Books for the spiritually inclined agnostic
February 17, 2021 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Looking for books about spirituality, prayer, questions of meaning and suffering and life, etc - that are agnostic friendly

Looking for some spiritual sustenance in the form of uplifting nonfiction reading material about the human experience and coping with it, BUT also looking to avoid two poles:

1. The aggressively atheist. Books about spiritual questions that cannot stop beating the drum about how religion is evil and/or religious people are stupid
2. The aggressively theist

Anne Lamott has too much Jesus for my taste but she's sufficiently non-sanctimonious and "this is my personal experience" (plus, a bit eclectic and weird about her beliefs which makes it less uncomfortable) and I like the rest of what she has to say so I can just skim over it. But she's probably my outer limit for how much the person should be inserting their particular personal religious beliefs into the discussion (versus just generic shared human experience of hope etc).

In general I prefer things where the religious aspect has been sort of toned down (a lot of secularized Buddhist literature fits into this category) OR the author is very explicit about it being their personal experience that they're not trying to pitch as some universal one size fits all truth. Or, of course, just not invoking religion very much or at all.
posted by Cozybee to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
In the secularized Buddhist category you referenced, I like Thích Nhất Hạnh. Peace is Every Step is very accessible and useable in daily life without being religious. It also helped me through a very depressed & frustrated time in my life, and I'm still atheist/agnostic.
posted by homodachi at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Universe Is a Green Dragon by Brian Swimme
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 11:54 AM on February 17, 2021

I don't know if this fits the bill, but this atheist liked books by Anthony de Mello. He was a Jesuit priest, i believe, but very readworthy.
Also +1 to Thích Nhất Hạnh.
posted by Thug at 11:55 AM on February 17, 2021

Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment, by John Horgan, seems like it would fit the bill. I haven't read this book, but I've read other stuff by the same author, and he's generally excellent.
posted by akk2014 at 12:43 PM on February 17, 2021

Not sure if this up the right alley, but Man's Search for Meaning came to mind. Haven't read it in a long time, but I found it very affecting.
posted by swheatie at 12:50 PM on February 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Personally I like Karen Armstrong's writing. She does lean against the hard-core atheists (those 4 Horseman types) for being narrow-minded, but in her overviews (like A History of God) she would give skeptics and agnostics a fair view. The religious aspect is Not toned down (that's kinda what it's about) but it's not heavy-handed in style.
posted by ovvl at 1:50 PM on February 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Belief or Non-belief" by Umberto Eco and Carlo Maria Martini. This short book is a collection of published letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in which they exchange their views and beliefs on various topics such as ethics, religion. belief, etc. One is secular, the other is a senior member of the Catholic Church. It was too short, and I wished that their interchange had continued. If you get the version in spanish "En que creen los que no creen" (what do they believe in those that do not believe) there is added discussion and analysis by 2 philosophers, 2 journalists and 2 politicians. In my opinion, this is the better version for having this expanded content.
posted by alchemist at 1:59 PM on February 17, 2021

Suffering and spirituality you say. Hmm - starting kind of close to your theistic line:

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön - a practicing Buddhist nun accepts anxiety by running towards it, not away, and teaches accepting the groundlessness and powerlessness inherent in the human condition.

Unlike more pop-zen self-care one-with-everything fluff, Chödrön dwells extensively on the suffering inherent in human experience, for example “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”

Probably crossing the Theistic line, but if you liked Lamott these two religious authors remind me of her:
Unapologetic by Francis Spufford - a scholar and former atheist writes a defense of Christianity, (and not cool new christianity, the old Church of England type) while fully acknowledging that he finds the Church of the past horrific and the Church of the present deeply lame. Faith can never be proved, and if he's honest, the response to even the most fervent prayers is nothing. So what then?

Nadia Bolz-Weber author of Pastrix and Accidental Saints, these are basically parts 1 and 2 of her journey from being a foul-mouthed tattooed standup comic to becoming a foul-mouthed, tattooed.... Ordained Lutheran Minister. She describes trying to become a very religious person while seeking to make a church for people usually shunned by churches.

For some, but not all of these books, Spufford and Bolz-Weber describe their own personal faith with quite a bit of zeal so you may want to skim over the more theistic parts.

And finally a very non-religious option: Antidote by Oliver Burkeman. An anti-self-help book, or a self-help book about how self-help is a scam, your choice, but the author interrogates the concept of personal happiness as well as experts in religion, philosophy, and human endurance during times of disaster.

"Reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won't occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All to often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best."
posted by sol at 3:27 PM on February 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

You might like the work of Rachel Held Evans (Searching for Sunday and Faith Unraveled) who grew up in a very aggressively evangelical church and wrote a couple of books about coming to doubt all her faith and then moving through to a new accommodation with God. Definitely Christian, but of the personal memoir type you describe. It may be a little too Jesusy for your taste, but if that's the case you'll know it early on.
posted by praemunire at 5:05 PM on February 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is Eckhart Tolle too spiritual for you? The power of now, and A New Earth are amazing cut through the bullshit be here now books.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:59 PM on February 17, 2021

Have you tried ancient Chinese philosophy? The ancient Chinese were more about practical spirituality than modern Western philosophers tend to be -- and less about narrowly logical argument. There's a convenient edition with four of the key texts translated by David Hinton, whose work I admire. Two are Daoist -- the Lao Tze and the Chaung Tze -- and two are Confucian -- The Analects of Confucius and the Mencius. My favorite Confucian texts however are The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean which must be found elsewhere, for instance in this translation by Legge.

Fine translations of all of these texts can also be found free online with a little googling.
posted by bertran at 5:14 AM on February 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

No specific titles, but writings on Humanism and/or Stoicism are two subjects that would have many books fitting your criteria.

For just one of many poetry options, try Mary Oliver.
posted by dancing leaves at 9:20 AM on February 18, 2021

I very much enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich's Living with a Wild God.
posted by ikahime at 3:43 PM on February 23, 2021

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