An Essential College Atheist Reading List

By Jon Johnson on June 15, 2017

College is the period in your life after adolescence and before adulthood where you truly discover who you are as an individual. Experimentation with drugs and one’s sexuality are interesting but far more profound and lasting is experimentation with new ideas. One such idea you should at least read up on is atheism.

Atheism is a philosophical movement that has existed for thousands of years, spreading across many borders and cultures over the course of time. Simply put, atheism is the rejection of belief in any god or supernatural dimension. Any variation on that simple premise qualifies as atheism: there are “hard” atheists (also called anti-theists), who state with firm “belief” that a god certainly doesn’t exist, and there are also “soft” atheists who reject the notion of a god but remain open to the possibility. Some atheists still consider themselves spiritual, but separate contemplative practices like meditation from any kind of faith system.

Generally speaking, many atheists put heavy emphasis on the power of science and philosophy on our everyday lives, and assert the superiority of such a position over religious belief. Many books have been published to this effect, putting forward arguments against religion and belief in the supernatural. In this list, we explore 10 such works that offer an absolutely essential view of the arguments associated with atheism. Whether you’re a skeptic yourself, a firm believer, or haven’t made up your mind yet, this list will provide the most helpful material available for understanding the minds of those who doubt.

10. “Why I Am Not a Christian” by Bertrand Russell

The classic pamphlet by mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell that declares boldly: “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue.”

In it, Russell goes through the numerous reasons he finds the Christian religion, as well as religion generally, to be unconvincing in the extreme. Our narrator argues that to be a Christian, one must overcome the historical difficulties surrounding the life of Jesus and the authorship of the Bible –something he contends is impossible to an impartial reader of the texts.

9. “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens

Moved into action by what he saw as the creeping threat of theocracy in the world, the late journalist and literary critic treats his reader to a multifaceted critique of organized religion of every form, from Judaism and Christianity to Buddhism and Hinduism. Writing with profound wit and eloquence, Hitchens examines the texts and history of all the major faith traditions, showing explicitly where each allied itself with tribal violence and regressive thinking. Especially powerful is his exploration of how little humanity knew of science in the days when these religions came into existence, and how laden with obvious mythology each of them is. A thoroughly engaging read.

8. “Breaking The Spell” by Daniel Dennett

A philosopher and behavioral scientist at Tufts University, Dennett makes the case that religious belief must be treated as a proper scientific hypothesis that can either be supported or refuted (a topic which will appear later in this list). Dennett traces the development of religious thinking through evolutionary biology and social psychology, showing the thoroughly natural foundations for its claims. In true philosophical fashion, the last part of the book dismantles the idea that morality is derived from supernatural beliefs.

7. “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins

Evolutionary biologist and former Oxford professor Richard Dawkins lays out the factors that influenced the evolution of life on this planet and shows how it eventually culminated in Homo sapiens. In so doing, he demonstrates how the mechanism of natural selection requires no intervening god to guide the process.

The crucial point Dawkins makes here is that while we can’t prove that a god didn’t intervene in human evolution, what’s important is that such a being is unnecessary; that is, we can understand nature in the exact same way if we abandon the notion that we are the center of the cosmos. This is summed up by one of the book’s most lyrical passages:

“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

6. “God: The Failed Hypothesis” by Victor Stenger

In this New York Times bestseller, physicist Victor Stenger proposes the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis like any other: an idea open to consideration and debate, and therefore thoughtful criticism and refutation. Like the earlier entry by Daniel Dennett, Stenger contends that if a god really does exist, then his (or her) presence must be measurable in some way by science.

However, whereas Dennett focused on the philosophical and cognitive underpinnings of belief, our author here focuses on the observable claims made by the faithful. Evidence of intelligent design in biology, the efficacy of prayer in medicine, signs of salvation in human behavioral psychology, the existence of an immaterial soul in physiology, and discoveries in physics that may point toward divine creation are all examined and systematically refuted. A wonderful resource for those skeptics wanting to debate with believers head-on.

5. “The Atheist Universe” by David Mills

An excellent primer to give as a gift to those who are considering atheism, Mills does a fine job of setting fire to the straw-men presented by theologians and laypeople alike. Written in concise, straightforward language, the author tends to shun the complicated arguments used by professional philosophers and scientists.

Mills clarifies the facts surrounding the classic questions like, “How did the universe begin?”, and “Is there any meaning to life without religion?” for those who are just beginning to ask these questions. This entry is especially profound because of its scope and accessible language that nearly anyone can follow.

4. “Why There is No God” by Armin Navabi

This entry is styled along a “Q&A” format; it offers a typical point in defense of religion or in criticism of unbelief and then responds to the point with a straightforward and concise answer. Much like the previous entry, this one gets props for being accessible to a larger audience. Let’s face it — with the trappings of modern college life, most people don’t have the time or energy to read some massive title. For those who want fast clarification on tough topics, this one is the way to go.

3. “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris

Provoked into action by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argues that, in the age of nuclear weapons and targeted missile strikes, humanity must abandon religious barbarism if we are to move beyond this century. As he says, the worst fear of any sane individual in the 21st century needs to be the possibility of a state possessing weapons of mass destruction, with the psychological equivalent of Osama bin Laden at its head. Harris makes an interesting case and treads fearlessly into deep philosophical waters in this scathing critique of human tribalism.

2. “The Portable Atheist” by Various

If your goal is to understand the actual ideas of unbelievers, look no further. A massive anthology containing essays from unbelievers like Einstein, Darwin, Marx, Hume, Orwell, Twain, Sagan, Spinoza, and Lucretius, as well as more modern writers like Penn Jillette, Salman Rushdie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, this anthology is packed with memorable essays and profound ideas.

To add to its appeal, the whole collection has been selected and edited by Christopher Hitchens, the wit and prose of whom know no end. It also doesn’t hurt that this anthology is a veritable gold-mine of memorable quotes, among them: “All logical arguments can be defeated by the simple refusal to reason logically” from the physicist Steven Weinberg, and “Who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as it’s private property even after we died?” from the eloquent editor of this collection.

1. “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

So rarely does a work achieve such a level of name-recognition among those who were never its intended audience. In its heyday, Dawkins’ attempt to convert believers to atheism resulted in the publishing of more than a dozen books responding to the claims presented. It landed him on news programs and in the pages of magazines and newspapers to take up the mantle of atheism in formal debate. Any proper list of atheist writings would not be complete without this iconic book, which has slowly become a symbol of rebellion from authority.

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