Faculty Picks: 5 Great Books on Atheism - Selected by Choice Reviewer Scott Forschler

Doubt about the existence of gods and divine beings is as old as belief in them. Some nonbelievers view themselves as able to unflinchingly accept the hard truths about reality. But others see the acceptance of reality without delusions of divine parental figures or spirit guides as a source of great joy, one that allows them to accept humans as “at home” in the universe instead of as alien interlopers. Many people have heard the so-called four horsemen of the new atheism—Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—whose works are characterized by an often untraditionally vigorous and public moral condemnation of religious morality and culture. But however significant these are, it is worth considering some less-often-noticed works in this field, including some historical ones.

De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), by Lucretius. Circa 50 BCE. Various translations and publishers.
No survey of atheist works is complete without this first century BCE Latin poem, itself intended to popularize the ideas of third century BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus. This often modern-sounding “atomism” held that life and other mysterious phenomena like lightning, heavenly motions, and diseases arise from combinations of simpler material elements governed ultimately by chance. Lucretius’s poetic presentation of these ideas is not only beautiful but has a constant tone of reassurance, framing the human capacity to discover these truths as the noblest part of human nature, a part that need not fear imaginary spirits or forces beyond human ken.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume. 1779. Various reprints.
This series of brief dialogues is as entertaining as it is insightful. Its three speakers—Demea, who thinks that god’s existence and nature can be discovered through a priori argument; Cleanthes, who seeks empirical evidence for the same conclusion; and Philo, the skeptic who casts doubt on both approaches—lay out some of the main philosophical arguments for and against theism. The book’s clarity, liveliness, and vivid phrasing and metaphors are unmatched, and the dialogues stand as an unmatched exemplar for anyone seeking to debate either side of this topic.

Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, by Michael Martin. Temple, 1990.
For those seeking a more thorough and modern analysis of arguments for and against the existence of gods, Martin’s nearly encyclopedic tome is hard to beat. The book is mostly accessible to the lay reader, but Martin occasionally delves into more technical aspects of logic and philosophical history for the benefit of those seeking more detailed treatment of certain arguments or greater technical depth.

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby. Metropolitan Books, 2004.
This is an enjoyable survey of the lives of significant American secularists. It reminds one of the influence of secularism on the founding principles of the United States and on the lives of figures like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert Ingersoll. Jacoby shows that skepticism about religion competed vigorously with various forms of religion in shaping the nation and so cannot be ignored in understanding past or contemporary culture.

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, by Pascal Boyer. Basic Books, 2001.
This work is just one of many that could have been chosen to represent the growing interest in the cognitive study of religion. This approach (which Daniel Dennett’s work both draws on and adds to) seeks not to condemn religion so much as to diagnose it, seeing the myriad expressions of belief in supernatural entities for which there is no evidence as a puzzle to be explained using the tools of science. Of course many atheists throughout history have attributed religion to wish-fulfillment or to human desire to dominate others, but the tools of contemporary psychology (advances in experiments that help explain how the mind processes information) and neuroscience (which reveals the mechanics of brain systems) have finally taken investigators beyond speculation, allowing them to test concrete hypotheses about religious belief. The often surprising, but always revelatory, conclusions about why religious beliefs—though varying widely in certain respects—fall reliably into certain patterns are slowly being uncovered by patient researchers like Boyer.

About the author:

Scott Forschler (independent scholar with a PhD in philosophy) is an ethical theorist, concentrating especially on moral universalizability tests and the nature of valuation, reason, and agency. He has recently published articles in Philosophical StudiesThe Journal of Value Inquiry, and The Flannery O’Connor Review. He is currently working on The Logic of Morality, a book on the foundations of ethics.