I have a caveat though: I've excluded polemics, like the famous "new atheist" books The God Delusion (Dawkins), God is Not Great (Hitchens), or The End of Faith (Harris). I don't think there's anything wrong with polemics, and you can bet that those authors have a place in my library. But the truth is that honestly don't feel like I learned that much about atheism from polemics. My non-belief was influenced more by Stephen Hawking than by any new atheists, and my education on key issues related to atheism have come almost exclusively from books dedicated to science. It's my view that atheism is not a starting point to some kind of materialistic worldview, but rather an outcome of rational thought and critical inquiry. With that in mind, it's worth building a solid foundation of science and philosophy with some well-chosen books. Here are eight of my favorites.
1. Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer
2. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
3. Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett
Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly known most among atheists and Christian apologists as the face of evolution, but it's this provocative book from cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett that delves into the real religious and philosophical implications of evolution. Most notably, it's the loss of teleology, or purpose, that makes evolution such an uncomfortable fact for even liberal theologians. Evolution removes human beings from any privileged place among the animals, and its nonrandom selection of randomly varying genes shows that if we were to start the clock of evolution from the beginning again, all probability is that the resulting biodiversity would not even include humans at all. Quite simply, evolution is not a process designed to produce humans. Dennett later expounds on the evolutionary origins of morality and proposes a naturalistic, rather than divinely-imbued, view of ethics and purpose.
4. Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall
5. Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff
6. Primates and Philosophers by Frans de Waal
7. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
8. Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
Since so much importance is placed by Christians upon the words of Jesus, it behooves us to understand just how the records of those words were produced. Christian apologists would have us believe that Jesus' words were meticulously remembered through oral tradition, then meticulously copied by highly skilled scribes such that we have thoroughly reliable accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. The truth, Ehrman argues, is far different – the New Testament transcripts were copied mostly by amateurs, and the copies are rife with contradictions, errors, omissions, and additions. Many widely celebrated texts held as infallible truths by believers are in fact belated additions tacked on to ancient tales. It's not that this is a secret among New Testament scholars, but it's Ehrman's insight into textual criticism that proves most troubling for Christianity. If we're to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, it's certainly harder to accept that claim when it's difficult to know exactly what those words were really intended to be in the first place.