The History of Atheism, Secularism, and Free-Thought in Europe: Top Ten Books to Read

A Secular Age

The history of atheism and agnosticism are not very well-tread topics, even in the 21st century. To study such things, even in the past 30-40 years, has been seen as reckless and even dangerous, especially for those academics looking for tenured positions. This, however, leaves a lacuna of historic information for those who have the wherewithal to subvert traditional academic restraints. The data on atheism/agnosticism/irreligion is plentiful, but various governmental/religious authorities were unrelenting in their attempts to erase such concepts from the historical record during the time, so secondary sources are difficult to come by.

The list below is just the beginning of the history of irreligion in Europe, mostly because much of this history remains to be written. It is only recently that academia, in general, has become tolerant towards non-religious or anti-religious beliefs, so the field of atheism/agnosticism in Europe remains wide open to the scholar(s) who would explore it.

1. A Secular Age by Charles Taylor – This book is dense, but extremely worthwhile. The information contained within is unparalleled, but, as a warning, it does contains phrases that would make even the most senior academic roll their eyes. Despite Taylor’s somewhat arrogant prose and verbosity, this work is a must-read for anyone interested in the rise of secularism in the Western world.

2. The Secularization of the European Mind by Owen Chadwick – This book is considered “academic” in that Chadwick’s style can be somewhat convoluted and erudite. Chadwick bases most of his conclusions off of the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment, which comes with its own set of problems. For many, a turn away from religion was not based on new philosophy, but rather on a disdain for State-sponsored activities.

Religion and the Decline of Magic

3. Formations of the Secular by Talal Asad – Asad begins is work by asking what an anthropology of the secular might look like. Ultimately, Asad concludes that the secular is not necessarily a byproduct of the decline of religion, and nor is it a product of more scientific and rational thinking of the modern age.

4. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism by Michael Martin – This work is a collection of eighteen essays by the world’s leading scholars on atheism and irreligion. It deals with atheistic beliefs from antiquity to the modern age. The essays contained within present varying perspectives of irreligious beliefs – from philosophical to societal.

5. Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas – This book primarily deals with the epic battle between religion and magic from the medieval period until around the seventeenth century, and it does so in an endlessly fascinating way. When did magic, miracles, and superstition become concepts that could be differentiated between, and why did some become sinful and others acceptable? When did fortunetellers and “cunning men” become witches and demons?

6. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early-Modern Europe by Benjamin Kaplan – This work asks a very basic question: After the Protestant Reformation of ~1517 brought into question most of Europe’s (Catholic) religious beliefs, how did people of different/evolving faiths coexist? The answer is: not well. Kaplan's work is, at once, fascinating and all-encompassing.

7. 'Victorian Infidels by Edward Royle -- Royle’s work examines the beginning of secularism, outside the context of class and political boundaries. Before Royle, most British historians considered atheism/agnosticism to be products of working-class distrust of the State. This work changed all that, and it is perhaps one of the most important books on the beginnings of secularism ever published.

8. At the Origins of Modern Atheism by Michael Buckley – In this book, Buckley argues that atheism arose due to the religious establishment’s efforts to discredit disbelief. While Enlightenment philosophers argued against God’s existence from the standpoint of rationalism, Buckley offers that the attempts by religious/anti-religious philosophers to counteract this philosophy ultimately led to disbelief among broader society.

At the Origins of Modern Atheism

9. A History of Atheism in Britain by David Berman – In this work, Berman agues that numerous religious forces sought to keep the very idea of atheism repressed and out of the minds of the public in Britain during the nineteenth century. Berman holds that because of the Church’s sway on society, the very concept of the denial of God would have been inconceivable prior to the Enlightenment, and the various philosophical texts that arose from it. Agree or disagree, he presents a good case.

10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – While this book does not particularly deal with atheism or history, it is, perhaps, one of the most important treatises in evolutionary biology ever published, and is thus, a part of history itself. In 2017, Dawkins' book was voted as the "most inspiring science book of all time" by Britain's Royal Society of Science.[1]


  1. The Royal Society (Ed.). (2017, July 19). The Selfish Gene tops Royal Society poll to reveal the nation's most inspiring science books. Retrieved October 28, 2017, from