Which Books Do Freethinkers Consider Essential Reading?

July 14, 2010

The people that run the Web site American Freethought spent the last couple months asking notable freethinkers -- including authors, podcasters, bloggers, and movement leaders, from people like Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, and Massimo Pigliucci, to me -- to compile and submit a list of books that they believe a well-informed freethinker ought to have read. More than 250 suggested works later, the results have been finalized, and now formulate what they call the "Essential Freethought Library." Here is the list:

The Essential Ten:

1. Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan 

3. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

4. The End of Faith by Sam Harris 

5. The Bible

6. The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll 

7. God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens 

8. Collected Writings by Thomas Paine

9. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris  

10. Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer 

Also Recommended:

11. The Bible According to Mark Twain

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

13. Flim-Flam! by James Randi 

14. Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker 

15. The Qur’an 

16. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin 

17. Godless by Dan Barker

18. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby 

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

20. Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism by Paul Kurtz 

Some already have lamented the list's abundance of books on religion and/or atheism, and lack of books that promote more broadly skepticism, rationality, and critical thinking (13 of the 20 books on the list are about religion or atheism). Indeed, freethought is a philosophy that posits beliefs ought to be formed on the basis of reason, logic, and science. It is not synonomous with atheism. Yet freethought does historically have ties to religious skepticism (think: ingersoll, Paine, Russell). In fact, the clash between freethought and religion seems inevitable given what the philosophy of freethought maintains, and what religion, at least in the Western sense, entails. The contributors' selections reflect a combination of what they think freethinkers ought to read weighed against their own interests. American contributors live in a hyper-religious society, and secular thought is once again becoming more widely known in the U.S., hence religious skepticism is a large part of the freethought movement (five books alone are from the so-called New Atheists). "The lamenters," for lack of a better term, have good reason to want on the list more books that promote broader outlooks like critical thinking. But, at the same time, they should not discount the role that religious criticism currently plays in our society. 

While most entries did center on religion, not all of them did. Remember, more than 250 works were suggested, and some books on topics other than religion did actually make the list. As mentioned, I was included in this survey. As you will see, my list is a bit different than the list above.

1. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby

2. Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russel

3. The End of Faith by Sam Harris

4. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris 

5. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

6. Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht

7. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

8. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

9. The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey

10. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal

My aim was to represent a mix of books on the history of freethought, the method of freethought, and on specific issues with which freethought deals or finds important. At the same time, Sam Harris' work played a big role for me, so he is represented twice. However, while I am rather pleased with my list, with the advantage of 20-20 hindsight vision, here's a quick readjustment:

1. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby

2. Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

3. The End of Faith by Sam Harris 

4. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

5. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

6. Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht

7. Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

8. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume

9. The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey

10. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal

What do you think? What books should have made the list? Shouldn't have made the list?

 

Comments:

#1 asanta on Thursday July 15, 2010 at 4:44pm

Thank you for the list. I am in the process of reading ‘Godless’ by Dan Barker. I did not think it was relevant to me, because I did not come from an evangelical background. although I was made to learn about religion, my parents were agnostic and atheist. I am really enjoying his points about both religion and atheism. I am learning a lot more than I anticipated. I have read 7 of the ‘essential ten’,and three of the next 10. I don’t see Dawkins’ ‘The blind Watchmaker’ or ‘The selfish gene’ on your list.

#2 Michael De Dora on Monday July 19, 2010 at 10:38am

@asanta,

Thanks for the comment. As for Dawkins, both “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker” seem too focused on biological issues for essential general freethought reading (though I could likely find room for Dawkins on a top-twenty list). I tried to stick to history, method, and core but broader issues (like morality, decision-making, etc).

#3 asanta on Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 6:49pm

Good point. I’m more drawn toward the biological and scientific aspects.

#4 Jim (Guest) on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 8:48am

Athiesm: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini is the book I would hand a believer asking about atheism.

#5 March Hare (Guest) on Sunday August 01, 2010 at 2:37am

“The Essential Mary Midgley”, collected writings of the philosopher Mary Midgley. For showing how to think clearly and critically, and how to write well. Midgley covers a wide range of subjects, most of which should be of serious interest to us.

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