The 17 Books I Read Along The Way
Over about three years, as I searched my heart and soul for God, I read the following 17 books. I actually read many more books, (or parts of several more books) and I actually think I may be leaving some very significant book out. Eventually I would love to write extensively about each of these books and how they affected me and led me to the next one on the list.
But since so many people have asked for this – I thought for today I would just post this.
Remember too, my path was specific. I went from a liberally minded Catholic to an openly out atheist. So my books are particular to where I was starting from.
1. Papal Sin, Garry Wills
This book was the first time I considered the hypocrisy inherent in the priesthood – that the whole idea is that priests were supposed to be people who upheld truth as an ideal and yet just becoming a priest was a lesson in learning to lie – to their parishioners, to themselves, etc. Garry is still a Catholic, in fact his next book was called, “Why I am a Catholic.” But for me, this really made stark the inherent corrupt nature of the Catholic Church – and how deep it all went. I couldn’t really experience Catholicism again – whatever that means – after I read this book. Even though I read it while I was attending Mass regularly and rededicating myself to the Church.
2. The History Of God, by Karen Armstrong
Even though I had majored in history in college and had an educated appreciation for religious history, I had never had it served up to me – in connection with the history of worship and God – exactly like this. Karen is still a believer – she calls herself a freelance monotheist – but this book made clear the social and political and human need for God and all the ways that this has been manifested in recorded history. Reading this book eventually led me to read all of her books. I really like the ones about her personal journey, Karen was a nun for seven years and she wrote about her experience in “Through The Narrow Gate” and it’s really riveting.
3. Ken’s Guide To The Bible, Ken Smith
This slim volume is hilarious and right to the point. I used a couple of the examples of Bible ridiculousness from his book in my show. It’s really a must-have for any skeptic. At this point, I was still a believer in God, I just thought the Bible and organized religion got it all wrong.
4. The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, Ruth Hermece Green
Wow. I really wish I could have met this amazing woman before she died. The book is a little all over the place – much of the information is repeated because the book is a compilation of lots of different essays and writing about the Bible. But still, she has an uncanny ability to see through the crap and write about the Bible. And she is hysterically funny too.
5. The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
This book was actually recommended to me by my trainer (how Hollywood!) when I told him one day how I was coming to see Bible as a terrible human distortion of history. And he responded, “More than a distortion! The whole story of the Exodus isn't even true!” Which just floored me. Really, the whole exodus story, not true? And that’s when I began to read about it and this book is the best one. And it turns out, yeah – the whole Exodus story: not true. Or rather, there is a telling lack of evidence at the archeological sites which points to the Old Testament stories’ mythological roots. This may seem obvious to many, but for me – at this time, this was revolutionary in my thinking.
6. Origin Of Species, Charles Darwin
I read this while traveling in the Galapagos and just when I had decided that God – for me – was nature. Darwin doesn’t even mention God in this book, but I did start to look at nature in a whole new way that was significant. And this book is easy and interesting to read. Plus, such a big important part of history!
7. Rock Of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Steven Jay Gould
Okay, at this point I was basically in a panic. I wanted to be able to believe in God and learn more about science at the same time. And this book seemed to offer me a way of looking at both without rejecting one or the other. Gould has this idea of science and religion being different magisterias – science explains “how” and religion explains “why.” Eventually, however, I came to understand that if the "how" obliterates the need for a "why" -- then what is the point of trying to get "why" out of religion to begin with? Why can't "why" come from myself, my community, the why's that I give my own life...? But I did like that Gould was addressing what is a big problem for most people; trying to reconcile religion and science.
8. Losing Faith In Faith, Dan Barker
This was the first personal journey story about letting go of God. I was engrossed and thrilled – I felt there was a person out there who may, possibly, be able to understand what I was going through. I still wasn’t sure I could give up on God myself, but I respected Dan Barker for standing up for what he believed in – or rather DIDN’T believe in.
9. How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker
Okay, I would call this my first real science book of my life. And it was super hard for me to read. I had begun to wonder about the mind – this amazingly complex and mysterious part of myself that made me who I was, in the deepest sense. I didn’t know how this could be explained by science and I wanted to know. I remember I was visiting London while I read this book and I spent a whole day in the hotel room reading it, slowly – slowly, underlining this and that, rereading it. I can’t say I really understood everything, but this book gave me a way to look at consciousness and brain function from a materialistic point of view.
10. Dying To Live, Near-Death Experiences, Susan Blackmore
But wait a minute! What about all those people who see God when they die and the light at the end of the tunnel and all that???????? I was kind of panicky again at this point. Susan Blackmore led the way for me to understand that those experiences that people have, all have scientific explanations. This was also the first time I really considered the idea that the “self” is a mental construct. Her theory is that the near-death experiences are a result of the breakdown of the sense of self, and how our brains are constantly trying to construct a model of reality that is acceptable to our self. Reading this book also led me to another of her books (also amazing), “In Search of the Light, Adventures of a Parapsychologist.”
11. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett
Okay, this book was really it. I wanted so badly to mention this book in my show, because in many ways it was the most significant. (This book was super-hard for me to read too. Like Pinker, this was the first real scientific look at the world from a scientist's point of view, written by a scientist. I was so glad Dennett wrote little paragraphs at the end of each chapter summarizing it! I would often reread it and then go over the chapter again, just so I got it.) Anyway, I got to somewhere in the middle, and that’s when I put the book down – walked through my backyard – and thought, “Just admit it. You can’t believe in God anymore.” Amazingly, it was the first time I really seriously considered the idea that there may not be a God out there. I put on the no-god glasses and it was frightening, exhilarating, and mind-blowing. Not to mention life-changing.
12. Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins
This is when I thought, “Wait a minute. I want to see the world like an artist. I want the beauty and poetry that looking at the world through the lens of an artist allows. But science is all technical and Dr. Spock-y. And Dawkins tackles the idea that looking at the world scientifically makes it less beautiful. He argues that it makes the world much, much more beautiful. And I think he is right. It was a beautiful book and led me to many more of his books.
13. How We Believe, Michael Shermer
This was another big book for me. Michael explains why people want to believe in God, and how they justify it to themselves. It is written clearly and plainly, but not ineloquently. I'm not sure this book should be listed earlier -- I was reading it and rereading it all along the way. I probably bought twenty or twenty five copies of this book and gave it out to people anytime anyone started to talk about God. I thought his book would be alarming and persuasive, but also easy to understand and accessible. But so far, no one's come back and t0ld me they'd been changed by the experience of reading it Also, learning about Michael Shermer led me to learn about the Skeptic’s Society in Pasadena. I started going to the lectures at Cal Tech and became friends with Michael Shermer. This gave me a whole new group of people to hang out with, a group much more in line with my own thinking about the world.
14. Tales Of The Rational, Skeptical Essays about Nature and Science, Massimo Pigliucci
I had dated a guy who was a believer in Intelligent Design (he didn't call it that, but that's what he meant) about a third of the way through my journey letting go of God. He made arguments for the existence of God based on things like the complexity of the human eye. I had no real answers for him, but this book provided them. Pigliucci is a wonderful writer and really funny too.
15. Can We Be Good Without God? Robert Buckman
This is around the time that I began to consider “ethics” as an adult, as a non-believing-in-God adult. Robert Buckman’s book is a good overview of the flaws in the idea that people need God in order to behave justly or compassionately. I also gave this book out to a few people, like Shermer’s book, I thought I would really rock some people’s world. But it didn’t seem to happen. In any case, I thought about what Buckman wrote in depth. In fact, I always think of Buckman during my show when I talk about diverse religion's similarities, "We all sure seem to worship in the same way: we recite prayers, we make sacrifices, we wear special garments, we use special objects." I think that is practically a quote from Buckman. It's a good read and I recommend it to anyone who wants to find the way to "be" without God.
16. God’s Funeral, A.N. Wilson
This is when I began to wonder how the study of philosophy dealt with the evidence against God. What is philosophy without God? I thought this book would answer that. It really didn’t – BUT, I really liked how it told the story of God and philosophy, doubt and belief, in the nineteenth century and it’s repercussions today. This book made me realize that even what we are experiencing now in our country is a tale retold over and over again in recorded history – as the waves of realization hit us over who we are and what we know about ourselves and the world. In any case, this book doesn’t really discuss modern doubt, but after I read it I realized that I was staunchly on the side of the Doubters. (Now, for turning over ideas in ethics, I read Peter Singer – but that’s another story…)
17. The Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle In The Dark, Carl Sagan (& Ann Druyan)
This is the book that galvanized me. Activated me. Made me realize that I couldn’t keep my lack of faith to myself anymore. I had watched the "Cosmos" television series during my quest (it was out on video and available to rent at my local video store. I didn’t see it when it was first on TV. Really, I should list “Cosmos” along with all the other books because as I was reading them I was watching that Sagan's brilliant series.) After reading "The Demon Haunted World," I could see how important it was not to let the believers get too much power over those who advocate reason and secularism. I became an activist after reading this book. I also realized how important a concept and tool science itself is! After reading the chapter “Real Patriots Ask Questions” I no longer pussy-footed around the question of God or the fall out from that belief that we live with in our culture.
So there you have it, 17 books. There are so many more, too! But for right now, I will just list these seventeen.
I had a fabulous Thanksgiving by the way -- boyfriend's mother and boyfriend's brother and boyfriend all were fabulous house guests. Lots of Scrabble, jumping on trampolines, reading and eating amazing food.
I just found out that the View (where I am appearing on Tuesday next week - December 5th) they are going to give the CD/book to the audience members. am so excited about that!