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.
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.
When making this list, I marked the books I haven’t yet read with asterisks. It might seem strange to recommend books that I haven’t even read myself, but there is only so much time in a day. I am excited to read them one day, and I will update this list as I get to them. Likewise, I have read all the books without asterisks, and I’ve written reviews to all the books whose titles are linked, so you can learn more if they spark your interest.
Well, that’s enough introductions. Let’s get to the books!
UPDATE 7/13/21: It has been great to know that this post has helped people find some great books in the past year! As I’ve gotten to read more of these myself, I’ve tweaked some of the ones in this list. And yes; while it is now 30 books, the URL still says 28 books just so that I don’t break any links that may lead back here. 🙂 Read on!
1. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – 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.
2. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens – 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.
3. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett – 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.
5. Atheism: A Reader* by S. T. Joshi – 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.
6. Cosmos by Carl Sagan – My blurb won’t do it justice. You just have to read this book.
7. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – One of the best-known scientists of all time, Hawking, unlike Sagan, was more open with his disbelief. His work on black holes and the big bang remove a need for a creator by default. Known for being a difficult read, A Brief History of Time also exists in an abridged format: A Briefer History of Time.
8. Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking – 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
9. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection* by Charles Darwin – Like A Brief History of Time, this is another groundbreaking scientific masterpiece that I have yet to read out of intimidation as a mere layperson. But it’s worth noting that there is much to evolution that was discovered after Darwin’s time, so Origin would act best as a starting point on the topic, or a nostalgic classic.
10. The Selfish Gene* by Richard Dawkins – Dawkins is known best for being a fearless atheist, but he is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist. The Selfish Gene is his first book, in which Dawkins 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.
11. Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne – Now we’re getting to books that a non-scientist like myself can understand! 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.
12. Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction* by Bernard Wood – It is my opinion that paleoanthropology, or the study of human origins, should be required reading for all atheists. Fortunately, Wood’s short book means that learning about this fascinating topic doesn’t have to be laborious.
13. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – If I’m being honest, 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.
14. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins – 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.
15. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis – 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.
16. Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper – 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.
17. Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley – 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 over-dramatized and inaccurate.)
18. 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.
19. On Her Knees: Memoir of a Prayerful Jezebel by Brenda Marie Davies – This is one of the only books on this list by—*gasp*—a Christian! Something that many atheists don’t know is that there is a growing movement of ex-Evangelicals that includes not only atheists, but Progressive Christians who have deconstructed the toxic elements of the faith and kept only the God belief. On Her Knees is the memoir of one such Christian who wrestled with her own journey of sexual discovery from purity culture and beyond.
Deconversion & Self-Help
20. 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.
21. Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why* by Greta Christina – 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.
22. 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
23. Skeptic’s Annotated Bible by Steve Wells – 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!
24. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman – 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 layreader.
25. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee – 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.
Christian Nationalism and Religion in Society
26. The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American by Andrew Seidel – 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.
27. The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart – 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.
28. The Age of Reason* by Thomas Paine – 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.
29. Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion* by Phil Zuckerman – 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.
30. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan – What better way to end this list than with such an incredibly famous books 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.