One Book on Atheism I Should Read (read details!)
July 3, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for one single book, perhaps a college-level read (not much higher), that explains the case for atheism. I'm not looking for any 'new atheist books', though I have enjoyed them -- especially Harris. I have read Bertrand Russell as well. I have a few atheist friends but do not want to talk to them about this as I am a Christian and don't want to give them the impression that I want to change them or judge them. I just want more exposure to it in a sincere and kind fashion without short bumper sticker like explanations. (BTW, I don't look at my friends as "Hey, here come my 'atheist' friends! But mainly here comes "Bob" and "Joe". I just don't think it is right to bug them about their positions or lack thereof. <--Not sure how to state that.) Thanks in advance for your book recommendation.
posted by snap_dragon to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
* I forgot to add that I would prefer this book to come from a non-religious publisher.
posted by snap_dragon at 12:33 PM on July 3, 2011

Hm. Most atheist writing I know of treats atheism as the initial state, the null hypothesis as it were, and simply makes the argument that there is a lack of a case for theism. (Well, either that or it's "I don't believe in God because of the bad things god-botherers have done grar grar" which can be entertaining and all but it doesn't sound like that's what you're looking for.)

What about books which describe the writer's loss of belief? Would that scratch your itch? Atheists who've been theists tend to have a different viewpoint from people who've never believed, so this could give you a skewed view of the idea as a whole, but it might speak to you better across the divide.
posted by hattifattener at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think atheism (or non-christian-ism) sometimes comes from a misconception or misunderstanding of christianity. On that note Mere Christianity attempts to clear those up. this isn't exactly what you asked for, but may be helpful when talking to your non-christian friends.
posted by jander03 at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2011

I like Mere Christianity but do not really have a goal to talk to my friends about their beliefs. I saw this one and maybe that is good? I guess that is why I am asking.
posted by snap_dragon at 12:49 PM on July 3, 2011

The Cambridge Companion to Atheism is a collection of texts written by scholars for a college-level type audience.
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:51 PM on July 3, 2011

Atheism: A Philosophical Justification

"In this book Michael Martin provides logical reasons for being an atheist. Carefully examining the current debate in Anglo-American analytic philosophy regarding God's existence, Martin presents a comprehensive critique of the arguments for the existence of God and a defense of arguments against the existence of God, showing in detail their relevance to atheism."
posted by martinrebas at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2011

I usually recommend Russell for this, but I see you've already read him. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism might do it for you, though. A more casual choice might be 50 Reasons People Give For Believing In A God -- this book starts with theistic arguments and examines the reasons why atheists are skeptical towards them, without a "new atheist" tone.
posted by vorfeed at 12:58 PM on July 3, 2011

I'm neither an atheist nor a Christian, but in my opinion Mere Christianity does an especially horrid job of handling the "should one believe in God or not" question.
posted by Sara C. at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't believe in Jesus etc. because of book-level arguments, right? Most atheists are the same way: I don't believe because I believe in things after they're proven, and the evidence for God isn't there. (Or else: Religious people have done lots of bad things in the name of faith.)

It's usually not much more complicated than that, and reading about the "case" for atheism isn't going to help you understand where atheists are coming from.
posted by J. Wilson at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

+1 on Michael Martin's Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. It's as heavy going as a philosophical work, but it presents a compelling case.
posted by tommorris at 1:04 PM on July 3, 2011

Have you ever read "Why I am Agnostic", by Ingersoll? It was very influential for me when I was younger.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:06 PM on July 3, 2011

FWIW, most atheists I know came to their (non)belief simply because they simply couldn't swallow the teachings of the religions. To wit: None of it made any damned sense to them. It's not a political, cultural or scholarly decision they've made, nor one steeped in complex intellectual thought or extensive readings. It's just a case of "The existence of a god just doesn't make sense. And the teachings of the various religions just don't make any sense in my life."
posted by Thorzdad at 1:08 PM on July 3, 2011 [17 favorites]

The Quest for Being by Sidney Hook:
So long as religion is freed from authoritarian institutional forms, and conceived in personal terms, so long as overbeliefs are a source of innocent joy, a way of overcoming cosmic loneliness, a discipline of living with pain and evil, otherwise unendurable and irremediable, so long as what functions as a vital illusion or poetic myth is not represented as public truth to whose existence the once-born are blind, so long as religion does not paralyze the desire and the will to struggle against unnecessary cruelties of experience, it seems to me to fall in an area of choice in which rational criticism may be suspended. In this sense, a man's personal religion justifies itself to him in the way his love does. Why should he want to make a public cult of it? And why should we want him to prove that the object of his love is the most lovely creature in the world? Nonetheless it still remains true that as a set of cognitive beliefs, religious doctrines constitute a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability.
posted by caek at 1:12 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Personally, I was fond of The God Delusion, but Dawkins is pretty hit or miss for people. I thought it was one of the better compilations of arguments on both sides, regardless.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:13 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Richard Dawkins' "God is Not Great" got a lot of press. I doubt it would meet your criterion of kind and sincere, but you could flip through it if you wanted to see a militant position.

Most 'atheists' are not Dawkins-like, though.
posted by Net Prophet at 1:17 PM on July 3, 2011

Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith
posted by John Cohen at 1:23 PM on July 3, 2011

Note to Net Prophet, the book "God Is Not Great: How Relgion Poisons Everything" is by Christopher Hitchens, not Richard Dawkins (whose book on atheism is entitled "The God Delusion"). Personally I enjoyed both of those books. But I also agree with several people in this discussion who have pointed out that atheism is really very simple and doesn't necessarily require elaborate argumentation. No religion has every offered what a scientist would consider to be adequate evidence of its claims. Anybody can (and lots of people do) make claims about what God has supposedly told them, but they have never proved that God told them anything.
posted by grizzled at 1:31 PM on July 3, 2011

I quite like The Portable Atheist (edited by Hitchens, but has writing by many interesting thinkers).
posted by so_gracefully at 1:38 PM on July 3, 2011

When I had just lost my (evangelical Christian) faith and was just getting curious about atheism, I found Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God to be really useful.

That said, others in this thread are raising an important issue. Just as there are many different Christian cultures and your atheist friends could not figure you out by reading your church's doctrinal statements, you can't know your friends' thoughts or customs by reading a textbook. There are as many ways to live without a belief in a god as to make a meal without meat.

Your friends probably don't spend much time thinking about it, the way you don't spend much time thinking about why you don't believe in Zeus or Thor. In fact, your reasons for why you don't believe in Zeus, and the non-impact this has on your life, will probably shed a lot of light.
posted by heatherann at 1:39 PM on July 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

Your friends probably don't spend much time thinking about it, the way you don't spend much time thinking about why you don't believe in Zeus or Thor. In fact, your reasons for why you don't believe in Zeus, and the non-impact this has on your life, will probably shed a lot of light.

Yep, this: Of the literally thousands of gods (and religions) in the world, as a Christian, you're already an "atheist" about all of them, except your own. Why? Answer that question from your own perspective, and you'll start to get a sense of where your friends are coming from (although, as mentioned, for a lot folks the process wouldn't entail that much conscious reflection).
posted by 5Q7 at 1:49 PM on July 3, 2011 [18 favorites]

Just b/c I marked some "best answers" doesn't mean that I don't hope for more suggestions. I think I will talk to my friends if they are open and hear their stories if they are willing to share. They know me well enough to not be offended.
posted by snap_dragon at 1:51 PM on July 3, 2011

Thank-you Grizzled, I did mean Hitchens.
posted by Net Prophet at 1:51 PM on July 3, 2011

@5Q7 Is this the sort of "We are all atheists at heart (mind?) -- I just believe in one less god than you" sort of thing? If this is a tangential question, feel free to ignore.
posted by snap_dragon at 1:52 PM on July 3, 2011

Try Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" for a sincere and well-written argument for atheism.
posted by michaelh at 2:20 PM on July 3, 2011

Polytheists still exist, but monotheism is just one step away from atheism.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:21 PM on July 3, 2011

The difficulty is of course that it depends on what you mean by "the case for atheism" - most of what is called "Atheism" in the popular press is more accurately the closely related skeptic, secular and anti-religious movements.

If you want a defence of those values, then I would say The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Which features edited extracts from diverse authors from Spinoza to Einstein) is very well edited. As you say you don't want to read "new atheists" this is perfect as is shows there is nothing at all very new about "new atheism" (except the size of their royalty checks I suppose!)

If you want to look at the philosophical arguments as to whether a "God" exists I would second Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God as a good examination of the weakness of arguments for the existence of a "god" or gods. He takes a look in turn at things like ontological arguments, religious experience, Omnipotence and fairly sets out the weaknesses in their construction
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:30 PM on July 3, 2011

You might also try The Illusion of Immortality by Corliss Lamont. It's a medium-length exploration of the idea we only get one life and there is no heaven, which does a botch job on Christian morality. It was originally published in 1935, so I guess it's more an old-atheist text.
posted by workerant at 2:34 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks, folks. This should hold me.
posted by snap_dragon at 2:38 PM on July 3, 2011

@5Q7 Is this the sort of "We are all atheists at heart (mind?) -- I just believe in one less god than you" sort of thing? If this is a tangential question, feel free to ignore.

Perhaps, I suppose. But the more important point involves how you/we choose to frame this sort of debate and the implications of those choices. So, for instance, the typical frame for this issue (at least in the contemporary U.S.) immediately collapses the larger concept of belief down to Christianity (and sometimes even a subset of denominations therein) then contrasts that with something else labeled atheism, when the reasoning process involved is necessarily more complex. From the perspectives of comparative religion or cultural anthropology, there truly are thousands of gods/religions in the world, all but one of which get utterly dismissed by most Christians out of hand. All I wanted to point out is the reasoning process taking place on the part of most "believers" and the way this logic contradicts the easy dichotomy between "belief" and "non-belief." From there the discussion gets much more interesting....
posted by 5Q7 at 2:55 PM on July 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

I can second, Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith. A quick read and good for laying out the argument.
posted by pwb503 at 2:57 PM on July 3, 2011

Like hattifattener, I feel that if your goal is to be able to relate to your friends' perspective, then academic discussions won't do as well as more personal accounts. The following two autobiographies are fantastic in their own right, and each include a story arc about the loss of religion.

Blankets, by Craig Thompson, the story of his coming of age, beautifully illustrated.

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, about going from growing up poor in Somalia to being elected to the Dutch Parliament.
posted by gmarceau at 3:22 PM on July 3, 2011

Why read Dawkins when you could be reading Hume? If you only read one book on atheism, make it Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.
posted by verstegan at 4:03 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

joining in a bit late, I'm afraid, but the Oxford University Press 'Very Short Introduction to' series is always a good place to try, and sure enough there is one on atheism by Julian Baggini.
posted by davemack at 4:19 AM on July 4, 2011

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