This is a post I’ve wanted to do for some time. I finally decided to do it after seeing a co-worker the other day with a copy of “On the Origin of Species”. I expressed to her that it is, in my opinion, one of the most important sets of ideas ever put to paper.
There are lots of resources out there for people who want to understand the world from a scientific point of view. Of course, there aren’t really books on “how to be a better atheist” – because such a subject would be pointless as there are no rules to being a “good atheist”. Also, if you have faith there is a god, reading a book or watching a video isn’t likely to change that – just as reading a book on religion won’t change my mind.
These books and videos give a good narrative on how the world actually works (from a scientific point of view). They explain the things that were once chalked up to religion and the supernatural. They also look at the negative impact religion has on our species and our future.
Of course, these only scratch the surface. Feel free to post your own suggestions in the comment section…
Richard Dawkins: Growing Up in the Universe
This series of lectures from 1991 provide a fantastic look at the development of life on earth. It answers many of the questions we are asked about evolution (Why are there still monkeys? Why does everything seem so well-designed? What about organs of irreducible complexity?). Dawkins simplifies evolution…and makes it accessible. As a warning, though – the videos are very “British 1991”. In fact, in America, it may seem like it was recorded some time in the mid-eighties. Still, the science is strong…and it’s not nearly as old as some of the stuff other people use to get answers about life on earth.
Phil Plait: Don’t Be a Dick Speech
This one is for anyone who thinks that being brash and confrontational with theists helps the atheist cause. It doesn’t – it just pisses people off and it makes you seem arrogant. I will probably catch flack for this, but I believe it’s important to always be the better person. While some religious people can be very “in your face” about their views…I feel it’s better to take the high road. Be peaceful with people of opposing viewpoints. I may think that people who don’t agree with the concept of evolution are stupid and delusional…but telling them that isn’t going to change their mind. This doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate or open or expressive about your views…just don’t be a dick about them! We’ve dealt with the religious being dicks about their point of view for centuries…it pisses us off. We must be better than that…
Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I consider morality to be somewhat of an illusion. There are no hard-fast rules…killing someone is wrong, but killing someone who poses an imminent threat to you or your loved ones is not. Because of this sliding scale, I can’t imagine that we’ll ever fully apply science to questions of morality. Harris’ argument is not about deciding what’s right and wrong, but more about applying what we know in science to determine what is best for humankind as a whole.
Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
Bullshit is probably the best show out there for skeptics…points are argued passionately, charlatans are called out for ripping people off, and the record is set at least somewhat straight on myths like astrology and religion and exorcisms. If you haven’t checked it out – you can NetFlix several of the seasons. Now, I should point out that these videos go against the “don’t be a dick” rule…
Symphony of Science
I nice diversion…it’s music created by putting the greatest scientific voices through an auto-tuner. You get passionate music that explains the concepts of science.
Probably no surprises here…these books are all well-known – I put them in my order of preference.
Also, full disclosure – I am not much of a reader, so I listened to the audio recordings of these books – when I say ‘read’ – I actually mean ‘listened to’.
Sam Harris: The End of Faith
This is my favorite among the books I’ve read about atheism. I like his writing style. This book looks at religion from the standpoint of reason and morality and takes a critical look at the negative impact religion has on the planet. His followup Letter to a Christian Nation is also a great read and I anxiously await his latest book about the science of morality.
Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species
I remember reading about this book in school and thinking that the entire book was about lizards on the Galapagos Islands. There is so much to this book. Not only do you get to see the very beginning of the concept of evolution, you get to see the struggle Charles Darwin had with setting what he was raised to believe aside in favor of what he observed. There are so many times in this book where Darwin says, if XYZ were not true, this theory simply won’t work…but, here’s what I observed…and why that points directly at XYZ. He opened the door for explaining the diversity of life on earth using logic and reason. I see this book and the research that followed it as the beginning of the end for theism…it’s just sad that it has not come to pass as it should.
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
While Dawkins does look at morality and reason, The God Delusion is more from a scientific point of view. He explains the origins of life according to Darwinian evolution and some of the evidence to support it. He uses science to explain the things that have always been chalked up to the supernatural. I was an atheist before I read the book, so I don’t know what sort of impact it would have if I was not. I can say that the book made me feel more comfortable with not believing there’s a god.
Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot
Pale Blue Dot is a look at the future of space travel for humans. It’s also a critical look at ourselves as a species. Sagan’s science is intertwined with his opinions on space travel, the possibility of life elsewhere and how we go about determining our place in the universe. I love that much of the audio book is read by Sagan himself…his voice carries the gentle passion of a man who truly believes in the human spirit.
Christopher Hitchens: God is Not Great How Religion Poisons Everything
Hitchens is among the greatest writers of our time…and it’s nice to see that he’s on our side. He’s sharp, blunt and eloquent all at the same time. This book is probably harshest of the books I’ve read about atheism. He holds nothing back…and that is admirable. I put it this far down on the list simply because I feel his writing style may be off-putting to those who are on the fence about atheism. If you are already an atheist…perhaps this book should be closer to the top.
Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinov: The Grand Design
Hawking does a top-notch job of making the latest theories of the universe easy to understand. While it does not come right out and say that there is no god, it points out the many reasons that the system that created the universe works better without a conscience.
Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things
This book opens the door to explaining why people think the way they do. It looks at the reasons behind some of the myths that permeate our lives on a day-to-day basis – but doesn’t touch much on religion as a whole. Weird Things is more of a manual on skepticism than atheism, but I found it to be worth the time.
I’m up in the air on this one…many atheists like to read the bible to “know thy enemy” – but I don’t think that referencing the bible goes very far in arguing our case. You will not see the bible the way theists see the bible. The bible is low-hanging (forbidden) fruit…pointing out that the stuff in the bible is just plain silly (it is) is insulting and embarrassing to those who hold the bible dear. While those who follow science welcome questioning inconsistencies, theists do not. Besides, there are so many iterations of the bible…are you going to study them all? How about the Qu’ran? There are too many religious texts out there…bogging your mind down with what’s in them uses up valuable brain space that could be used for facts…
In lieu of reading the actual bible…I recommend instead reading:
C.J. Werleman: God Hates You, Hate Him Back (no audio book…gotta do this one the old-fashioned way)
In this book, Werleman takes a humorous, yet scathing look through the bible. The entire bible isn’t there…but enough of it is. It’s sort of like reading the bible with the guys from MST3K sitting next to you. Theists will say that the book just picks and chooses what it wants to portray from the bible without telling the “whole story” – to that I say…tough shit. Most theists simply pick and choose the parts of the bible they want to follow…so…why can’t we? :-) The book isn’t perfect…my copy is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors which hopefully will be fixed in future editions.
Again, this is by no means supposed to be a complete list…just a look at some of my favorite things I’ve read and watched that have made me more comfortable and confident in my beliefs. Feel free to leave your suggestions below.