Suggestions for humanist book group?
July 6, 2017 2:54 PM   Subscribe

Sort of by accident, I've volunteered to organise a small "humanist/secularist/pluralist" group. This looks likely to take the form of a book club. Can anyone recommend some suitable books? Specific requirements inside.

I'm looking for books that are relatively short, of interest to a non-specialist audience, and relevant to UK readers (so probably nothing focusing heavily on U.S. Constitutional law). I am emphatically NOT looking for Dawkins-style anti-theism. In fact, I'd prefer books that didn't have religion as their focus. Some themes I would be interested in are:

- Ethics and philosophy with a non-religious basis
- Critical thinking and evaluating evidence
- The value of secularism
- Resistance to theocracy and tyranny
- Promoting equality and tolerance

Thank you!
posted by Perodicticus potto to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Basically, a liberalist book club? John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.
posted by typify at 3:03 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

"The Big Picture" by Sean Carroll is a brilliant and moving articulation of a naturalist/scientific-materialist worldview, including how to square it with moral questions and the search for purpose.
posted by eugenen at 3:24 PM on July 6, 2017

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism , if it isn't already on your list
posted by Mchelly at 3:33 PM on July 6, 2017

I don't know if this is 100% what you're looking for, but I really enjoyed The Quantum Moment. One of the authors is a physicist, and the other is a philosopher, and they coteach a class on quantum mechanics to non-specialists. The book is about how modern physics concepts are interpreted (and misinterpreted) in popular culture and shape the way we talk/think/use metaphors, etc. I am not a physicist and still found it accessible.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:34 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, I would hesitate to call them "short", though they are quite breezy reads (for the most part), and while some of their books do sometimes take up the gloves against religion, not all of them do. I would recommend the following contemporary authors (and as an Australian I do have a tendency to seek out material that is more applicable to our own systems, thus I usually skew towards UK authors):

A.C. Grayling (esp. The Age of Genius)
Sam Harris (esp. The Moral Landscape)
John Gray (esp. Straw Dogs)
Christopher Hitchens (esp. Letters to a Young Contrarian)
Ben Goldacre (esp. anything)
George Orwell (esp. Politics and the English Language)
Econobabble by Richard Denniss
Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte

That last book in particular, if you search for it via Amazon, will throw up about a billion different recommendations for "thinking logically"-type books, which are much of a muchness but you may find a few that you like if you click around a bit.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:34 PM on July 6, 2017

George Orwell's essay, "Notes on Nationalism." It's a dense essay, but short.

You could probably try some sections of David McRaney's "You Are Not So Smart," which is a series of chapters about cognitive psychology as it relates to human self-delusion. Not that one can necessary subvert one's natural self-delusions by knowing about them, but sometimes it's helpful to catch yourself in the act; for myself it helps me give people an empathetic pass if they unknowingly do the same. (The book led to a podcast which inexplicably has cookie recipes, so you might have some great bites at the get-togethers.)
posted by Sunburnt at 4:22 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I found the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn a quick read and quite interesting. Hopefully not too basic, and the framing not too odd. I liked the conceit of a talking gorilla as mentor into humanistic ideas. YMMV.
posted by thebrokedown at 6:23 PM on July 6, 2017

I know you don't want Dawkins, but the first few pages of Unweaving the Rainbow are so thought-provokingly amazing that I think you should photocopy them as a stand-alone reading. No anti-theistic tirades, just a reflection on how lucky we are to be alive, against the cosmic odds of non-existence. One of the best things I've ever read, honestly.

I haven't read beyond those first few pages (they were excerpted in Lapham's Quarterly), so I can't vouch for or comment on the rest of the book.

Speaking of Lapham's Quarterly, that is an amazing source of short reads on a variety of topics.
posted by delight at 6:36 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ethics and philosophy with a non-religious basis

Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
posted by Beardman at 7:16 PM on July 6, 2017

Living the Secular Life is a quick read that discusses the value of secularism. I really related to the author's point of view. It is not negative towards religion but provides evidence that the trend towards secularism is beneficial to society. I found it comforting!
posted by Katie8709 at 7:35 PM on July 6, 2017

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Everything- more about awe that we exist at all in the face of the universe's odds.
posted by matildaben at 8:55 PM on July 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

On non-theistic accounts of ethics and philosophy, I really like Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition; Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy; Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs; and Bernard Williams and JC Smart, Utilitarianism: For and Against. All are big books making systematic claims about ethics and meta-ethics but they are all beautifully written and enjoyable to read. (Bernard Williams, in particular, is just a delight as a prose stylist.)

On the value of secularism, well, if you aren't looking specifically for anti-theists, you mayyy get something out of Rowan Williams' discussion of forms of the secular in Faith in the Public Square? I know he was Archbishop of Canterbury and everything but he is a good philosopher and he maps out the different conceptions of the secular very clearly, in terms that make it easy to disagree with his own conclusions. So it may be a good and thought-provoking book to read and critique in your book club, even though I suspect you will find more to disagree with than to agree with. He isn't, unfortunately, as good a prose stylist as the other Williams but he does have interesting things to say. On this theme of the value of the secular, you may also like A N Wilson's God's Funeral. It's an absorbing historical account of how the English worldview gradually became more secular over the nineteenth century and with what emotional, social and political struggles.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:57 PM on July 6, 2017

'Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion' by Alain de Botton is a fascinating secular take on the history of religion. As atheists / humanists / people of no faith, sometimes I think we struggle with that last point of yours about tolerance. This is a great book for showing how we can still appreciate aspects of religious ideas (like the notion that a person's value comes from their humanness and not their wealth or status) without having to drink the kool aid.

The first chapter of Carl Sagan's 'Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space' is also utterly wonderful, although the rest of the book doesn't quite live up to the early splendour.
posted by matthew.alexander at 2:08 AM on July 7, 2017

I'm in a humanist/secular book group!

Here are the books we've read since September 2014. I'll put a star next to my favorites. I did leave one or two in there that didn't meet your criteria just to be complete (and because others might be interested).
  • *Paul Bloom (2010) How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like
  • *Jessica Nutik Zitter (2017) Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life
  • Daniel C. Dennett (2017) From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds
  • David Niose (2014) Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason
  • Salman Rushdie (1988) The Satanic Verses
  • *Margaret Atwood (1985) The Handmaid's Tale
  • Bertrand Russell (1957) Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related
  • Subjects
  • Albert Einstein (2011) Essays In Humanism
  • Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt (1998) Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science
  • *Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz (2015) Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
  • Phil Zuckerman (2012) Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion
  • Robert Bryce (2014) Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper
  • *Susan Jacoby (2012) The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought
  • Jerry A. Coyne (2015) Fact vs. Faith: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible
  • Patricia S. Churchland (2011) Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
  • Rebecca Goldstein (2006). Betraying Spinoza
  • *Sam Harris (2012) Free Will
  • Steven Pinker (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
  • *Annie Laurie Gaylor (ed. 1997) Women without Superstition: No Gods, No Masters
  • * Neil deGrasse Tyson (2013) Space Chronicles
  • * John Brockman (ed. 2015) This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories that Are Blocking Progress
  • Julien Musolino (2015) The Soul Fallacy: What Science Says We Gain From Giving Up Our Soul Beliefs.
  • *Kevin M. Kruse (2015) One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America
  • Stephen Hawking (2006) The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe
  • Hilary Gatti (1999) Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science
  • *Richard Dawkins (2006) The Selfish Gene, 30th Anniversary Edition
  • *Matilda Joslyn Gage (1893) Woman, Church and State
  • A. C. Grayling (2013) The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism
  • Darrel Ray (2009) "The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture"
  • *Jennifer Michael Hecht (2013) Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It

posted by beyond_pink at 5:47 AM on July 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, about how activists ended slavery and the slave trade in the UK, by Adam Hochschild.

On how we think about ethical responsibilities: Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust memoir on finding meaning in one's life.

If a large subset of this group is computer programmers: Making Software: What Really Works, and Why We Believe It, edited by Andy Oram and Greg Wilson. It's great on the subject of evaluating evidence.
posted by brainwane at 8:41 AM on July 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Highly recommended for what you're asking for:

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (UK title: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began) is a book by Stephen Greenblatt. It's an essay about the Ancient Roman document On The Nature of Things and it's influence on the development of Modern Humanist Philosophies. It's very interesting and accessible.
posted by ovvl at 12:43 PM on July 7, 2017

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