These are not books debunking creationism, nor an item-by-item critique of the factual plausibility of holy writings, nor a demonstration of their historic shortcomings when compared to current notions of progressive humanist morality, nor are they an overt attack against religion. Since you are already an atheist, I assume you don’t need convincing anymore. Rather, they are about understanding your world and yourself without religion. These ideas are not new. Generally speaking, they are not trying to convince the reader. They are proposals for a different way of understanding reality without a god, logic, ethics, morality and yourself – perhaps the hardest thing to objectively fully understand in life.
I have read all of them, many more than once, but not in the original language. I am sure that everyone who reads this will disagree with it, so let me know what you would have included or omitted and why.
The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven and M. Schofield.
This is the only collection of works, as I have sought to recommend the original books in all other cases. But with the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers that is a problem because much of what we know about them comes from commentaries on their works or fragments of the original. In the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE, something remarkable happened in what is now Greece and Turkey. Rather than look to gods for the explanation of the worldly conditions and events, some people started looking for an alternative rationale. Often considered to be key part of the Axial Age developments (as termed by Karl Jaspers, a 19-20th century German philosopher), which occurred from 800 through 200 BCE, this was a formative time for human philosophical development. The line traced from these Greek philosophers leads directly to the formulation of today’s vaunted scientific method. By putting gods to the side, and either disbelieving in them or marginalizing them, we have the first documented arguments for an attempt to understand our world without resorting to the Divine.
Great Dialogues of Plato by Plato (W.H.D. Rouse, translator)
I was tempted to put down a volume of the complete works of Plato and Aristotle, but that would be cheating. Many people will (justifiably) criticize me here for opting for Plato’s Dialogues rather than something more substantive, like Aristotle’s Ethics (which does get an honorable mention, as noted below). It has been noted by the 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead that: “All of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato—and Aristotle wrote most of the footnote.” Although many disagree with this, if you read both of them, you will be hard pressed to find any new ideas until we reach the existentialists in the 19th century. Bertrand Russell, whom we shall meet later, was a student of and co-author with Whitehead.
But the Dialogues, dating from the late 5th and early 4th century BCE, show us something unique in human development – a different way to think. Before Socrates, the main purpose of argument was one sided, to convince the other side of a proposition. With Socrates, all assumptions were to be questioned. No assumption was spared the rod of skeptical analysis. Critical thinking was probably not invented by Socrates (the Dialogues are stories of the discourses of Socrates), but his name has become the byword for it, and the Socratic Method is the best form of analysis of any claim that we have even today. When I first entered law school in 1983, I was surprised to learn that they would not be teaching me law, but a new way to think through the Socratic Method. It underlies all scientific and critical inquiry today, and is a principal intellectual tool of most subsequent philosophers.
Kalama Sutra in the Tipitaka attributed to Gautama Buddha
This is the only work I have included from the Eastern philosophic tradition, also from the Axial Age in the late 5th and early 6th century, although legendarily only committed to writing about 400 years later. The Kalama Sutra is a strong statement against faith and obedience to unquestioned teachings. It advocates the use of reasoning in terms that would sound familiar to any student of Socrates. Truth is to be sought, not accepted, and personal wisdom will follow the pursuit. By extension, no wisdom comes from mere acceptance.
The Kalama Sutra is a lecture given by the Buddha to a village that is frequented by religious teachers Imagine a town beset by Mormons, Jehovah Witness, Southern Baptist, Wahhabis Sunni, and Scientologist missionaries. The Kalama Sutra has a list of things not to accept as true without questioning, including tradition, scripture and teachers, and further enunciates those things that need verification which famously includes your own opinion and what is sometimes translated as “common sense.” If we discount Socrates, it will take about 2,000 years before the West accepts these premises. Many today still reject them and think it a virtue to believe in a Holy text without questioning. The Kalama Sutra remains, for me, the best prescription for any human on how to evaluate a new philosophical idea. Beware of internet sites about it, however. Read it and think about it for yourself. Many Buddhist practitioners do not like this approach, and seek to interpret it to make it align more with their own dogma as do detractors. A Thai Monk friend of mine considers this the hardest text in the Pali Canon for Monks to understand and certainly to follow and apply in their monastic life. Brevity does not mean it is not complex and profound.
The Art of Happiness by Epicurus
Most people know Epicurus solely from the legacy of Christian attacks on his philosophy, which was one of the last to succumb to the Christian desire for the eradication of pagan philosophical schools. Epicureanism was one of the acknowledged major philosophies of the Greek and Roman worlds. Other philosophical schools of thought also influencing Greek and Roman world views were: Stoicism, founded by Zeno; Skepticism, founded on the back of Plato’s Academy, but somewhat divergent from Plato’s main contentions; and Cynicism, founded by Antisthenes, although more often linked to the famous Diogenes of Sinope. Epicureanism was very influential in the European Age of Enlightenment, especially with the Deists among the American Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson was a self-declared Epicurean.
Epicurus lived in the 4th and 3rd century BCE, within the Axial Age, and founded the “Garden” where his school of philosophy was taught. His teachings were that pleasure, in moderation, was the greatest good and that the best way to achieve this was through the company of friends and the avoidance of pain and fear. Today, it is often confused with hedonism, but it is considerably different from that perspective. The Epicureans were also atomists, and taught that if there were gods, they too would be made of atoms. But unlike the other philosophical schools, there was no place for the gods in its teachings, which were irrelevant to human happiness and ethics. Perhaps they had learned from the treatment of Socrates, who was condemned to death for impiety and corrupting the youth, that saying the gods did not matter was safer than saying that they did not exist. Clearly for the Epicureans the gods were of no consequence, even in a purely ritual format, as was sometimes the case for Stoics. This was the first large scale school of philosophy founded on the premise of the irrelevancy of the Divine.
Ethica by Baruch Spinoza
My first book after the Axial Age, and one almost 2,000 years removed from The Art of Happiness, and the first in the European Age of Enlightenment. What happened in the interim? Quite a bit actually, but nothing that really progressed our topic of man’s independence from gods and religious authority. There are literally thousands of tomes on various interpretations of religious texts and rituals, and their relation to the natural world of our perceptions. But most of this was pushing humankind backward, into the darkness of obedience to dogma and hierarchical doctrinal proclamations. Obedience was a high virtue, and curiosity and skepticism were signs of decadence and heresy – often punishable by imprisonment, torture or death.
Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew, living in Holland, which at the time in the 17th century CE was a refuge for the persecuted from many other countries. The Dutch had just won the 80 Years War for independence from Spain and the Habsburgs, and had been founded as a Republic. The Ethica was published after his death, but I have selected it because it is the most complete expression of his thoughts, although his anonymously published pamphlet Theological Political Treatise is perhaps more inflammatory with regard to religion. He was known for his pamphlets and short essays during his life.
Spinoza is renowned as a major exponent of the philosophy of rationalism, which to me is merely warmed over Aristotelianism, but it began the break with blind obedience to established doctrine. He also took issue with Descartes on a number of issues, which probably helped save philosophy from going down another dead end of god devotion. He was one of the better known Biblical critics, which you could do safely in Amsterdam in the 17th century but not in many other places.
Spinoza contended that the mind and physical reality were not two totally separate things, a view that was widely believed until then, with the mind being linked to the concept of the soul in a wide variety of ways. He did not disavow god, but he formulated what we would now call a Deist view of the Divine. God was Nature, like the poorly named Newtonian Watchmaker, who set up the world and then let it run according to its own laws. In such a world, the deterministic element ruled supreme, and free will was just an illusion. He is often critiqued as being a Stoic in many ways, but he did not view humans as possessed of the ability to overcome and tame their emotions with reason and rationalism as did traditional Stoics.
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Objectively, this is probably the single most academically influential book on the list, although the collected works of Plato and Aristotle would best it. Immanuel Kant was a Prussian philosopher of the 18th century, and a central figure of the European Age of Enlightenment. He struggled with censorship during his lifetime, but his view of the Divine seems to be fairly well represented in his writings, so he was probably not hiding his true feelings. Much of his work was building on some insights from Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume. Hume didn’t make it into my top 13, but is probably the best of the honorable mentions below.
Kant in essence eliminates the external from philosophy, as all human experiences are shaped and ordered by our physical being, by our mind. We cannot experience the physical world directly, only through our senses. He later developed the extension of these views into the ethical realm in his Metaphysics of Morals, and two other works. For Kant, there was no irrefutable evidence for the existence in the supernatural, including god, but as a basis for morality, he felt that it was an acceptable and perhaps necessary construct. In this sense, he seems to follow the earlier thoughts of Frenchman Francois-Marie Arouet aka Voltaire, who advocated limiting the power of the Catholic Church and was highly critical of its functions and famously stated: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
Morality, which was developed in greater detail in his later works, was derived through the application of practical reason to the human condition. Unlike Spinoza, and following in Hume’s footsteps, a rational understanding of the world was to be derived from science and not the natural aggregation of sensory perceptions governed by unchecked emotional interpretation. Everything is governed by the process of the human mind. Kant in his later works applied his process of understanding to the issue of the origination and adequacy of morals. But in the end, his conclusions are that certain principles and objectives are good in themselves. All this is driven by an overarching moral imperative, sometimes translated as a Categorical Imperative.
Kant is probably the hardest philosopher to grapple with on a single reading. His thoughts have influenced every major branch of philosophy since his time.
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
Paine is the last of our Age of Enlightenment thinkers, living in the 18th century and being instrumental in convincing Americans to throw off British rule. His book is not well known outside of America and perhaps France, but it and some of his other pamphlets are the best of their kind in that they bring the thoughts of the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment into focus on the real political and economic situation faced by everyday people. Looking back, it is difficult for modern people to understand how radical this application of philosophy was. The King was a sovereign, a god appointed ruler of his subjects. In addition, in the case of the King of England, the King was also the head of the Anglican Church, which was the faith of many Americans, who considered themselves Englishmen at the time. The European philosophers thought about these issues, but only Paine had the nerve to actively advocate their application in the real world, in words the average person could understand. The ideal was made real.
Paine follows in the steps of the rationalists, and asserts that ordinary people can know what is right and what is wrong for themselves. In this sense, he is an idealist, and this comes through in his staunch advocacy of republicanism (he was not quite brave enough to promote true democracy), which would value egalitarian rights, scientific progress, and the free markets espoused by John Locke and David Hume. This relates to politics, and later when he was writing in support of the French Revolution, he wrote the Rights of Man, which was an unrestrained attack on the institution of Monarchy, which is in itself an institution of religious origins. He later wrote the Age of Reason which attacked the secular Church. His Agrarian Justice anticipates some of the contentions made by Karl Marx in Das Capital, marking a break with established juristic views of property as set forth by John Locke and Hugo Grotius. He was gifted with great ideas and the wit to explain them succinctly. Perhaps if he had instead written books of hundreds of pages in length expounding in great detail upon the underlying rationale for his conclusions, he would have been numbered among the great philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment.
The World as Will and Idea, by Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer was an ethnic German who lived in pre-unification Germany in the late 18th and through the mid-19th century. His writings have greatly influenced both philosophers and scientists. He operated in an environment dominated by the Kantian approach to philosophical issues. But Schopenhauer did not share this relatively optimistic approach towards human rationality, nor its acceptance of a natural occurring impulse towards the good, whatever such motivation was called.
Schopenhauer saw no universal morality in humanity that was being driven by some common impetus. For him, each person was driven by their own Will. Schopenhauer was strongly influenced by Eastern philosophy from both Hindu and Buddhist sources, which he acknowledged in his writings. His view was largely a pessimistic one, that human Will would wallow in the sort of desires and action that would lead to unhappiness and only the application of a sort of Stoic sense of duty and obligation would allow the individual to overcome and direct the Will. Free will was largely absent in his thinking, as each person’s actions were dictated by an unalterable propensity towards certain actions.
In determining the motivation of humans, basically as animals although he did not state it this way, he was ahead of Charles Darwin in terms of anticipating the strong desire for sexual procreation and the domination of others as highly influential human traits. He further elaborated on his view of ethics in two subsequent books, in which he recognized the value of the elite and of an autocracy. Like most philosophers, he said nice things about the rights of humans, but betrayed a fear of the masses, although he was an early and vociferous advocate of the abolition of slavery and a proponent for the equality of the “races.” He was also active in the movement for animal rights.
If you liked the Force in Star Wars, you will love Schopenhauer, as his Will is not limited to humans, but applies to animals as well, and arguably to all living things. This is sometimes referred to as a monist philosophical view, but I think that Schopenhauer is not so clearly in that field. Monism in the Western tradition traces its origins back to the Greeks and has strongly influenced many Eastern religions, such as Hinduism. It is the only philosophical approach that I am aware of which was developed independently in both Eastern and Western traditions.
The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
This was the start of a revolution in 1848 in thinking about the rights of humans and the morality of how they are treated that is still ongoing. Probably no other book in the last 2,000 years has had as profound an impact on the world. Things we take for granted now, such as the right to form a workers’ Union, a pension, government or employer provided health care, the right to legal representation in criminal trials, equal legal rights compared to the nobility, and protection through government regulations on environmental, health or safety issues all owe a debt of gratitude to this book and the ideas behind it. But it’s a rare politician who would acknowledge this. It was hated at the outset for challenging the rights of the elite to treat lesser people as they desired and for its lack of god in its prognostications and justifications. It was the first new purely atheist philosophy of the rights of humans since Epicurus, and it sought to advance those rights further than anyone else had dared to propose before and to a broader class of humanity than ever before. For once, all people were to be truly equal in terms of opportunity and access to resources. This is the first time anyone proposed making the “Golden Rule” – treat others as you would wish to be treated - a law. Other philosophers had talked about human equality, but in limited theoretical terms that had no real practical application and certainly no application in the most important area of economics and property rights.
The newly established Germany under Otto von Bismarck in 1871 adopted some of Marx’s ideas on employee rights, and created the world’s first welfare state, which was later emulated by other European nations. Today, we don’t question these rights, but they had their origin in the theories of Marx and Engels. Much of the morality that humanists espouse today comes from this source, whether acknowledged or not. Watching politicians distance themselves from Marx is like watching Christian fundamentalists distance themselves from chimpanzees…
The 19th century was an age of wonderment. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871 had cast aside the need for a Divine Creator, and instead put a natural process at the core of life’s great diversity, still being explored and documented in Africa and capping 300 years of European terrestrial exploration (and conquest). James Clerk Maxwell’s publication of A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field in 1865 set the ground for the commercial application of electricity and eventually radio waves. The Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century through the early 19th century had produced a new class of people who were committed to an understanding of the scientific process as translated into practical application in industry, construction and invention. The sciences of geology and astronomy were advancing, and the tired old religious explanations were being challenged on all sides. Science was carrying the day and technology was delivering tremendous advances, such as steam locomotion, telegraphs across the oceans, as well as a plethora of new consumer goods. God was in decline in Europe on all fronts at the end of the 19th century.
Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche was Prussian, and lived in the latter half of the 19th century in what was to become Germany. If you have been following the trend through these books, our philosophers have gradually, and somewhat reluctantly, abandoned god and absolute ideas of morality and ethics, but still cling to some concept of a natural morality. They all optimistically believe that there is a compulsion towards what might be construed as the good. It is their security blanket in the darkness of night, and it is about to be utterly pulled away (think of the “Peanuts” comic strips, with Lucy pulling the American football away just before Charlie Brown is about to kick it).
Even now, Nietzsche seems to be intentionally misunderstood by many people and pundits, ignored by others, and marginalized by many. But if you apply his ideas to what we see in the world around us, I would contend that his is the only philosophy that explains what we see in actuality.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche takes past philosophers to task for distinguishing between “good” and “evil” and claims that this distinction is meaningless. That’s right, there is no good and there is no evil, there is only what increases a person’s power or that which diminishes it. He expounds on his earlier doctrine of what constitutes a slave mentality, which arises from religious doctrines that originated when the religion was in the minority. For example, what is the goodness of the parable extolling someone to “turn the other cheek”? It only means that the slave should not fight back against the master (the Ubermensch, or superman). Helping the weak? Where is the benefit? Everything is relative to the individual, and most people are too timid to take up this challenge and they are doomed to remain within those of the slave mentality while those who know that the rules do not apply to them will prosper and dominate the rest – just as is the case in human society with a small elite and a dominated middle and lower class.
On the Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche
In this book, Nietzsche goes on to expand on the concepts in his earlier one, specifically targeting Christian and Jewish morals. The type of arguments he uses can be applied to any moral code, from whatever derivation. Any ethical code proposed should be able to undergo this sort of scrutiny, and the ultimate question is whether it is even possible to devise a code that can apply equally to all people. Nietzsche would say no, and that there is no reason to desire this. Marx felt that all people should be accorded equal rights in a world without god, and Nietzsche felt that god’s absence allows those who are capable to dominate the rest. There is and should be no objective morality or limit on the elite. Nietzsche is particularly scornful of arguments about historical altruism, as these are the exception and not the rule and they still often accrue to the benefit of the proponent. After reading this, you will never view charity the same way.
What I Believe, by Bertrand Russell and Edward Morgan Forster
Bertrand Russell, or The Right Honourable The Earl Russell, which was his English title, was an amazing man of the modern era. If you consider yourself to be progressive, you could find no better hero to emulate. He was a prolific author on a wide range of subjects, and is recognized as one of the founders of the modern school of analytic philosophy, which now dominates the academic world of philosophy. This view holds that there are no absolute truths, and that philosophy’s goal is to apply logic to resolve philosophical issues. Russell himself was the co-author of one of the most influential books on mathematical logic, together with Alfred North Whitehead.
Born into wealth and privilege, his status undoubtedly saved him from prison on a number of occasions, but also allowed him to write and speak about issues that were not just confrontational in his day, but which constituted legal sedition and other crimes. Indeed, it is hard to find a subject of his day that he did not write about. I admit to having read only a few of his many works, but What I Believe is the manifesto of secular humanism, or at least was, for much of the 20th century.
Edward Morgan Forster was a novelist of note, and author of A Passage to India and Howards End, among others. He was a well-known proponent of humanism, and his writing frequently dealt with the issue of class stratification in English society. What I Believe is two separate essays, one by each author. The one by Forster is the one I actually prefer. If you have read The Art of Happiness, you will recognize many of the same themes in Forster’s description of relationships. I don’t know if he and Russell were familiar with Epicurus, but since they both came from wealthy backgrounds, it is likely that they did have a classical education.
Forster also appears to look into the future and see the cult of the celebrity, because he has some choice words for what he calls “great men.” But ultimately, his view of the world is somewhat utopian and, like Plato yearning for a Philosopher King, Forster yearns for an elite class of men like himself.
Russell’s essay is more often quoted, mostly for his abandonment of religion and acceptance of science as a guiding principle. He later expanded on these concepts in Why I am Not a Christian (1927) and Religion and Science (1935), both of which set the tone for the slew of books starting in the 60s through to today that espouse atheism on the basis of traditional or historic religion’s lack of morality, compared to modern humanist views, and its conflict with our understanding of modern science. In these two things, we have come full circle back to our friends the Greeks, who were basically saying the same thing. No new ideas here, but the attack on religion is more pronounced, perhaps because the world (at least in the West) has now changed to the point where such blunt criticisms of entrenched religion can be voiced without the fear of catastrophic reprisal. If Socrates had not been forced to drink his hemlock, and the active questioning of religious beliefs had prevailed as a part of philosophy rather than Epicurus’ passive avoidance of the issue, we might live in a totally different world today.
Russell and Forster paint a picture of secular humanism that is reflected today in the works of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others, who claim that atheists can be moral and have some as yet un-enunciated doctrine or philosophy. But being an atheist does not mean you have the same views on abortion, an appropriate age for sexual consent, the use of military and police force, the economic rights of citizens, the rights of illegal citizens, and the list goes on. As in Russell’s and Forster’s day, secular humanism remains a fuzzy concept, with no firm well acknowledged philosophical underpinning. The shadow of Nietzsche looms over all these considerations. Napoleon took power in France as an agent of humanist reform, but became a predictable despot. Where is the compulsion for the humanist morality of Russell and Forster, or is it just wishful thinking by a coddled elite far removed from the majority’s daily need to make a living?
The Masks of God, by Joseph Campbell
I was going to go for 14 books, and include Hume, but I have a fondness for the number 13, and I always ask for hotel rooms on that floor and airplane seats in that row. It’s my somewhat lame rejoinder to the superstitious. But one son and my father were both born on the 13th, so I have some appreciation for the number in memory of them as well.
Joseph Campbell probably should have been mentioned first, for reasons I will explain in a minute. He is the only full 20th century author on my list. He was a professional mythologist, and wrote on comparative mythology and religion. Unlike most of the other authors who wrote their most important works early in their careers, Campbell wrote The Masks of God at a late stage in his life and as a response to what he felt was the American ignorance of their own and world religions. Sadly, he didn’t succeed in educating them.
What most modern authors, with the possible exception of Sam Harris, fail to address is why religion is so prevalent, popular and pronounced in human society. It has been with us for as long ago as we can determine. Something unnecessary that takes up so much in the way of resources must have a purpose. None of our earlier authors seek to describe what that purpose could be, they are merely intent on eliminating it, replacing it, or transcending it. Campbell seeks to explain it.
If you have ever wondered why people believe in religions, and what the religions say to the believers at both the conscious and subliminal level, then The Masks of God is for you. It is in four volumes, of which I think the middle two on Western and Eastern religious traditions are the best. Campbell breaks religion down into four functions. He sees myths as the people who constructed them usually saw them, which was in terms of their symbolic value. When you read criticism of the Bible or Koran today, the critics usually make the same mistakes as the fundamentalists do – they take the writings literally. This is like objecting to Aesop’s Fables because animals don’t really talk. For many of these stories, the fight now rages over their historicity, when people should actually be looking at what can be learned from the story. The metaphors have been improperly elevated to the status of a fact and thereby loses its original message.
Humans tell stories to exemplify things all the time, it’s a pretty natural occurrence. The stories in religion are a bit different, however, as they seek to guide people to what Campbell often called their personal bliss. It’s important to keep in mind that Campbell was never proposing any supernatural insight being gleaned from religion, only a better insight into ourselves with the metaphors of religion being a tool to that end, to be retained if useful and discarded if unsatisfactory. Religion has a purpose, and it doesn’t poison everything.
Well, that’s my list. I expect to get comments like “what about The God Delusion” or “what about God is Not Great”? My answer is that there is nothing new in any of these books. They point out where literal readings of religious text conflict with modern science, and the morals of the authors, or that there is hypocrisy in religion, and that atheists can be good people too. None of this is new. These are books, like Why I am Not A Christian, that seek to convince believers or doubters that religion is not for them. But my list of books are for people who are already atheist, so those sorts of books add very little to the discussion.
The challenge for atheists today is to see whether there is any commonality of commitment that they can collectively back, rather than just objecting to the imposition of religious beliefs into public life. Is there a humanistic morality out there waiting to be defined and elaborated upon, which the majority can support? I don’t know. But it is a subject that all these authors struggled with in one form or another, and it lies at the heart of our essence as human beings. And behind us lurks the specter of Nietzsche, and the domination of the many by the few as the natural order of things, and the allure of Marx who brings the Golden Rule into actual practice and the economic lives of people equally.
I hope you have enjoyed the list and maybe it will introduce you to something you haven’t read before. If so, I hope you enjoy it.
Honorable Mention Books
- Aristotle, Ethics (Here is where we get the idea that ethics is a separate study from other sciences, and that there is some core of virtues which are objectively beneficial to human life.)
- Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (The quintessential Stoic doctrine of duty. It advocates a limited role for the gods, and emphasizes human relationships and responsibilities. If I kept a book by my bedside, it would be this one.)
- Titus Lucretius Carus, The Nature of Things (A significant Epicurean work by a Roman philosopher in the 1st century BC. It remains the best surviving work in an Epicurean tradition and was influential in its day and during the Age of Enlightenment.)
- Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (A survey of life from its beginnings to humans. The best book for the die-hard creationist in your family.)
- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Hume probably was an atheist, but acknowledging such would have cost him his job and status. He set the stage for both Kant and Schopenhauer, and challenged Locke’s view of private property as an individual right. He broke with the rationalists of his day, and unlike Spinoza emphasized the need for empirical evidence. He also took a more accommodating view of free will than did Spinoza. Many of these issues are dealt with in publications other than the referenced one.)
- Karl Jasper, The Origin and Goal of History (Discussion of the Axial Age developments which still impact our philosophy and religions of today).
- John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (Advocating religious tolerance, following the disastrous 30 Years War. Sadly, toleration did not extend to those who did not believe in God. In his other works, he famously developed the concept of a “consciousness” as being the embodiment of human identity, as well as the notion of humans being a “tabula rasa” or a blank slate at birth. Like Spinoza, he lived in Holland for a time when he was in political difficulty in England.)
- John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity (A critique of Christian beliefs and practices, but Locke considered the Bible to be in accord with human reason. He also based much of economic doctrine, for which he is better known, on rights to property contained in the Bible.)
- John Locke, Two Treaties of Government (Locke remains very influential, but to me it’s for all the wrong reasons. We are still struggling with his links of property to personal worth, and his version of liberalism which could never express the rights of man as being independent from established social status. Despite his compelling words, there is evidence that he did not extend his ideals to those of the lower classes, native peoples (whose unenclosed property he argued was fair for the taking – a belief fiercely followed in the United States during its Western expansionist period) and slaves. It would take other generations to turn his fine words about the natural rights of humans into rights truly applicable to all peoples.)
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Das Capital (The explanation of economic laws that govern human commercial activity.)
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-christ (An indictment of organized Christianity.)
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power (A posthumous book based on his remaining writings.)
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (A novel examining his concept of the Ubermensch.)
- Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian (The first, and still best, of the atheist books attempting to explain to believers why others do not agree with them.)
- Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (How to reconcile, or not, religion and science.)
- Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals (A rather novel approach to human relationships, focused on the new technology of contraception which was highly contentious at the time. This work won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Modern readers may be frustrated since it fails to touch upon issues of our day, such as the treatment of transgender persons, treatment of younger sexually active persons, and the rights of homosexuals. Much of his analysis does not hold up well when applied to modern issues, still it’s a ground breaking book.)
- Bertrand Russell, Authority and the Individual (Following the disaster that was WWII, Russell wrote this indictment of modern dictatorships and totalitarian states. The individual must sacrifice some degree of freedom to the state, but how much and why? His belief in the goodness of man comes through in this. But I like to think of the ghost of Nietzsche looking over his shoulder and laughing at him.)
- Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (Without a doubt, the best book on debunking the early “historical” portion of the Hebrew Bible. This is more devastating to believers than anything in the atheist call-to-action books in my view.)
Photo Credits: Brian Jeffery Beggerly