Books about "maybe there is a God" for an agnostic with some doubts.
June 14, 2013 7:22 AM   Subscribe

I have read a lot of the – for lack of a better word – anti-religion Books. The God Delusion by Dawkins, Hitchens’s God is Not Great and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation, among quite a few others. Those books made a lot of sense to me. Most (if not all) of my friends and colleagues are either agnostics or atheists.

Since about the time I went to university – over 20 years ago – I considered myself an agnostic or maybe an atheist. I agree with what Isaac Asimov said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

I was raised in the Eastern Orthodox faith and while I go to church sometimes it’s not for “faith” reasons (weddings, funerals, baptisms). I can’t stomach their views on some issues including homosexuality. But I do enjoy the feeling I get in church -- peaceful or something.

Okay so my question. I think maybe somewhere in my head I still believe in God. What kind of God I don’t know. Not a single fellow in the sky, but not the God in all of us either, I think. No matter what my brain says – I think there is some little inkling in there.

What books can I read (websites can I visit etc.) – to learn not about the theology of a particular religion – but more one that can help me to think about the fact that there might well be a God? Or maybe about how we don’t know and that’s okay, too.
posted by Lescha to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Others may laugh at this, but the book (well, series of books) that accomplished this for me was all five volumes of Alan Moore's Promethea.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:26 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you read Lamb? I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist (see, that's a joke, get it), but this satirical book, of all things, made a more compelling/sympathetic argument for religion than anything else I've come across.

It's about Jesus, so obviously it's pretty specific to Christianity, but it's fun and worth a read anyway. I think it may hit some of the buttons you're looking for.
posted by phunniemee at 7:39 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stephen Jay Gould was arguably the most prominent evolutionary biologist of the 20th century. His Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life is a good response to what you're asking. He coined the term "non overlapping magisteria", basically meaning science and religion are both important ways of talking about things, but they deal with different things.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:39 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you might appreciate the Quaker view on things. The group that I'm associated with definitely convenes with something divine, but few of them would view it as something "in our image." The phrase "the light" is used, and the idea is that the divine whatever is a pervasive thing that we all have within us, not some guy sitting up in the clouds.
posted by jbickers at 7:42 AM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try a little Alain de Botton.
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on June 14, 2013

Try Why Faith Matters by Rabbi David Volpe.
posted by RRgal at 7:48 AM on June 14, 2013

Karen Armstrong's The Case for God is an excellent argument for the position that the 'new atheists' are asking the wrong question. It was a big influence on my own view that Dawkins, Harris et al are right – but right about some things that are relatively unimportant and historically specific in the history of religion.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:58 AM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I haven't read the whole thing, but "I and Thou" by Martin Buber resonated with me at a point where I was inclined towards belief. I'm probably summarizing I and Thou terribly but there are I-It ways of relating to other beings and their are I-You ways. The I/it mode keeps things static and quantifiable. I/you mode realizes the other as dynamic.I think Bubers point was that spirituality requires the I/you mode. Its been decades since I read it and I didn't finish it so I could be way off.

"Or maybe about how we don’t know and that’s okay, too."

I don't know a specific book offhand but I have a thought about that. A lot of the more ardent skeptics and atheists seem to have a position that believers are offending against reality, good sense, or truth by having beliefs that aren't well grounded. Seems to me one can not really offend against the inanimate. Offending something kind of requires that it be a being of some sort.

I'm about 95% atheist a lot of the time without having a fixed position. Perceiving the universe or the Earth holistically, as a being, thinking you or humanity have a relationship to something mystical-- or any other poetic interpretations of reality-- its not going to break anything. There is no moral imperative to be an atheist. People might not like the way other people interpret reality. But a hard line, materialistic interpretation of reality tells us our internal view of reality has no special powers. It can not contaminate the universe. Its not important that I pick true. I would think only hard core theists of particular bents would think its imperative that individuals have the right answer about the nature of reality. The rest of us are free to not know, guess, speculate, not care, reverence, or desecrate to our hearts content. Well except for our concerns about how other people take what we do and say. There pretty much like beings after all.
posted by logonym at 8:02 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

For a faith without hocus pocus and an abstract God instead of a theistic antropomorphic superstition I can't recommend Paul Tillisch's The Courage to Be enough. It might be a bit tortuous in the way he redefines so many concepts that in the end even an atheist might say he has faith and believes in a God as so formulated - which might explain why so many literalist church people classify Tillisch himself as an atheist - but it's worth reading.

Or to put it differently, sometimes one becomes an atheist as a reaction to the ridiculous precepts of a religion and because one lacks a faith in a supposed invisible being but, still, one hasn't got the whole meaning of existence figured out or is not terribly comfortable with not there being any meaning at all. So, some of these existential questions and feelings can be translated into the same words as religious people have used for millennia and, for some reason, once you understand that all is language but the underlying angst is the same - and maybe even more surprisingly, the agnostic, searching, doubting position can be more "religious" than the blind fanatic one - you realize that maybe this question of God in your life is not that important. Or that it is and that you are willing to participate in some sort of communal worship without necessarily giving the meaning to words that religion expects you to give.

At the best wedding sermon I've been to the priest, when prayer time came, asked those who were non-believers in the audience to meditate about the meaning of love instead - nobody's stopping you from church going on your own terms if you feel it is the right thing for you.

(not saying this should become your life's philosophy but that reading "alternative" theology would help get past that monolithical, black & white view of religion that both popular theology and radical atheism espouse)
posted by Marauding Ennui at 8:03 AM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

As a strident atheist, I have long found Nikos Kazantzakis' depiction of a desperate God in his Askitiki, or "The Saviors of God" characterologically much more believable and compelling than the Biblical deity.
posted by nicwolff at 8:05 AM on June 14, 2013

The Brothers Karamazov.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:07 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

CS Lewis
posted by mumstheword at 8:14 AM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

To be fair, I didn't actually finish it, so I don't know where he ends up, but Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story pokes around some of these questions. He's a scientific and philosophically oriented person who still finds some space in himself for a vague, amorphous belief, and he spends a lot of time bringing those ideas up against some pretty hard-core atheists.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:23 AM on June 14, 2013

Life of Pi
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:29 AM on June 14, 2013

Pascal's Pensées, wherein is his wager.
posted by seemoreglass at 8:35 AM on June 14, 2013

As a sort-of weak agnostic myself, one thing that I find compelling is reading about and from religious people who exemplify things I personally admire, especially when those people seem to be living rather than performing their faith - and especially when they're doing so in a way that contributes some overall good. I find this helps to counteract the very public images of people using their religion to hurt, judge, and/or control others.

Towards that end, I find Mister Rogers to be a noteworthy figure. Right now I'm reading Tim Madigan's I'm Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers and while there are naturally a lot of references to god, it's not trying to "sell" you on religion - that was just a part of Fred Rogers' life and character. There's more of an emphasis on love and kindness than god-with-a-capital-G, and even if Rogers' conceptualization of God may have been of the big-guy-in-the-sky variety, it feels like there is room in his worldview for other ways of seeing, too.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:40 AM on June 14, 2013

Your God is Too Small
posted by logonym at 8:48 AM on June 14, 2013

Reading Kurt Vonnegut's books in my late teens and early twenties, along with watching far too many episodes of Star Trek: TNG growing up, helped form me into the type of agnostic that I am. Specifically, Vonnegut's Timequake novel gave me the name for how I felt and believed: Humanist.

My definition of Humanism is that we don't know if there is a god, or many or not any, but that we should be good, because that is the right thing to do. Be the best person you can be, because that is the right thing to do. And I try to respect people of other religions as much as I can because that is also the right thing to do. And science is amazing and complex and ever growing, so learn what you can and accept that we will never know everything.

The American Humanist Association has a page What Is Humanism that describe the many shades and definitions of Humanism. They also talk about Unitarian Universalists (which I think might be the kind of social spiritual group that could fit your needs). I was a paying member of AHA for about a year - they have some fascinating articles in their magazine - but stopped because I disagreed with some of their marketing language. A little too insulting or strong-worded about people who *ARE* religious at times. But my favorite line from that What Is Humanism essay is this:
Only a humanist can suggest that, even if there be a god, it is OK to disagree with him, her, or it.
Long story short, my recommendation to you for reading would be to read that What Is Humanism essay as I think it really covers a lot of bases for the gray area you seem like you are in, and also to read Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by jillithd at 8:54 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can share what did it for me,

Galileo Galilei's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany in 1615

Its written with an elegant snark that would not be out of place here, and lays out the distilled essence of his argument for the place of science withing religion - laying its theological foundation. Starting, as was usual for Galileo, by blessing his opponent's hearts in flowery vicious Italian, he then drives a wedge into biblical hermeneutics that I think still defines a profound divide between religious fundamentalism and religious liberalism in the West. Really it reads a lot like The God Delusion and The End of Faith in that it attacks the similar kinds of things about religious faith, but it also builds a framework that I found useful and you might also.

The central thesis wasn't new, he actually borrows it from Tertullian, one of the very earliest Apologists from the first century CE,
"We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine, by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word."
But Galileo then expounds on this in such a way as to say something much deeper about the relationship between science and religion than just the 'accommodationism' that is the popular compromise in liberal circles today. In the letter Galileo declares that in his view, while the Bible is indeed absolute and inherently true, on matters of the physical world it will only ever be trivially so - such that when the facts of the natural world and ones interpretation of the bible seem to conflict its probably a better idea to trust the natural phenomena that proceed as dictated from the Holy Ghost than one's own hermeneutics. In doing so it lays out the theological foundation of Western science that it then desperately needed and still dominates in Western religious circles to this day, and lays the ground work for the division between science and religion that we take so much for granted today but was entirely non-existent then. The discipline of Natural Philosophy, which grew into what we now know of as Western science, was then considered just a subset of theological study - and at the time it made a sort of sense but its this idea first forcefully re-argued by Galileo in the Renaissance, that science and theology had fundamentally different kinds of things to say about the world, that made the eventual division.

Even if you don't find it as apologetically convincing as I did, its still a really cool read.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:59 AM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

More than any other book, Infinite Jest made me realize that I do actually believe in God, and that it's not super dumb and uncool to do so.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:10 AM on June 14, 2013

I'm not very far into it yet, but David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions does a good job of presenting an alternative argument.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:11 AM on June 14, 2013

Oddly enough, I find the pseudo religion espoused in the His Dark Materials series...a sort of sentient force/matter ("Dust") that can interact with beings and caused them to evolve towards their own sentience...more compelling than a lot of traditional religious ideas. Which seems to confirm the trend I noticed of atheist authors like Pullman coming up with much better gods than the one I was raised with.

I have quite liked the Anne Lamott books whenever I wanted to scratch my religious urge, although she is very much a believer, not an agnostic.

I personally never enjoyed apologetics or arguments for or against religion, because the whole point of becoming an agnostic for me was that I didn't transfer my experience on to others, nor did I want theirs imposed on me. So I tend to like to read about other people's religion/atheism from a curiosity standpoint: what does it mean to them? What is their history with/without religion? What have they experienced/thought/felt that I haven't? That's the interesting part, to me. Which is why I enjoy ghost stories, too...I don't know that I believe in such, I've never seen anything, but I love to hear other people tell about ghost "experiences."
posted by emjaybee at 9:21 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Marcus Borg is great for this. Try The Heart of Christianity and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

You might also look into the Episcopal church. Most are progressive on issues of women and gay people in the church, as well as welcoming to people who have questions and doubts. If you can find the right combination of high-church and progressive, you can experience that profound, peaceful feeling in a beautiful liturgical service without the things you find objectionable.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:42 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

The God I Believe In is a really neat look at how a range of intellectual people - including scientists - explore the question of a deity and religion. It's a Judaism-centric book, but has far more to do with the issues you're exploring (coming to terms with whether there's a god and if so what does that mean on a personal and life level) than the Jewish religion itself.
posted by Mchelly at 10:21 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Evangelical pastor Rob Bell has a new book out, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. While it's not written from an agnostic perspective per se, Bell wrote it in the wake of a period of skepticism and doubt and "long dark nights of the soul," and is very much about doubt and uncertainty and the complexity of being a rational, skeptical thinker while perceiving a spiritual dimension to the universe.

Bell is a very engaging and accessible writer with a sharp, snarky sense of humor, and a refreshingly non-traditional (to the extent that some consider him a heretic), non-literalist, and socially progressive take on Christianity. I would recommend his books to anyone who has only experienced Christianity as reactionary and anti-intellectual.
posted by Mo' Money Moe Bandy at 10:32 AM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would read a primer on the history of metaphysics and philosophy. Also A Brief History of Time is interesting from a "where did the universe come from?" perspective. It's agnostic but not atheistic which I found interesting.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 11:48 AM on June 14, 2013

Julia Sweeney, comedian and former SNL player, has a Ted talk and a performance about her personal project to examine her faith or lack of. She ended up as an atheist, but it sounds like her discussion of her process would be useful to you.

As a personal note, there's a lot of pro-atheists who proselytize, and who you may feel make having faith uncool. I think proselytizing is obnoxious for either side. If you have faith, find a nice church community, and carry on. Nobody should make you feel uncool for being a believer. I'm an atheist. I'll participate in discussion, but not shaming or proselytizing.
posted by theora55 at 1:18 PM on June 14, 2013

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. The book is about what it means to be secular in this day and age but it also adresses what it means to believe in God now. It's a long book but it's very well written and relatively easy to read, as books by philosophers go, without extensive background.

I also think that its a worth reading because it deals with religion in a very even handed and respectful way and you can see in the book that Taylor has really wrestled with what it means to believe or not believe in a modern context.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 3:51 PM on June 14, 2013

The book that brought me back around to a belief in a higher power/God - from an intellectual standpoint rather than an emotional one - is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

Maybe it'll do the same for you.

It definitely didn't turn me into a Bible-thumping Christian, but it got me thinking and I haven't stopped yet. The anti-religion books you've been reading are inclined to be emotional, even volatile; Mere Christianity is dull by comparison, but deep and thought-provoking.
posted by aryma at 5:13 PM on June 14, 2013

rabbi david wolpe in this debate with sam harris is just amazing: does God exist? i haven't read his book why faith matters yet but i bet it's good.
posted by wildflower at 6:45 PM on June 14, 2013

Along the lines of some other answers about Humanism and the suggestion that New Atheist have right answers to wrong-or-at-least-unimportant questions, there is Good Without God by Greg Epstein.
posted by secretseasons at 7:28 PM on June 14, 2013

The case for Christ. By lee stroble. I belive he is a former atheist journalist who investigates the idea of Christ. Good book.
posted by runnergirl1007 at 7:36 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

the book mind and cosmos where an atheist takes on naturalistic materialism might be an interesting read as well. while i have only read a lengthy review of it i hear it has caused quite a stir. c.s. lewis' miracles is a good read too. it is not so much about miracles per se but whether or not divine intervention into our world is possible.

i think that the peaceful feeling you experience when you are at church is from God. you may want to consider taking a more contemplative approach and just sit in silence or sit quietly and listen to the spiritual music from church. giving whoever is out there a piece of your mind is allowed as well. just be sure to let 'em respond once you've had your say. ;)
posted by wildflower at 8:58 PM on June 14, 2013

I grew up in a Protestant church, have fallen away, gone back, and fallen away again. I really enjoyed Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh. There's actually 3 of them, but I've only read the first one.

As soon as I finished it, I went back and re-read it - that's the sign of a good book for me.

It felt a little odd at first, but when I started reading it with an open mind, I really enjoyed it.
posted by hydra77 at 11:19 PM on June 14, 2013

Belief is a nice anthology from current and historical thinkers on this point. You might want to look at a famous atheist's book explaining his conversion to a belief in God: Antony Flew's There is a God. You might alsowant to read The Varieties of Religious Experience for some fascinating stories about profound spiritual experiences. Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy is a great overview of mystical conceptions of God.
posted by shivohum at 11:31 PM on June 14, 2013

Seconding the I'm Proud Of You book mentioned above, a book I literally could not put down and stayed up till 1:00 am reading.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:10 PM on June 15, 2013

I like GK Chesterton a lot and Orthodoxy may be a good fit for you. Whether it's his fiction or non-fiction, Chesterton supplies a pithy, memorable antimetabole on about every 3rd page.

("The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.")
(“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”)
posted by klarck at 9:12 AM on June 18, 2013

Ive really been enjoying There is No God and He is Always With You by Brad Warner. Warner's a Zen Buddhist, and the book expands the notion of what it means to talk about something called "God" in a lot of the same ways that Armstrong's book (which is also excellent) does.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:58 AM on June 21, 2013

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