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.
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 Russell
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.
4. 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.”
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.