I want to convert my family
January 16, 2011 1:09 PM   Subscribe

As a converted atheist raised in a converted neo-calvinist family. I am regularly flooded with books, newsletters, and other reading material (read emails that are 90% quotes) supporting christianity. I'd like to return the favor (:

I'm looking for book recommendations, similar to previous but intended for christians.

-- Not condescending/"angry" ala Dawkins
-- Preferably eloquent yet accessible, possibly in a narrative style -- they love R.C. Sproul, C.S. Lewis
-- Not comprehensive, but with resources for more info
-- Written with more than a superficial understanding of christian theology, ideally neo-calvinist: TULIP, American Westminster Confession of Faith
-- Addresses common christian phenomena and explains them scientifically with examples
(faith, prayer, confirmation bias, real/perceived psychological changes, placebo effect, etc)
-- Discusses the historical background of the Bible/Christianity
(political background of various RC councils/rulings, dates/sources of texts, fluctuations in "commonly accepted" dogma tied to corresponding socio-political movements)

They are very informed in their beliefs/theology but from mostly a christian perspective.
They do take some logic out from the toy-box, but not all the pieces.
There's quite a bit of diversity: two PhDs (micro-bio & metallurgy), missionary, teacher/writer.

posted by vaguelyweird to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I like Michael Shermer and Sam Harris a lot.
posted by box at 1:13 PM on January 16, 2011

Letter To a Christian Nation fits the bill perfectly. It takes next to no time to read and smacks down everything about religion without being offensive as it does so.
posted by dougrayrankin at 1:15 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Letters to a Christian Nation, yup. An atheist pal buys copies all the time and hands them out like candy.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:35 PM on January 16, 2011

CommonSenseAtheism.com features numerous video and audio debates between Athiests and believers, categorized by debater and by date (and it's not all just the acerbic stuff like Hitchens and Dawkins). You might start by finding one or two that you feel present both sides of the argument fairly, and in an even-handed and respectful manner, and then send them to your relatives to check out. This way, you don't actually have to do the arguing yourself, and they will feel that their side of the issue has also been given voice.

Also, spend some time perusing the website of The Freedom From Religion Foundation, http://www.ffrf.org. Their "Freethought Of The Day" page might provide some of the quotes you're looking for.
posted by slumberfiend at 1:54 PM on January 16, 2011

If they are Calvinist I don't understand why they are bugging you at all. From a Calvinist viewpoint you are unable to believe until God enables you. So why are they treating you as if YOU could decide on your own?

So they are bugging the wrong party.

Rather than try to send them literature (which I assure you will not work) why not approach it from the standpoint that if they spent the time that they now spend in sending you literature in actually PRAYING for you they would have a much better chance of success.

From your viewpoint you no longer get bugged. From their viewpoint (and to be fair, from mine) they might actually achieve something.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:07 PM on January 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you're honestly considering doing this (and I agree that it's not necessarily the best way to spend your time), pushing books at them will be far less effective than you just talking to them forthrightly from your own perspective, using your own thoughts and words. Stuff like "trying to convert my family by buying them books about atheism" is kinda WHY people think all atheists are annoying, condescending, and pushy.
posted by so_gracefully at 2:11 PM on January 16, 2011

if they spent the time that they now spend in sending you literature in actually PRAYING for you they would have a much better chance of success

I agree this might result in them not bugging the OP any longer, but it would also be quite hypocritical of the OP to tell them this might help the OP convert, and that doesn't really seem to be the aim if I am understanding the question correctly.
posted by Lobster Garden at 2:15 PM on January 16, 2011

Stuff like "trying to convert my family by buying them books about atheism" is kinda WHY people think all atheists are annoying, condescending, and pushy

...It's also why people think all Christians are annoying, condescending, and pushy. The OP is attempting to show them how obnoxious this is in an effort to get them to stop it, I believe.
posted by Lobster Garden at 2:17 PM on January 16, 2011 [10 favorites]

I think this is probably a losing battle. But if you must, perhaps you'll be more successful in getting them to think more critically about their faith than systematically and logically disproving it, which will just cause them to shut you out altogether. (I've been there, believe me.)

You might look at the more writings of Bishop John Spong, retired, of the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Newark). He argues for moving Christianity away from supernaturalism and the idea of Scripture as the infallible word of God. (Also a huge supporter of GLBT church marriage and ordination.) A couple recommendations:

New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born

The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love

Or you might send them a Jefferson Bible--a reprint of Thomas Jefferson's version of the Bible, which excises all the less rational and supernatural content (such as the miracles of Jesus).

Also, Karen Armstrong's A History of God. (Armstrong is an ex-nun and a theological scholar). Traces the history of the major monotheistic religions and argues that their similarities transcend their differences.

And finally, Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World, which is more about thinking critically than about dispelling religious myths--he demonstrates sympathy and compassion for people who desperately want to believe, for example, that they will see their loved ones in the afterlife.
posted by tully_monster at 2:22 PM on January 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

oops, that should read "the more recent writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong."
posted by tully_monster at 2:31 PM on January 16, 2011

If you'd like to start a conversation about science and religion, E.O. Wilson's The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth is written as a series of letters between him and a Baptist minister about why both science and Christianity teach us that conservation of biodiversity is important. It's lovely. And might at least help them not be fearful of science (and teach them a bunch of biology).
posted by hydropsyche at 2:36 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please understand that this particular set of Christians will not be persuaded by the types of books you mention. Please remember the Bible talks about" the foolishness of God being wiser than man's wisdom." Now, if the OP's point is simply to show his family how obnoxious the pushiness is, that's fine but if he is seriously trying to change their point of view, well, it's no more likely than he changing his own.

I'm simply assuming he wants the pushiness to stop. I offered what I believe to be a win/win solution, is all. If he feels like it would be violating his ethics to go that route of course that's one thing, but he could always just couch it in terms of what THEY believe. They already know he doesn't believe.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:54 PM on January 16, 2011

If you try to convince them that their beliefs are wrong, you'll probably just cause them to dig their heels in.

Seconding tully_monster's suggestion about encouraging critical thinking towards their faith.

I'd add one more work, which is a little further from what you said you're looking for: Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God. It tells the story of her struggles as she searched for meaning within Catholicism and eventually gave up her faith.

Here's the trailer for the DVD she made, and here's an longer excerpt from This American Life.

It's a very touching and personal story, and it's hilarious too. Most importantly, it doesn't attack religion or tell you what to think, so it might help your family see your point of view.
posted by neal at 3:02 PM on January 16, 2011

I'd never heard of TULIP before. After looking it up (Wikipedia article here), I think St. Alia has a good idea. Why are they trying to convert you, when conversion does not matter and it is only being one of the elect that matters?
posted by Houstonian at 3:11 PM on January 16, 2011

Ricky Gervais has a holiday message I found entertaining.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:21 PM on January 16, 2011

Response by poster: In response to St. Alla, I've told them as much, trust me. I've also spent a lot of time reasoning with them, but I lose credibility for being the "child." And there's certainly A LOT of praying going down, about which I get to learn the details. However, since they are ignorant of my elect-status, my conversion is potentially forthcoming* -- and God may use them in that process. Thus, they're going for a broad-spectrum approach.

Mainly, it is as Lobster Garden states -- I'm making a point about how ineffectual/annoying this practice is. But maybe a book could be more difficult to dismiss and leave small footholds of doubt.

On Sam Harris & Julia Sweeney: I will check them out, thank you. I am skeptical that they are from the appropriate perspective, but they may be helpful none-the-less.

* Although they are torn as to whether I've spurned the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and rendered myself ineligible
posted by vaguelyweird at 5:42 PM on January 16, 2011

Best answer: It's not strictly atheist but it would hit Calvinists pretty hard, Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God. He's the son of Francis Schaeffer, one of the intellectual founders of the Evangelical movement who also revitalized the Reformed Calvinist movement.
posted by scalefree at 5:48 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

A few additional non-polemical suggestions, which are not about theology but, rather, about ethics and social justice. The first two address the claim that you (or society) can't behave morally without religion. Of course they won't convince a convinced Calvinist, but they can at least provide arguments:

Greg Epstein, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe (William Morrow, 2009). Epstein is particularly interested in the ethics of atheism.

Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (New York University Press, 2008). A sociologist's account of living in Denmark and discussing belief and nonbelief with Danes and Swedes.

Louise M. Antony, ed., Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (Oxford University Press, paperback ed. 2010). Leading philosophers discuss why they turned away from their religious upbringing (if they had one) and why they find atheism intellectually and morally satisfying.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:19 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendation for Bishop Spong. Also, this thread has some suggestions you might like to use when replying to one of those quote-filled emails (it has some quotes from the eminently quotable Sam Harris mentioned upthread).
posted by jaynewould at 8:06 PM on January 16, 2011

In response to St. Alla, I've told them as much, trust me. I've also spent a lot of time reasoning with them, but I lose credibility for being the "child." And there's certainly A LOT of praying going down, about which I get to learn the details. However, since they are ignorant of my elect-status, my conversion is potentially forthcoming* -- and God may use them in that process. Thus, they're going for a broad-spectrum approach.

Feel free to tell them I said it sounds like they are trying to do God's job for Him. The Hound of Heaven doesn't need help. You have heard what they have to say, repeating it will only annoy you.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:21 PM on January 16, 2011

Well, for factual-style information, there's Biblical Contradictions.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:16 AM on January 17, 2011

Best answer: I understand that you are aiming to make a point about the inefficacy of this sort of tactic so if I were you I wouldn't be overly concerned that the book you send ticks all those boxes. For one thing, I'm not sure such a book exists. There are many that tick some of the boxes but I can't think of one that gets 'em all, and I've read a lot of atheist literature.

"Letter To A Christian Nation" is good on several counts. It's calm and measured in tone, it's short and succinct and it does a good job of trying to get the believer to see how they appear to non-believers. I think the main problem I have with it is that it tends to dwell on the more bible-believing, evolution-resistant sort of Christian, and as a Brit that feels weird (since over here those people are basically regarded as insane). However, it sounds like this may not be so much of an issue for you. The book is so short you can quickly read through it yourself and swee if you think it's appropriate. I think it probably will be.

Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian would probably be my best recommendation. It, too, is short and very to the point.

FInally, Dan Dennett's Breaking The Spell is an interesting one that comes at the issue from a different angle: looking at religion as a natural phenomenon and arguing that it is as open to scientific analaysis as any other natural phenomenon.

But again, if this is about making a point about their actions toward you (and I am all in favour of showing people who won't be told, so good for you) I'd just send one or two books at most and then ask them if they're convinced. When they say "no" (and of course, that is what they will say) just ask them why they imagine that you'll be any more convinced by the books they send you. If they still don't get it tell them they are being damned rude and if they want you to keep communicating with them it had better stop. I know what a royal pain a religious family can be and I can tell you from my own experience that sometimes the only way to get this shit to stop is to get extremely arsey with them, sometimes to the point of cutting communication until they get it.
posted by Decani at 3:02 AM on January 17, 2011

I would just add that while "Why I Am Not A Christian" is actually just a short essay, that title is normally used to refer to the book that contains it - Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects - as mentioned in the Wikipedia link I gave.
posted by Decani at 3:09 AM on January 17, 2011

In a much more subtle way, you could try to get them reading Philip Pullman's fantasy series His Dark Materials, which is in some ways a kind of rebuttal of C.S. Lewis' Narnia...without giving away the plot I can't say much more, but Pullman is quoted as saying "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief" in relation to the novels. The first book in the series was also made into a film, The Golden Compass. The film seems much more watered down, though.
posted by jet_manifesto at 6:44 AM on January 21, 2011

Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists should be a great fit based on the criteria you outlined.
posted by Jaybo at 7:35 PM on February 15, 2011

If you really want to scare them off, point out how likely Calvinism or any sort of serious Biblical discussion is to be a stepping-stone to Catholicism. Evidence:

Prime suspect: John Henry Newman started out as a Calvinistic Evangelical convert and ended up a Catholic Cardinal and now Blessed. They will probably want to avoid this outcome.

The Cross and the Ball: Taking the question of God too seriously (from whatever viewpoint) ultimately leads to openness to encounter Him.

The End of the Affair: similar idea with more psychological realism.
posted by KMH at 1:50 AM on March 28, 2011

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