5 Books All Atheists and Other Outsiders Should Read

Yes, you really should read the Bible. And plenty of Orwell.

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. 

download (6)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.

cvr9780743487566_9780743487566_hr2. 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.

Though shunned by her community, Hester lived an exemplary life and raised her daughter to be a fine young woman. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, suffered in silence and died a broken man.

Atheists are familiar with the symbol of the Scarlet A, which has evolved today into a redA that some wear proudly as part of an Out Campaign for atheists. From The Scarlet Letter I learned that to be comfortable in your own skin (or letter) is better than hiding who you are in order to please those you don’t respect.

3. Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand RussellRL3176_1

After first reading Hawthorne’s classic, I wondered about scarlet letters I might be hiding. I hadn’t told anyone that I no longer believed in God, thinking I might be the only one in this country. Then, in 1958, when I was sixteen, I discovered Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian in the public library.

I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many “nots” as I was, and brave enough to say so. Bertrand Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states.

Learning that Russell was a logician and a mathematician at least partially inspired me to become a mathematician.

96404. A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

George Orwell is my favorite author. He was thoughtful, insightful, wrote clearly, and was honest about himself. I read this collection of essays as a freshman at Temple University, before I had even heard of 1984 or Animal Farm. Three of the essays stood out for me.

“Shooting an Elephant” begins with “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” I wondered at the time if I would ever be important enough to be hated by any group of people. That day came in 1990 when I became a candidate for Governor of South Carolina (see book #5 below) to challenge the state constitutional prohibition against atheists holding public office.

Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” clarified for me the importance of honest, clear language, and how misleading and vague language can be a tool of political manipulation. Orwell taught me to never use a long word when a short one will do. He said that those who simplify their language would be freed from the worst forms of orthodoxy, and that when you make a stupid remark its stupidity should be obvious, even to yourself. Political language, he worried, was designed to make lies sound truthful. (These thoughts must have been on his mind when he later wrote 1984.)

In the essay “Why I Write,” Orwell explained the motives that inspired him: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Those motives spoke to me then, and even more so now.

What I didn’t know at the time I first read Orwell was that he was an atheist. In 1984, the character “Big Brother” appears to be an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, authoritarian figure who demands absolute obedience. Here’s Orwell’s explanation: “In 1984, the concept of Big Brother is a parody of God. You never see him, but the fact of him is drilled into people’s minds that they become robots, almost. Plus . . . If you speak bad against Big Brother, it’s a Thoughtcrime.”

51h1TnzSsLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_5. Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt by Herb Silverman — or possibly your own life story

This last inclusion is not meant to be a shameless plug for my own book, though I’m not above doing that. Through my math profession, I discovered that one of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it. I also discovered that one of the best ways to learn about yourself is to write about yourself, which is an enterprise I recommend for almost everyone. (It’s also cheaper than therapy.) We should write about what we know well, and you are likely the world expert on yourself.

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

Herb Silverman
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  • Amy

    I’ve said this before, but I think this may be my favorite Herb
    Silverman post. I loved that Herb described how the books affected him,
    not just what they were about or why they were good or not good. The
    most excellent literature – and other forms of art – do more than
    just tell a story; they change lives. These books clearly did that. I
    appreciated the insight into his journey that has led to where he is
    now. And on that note, I must express my appreciation for these books,
    because I am where I am now in part to the groundwork that Herb has done
    in the atheist movement. Thank you, Herb.

  • John Childs

    Excellent. I read Orwell’s two more well known books when I was a kid but this essay points to my need to revisit Orwell and read his essays. Always one of my favorite authors. The idea of Big Brother as God hadn’t occurred to me because I was not in a frame of mind in the years I was becoming conscious to make that leap in awareness. If it weren’t for my wife I wouldn’t know who Bertrand Russell is nor been introduced to the SHL movement. Wonderful. I will be reading (Why I’m Not A Christian) in it’s entirety instead of excerpts. Also the idea of writing about oneself as a means of self identifying is intriguing. Of course my 101 English teacher would roll over in his grave to hear me say I would try to write anything. I’ve always been a little foggy on the source of my skepticism. Perhaps I can clear that mist a little with more introspection. Thank you Herb Silverman for another inspiring letter.

  • RichardSRussell

    Some random thots:

    From far better thinkers than I:

    “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.” —Mark Twain

    “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” —Isaac Asimov

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish 14-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” —Paul Krugman

    Of mine own:

    There are too answers in Genesis. For example, if you asked “What’s 2 + 2?” and I said “5″, I’ve given you an answer, haven’t I? For some people, that alone suffices.

    Credit where it’s due. You may remember the Judy Collins performance of “Both Sides Now”, but Joni Mitchell wrote it and gave a pretty good rendition of it herself. You could look it up on YouTube.

    In addition to the 2 great Orwell novels you mention, Eric Arthur Blair (his real name) also had a solid non-fiction work entitled Homage to Catalonia (which you could google), about his personal experiences in the Spanish Civil War. He didn’t have just an ivory-tower, academic aversion to totalitarianism, he’d seen it up close and personal.

    Irritated postscript:

    I had to retype the above comments, because when I originally submitted them as a comment, this website’s auto-nannybot assured me that they were being held temporarily for further review. After quite a wait, I inquired as to when that review would be happening. I was told (by the ever-helpful Herb himself) that the “delay” was because I’d included helpful links to the Mitchell and Catalonia websites which I have (now) just advised you to search out on your own. The liars who set up that autoblurb obviously had no intention whatsoever of living up to their promise of a personal review, nor did they set up the blurb to warn me why they were holding my comment, so that I myself might take some corrective action while it was still right there on the screen in front of me.

    This is lack of both professionalism and common courtesy, and the proprietors of Faith Street should be ashamed of themselves.

    • John Childs

      Reading the classics is one of the reasons for living. Wonder if Twain included himself as one of the “nobody wants to read”. To late, already read some of his and loved all of what I read. All great quotes including yours. 2+2? LOL. I like the answer that another great atheist and writer came up with for the answer to all mankind’s questions about about human existence, 42.

      • RichardSRussell

        Wonder if Twain included himself as one of the “nobody wants to read”.

        I’m sure he must’ve. Anybody who could write that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” is an obvious master of self-deprecation.

  • Ed Buckner

    Herb writes well, but he’s soooooo old-fashioned and passé–his choices are good ones, books I’d recommend. But who knows anyone who reads *books* any more, anyway? Sigh.

  • Bill Haines

    What got me thinking about religion instead of simply accepting it, questioning what I’d been taught about it and eventually abandoning it were mostly science fiction novels. :)

  • Bill Haines

    What got me thinking about religion instead of simply accepting it, questioning what I’d been taught about it and eventually abandoning it were mostly science fiction novels. :)

  • nwcolorist

    Concerning George Orwell I agree with you. A year ago I picked up a
    collection of his short writings and enjoyed them so much I ended up
    reading the four volume collection of his works. He was, as you state,
    “thoughtful, insightful, wrote clearly, humble. He is easy to read, with a
    casual style.

    His works includes letters, essays, and book reviews, and eight books.
    The early pieces reflect his commitment to socialism, and the
    sometimes difficult struggle to support himself. As he increases
    financial stability, his writing becomes more diverse and entertaining.
    His pleasure in his vegetable garden comes through. In the late 30′s he
    became alarmed by the rise of communist totalitarianism, and until his
    death in 1950, wrote his best stuff about that subject. My favorite piece
    was entitled “A Nice Cup of Tea”, directions on “a perfect cup of tea” in
    eleven steps. Delightful reading.

    At some point in his youth he contracted tuberculosis, which progressed
    steadily as he aged. In spite of that, he smoked heavily and rarely
    exercised. In his final year his letters become shorter and shorter, and
    less frequent, until about 3 months before his death they stop. I felt like
    I had lost a friend.