Should an Atheist Be Reading the Great Books of Religion?

I’m one of the least religious people you can find. I’ve never been to a church service in my life and I’ve never leaned towards a theological explanation of the world.

I’m also pretty hostile to the word ‘spiritual’. At best, it’s used as a glib catchphrase to suggest the person has non-materialistic motivations without being honest enough to say what they are. At its worst, it is used to justify beliefs that don’t bear any resemblance to reality.

Considering all of this, should I be reading more of the great religious books?

Why Read Religious Books, If You Don’t Believe Their Content?

It’s a valid question. Religious books such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible or Tao Te Ching, offer a set of facts about the world. These are the facts that are supposedly believed by followers of that religion. So, what is the point of reading the book if you’re convinced the facts are untrue?

It’s not just atheists like myself that need to ask that question. If you’re a devoted Muslim, you probably wouldn’t agree with much of the Hindu account of the world. Does that mean there isn’t any value in reading the Upanishads?

I think there are several arguments for reading the major works of every religion, even if you’re completely convinced they are factually inaccurate:

  1. For a cultural and historical perspective. Whether good or bad, religion has shaped most of the course of human history. To ignore religion, particularly the foundational works it is based on, is to be ignorant of a vast section of humanity.
  2. From a literary perspective. One could argue that in order to survive centuries of readings, the stories in religious works must have been powerful. You could read religious books for the same reasons you might want to read other great works of literature.
  3. From a life lessons perspective, irrespective of religious fact. Religions contain thousands of years of condensed wisdom about how to live. Even if you are convinced the facts are wrong, the specific practices religion promotes may have value in living a better life.

Considering the theme of this blog, it’s that last point I want to discuss. Even if you’re convinced a religion’s facts are wrong, either because you’re an atheist, or because you happen to believe in a different religion’s set of facts, there is still value in reading the great religious works.

Traditional Wisdom and the Danger of Nonconformity

There is an unconscious wisdom to many traditions. This is because if a tradition were significantly harmful, it probably would have fallen out of fashion. Similarly, if a tradition is useful to living a better life or keeping a better society, it tends to get promoted.

As Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there are thousands of independent cultures that all have an answer for the question, “what’s to eat?” Often these traditional diets are far healthier than modern ones, even though our modern diet is much more deeply informed about nutritional science.

The reason is that tradition encapsulated a lot of dietary wisdom. Any diet that resulted in overall poor health would either kill off the culture that generated it, or it would be replaced by something healthier. The stated reasons for the tradition aren’t the same as the actual reasons it works, but it works nonetheless.

If you lead a completely nonconformist life, then you miss the encapsulated wisdom in traditions. Yes, you may through sheer force of reason, discover a much better way to live. But you may also spend dozens of years before you realize your mistake.

The point isn’t to blindly conform to traditions. Rather, it’s to recognize that, on average, there is a reason many traditions have been around for so long, copy the ones that are helpful, and rebel against the ones that aren’t.

Religious Works as a Source of Encapsulated Wisdom

Religious works cover a lot of topics: how to organize society, who should have power and the ontology of the universe. But in almost all religions, a big topic covered is how to live. Should I drink or abstain? Should I work non-stop or take Sundays off? Should I brood or forgive people who have wronged me?

Again, as a skeptic, I don’t believe a lot of the stated reasons for the wisdom. I don’t believe that the reason one shouldn’t kill is because an omnipotent being said it was a bad idea.

However, just because I’m skeptical of the stated reasons, that doesn’t mean there aren’t very strong actual reasons that support the same conclusions. Murdering people is a bad idea regardless of your religious inclinations.

When I’m reading a religious book, my emphasis is on uncovering this encapsulated wisdom. For each major religion, the traditions it holds have gone through billions of lifetimes of trial and error. I may not believe in the Sabbath, but that doesn’t mean taking off at least one day per week for rest wasn’t an ingenious idea.

What About All the Religious Facts that Don’t Make Sense?

Some people have argued you can’t separate the nonsense from facts in religions you don’t believe in. If you have the ability to detect which ideas are good and which are dangerous, then you already have a criteria separate from the works themselves, the logic goes.

If you already have this independent criteria that may tell you resting one day per week is a good idea, but lending money with interest isn’t a sin, why not just use that criteria? What’s the point of seeking advice if you already have a filter for ignoring the ideas you don’t agree with?

However, if this were true then there wouldn’t be much value in any advice. Yes, we can often filter advice from good and bad once we see it, but a filter isn’t the same as content.

Many people have written to me saying that they enjoy the website because I’ve been able to articulate things they believed, but couldn’t really pin down. Reading any book for advice is a process of absorbing ideas to be filtered, which takes far less mental effort than creating them from scratch.

Reading for Advice, Not Facts

The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite book. There is also no doubt in my mind that all of the events involving the main characters in the book are completely untrue. Edmond Dantès never existed. He was never imprisoned in Chateau d’If.

But it’s still my favorite book because I was never reading the book for factual accuracy. I was reading it as a parable for the deeper themes of persistence, fortune and forgiveness. If someone later told me the book was actually a true story, that wouldn’t change what I derived from the book.

My feeling is the same with religious works. When I read the Bhagavad Gita, books on Buddhism or the Tao Te Ching, the truth of the story wasn’t what compelled me to read them. It was the themes the book explores which actually have an impact on my life.

The virtues of duty as explained in the Gita. The practice of mindfulness in Buddhism. The paradoxes of duality as presented in the Tao Te Ching.

Future Reading

Most of the actual religious texts I’ve read have come from Eastern religions. Growing up in a western culture, this was the most obvious choice since I’m already saturated in the encapsulated wisdom of 2000 years of western culture, religious or otherwise.

A few of the religious and philosophical works I want to tackle over the next few years would be the Bible, the Qur’an, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Reading these books are also a quest of self-understanding to get at the roots of why our culture is the way it is.

What are your thoughts? If you’re religious, have you read works of other religions? If you’re secular, have you found value in exploring the philosophy of a religion, even when you disagree with its factual accuracy? Please share in the comments.


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