Mysticism/Spirituality/Religious reading material for the skeptical materialist
February 26, 2008 11:12 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some books about spirituality/religion that a take a fairly rational/skeptical approach to the subject?

I know I've been vague, so here are two books that I read and enjoyed along those lines: "Rational Mysticism" and "The Power of Myth." I've thought about reading "Zen and the Brain," but it's 900 some pages, and I'm trying to finish a degree.
posted by HighTechUnderpants to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs.
posted by scody at 11:41 PM on February 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:59 PM on February 26, 2008

Also, Tim Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:02 AM on February 27, 2008

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

It's about religion, it's rational, and it's skeptical.
posted by BeaverTerror at 12:31 AM on February 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well pretty much anything by Allan Watts. He was quite a scholar. Even his rather famous books on Zen are really more like scientific dissections of a belief system.
posted by elendil71 at 12:39 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not sure if it's exactly what you're looking for, but Radiant Mind is a good presentation of the nondual spiritual traditions that is very low on any kind of dogma.
posted by dixie flatline at 1:05 AM on February 27, 2008

I've always liked Karen Armstrong's A History of God, though it's more about how we got to this place in history.
posted by rokusan at 1:20 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: Every thinker should confront G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man (and through in Heretics, the prequel to Orthodoxy, for good measure.) These books meet your criteria. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton retraces his conversion from agnosticism to Christianity. The Everlasting Man is his response to his friend, H. G. Wells' Outline of History.
posted by keith0718 at 1:27 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is quite a good read.
posted by mattoxic at 2:01 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Scody and Rokusan beat me to it - both books are excellent. Another one could be The Changing Face of Jesus by Gaza Vermes
posted by dowcrag at 2:10 AM on February 27, 2008

F. M. Cornford—a Cambridge classicist—published From Religion to Philosophy in 1912. It was reprinted a many times, and there are electronic texts available in many formats. Cornford examines the way pre-Socratic mythological thinking changed and developed into more skeptical, philosophical thinking.

From the book:
If we are to dwell on the freedom of Greek thought from dogmatic prejudice, we cannot be too grateful for the absence of this particular belief in a divine creator. No hypothesis is more facile and supine; nothing is so likely to stupefy and lull to slumber that wonder which is the parent of philosophy, than an explanation which will account with equal readiness for every feature of the world, whether good or bad, ascribing what is good to the transparent benevolence, and what is bad to the inscrutable wisdom, of omnipotence.
If that kind of sentence appeals to you—as it does to me—I'd recommend Cornford. Before and After Socrates is another good, pithy, provocative book by him, more introductory, less scholarly, originally a set of lectures.
posted by cgc373 at 2:28 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

For a social-historical tour-de-force you can't beat Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic though it's a bit of a shelf-bender too.
posted by Abiezer at 2:31 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.
posted by XMLicious at 3:28 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. "Natural religion" was the term for religious belief based on reason rather than revelation.
posted by bricoleur at 4:14 AM on February 27, 2008

Here are two books written by religious figures that focus on the rational aspects of their religions. Not exactly what you were looking for, perhaps, but essential books in a study of the rational in philosophical religious thought. (...and this isn't Pascal nonsense, either.)

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Very rational, well written, educational, and revealing: The next phase of Christianity may be non-deistic.

Zen Buddhism. Great book about how there is no religion in Zen, and arguably none in Buddhism either.
posted by ewkpates at 4:27 AM on February 27, 2008

I would definitely second the recommendation of Alan Watts.
posted by Drexen at 4:36 AM on February 27, 2008

Secular Wholeness by David Cortesi goes through some of the benefits normally associated with a spiritual practice and then gives a secular alternative. I also second rokusan's suggestion of A History of God.
posted by calumet43 at 6:15 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was also going to recommend Blue Like Jazz. I'm Catholic but am still wonder why I believe half the time, and found it refreshing to read a religious book that cast the same fears and doubt about religion I do.
posted by jmd82 at 6:16 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Dawkins' The God Delusion. But you should know that it's very skeptical :)
posted by Shiva88 at 6:38 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: And I'll third Alan Watts. His autobiography, In My Own Way, is brilliant, hilarious and very readable, and is mostly about the ideas, not his personal life. Although his personal life was kind of interesting too.

For my money, Brian Magee's book Confessions of a Philosopher, technically another autobiography, is even better — he shows how Kant and Schopenhauer left the more brainless sub-Dawkins scientism in the dust centuries ago, and how rationalism and some concept of a "spiritual realm" are not just compatible but pretty much logically inextricable.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:59 AM on February 27, 2008

Count me as another vote for Buddhism Without Beliefs.
posted by vytae at 7:37 AM on February 27, 2008

Emile Durkheim - The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a pretty good sociological attempt to explain the origins of religion.
posted by subtle-t at 7:39 AM on February 27, 2008

Should a religion tag be added here?

Seconding Armstrong.
posted by canine epigram at 7:40 AM on February 27, 2008

this thread on Campbell criticism may be useful.
posted by canine epigram at 7:42 AM on February 27, 2008

Scott Atran--In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Atran is an anthropologist, but the book is accessible to the interested layman.)

Mark Lilla--The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the West

If you can make the time and don't mind the difficulty: Charles Taylor--A Secular Age

Finally, I strongly second Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic. You will have to import it from the UK, I think (at least I had to--I got it from The Book Depository) and as Abiezer says, it's long, but it's worth it.
posted by Prospero at 8:31 AM on February 27, 2008

Anything buddhism perhaps? Article on the Kalama Sutta here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:44 AM on February 27, 2008

sorry if someone else already mentioned it, but The Essential Rumi
posted by hulahulagirl at 11:45 AM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: ill third Alan Watts, and DEFINITELY the Varieties of Religious experience by William James, it is an amazing book by a man considered to be the first psychologist by some....
posted by tessalations999 at 12:06 PM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: One more vote for Alan Watts and William James -- for a shorter dip into the latter, try the essay "The Will to Believe," about how refusal to believe anything unproven could possibly prevent one from gaining greater knowledge.
posted by viscountslim at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the input. I marked a few best answers for books that appeal to me based on the short blurbs I read. But it's hard to judge from an amazon summary, so I may well revisit this later and read more of the recommendations. Thanks much!
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 5:09 PM on February 29, 2008

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