5 Books All Atheists and Other Outsiders Should Read

Aug 26, 2014

By Herb Silverman


Each of the books below changed my worldview and my way of thinking to varying degrees. They are listed in the order I read them — and all but the last I read before the age of 20, when most of us are probably more open to learning about and considering new ideas. 

1. The Bible by authors unknown

I “knew” as a trusting child that the Bible was God’s word, and consequently the most important book in the world. I learned Hebrew in my Orthodox school by reading the Hebrew Bible (which we called Torah). We were praised for our ability to read fluently and follow rituals, but not so much for understanding what we were reading. Later we learned to translate and to converse in Hebrew. And, thankfully, my best Hebrew teachers encouraged us to question. And unlike Ken Ham, I found no answers in Genesis.

Teachers in my public school in the 1950s used to start the morning by reading biblical passages. One passage from 1 Corinthian 13:11 captured my evolving views about the Bible: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”Long before Judy Collins had any hit songs, I could say: I’ve looked at Torah from both sides now, from Orthodox Jew and atheist, too. But it’s Torah’s illusion I recall. I really don’t know Torah at all.

For better or worse, the Bible and the monotheistic religions it spawned have deeply influenced our culture and the world. For that reason alone, the Bible is worth reading. I regard it like Aesop’s fables, with some moral lessons and universal truths (along with talking animals). My problem isn’t so much with so-called holy books, but with adherents who take them literally. I’ve written here about the value I find in the Bible.

2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This novel was required reading in my high school sophomore English class, which means I didn’t expect to like it. I was wrong. I identified strongly with Hester Prynne, who was required to wear a Scarlet A on her chest as punishment for her “sin” of adultery. She refused to reveal that her baby’s father was the respected Reverend Dimmesdale.

38 comments on “5 Books All Atheists and Other Outsiders Should Read

  • Yeah that last one IS a shameless plug; there is no other reason I can see for including it as one of the five ESSENTIAL books for all atheists and outsiders to read. Even if it were just a list of Herb’s favorite books (and I like him), it is misplaced.

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  • Mr DArcy.
    I think it’s useful to know your enemy at least a bit. If not, they’re likely to try to pull the wool over your eyes and suggest that it contains the answers to all the big questions instead of the collection of foolish superstitions we know it to be.

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  • I’m not sure about Orwell’s judgement that the simple word is always better. I’d say the ‘right’ word is always the better choice. English is a great language because there’s usually a way to show the tiniest shade of meaning, even if it means borrowing the word from another language. In choosing the simplest, you could miss out on the most perfect fit.
    Still, I love Orwell myself so I shouldn’t find fault.

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  • There should have been more about the talking snake.

    He was a great character and ***spoiler alert *** it was a shame he didn’t last beyond season one.

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  • To think of all religious people as the enemy is to adopt the same mind set as the religious fundamentalists. And to think that the only reason to read the bible is that you want to get to “know the enemy” is insanely ignorant of western culture. I’m with Dawkins on this one, anyone who wants to have basic literacy of western civilization should read the bible: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible

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  • The complete list:

    The Bible, by authors uknown;
    The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne;
    Why I am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell;
    A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell; and
    Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt by Herb Silverman.

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  • 11
    Bob Springsteen says:

    Hi Nitya, Enemies?? I may be an atheist, but I still regard Christians such as Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller, and Leonardo Boff to be ‘greater men’ than Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Silverman.

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  • 12
    Katy Cordeth says:

    In defense of Nitya, the phrase ‘know your enemy’ doesn’t necessarily have to be taken literally. People talk about a ‘battle of the sexes’ too. It’s just hyperbole, boys.

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  • I don’t understand the inclusion of his own book in this list. It certainly seemed to help him to write it, but that doesn’t automatically make it a must-have for others to read. Although I’m sure it’s a fine little book, to place it on the same level as Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian seems absurd.

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  • I thought the same thing. Of the many, many atheist/humanist tomes out there worthy of mention, to throw your own little book in what is implied to be a very exclusive list is a bit…narcissistic.

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  • 20
    Katy Cordeth says:

    I thought it was pretty funny when Herb allocated position no. 5 to his book, putting himself in the same category as the authors of the Bible and those literary heavyweights Russell, Hawthorne and Orwell. A pretty good plug for your own product. A bit like the “If you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars. But if you see two movies this summer, see Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” trailer. Nicely self deprecating.

    Shame he had to go and ruin things by attempting to justify its inclusion in this list with a lot of guff about self expression.

    But writing your life story is something like being a suicide bomber: you only get to do it once.

    I think I read that on a fortune cookie motto in a cheap Chinese restaurant.

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  • I know a book about pigs and sheep and dogs revolting against humans (whose author has a place in Silverman’s list, though with a different book), and I think it says a lot of useful things about the real world.

    But yes, a list of books that atheists should read that doesn’t include anything by Marx, Darwin, Freud, or Nietzsche, is bit like a list of mandatory books for Christians that did not include Paul, the four Evangelists, Jerome, Augustine, Origin, or Clement…

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  • I have actually just started reading the Bible. Ugh. It’s so boring. The version I have is 1300 pages, but I’m determined to get through it. I once tried reading the Quran but I only made it through 100 pages before I had to stop. It was also such a boring, not to mention horrible, book.

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  • Thank you Katy! I didn’t expect to be taken to task quite so strongly for what was in fact an offhand, flippant remark. ‘Insanely ignorant’ …..does that qualify as an ad hom attack? Not sure.
    I don’t think I need to going to the complexities of the inner workings of my mind at the time of posting. I would imagine it would be obvious to the ordinary reader.

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  • Steven 007

    Thanks. Of course it was meant figuratively ….some of my best friends etc etc.
    I don’t know what I did to incur the wrath of the poster. Best not to ask.

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  • Dog Almighty.

    I think this has been everyone’s experience. I only made it to bk 5 of the OT and the same for the NT. I did read Revelations as well, as it’s worth reading for entertainment value. Though I can’t wear the badge of honour for having read through the entire book I comfort myself with the fact that I’ve read more than most followers.
    I gave up after the first 20 or so pages of the Qu’ran. Life’s too short.

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  • 27
    Barry.M says:

    Don’t worry. It was pretty clear that you didn’t mean it literally. The ‘insanely ignorant’ attack was particularly unfair; especially as you seemed (to me) to be saying that we should read the bible!

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  • 28
    Barry.M says:

    You actually had me laughing for a full twenty seconds there.

    Poor old Herb. I wonder if anyone said to him “Really? You’re putting yourself on there? Are you sure you want to do that?”

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  • I believe Red Dog’s point is –

    Mention of the Bible (inanimate object ‘it’) morphed into religious persons(they). If memory serves correctly, he was not, and is not, one to jump on the let’s attack the religious in any shape or form bandwagon. I remember Dawkins recommending the Bible on merit as great literature.

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  • Nitya

    I think it’s useful to know your enemy at least a bit.

    Absolutely right ! Since I joined this site some years ago now, I’ve learnt more about the Bible than I ever knew before, having had a pretty godless upbringing. For every good bit of the Bible that a Christian cites to me, I can answer with a bad bit. Then we’re into the “mysterious ways” and who am I to “judge God” etc. I think my point was that life is too short and I am not a scholar with endless reading time at my disposal. If I miss the odd references in literature to Biblical stories, then tough on me, but I can always look them up. I’ve read enough of the Bible to know that it’s a book of fiction packed with more bad advice, horror, death and destruction than most other books.

    I once knew a man who was imprisoned for refusing to join the army. I asked him what the experience was like, and he told me : “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It gave me the chance to read the Bible

    And he was no believer !

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  • I have the King James version of the Bible, which I understand took a decade to translate from the Latin, and M A S Abdel Saleem’s translation of the Qur’an, published by Oxford World’s Classics, and I’m assured that they both contain literary gems, but, I’m simply not equipped to wade through all the tautological, condescending and humourless fictions surrounding said gems.

    “Why I’m Not a Christian” is in itself a succinct, enjoyable and witty gem, which has equipped me amply.

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  • Mr DArcy

    . I once knew a man who was imprisoned for refusing to join the army. I asked him what the experience was like, and he told me : “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It gave me the chance to read the Bible ”

    Ha ha ha! That’s good in so many ways! He sounds like my sort of person.
    When I was growing up, my father was the only person I knew, who had actually read the book from cover to cover. When the JW’s paid a call he’d keep them talking at the doorstep and take them to task on various quotes. It would be a matter of point/ counterpoint to their arguments. I was amazed by his audacity. Other people would not do this, choosing to simply say they were not interested and close the door.
    I can’t believe that I’d find so many other bible readers on the internet many decades later. Pity that I didn’t have the perseverance to see it through to the end, but reading it takes more stamina than I possess. Perhaps the KJ version contains the literary gems it does because the phrases have been honed to perfection with the passage of time. I mean, fifteen hundred years or so, is a long time for translators to polish a phrase or two.

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  • Stafford,

    . but, I’m simply not equipped to wade through all the tautological, condescending and humourless fictions surrounding said gems.

    Nor I. It has been said that it’s like wading through treacle! An apt description to my way of thinking.

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  • Nitya:

    Perhaps the KJ version contains the literary gems it does because the phrases have been honed to perfection with the passage of time. I mean, fifteen hundred years or so, is a long time for translators to polish a phrase or two.

    I’m not an expert, but I think the KJV was published in the early 1600s, when James V! of Scotland also became James I of England. Shakespeare was alive and active at the time. I doubt very much if he was invited to become a member of the committee who “assembled” the KJV. Incidentally one of my “favourite” passages from the Bible:

    “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22.18

    was apparently added to the text in the KJV ! No doubt with the approval of the king who had the “divine right of God” on his side. I might be wrong, but there was also that famous passage about casting “the first stone”. Never, ever, in the original, if indeed there was ever such a thing as an original Bible !

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  • Mr DArcy.
    No ‘casting the first stone’? Well I never! That’s probably the most famous line! As for the ‘witches’ right to live, it’s on a par with the horrors inflicted on so called sorcerers in many tribal communities. Those considered the most expendable are the ones accused and tortured/killed. It’s never the best hunter or the most powerful person, but the one least able to defend them self.
    I had it in mind that it was that King James who was responsible for the KJV. I believe the language used was a little antiquated even for the times. ( a bit like The Book of Mormon). It is thought that it added an air of authenticity and authority to the translation.

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  • I too encountered Bertrand Russell in my teens. He gave me permission to treat religion just as any other assertions. Why should the sanctimonious be exempt from common sense?

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