What positive book about atheism to recommend to a Christian?
December 10, 2012 1:51 PM   Subscribe

What one book should an atheist recommend to a fundamentalist that will open their mind to atheism but is not focused on the debate about whether god exists?

I realize that this is an odd question since the atheism is fundamentally about the issue of not believing in a god or gods, but in any case...

I have recently met a very smart fundamentalist Christian who asked me my religious beliefs (atheist / secular humanist) and then asked me if I had read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. I have, and then asked her if she had ever read any books by an atheist about religion, which she hadn't but was open to do. She studies modern, mainstream psychology, so she's not anti-science. (She's a first-year in college, BTW). Her image of atheists based on past experience is the stereotype of confrontational, self-centered (i.e. not community or charity-focused), negative, and nihilistic.

I'd like to recommend a book that can open her mind to the idea that atheists and/or an atheist life can be moral, humanist, positive, meaningful, etc. but, since this may be the one book she ever reads dealing with atheism, I don't want it to be focused on arguments about whether god exists, since there is certainly next-to-zero chance she will ever change her tune on that. I also don't want a book that details the problems or evils caused by religion. But, I'd like something more focused on religion than, say, a beautiful secular description of the wonders of science and the universe.

I certainly plan to open her up to these ideas through my own example, but I do want a book do discuss with her.

I have already read this question and this one, but neither seemed quite on point. This question is probably closest, but I feel that there might be something out there better for my purposes.
posted by underwater to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Oh I'm so glad this question unfolded the way it did.

I'd actually look more into books about the psychology and philosophy of morality rather than about atheism; you may find things that are more on how these things developed in the human mind, independent of religion, which would kind of take the focus off of "God: yea or nay". (I'll admit I don't know of one offhand.)

Or: a book about Buddhism, which in its strictest sense isn't a religion and doesn't as such have a deity in the strictest definition of the word. Which could, in a roundabout way, introduce your friend to the idea of "wait a minute....this is a whole cosmology that doesn't have a central intelligent deity figure at its heart, and nevertheless is astoundingly rich.

The Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell transcript of their Hero's Journey specials may also be good, as there's a section where Campbell discusses how the whole idea of myth is in some way referring to self-discovery (the stories in the Bible aren't necessarily about Jesus - in a way, they're about US).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:01 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus starts with the premise that there isn't a God, and then lays out several possible ways and reasons to approach life while accepting this premise.
posted by kagredon at 2:03 PM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor
posted by pete_22 at 2:03 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nonzero, by Robert Wright
posted by pete_22 at 2:04 PM on December 10, 2012

The Portable Atheist.
posted by John Cohen at 2:07 PM on December 10, 2012

I suggest either The Plague by Camus or The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.
posted by michaelh at 2:13 PM on December 10, 2012

You might consider The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong. It's a sympathetic and engaging account of "how fundamentalism got that way", via case studies in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It makes a strong case for fundamentalist literalism being bad religion as well as bad science. So, not "about" atheism per se, but it would certainly be... interesting reading for a fundamentalist. Armstrong was a nun for seven years and has more recently described herself as a "freelance monotheist". I don't know whether this would make your friend more or less kindly disposed to the book: a have the impression that many protestant fundamentalists regard Catholicism as no better than atheism.

It might be that there's something even more suitable among Armstrong's extensive output, but this is the only one I've read.
posted by pont at 2:14 PM on December 10, 2012

There was a fellow on the NPR show "Speaking of Faith" with host Krista Tippett--I think, rather than her current show "On Being"--who had been an evangelical scholar and writer for maybe 25 years, and then came to decide he was an atheist, and wrote a book about it that might fit your bill. I can't think of his name, though! I think he was still a university professor, maybe in the American South, at the time of the interview (?)
posted by homelystar at 2:16 PM on December 10, 2012

I would also suggest engaging this person on the subject of Lewis' Greek tutor who inspired the characters Prof. Kirk, MacPhee and Hingest.
posted by michaelh at 2:28 PM on December 10, 2012

There was a fellow on the NPR show "Speaking of Faith"

I was thinking of Bart Ehrman...but he may or may not be what you're looking for. Apparently he argues that Jesus did exist as a historical figure. He is an agnostic, though.
posted by homelystar at 2:30 PM on December 10, 2012

I seem to recall Carl Sagan's Gifford lectures, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, being a gentle expression of atheist-leaning-agnosticism. It's very readable and makes much of the beauty of, well, the cosmos, while still obviously being about religion.
posted by Beardman at 2:43 PM on December 10, 2012

Have her read any philosophical or ethical book that isn't christian in origin, for example Plato.
posted by empath at 2:52 PM on December 10, 2012

I immediately thought of Bart Ehrman but that still might be a little confrontational for her.

What about the story of Pat Tillman?

Homelystar, I think it was this guy: http://m.npr.org/story/160555460 which is a good suggestion too.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:53 PM on December 10, 2012

Although the author himself has issues with his own title, I found The God Gene to be an interesting and sensitive investigation into the neurological underpinnings of the human need for faith.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 3:04 PM on December 10, 2012

Casting my vote for Billions & Billions, also by Carl Sagan. I haven't read it but I think Sagan is the kind of writer you're looking for-- he sets a shining example of how to approach moral questions in a world where god's assumed to be out of the picture.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 3:07 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I read Hyperspace while still waffling on my agnosticism and it pushed me over the edge into firmly athiest territory, and probably was a more convincing argument than all of the religion specific books I'd read.

I'd avoid Dennet, Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins.
posted by skrozidile at 3:25 PM on December 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities is an extraordinarily readable yet gold-standard learned critique that utterly lays waste to any fundamentalist Christian ideas of the Christian Bible being an inerrant document handed down from God.

I don't know whether Ehrman self-identifies as theist or atheist, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:45 PM on December 10, 2012

If you're not wedded to a book, Julia Sweeney's performance Letting Go of God is charming, well-informed, and available on DVD.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:48 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have her read any philosophical or ethical book that isn't christian in origin, for example Plato.

This may not work as, for example, C.S.Lewis was a devout Platonist.
posted by goethean at 4:09 PM on December 10, 2012

As an ex-fundamentalist, the book the struck the killing blow for me was Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. It is a fairly aggressive book in fighting the established religions of the day, but the fact that Paine is a famous patriot and that he does believe in God may be enough to overcome that aggressiveness for her.
posted by JDHarper at 4:48 PM on December 10, 2012

I came in here to say Bertrand Russell and while I am not convinced that I am wrong I am intrigued by the idea of something by Carl Sagan.

One option for Bertrand Russell is the 72-page What I Believe. A more ideal book would be an anthology focusing on his moral and religious essays and writings but I don't know of one and can't find one but an option would be the Bertrand Russell Bundle: The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell and selecting pieces from within such as the aforementioned What I Believe.
posted by mountmccabe at 4:55 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You ask for books "about" atheism, but you go on to ask for books that will "open their mind to atheism". My following suggestions are more along the lines of the latter than the former.

(1) Has she read the Bible? I'm not snarking - actually reading it has turned many an ostensible Christian-by-default into a non-Christian, though of course by no means everyone. This may not be as "positive" as you're asking for, though.

(2) In a sort of related but sort of opposite way (i.e. less "Oh man I can't believe it actually says that heinous crap" and more "Huh, how about that, the good parts are good even without religion"), The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, a.k.a. "The Jefferson Bible", by Thomas Jefferson (yes, that Thomas Jefferson), is excellent. Jefferson essentially rewrote the Gospels, leaving in what he considered to be wise, moral, and good lessons from Jesus, and leaving out what he considered to be foolish, immoral, and bad lessons from Jesus.

That's not an entirely accurate description, though, because he suspected the bad lessons from Jesus didn't actually come from Jesus at all, but from people like the Apostle Paul, who he believed twisted the morally decent religion of a very wise man named Jesus into a religion of somewhat questionable morality about a supposed god named Jesus.

It also leaves out almost all hints of supernatural mumbo jumbo - for example, there are no claims or hints of godhood, there's no walking on water, there are no hocus-pocus-loaves-and-fishes, and when Jesus dies, spoiler alert, he stays dead, end of story.

(3) I thoroughly enjoyed God: A Biography, by Jack Miles. It's not a book about atheism or anything like that, but it could be viewed as, in some sense, a stepping stone: It is an exegesis of the Old Testament, taking no explicit view on whether the "God" guy therein is real or not; it merely treats him as the main protagonist of the story, and analyzes him from the point of view of character development. Its overall theory, by the way, is fascinating, and as I understand it quite novel.
posted by Flunkie at 5:32 PM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

It seems to me like you're looking for Greg Epstein's Good without God. It's an examination of atheism that focuses on the ethical and community aspects, rather than on the cognitive claims of atheism.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:54 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I remember Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden being full of interesting ideas and information, and atheistic while still full of awe.
posted by mdn at 5:58 PM on December 10, 2012

Richard Dawkins' Unweaving The Rainbow (*not* one of his aggressively atheistic books) might be another good choice, in the same vein as Carl Sagan.

Are you more interested in conveying the "you can live a good life as an atheist" idea or the "it is possible to explain things without resorting to the supernatural" idea?
posted by mskyle at 6:17 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sagan is a good choice. Demon Haunted World hits on a lot of the logic and reasoning without being very confrontational about the entire religion issue As I recall it focused more on reasoning and science than on religion, and allowed the reader to draw some of their own conclusions.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:48 PM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might take a look at Thomas Nagel's _Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament_. He's clear, accessible, and compelling. He's also one of the most important philosophers alive.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 9:07 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, Antony Ed. _Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life_.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 9:09 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the Atheism Tapes, Jonathan Miller interviews some very famous atheists, among them Richard Dawkins. The very first (and I think the best) interview is with the philosopher Colin McGinn, this part is here on Utube. Great stuff and it goes down easy. It was available as a stream on Netflex, but I'm not sure if it is still, may need to get the DVD. But watch that Utube link, he's incredibly interesting.
posted by PaulBGoode at 9:27 PM on December 10, 2012

This would be fairly indirect, but the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn made me think on topics like ethics and mythology.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:15 AM on December 11, 2012

I read Hyperspace while still waffling on my agnosticism and it pushed me over the edge into firmly athiest territory, and probably was a more convincing argument than all of the religion specific books I'd read.

I think Hyperspace or other scientific theory books are a decent equivilent to religious theory books. Hyperspace is a book about the Superstring theory, however, like religion, there are no applicable test cases or methods to prove that String theory exists. String theory can make a pretty decent argument, but in a way, so does religion, because neither can be proven or disproven.

But the neat thing about scientific theories is that their main purpose isn't to disprove religion. So, if it's pretty clear that your friend won't budge from her religious views, then she is more likely to remember the general concept of a scientific theory than a whole bunch of arguments that attempt to disprove her own religious beliefs.
posted by nikkorizz at 10:04 AM on December 11, 2012

Has she read the Bible? I'm not snarking - actually reading it has turned many an ostensible Christian-by-default into a non-Christian, though of course by no means everyone.

If you want to go that route, consider Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible by David Plotz.
posted by John Cohen at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2012

Douglas Adams had a really lovely talk on his (atheist) views on religion and whether 'god' was a useful fictional concept in society, the way money is. He also talks about how modern computer science is making evolution more intuitive to us, and similar ways that our knowledge about the universe has shifted our need for religious answers.

I like this talk because it's very calm and reasonable, and happened at least 10 years before the New Smug Atheist thing became acceptable.

video and transcript.
posted by sadmadglad at 3:03 PM on December 11, 2012

In fact, if she is interested in an atheist pairing for Chronicles of Narnia, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would not be a bad place to start. It's positive and funny and zooms way out so all the various galaxies religions are equally absurd.
posted by sadmadglad at 3:24 PM on December 11, 2012

Ooh, another pairing for Chronicles of Narnia may be Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. (Forget the movie they made of The Golden Compass, though - stick to the books.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 PM on December 11, 2012

It seems to me that the angle here might be to go for a combination of scholarly Biblical history and books which accentuate the wonders of reality. The idea would be to try to give a clearer view of both the underpinnings of her beliefs and those of an atheist. Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow" has been mentioned and I'd second that. It is decidedly not atheist tub-thumping; more an attempt to illustrate how beauty and wonder can be found in reality as it is, rather than viewed through potentially distorting lenses of belief.

As an aside I would not recommend "The Portable Atheist" because it contains a fair amount of the sort of stuff you say you're trying to avoid.
posted by Decani at 1:59 AM on December 12, 2012

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