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

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1. A Secular Age by Charles Taylor – This book is dense, but worthwhile. It contains phrases that would make even the most senior academic roll their eyes. But, despite Taylor’s somewhat arrogant prose, 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.

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. When did magic, miracles, and superstition become concepts that could be differentiated between, and why did some become sinful and others OK? 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 religious beliefs, how did people of different/evolving faiths coexist? The answer is not well.

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 it. While Enlightenment philosophers argued against God’s existence, Buckley offers that the attempt by religious philosophers to counteract this philosophy ultimately led to disbelief.

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 – out of the minds of the public. 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. 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.