I identify as both an atheist and a bookworm. Over time, both of these identities have become so intertwined with each other that I can barely talk about one without bringing up the other. My favorite way to learn about this big, free, natural world is through reading, and in turn, most of my favorite books are about just that. So after years pursuing an atheistic, scientific, curiosity-fueled book collection that I prize and cherish, I’d like to hope that I’m qualified to give a few recommendations that budding—or lifelong—atheists would do well to read.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means I will earn a small commission on any books you purchase at the Bookshop links provided. While this is appreciated, I always encourage you to shop for books at your local indie bookstore first and foremost.
Before I get into the list, I want to give a few notes and tips. I know the title of this post says “Books Every Atheist Should Read,” but this by no means indicates that it is imperative that every atheist reads them all, or that this is an exhaustive list of all the best atheist books. They are just my recommendations, but there are hundreds more I could have added.
Well, that’s enough introductions. Let’s get to the books!
- Evolution and Human History
- Christian Apologetics
- Deconversion & Self-Help
- History of the Bible
- Things Atheists Get Wrong
- Christian Nationalism
- Religion and Society
Yeah, we’re starting off with the obvious. The God Delusion is the most popular atheist book in recent years. Dawkins goes through arguments for God’s existence, the roots of religion and morality, and how evolution can explain the complexity of life on earth, and more. It’s a pretty thorough catch-all to begin with, even though Dawkins is known for having harsh antitheistic language at times.
Note: Even though I endorse Dawkins’ book here, I definitely don’t condone his transphobic behavior. To learn more about that and his effect on the atheist community, read here. Also note that Daniel Dennett supported Dawkins after this happened, so the same note goes for his writing as well. Let’s try and find those books used or from the library, okay?
Dawkins may have the most known book, but Hitchens is one of the most loved figures in the atheist community, especially since his passing in 2011. God is Not Great is more specifically focused on exactly what its title says: how religion poisons everything. After reading this, you will find that you wouldn’t be drawn to worship any of the mainstream gods, even if one did exist.
Breaking the Spell is a little less harsh than the last two. Dennett breaks down where, psychologically and sociologically, the phenomenon of religion arose. This book gives a lucid, honest look at religion’s natural origins, and while sometimes long-winded, Dennett has a gentler tone than Dawkins or Hitchens.
4. Why There is No God: Simple Responses to 20 Common Arguments for the Existence of God by Armin Navabi
This might be the simplest and most straightforward introduction to atheist thinking that you will find. Armin Navabi is an ex-Muslim and the founder of Atheist Republic, a massive online atheist nonprofit. His book includes concise, basic responses to arguments like answered prayers, Pascal’s Wager, and God providing purpose for life.
This is an anthology of writings on atheism, religion, science, and more. It overlaps with Christopher Hitchens’ similar anthology, The Portable Atheist, but I find it more manageable, as it is much shorter.
My blurb won’t do it justice. You just have to read this book. Even though parts of it are factually incorrect.
In Hawking’s final book, he tackles ten fascinating questions, on which his perspective is invaluable. The fact that this is the first Stephen Hawking book I read should be a testament to its readability for a wide or non-scientific audience.
Evolution and Human History
The Selfish Gene is Dawkins’ first book, in which he coined the term “meme”. I started reading this book once, only to find that it was above my reading level, but those with a deeper understanding of scientific jargon rave about it. It explains how genetics moves evolution, which fills a huge gap that was absent from Origin.
I cannot recommend Why Evolution is True enough. It is simple, going through how biological evolution is supported by several fields of science, and subtly dismantles creationism as it goes. Even though Jerry Coyne is a horrible person.
If you’ve left creationism behind, then you’re probably wondering where humans came from. I certainly was! Born in Africa is an overview of the story of the discoveries of ancient human fossils. It’s stories like these that show me that truth is more magnificent than fiction.
Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of Sapiens. At the same time, I know that this book is extremely popular for those wondering about the true history of our species and how different aspects of civilization got started. I felt as though, despite my own personal opinions on it, this list would not be complete without Sapiens.
If we’re being totally honest with ourselves, atheists can’t know all of the arguments in their truest forms until they’ve heard them from the ones who sincerely believe them: theists. I include The Language of God because Francis Collins is an honest scientist and a Christian. The Language of God is one of the most candid works of Christian apologetics that you will find.
C. S. Lewis is without a doubt the most famous Christian apologist of the twentieth century. And many Christian apologists, Francis Collins included, use Mere Christianity as the basis of their arguments, so it is worthwhile to read this primary source.
Megan Phelps-Roper takes you inside of a church and a family that you never thought you could empathize with—but you will. And you will also feel the heartbreak that she went through when she awoke to the cruelty of their ideology and had to tell her family goodbye.
This is the memoir of a boy raised by a Baptist minister and taught that homosexuality is a choice that is inherently sinful. When he is outed to his parents as a teenager, he is sent to conversion therapy. Boy Erased is also a 2018 movie. (Predictably, the book is better. The movie is somewhat fictionalized.)
16. For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan
After reading this in summer of 2021, For Small Creatures Such as We became an instant favorite. Sasha brilliantly interweaves her personal stories with those of cultures around the world and throughout history using the rituals and celebrations that unite us all. This book will serve as a great resource for anyone who has left religion and is wondering where to find wonder, joy, and cause for celebration in the natural world.
Deconversion & Self-Help
17. Why I Left / Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son by Tony and Bart Campolo
This heartfelt and intimate book alternates chapters between father Tony Campolo, an Evangelical preacher, and his son Bart, who deconverted from the faith. I recommend it for those who have recently come out to religious family members, and I believe that it is worth sharing with them.
Coming out as an atheist was my life for a couple of years, so this is an important topic to me. This book goes deeper into a very personal topic that I’ve written about extensively, and I believe it would be helpful for people navigating the atheist coming-out journey.
19. Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion by Marlene Winell
I wouldn’t say that I have been the target of explicit religious harm, but I have met many who have been. Leaving the Fold is the only self-help book specifically focused on recovering from religious trauma.
History of the Bible
This is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the King James Bible, with notes in the margins showing you all the contradictions and other points that your pastor doesn’t want you to think about. It’s also available online for free, and there are versions for the Koran and the Book of Mormon. It is worth noting that there are a handful of listed contradictions that can be explained pretty well by understanding the history of the Bible, so keep that in mind while reading. The following couple of books should help with that as well!
Misquoting Jesus tells the story of how the New Testament was passed between scribes and biased copyists for centuries, and how we have no way of knowing what the original authors actually said. While I’ve listed only Misquoting Jesus here, I recommend looking into Ehrman’s whole repertoire, as he is an expert both on New Testament history and on explaining that history to the public.
What I love most about How Jesus Became God, and Ehrman’s writing in general, is that it actually explains why there are so many things in the Bible that don’t make sense. It seems that Christian apologists will bend over backwards to make contradictions fit together, but investigating the history of belief about Jesus, the personal biases of the Gospel writers, and the context of the New Testament authorship actually explains why that fascinating book is what it is today.
Things Atheists Get Wrong
Especially after having read all these books, (white) atheists tend to think we’re the smartest people ever. Luckily, Sikivu Hutchinson addresses the dangers of the intersections of whiteness and toxic masculinity in atheism in Moral Combat.
Proof that atheists aren’t always that smart is that we tend to swing too far in the opposite direction and believe myths about the “war” between science and religion and the “Dark Ages.” Numbers’ books is a great place to start in debunking that myth.
I know it’s almost the last, but this is one of the most important books on this list, and you ought to read it. Seidel uses only primary sources to dismantle any idea that the United States was founded on “Judeo-Christian” principles.
A perfect follow-up to The Founding Myth, American Crusade explains exactly how the Supreme Court is using this lie of a Christian America, and making all of us pay for it.
The Power Worshippers is great (in a terrifying way) on its own and when read as a companion to The Founding Myth. You now know that Christian Nationalism is un-American, but just how prevalent is it among those in power in the United States (and beyond)? The answer—dangerously so—is one you will wish you didn’t know, but it is so important that you do.
Religion and Society
The Age of Reason was not received well upon its initial publication in 1794. It was one of the first public challenges to religion made by a political figure after the birth of the United States.
As with Bart Ehrman, I recommend to you much more of Phil Zuckerman’s work than I have room to share. He is one of the foremost sociologists whose work focuses on people leaving religion, and what he finds is always fascinating.
What better way to end this list than with such an incredibly famous book on skepticism? The Demon-Haunted World, while not focused solely on religion, explains beautifully how science functions differently than the pseudoscientific and superstitious beliefs that humanity has desperately clung onto for millennia. You will be a better skeptic after equipping yourself with Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kit and wisdom on how to think scientifically.
I would say “That’s it,” but of course, there is always more to read. Thirty books surely sounds like a lot, but I encourage you to start with what sparks your interest and see where it takes you! I can’t wait to see all of your recommendations—and thoughts on these books—in the comments.
This post was last updated on 11/30/22.