Essential Freethought Library

We contacted a more or less random sample of notable freethinkers–bloggers, podcasters, authors, and leaders in the freethought/atheist/skeptic communities–and asked them to send us their list of recommended works for the well-read freethinker. (Among those who responded are Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, George Hrab and Massimo Pigliucci.) From this long list of suggestions–over 250 works–we have compiled this Essential Freethought Library. The list takes into account the frequency with which a work was recommended, the frequency with which a particular writer was recommended, and the dates of publication. Free free to send us your suggestions.


The Essential Ten

1.  Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927) – A devastating critique of Christianity by polymath Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) originally presented as a public lecture and eventually published in a famous collection of essays.

2.  The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (1995) – An indispensable resource for modern freethinkers, skeptics and science buffs.

3. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006) – Possibly the most inflammatory work (with the possible exception of Hitchens’ god Is Not Great) by one the so-called Four Horsemen.

4.  The End of Faith by Sam Harris (2004) – The book that launched the “New Atheist” movement.

5. The Bible (critically read with commentary) – One contributor pointed to Isaac Asimov’s quote: “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” Anyone who is considering entering the fray should know of what he speaks.  Reading the Bible sans commentary is pretty pointless, but a number of annotated editions have been published. Asimov himself wrote a well-respected Guide to the Bible, but we’re going with the New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha). The fourth edition, with lots of new information, was just published in March 2010.

6. The Works of Robert G. IngersollAfter seeing Ingersoll speak in public, Mark Twain wrote, “I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal it. I am well satisfied that I shall not live to see its equal again… Bob Ingersoll’s music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears.Col. Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a Civil War veteran, attorney, lecturer, Republican kingmaker–and one of the most famous-but-now-forgotten Americans of the 19th century. Called the “Great Agnostic” by his intellectual admirers and “Royal Bob” by his political followers, Ingersoll delivered such riveting speeches as “On the Gods,” “The Ghosts” and “Some Mistakes of Moses.” Ingersoll wrote no one great single masterpiece, but collections and highlights of his orations are readily available, as his work is now in the public domain. There’s also an excellent podcast featuring dramatic readings of his most famous lectures.

7. god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007) – Hitchens’ close friend Salman Rushdie has quipped that the title of this book is exactly one word too long. You may disagree with his politics, but there’s no denying that the Hitch is one of the most compelling writers in the English-speaking world.

8. Collected Writings by Thomas Paine (pub. from 1776 to 1806) – Paine (1736-1809) is credited with coining the term “United States of America” and was one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers. His writings include “Common Sense” “The American Crisis,” “Rights of Man,” and “The Age of Reason.”

9. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (2006) – Harris’s one-volley-fits-all response to the firestorm of condemnation he received from religious Americans in the wake of The End of Faith.

10.  Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer (1997) – A book equally useful to traditional skeptics as well as atheists.

Also Recommended:

11.  The Bible According to Mark Twain – Novelist and social commentator Mark Twain wrote several wickedly satirical pieces on religion, including “Letters from the Earth” and “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.”  Many participants in this survey mentioned one of the other of these pieces, and luckily they’re collected–along with similarly themed works–in this volume from the University of Georgia Press.

12. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2006)

13. Flim-Flam! by James Randi (1982) – A classic work of skepticism by master magician (and founder of the James Randi Educational Institute), with an introduction by no less than Isaac Asimov.

14. Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker (1992) – The atheist movement features a number of leaders who were former ministers or seminary students, but Dan Barker–founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation–is surely the most famous.

15. The Qur’an (critically read) – No one can doubt the rising influence of Islam in the world today, and no one can creditably wade into the arena without at least a fair understanding of Islam’s core text. As with the Bible, it’s nearly impossible to find a decent objective study version of The Qur’an. Dedicated readers should supplement their understanding by reading Reza Aslan, Irshad Manji and others. There’s also The Cambridge Companion to the Qu’ran. For an interesting spin by reform-minded Muslims, check out The Qur’an: A Reformist Translation.

16. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859) – Arguably, no other book has had a more profound impact on science, and no other book is more of a lightning rod for 21st century fundamentalists.  (There are less expensive editions, but we can’t help recommending The Illustrated Edition).

17. Godless by Dan Barker (2008)

18.  Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby (2004) – From Thomas Paine to Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

19. Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith (1980)

20. Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism by Paul Kurtz (1988) – From the founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry, and Prometheus Books (which published several of the suggestions above). Kurtz has written many books, but this is the one most frequently mentioned by participants in this survey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *