There are three excellent atheist works that helped me to see the world differently–and changed my worldviews so profoundly that the numerical value of the change could only be measured in sagans. These are the three books that helped to open my eyes and free my mind.
1. Prisoner for Blasphemy
The first is Prisoner for Blasphemy by George William Foote, who was put on trial for his publication of the magazine The Secularist (which goes out of its way to defend critical thinking and lampoon religion–much like the New Atheist movement of today) for the crime of blasphemy.
Although G.W. Foote defended himself excellently against Justice North–a corrupt judge (who also was a stuck-up Catholic) sent Foote to a year labor in prison anyway.
While in prison for a non-crime of offending a non-entity, G.W. Foote wrote his recollection of the trial, using his notes and various newspaper clippings to reconstruct the trial as accurately as possible, and talks about his experiences as an English gentleman behind bars, as well as the indignity of being punished for publishing his thoughts in a free country which supposedly had the “freedom of press.”
Foote’s arguments against blasphemy (his defense at the trial) portray blasphemy as a truly non-offense and is so convincing, that the idea that there are places in the world, as of the 21st century, that still consider blasphemy a punishable crime or offense is downright laughably absurd in the highest and most extreme sense of the word ridiculous.
But I suggest you read the book for yourself. You can download it for FREE for Kindle at Amazon.com.
His meditations is largely a humanist work covering everything from politics to education to social etiquette. There is a treasure trove of secular wisdom contained in the insights of Marcus Aurelius and lots of interesting historical morsels to reflect on as well.
One such historical observation I made was his extreme compassion in his attempt to provide legal protection the rights of second century Christians to practice their faith as they wanted as long as they do not disturb any of their neighbors and abide by the laws. His was the first democratic view of freedom of religion and truly reflect the genius of Aurelius.
In fact, one of my all time favorite quotes comes from Aurelius, from book IV of Meditations:
If mind is common to us, then also the reason, whereby we are reasoning beings, is common.’ If this be so, then also the reason which enjoins what is to be done or left undone is common. If this be so, law also is common; if this be so, we are citizens; if this be so, we are partakers in one constitution; if this be so, the Universe is a kind of Commonwealth.
3. Demon Haunted World
Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World is a profound work from another atheist with a humanism so rich and deep that even Mother Teresa pales in comparison. While Teresa dedicated her life to teaching poverty stricken children to read, indeed a noble act, Sagan spent his life teaching people of all walks of life the importance of science–and how it could aid us in unraveling the truth about the nature of the universe and our place in it.
No small feat, that’s for sure. But Sagan pulled it off with grace and style.
His book Demon Haunted World is my favorite nonfiction he wrote (Contact is my favorite fiction work he wrote). DHW examines world religions and the nature of superstitious thinking and where the two intersect. Evidence of this is in this famous line from his first chapter:
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
DHW also has one of the greatest atheistic analogies for skepticism in modern literature–the dragon in the garage. Although it’s rather long, I feel it worth sharing here:
“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”
Suppose … I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself….
“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle—but no dragon.
“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.
“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”
You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
“Good idea, except she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it is true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility….
Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you they have dragons in their garages—but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths after all…
Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself: On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence”—no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it—is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.
—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (Ballantine Books: 1995), pp. 171-173.
These three books made a big impact on me. They may not be the greatest philosophical works ever written, but the men who wrote them, their words, as well as their ideas resonated with me in a way not many other works have.
If you want to get into the mind of a skeptic or an atheist, if you want to know how we could be good and compassionate people and still not believe in God, if you want to know what humanism looks like from the inside–all you have to do is read each of these men’s works.