“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ― Oscar Wilde
Our recommended reading list
There is a ton of great material out there for those who want to know as much as they can about humanism and religious history. Below are some recommendations which we hope you will enjoy and find useful.
His Dark Materials Trilogy.
Philip Pullman. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2007
This bestselling trilogy, (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) follows the adventures of a clever young female protagonist as she journeys to new and undiscovered worlds. Blacklisted by the Catholic Church, this series is decidedly opposed to organized religion and religious dogma. It is also an amazing, exhilarating and supremely well written adventure story.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.
Christopher Moore. William Morrow Paperbacks, 2003
Verily, the story Biff has to tell is a miraculous one, filled with remarkable journeys, magic, healings, kung fu, corpse reanimations, demons, and hot babes. Even the considerable wiles and devotion of the Savior’s pal may not be enough to divert Joshua from his tragic destiny. But there’s no one who loves Josh more — except maybe “Maggie,” Mary of Magdala — and Biff isn’t about to let his extraordinary pal suffer and ascend without a fight.
The birth of Jesus has been well chronicled, as have his glorious teachings, acts, and divine sacrifice after his thirtieth birthday. But no one knows about the early life of the Son of God, the missing years — except Biff, the Messiah’s best bud, who has been resurrected to tell the story in the divinely hilarious yet heartfelt work “reminiscent of Vonnegut and Douglas Adams” (Philadelphia Inquirer).
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Philip Pullman. Canongate, 2010
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is the remarkable new piece of fiction from best-selling and famously atheistic author Philip Pullman. By challenging the events of the gospels, Pullman puts forward his own compelling and plausible version of the life of Jesus, and in so doing, does what all great books do: makes the reader ask questions.
In Pullman’s own words, “The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.”
Written with unstinting authority, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a pithy, erudite, subtle, and powerful book by a controversial and beloved author. It is a text to be read and reread, studied and unpacked, much like the “Good Book” itself.
The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion.
Knock Knock. Knock Knock Books, 2008.
You will find this in the humor section of your local bookstore. This “Consumer’s Guide” for those shopping around for a religion profiles 99 religions, some of which are “legitimate”, some of which are cults or new religious movements, and some aren’t actually religions at all. Once you “look inside” you will be treated to much information – and many laughs.
What Do You Do with a Chocolate Jesus?
Thomas Quinn. Book Surge Publishing, 2010.
This is a humorous and skeptical exploration of the Christian history they don’t teach in Sunday school. The book, which has been described as a little like a history of religion as done by The Daily Show, “finds humor, irony, and occasional insights among the inconsistencies, absurdities, hypocrisies, and flat-out weirdness that too often passes for eternal truth.” Pitting actual scripture against pious propaganda, the author travels through chapter and verse of the New Testament, exploring medieval beliefs including end-of-the-world panics and fights about what kind of stuff Jesus was made of.
Humanism as the Next Step.
Lloyd and Mary Morain. Washington, DC: Humanist Press. Revised edition, 2008.
This is how this book has been described on line by Amazon: “Nowhere else in the United States is there available a book like this. While there have been technical studies of humanism in the past, never before has there been such an authoritative, popular treatment of the whole field. It is for the 20% of the population who no longer receive satisfaction from traditional religions and technical philosophies. A much-needed resource for people who have independently come to an alternative to religious faith — whether they call themselves humanists or not.”
This book is included as a free gift with membership to the American Humanist Association.
Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids.
Helen Bennett. Prometheus Books, 2005. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2005.
Although the cover indicates that the book is intended for “Ages 10 and up,” readers of all ages will enjoy this. Bennett described it well when she wrote, “… I wanted to help Humanist children understand and be able to defend their worldview and to show children who have been raised in traditional religions that there is another way of thinking, another means to derive ethics, spiritual enrichment and a guide to life.” The book focuses on the affirmations of humanism by emphasizing the essential worth and dignity of all people and some of the important humanist thinkers who have helped advance the causes of reason, compassion, and skepticism.
The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom.
Jennifer Hancock. Printed by Create Space in the USA. 2010.
This book by Jennifer Hancock, a humanist activist from Florida, is about “personal ethics, why they are important, and how applying them to your daily life will help you lead a happier more productive life.” It is filled with a great amount of practical advice and is an excellent illustration of applied humanism. It is not a philosophy book so much as a book about the pragmatic reasons for being an ethical, compassionate and responsible person.
Handy Humanism Handbook: A short and hopefully sweet introduction to the philosophy of Humanism.
This is how she describes it: “This book is written to provide a quick overview of the philosophy of Humanism for the average Joe or Jane. I don’t care which actually because I’m a Humanist and I don’t judge people based on their gender or skin color or any other arbitrary characteristic. So, let’s revise that introductory statement. This book is for the average human, regardless of his or her name, who wants to learn more about Humanism.” The e-book is currently available at Smash words; the paperback version is available at: https://www.createspace.com/3663395
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Karen Armstrong. New York: Ballantine Books,1993.
The Washington Post Book World described this as “An admirable and impressive work of synthesis that will give insight and satisfaction to thousands of lay readers.” Karen Armstrong, one of Britain’s foremost commentators on religious affairs, traces the history of how humans perceived and experienced God from the time of Abraham to the present. From Greek and Roman philosophy and medieval mysticism to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern age of skepticism, “Armstrong performs the near miracle of distilling the intellectual history of monotheism into one superbly readable volume, destined to take its place as a classic.”
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.
Karen Armstrong. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.
In a later book, Armstrong relates the history beginning in the 9th century BCE when people of four regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to the present: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Historians call this the Axial Age “because of its central importance to humanity’s spiritual development.” Armstrong examines the contributions to these traditions made by such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Ezekiel. She indicates that, despite some differences of emphasis, there is remarkable consensus among these religions and philosophies.
Man Made God.
Barbara G. Walker. Seattle, WA: Stellar House Publishing, 2010.
Scholar of comparative religion and mythology, Barbara Walker’s brilliant collection of essays turns her critical eye toward a variety of topics including: religion as a big business; religion’s effects on children; the Bible as a “moral” guide and “history”; Biblical infallibility; the doctrine of “original sin”; church doctrine regarding women; church history regarding the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, and book- and witch-burning; Christian afterlife traditions, traditional Christian origins… and much more. Her exceptional analysis unravels detrimental religious ideologies that have plagues humans for centuries. (If you don’t read anything else in the next few weeks, read this one!)
Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.
Dan Barker. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2008.
This is what Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, had to say about this book: “Atheists are the last of the minorities in America to come out of the closet, and like other civil rights movements, this one began with leaders like Dan Barker and his Freedom from Religion Foundation defending the civil liberties of godless Americans who deserve equal protection under the Constitution. In his new book, Godless, Barker recounts his journey from evangelical preacher to atheist activist and along the way explains precisely why it is not only okay to be an atheist, it is something in which to be proud.” Another author, Robert Sapolsky, added that the book is “a tour of one distressing extreme of religiosity, a handbook for debunking theism. But most of all, it is a moving testimonial to one man’s emotional and intellectual rigor in acclaiming critical thinking.”
I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist’s Eye.
Hermant Mehta. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press,2007.
When Hemant Mehta (who is now a high school math teacher) was a teenager, he stopped believing in God but never lost interest in religion. He auctioned off the opportunity for the winning bidder to send him to church. Auction winner Jim Henderson, a former pastor, sent Mehta off to visit a variety of church services – posting his insightful critiques on the Internet and spawning a positive, ongoing dialogue between atheists and believers. The book features his latest church critiques including stories of his visits to some of the best-known churches in America.
The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture.
Darrell W. Ray IPC Press, 2009.
Darrell Ray traces the contagion course of religion as it enters the lives of individuals, beginning in childhood and infecting their behavior, professions, sex lives, and virtually every aspect of living. In his review, Dale McGowan, Executive Director of the Foundation Beyond Belief, wrote that while “The description of religion as a cultural virus is not new, Darrel is the first to put the virus on a slide and pull out the microscope. The God Virus goes beyond analogy, offering a fascinating and detailed look at the wiggling, maddening virus itself, how it moves, how it survives, and how and why it continues to thrive.”
Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell – and other essays on religion and related subjects.
Bertram Russell. A Touchstone Book published by Simon and Schuster, 1957.
Still as timely as when it was originally presented as a talk in 1927. The following passage from his book sum up his thesis:
“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things…. In Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.” (page 22).
The Young Atheist’s Handbook: lessons for living a good life without God.
Brunswick, Victoria, Australia: Scribe Publications, 2012.
From the book’s description: “In a charming blend of memoir, philosophy, and science, Shaha explores the questions about faith and the afterlife that we all ponder. Through a series of “lessons”, he tells his own compelling story, drawing on the theories of some of history’s greatest thinkers and interrogating the fallacies that have impeded humanity for centuries. Shaha recounts how his education and formative experiences led him to question how to live without being tied to what his parents, priests, or teachers told him to believe, and offers insights so that others may do the same. This is a book for anyone who thinks about what they should believe and how they should live. It’s for those who may need the facts and the ideas, as well as the courage, to break free from inherited beliefs. In this powerful narrative, Shaha shows that it is possible to live a compassionate, fulfilling, and meaningful life without God.”
Religious Oppression (Great Escapes).
Stephen Currie. Lucent, 2003.
Throughout history, many people have been forced to flee religious persecution. This volume in the Great Escapes series chronicles the flights of Muslims, Christians, Mormons, Buddhists and other oppressed religious groups seeking sanctuary, while providing an intimate way for students to learn about historical eras of religious oppression. Although the suggested age of the reader is 11 and up, readers of any age will profit from this historical overview.
In the Name of Heaven: 3,000 Years of Religious Persecution.
Mary Jane Engh. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006.
Given that the subject is so broad, Engh focuses on writing about religious persecution in which religious or political authorities acted against their own people rather than religious wars, interreligious conflict, or privately instigated mob violence. There is a wealth of information in her book about the ways in which religious leaders have harmed sincere religious believers in the quest to impose their orthodoxy on others. It is a story that is consistently repeated from one era to the next, one culture to the next, and one religion to the next. There are no religions or cultures which have been exempt and just about all of them get at least some attention.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press,2007.
Infidel is the story of the coming of age of this champion of free speech. Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs and extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer, and life in four unstable countries largely ruled by despots. Her story tells how a bright young girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. Even though under constant threat — demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan — she has refused to be silenced.
Thomas Jefferson versus Religious Oppression.
Frank Swancara. New York, University Books; First edition,1969.
Thomas Jefferson prescribed his own epitaph: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” This book is an analysis of the Statute for Religious Freedom as juxtaposed with the culture of the time.