we are animals but ones with special problems, and that the world is natural, but natural is just an idea that we animals have in our heads. Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family and give some attention to community, money, politics, and pleasure. Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently. ...If you live long enough you will likely find yourself believing something that you do not believe today.... In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt. Expect change. Accept death. Enjoy life. As Marcus Aurelius explained, the brains that got you through the troubles you have had so far will get you through any troubles yet to come....
posted by storybored at 9:20 PM on October 20, 2010

Anything by John Carroll. I would particularly suggest 'Ego and Soul' or 'The Western Dreaming'. While I would not recommend it as any kind of sacred or central text for atheism, it has plenty of "Accumulated wisdom".
posted by rigby99 at 9:30 PM on October 21, 2010

The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba (founder of Aikido). Also Happiness by Thich Nhat Hahn (or any of his, for that matter).
posted by snap_dragon at 6:53 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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