|God Doesn't; We Do with some of the works that inspired it.|
Four books top my list of must-reads for people who want to better understand religion, particularly Christianity as a familiar example of the wider phenomenon.
- The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, compiled and edited by Christopher Hitchens. This book presents religion-critical writings spanning a wide swath of history and will make both nonbelievers and open-minded believers think seriously and clearly about matters of faith and how it works in society.
- Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, John W. Loftus. Loftus, who was well educated as a Christian apologist, understands Christianity on its own terms, and thus is able to provide a very deep, very thorough debunking of the religion in this book. Be warned, this book is long and philosophically deep, and it addresses the Christian scriptures openly and honestly, as considered from the perspective of an outsider who is very knowledgeable about the insiders' perspectives.
- The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders. Sanders is a Christian historian, and in this book he cuts through most of the chase (he loses me, frankly, at his discussion of the resurrection, which he seems to take with less support than most of the rest of his detailed analysis) of the scriptures and works of other historians to present a detailed view of what history may be able to accurately tell us about the historical figure represented by Jesus of Nazareth, presupposing he existed and was, in fact, only one person. This book is an absolute must-read for Christians because it will clarify the reality of the person at the center of their religious faith, something that appears to be lacking in mainstream Christianity.
- The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles Freeman. Freeman is another historian who digs deeply into the historical foundations of the Christian religion, revealing the overtly political nature of the establishment of the religion, the roles and natures of the Church Fathers, and the overall impact the rise of Christianity appears to have had on European thought for centuries. This is another must-read for Christians as it deals openly with the foundations of their religion.
- The God Delusion. Dawkins here is an absolute hammer. This title is, in all likelihood, the central title that the so-called "New Atheists" are famous for and likely to be the reason that an Amazon.com search for "atheism" suggests "Richard Dawkins" as a related search--the only name on that list. By all means, check this book out. As a slightly shameless plug for my own book, God Doesn't; We Do, I feel that the fifth chapter of my book takes the fourth chapter of The God Delusion further, strengthening the probabilistic-style argument that Dawkins presents. My sixth chapter gives a different approach to questions like those dealt with in Dawkins's third chapter as well, so if you enjoyed those, you'll enjoy the middle section of God Doesn't; We Do. Frankly, it is one of my deepest hopes that Dr Dawkins will read the fifth chapter of my book and, even more hopefully, will take from it what I believe will be much delight.
- A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. This book, published before The God Delusion is a collection of Dawkins's essays, including some original ones, written for various purposes and spanning a collection of his favorite topics. Particularly interesting, for me, was the section that he included about atheistic eulogies and funerals, including a touching account of his relationship with the great Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame. Though this was written before Dawkins really started to drop the hammer on religious nonsense, it has that very signature Dawkinsian no-nonsense flavor about it and is a lovely read.
- The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. If anyone needs a popular-science title to elucidate for them the incredible reality of Darwinian evolution, this book has to be it. Dawkins is stunning in his portrayal of what we know, how we know what we know, what we guess, and why all of this is so important to the field of biology. All of it is made easy to understand and utterly fascinating. The title is utterly apropos here--by Dawkins's pen, the simple truth is that the evolutionary processes and resulting interconnected biodiversity on our planet really do make for the greatest show on earth, Messrs. Barnum and Bailey offering literally nothing that can compare.
- The Illustrated Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. Here, Richard Dawkins does something utterly out of the ordinary, if one is to compare against his long list of previous publications. This book is written for children, perhaps around twelve years old and up--though it is accessible to younger ones with help. He compared myths from around the world, including the Judeo-Christian myths, against the real scientific knowledge we now have that as explanations outshine in accuracy, worth, and even simple appeal the myths that they replace. The questions and answers are ideal for children, like "What is the sun?" Of course, Dawkins's chapter about biodiversity and evolution shines brightest among the lot. All of this is stunningly illustrated by master illustartor Dave McKean, making a beautiful finished product easily able to be enjoyed by intelligent, curious readers of all ages. If you have kids or get a kick out of lovely writing--which still reads in Richard Dawkins's iconic voice--this book is definitely one that needs to be picked up.
This brief list is not meant to be exclusive to the dozens of other excellent books in the genre that I can recommend. Over time, I will be building this list, and you can expect to see titles by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Carl Sagan, and many other highly noteworthy writers in the field and in others.