Most atheists are familiar with God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and The End of Faith by Sam Harris—the classics of “New Atheism.” Many of us atheists read these books when we began questioning religion, and found them to be highly stimulating and insightful. These books are often dismissed by theists as elementary or amateurish, and while I think such critiques are often exaggerated, we atheists should nevertheless consider familiarizing ourselves with new and more advanced literature to help us communicate our views more effectively. If you acquaint yourself with the four books below, you will be armed with knowledge that is certain to take any lay theologian by surprise.
As a minority, atheists generally interact with religious theists more than they do fellow atheists. A large part of defending an atheistic worldview is understanding what religion is and why one rejects it. However, ‘religion’ is a notoriously difficult concept to define, and refers to several very different kinds of human behaviors. As atheists in conversation with theists, it can be highly beneficial for us to have a solid understanding of the history and meaning of the phenomena we call ‘religion.’
Brent Nongbri’s 2013 book, Before Religion – A History of a Modern Concept, makes a powerful argument that the concept of ‘religion’ is a product of the Enlightenment. One evidence of this is the fact that no ancient languages have a word that encompasses the semantics of English ‘religion’ (chapters 2-3). By the time you finish reading this book you will understand the history of the concept of ‘religion’ much more clearly than most theists you encounter, and this will no doubt give you an advantage in being able to argue your own views regarding religion and religious beliefs.
Speaking of the Enlightenment, many theists assert that theism is an ancient universal human phenomenon (an idea that the previous book calls into question), while atheism, on the other hand, is said to be an historically recent phenomenon produced by secular Enlightenment thinkers. Besides the fact that historical lateness is a poor argument for rejecting atheism, it is also factually incorrect. In 2015, the classicist Tim Whitmarsh wrote Battling the Gods – Atheism in the Ancient World, which thoroughly documents the rise of religious skepticism in the classical Mediterranean world. Whitmarsh sets out to show that atheism is at least as old as monotheism and “has a tradition that is comparable in its antiquity to Judaism (and considerably older than Christianity or Islam)” (p. 7). Most theists have some sense of their religion’s historical significance, feeling that the deep antiquity of their beliefs give them a legitimacy and time-tested validity that atheism cannot offer. Being able to counter this perspective with the content in Battling the Gods is sure to catch some theists off guard, and hopefully pique their interest.
J. L. Schellenberg is a professor and philosopher of religion who is probably best known for developing the “hiddenness argument” against the existence of God. In his 2007 book, The Wisdom to Doubt – A Justification of Religious Skepticism, Schellenberg develops his argument from divine hiddenness, as well as an argument from horrors (a variation of the argument from evil). Despite being a seasoned academic philosopher, Schellenberg’s arguments against theism are comprehensible to laymen and can be easily incorporated into conversations you have in daily interactions with theists.
Schellenberg is not only a skeptic with respect to theism, however—he is also skeptical of naturalism. It is important for atheists to remember that rejecting belief in God does not automatically mean we must reject the possibility of the supernatural. The hiddenness argument and the argument from horrors can only get you to atheism, not naturalism, and it is useful to keep this distinction in mind to avoid making non sequiturs.
Bart D. Ehrman is a New Testament scholar and professor who is well known for writing trade books about the Bible. In 2008, Ehrman wrote the book God’s Problem – How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, in which Ehrman analyzes the various ways that biblical authors deal with the problem of evil. There are many books you could read to learn the ins and outs of the philosophical problem of evil, such as God, Freedom, and Evil by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, or The Problem of Evil by the atheist philosopher Michael Tooley (perhaps the best single resource for this topics is an anthology called God and the Problem of Evil, edited by William L. Rowe). However, Ehrman’s project provides a different, albeit useful dataset for thinking through the problem of evil.
If your experience is anything like mine, you primarily interact with theists who are of the Jewish or Christian faiths. When discussing the problem of evil with Jewish and Christian theists, it can be useful to have an idea of what their holy book actually has to say about the issue. When Judeo-Christian theists attempt to refute the problem of evil using arguments from Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig, you can demonstrate that the arguments these philosophers have formulated are often at odds with biblical passages relevant to the question of why God allows evil to exist.
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There are, of course, many other great books that atheists should consider reading, which I hope to compile in future posts. These four, however, have been very helpful for me in communicating atheistic ideas and I believe they are a good starting point for laymen interested in upgrading their knowledge of philosophical and historical concepts about religion and atheism.
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Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (HarperOne, 2008).
Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013).
Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil (Eerdmans, 1974).
Schellenberg, J. L. The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Cornell University Press, 2007).
Tooley, Michael. The Problem of Evil (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Whitmarsh, Tim. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Vintage Books, 2015).