The 3 Rs: Recommended Religion Reading

This list was so much harder than you’d think. I’ve read literally hundreds of books about religion and history over the past 15-20 years, so narrowing it down to a few essentials left me feeling like I was trying to find the most refreshing thimbleful of water in the river. The one “book” I wasn’t able to find in a linkable form to include is the current US Military Chaplain’s Handbook, but that’s a fascinating read. It appears to be primarily available in CD-ROM form, which makes sense, since it’s really a large collection of field manuals, devotionals, and other resources.

In the meantime, though, here are the best books I could think of for folks who may or may not have had an Intro to World Religions class in college at some point, but are otherwise not too informed about religion, even their own. Please, suggest your own books down in comments! I’ll have a list of movies that demonstrate important religious concepts or new perspectives that break our stereotypes for you next week.


  1. Prothero, Stephen, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know–And Doesn’t. (HarperOne, 2008) This book makes a powerful case that understanding the major world religions–including the reality of Christianity–is absolutely critical for social progress, international security, and continued democracy. Prothero has a new book, God Is Not One, that I haven’t read yet, but profiles in more depth eight of the world’s major faiths.
  2. Livingston, James, Anatomy of the Sacred, Sixth Edition. (Prentice Hall, 2008) This is the textbook I used for my most recent course on religious theory. It fits pretty well with my approach of looking at different facets of religious behavior and belief, and filling in variations on those themes from a wide variety of historical and contemporary religions. Because it’s a college textbook, it costs a stupid amount of money; on the other hand, used copies abound.
  3. Eastman, Roger, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. (OUP, 1999) I don’t use other people’s anthologies of primary sources, for the most part–I pull together a much more diverse selection of my own devising than any I’ve ever found in print, both for religion and history classes. But if I had to pick one for a religious studies class, I’d go with this one every time. It’s by far the most diverse, and the excerpts are nice and long (relatively speaking, to the rest of the field). If you haven’t ever heard the voices of faiths other than yours, I cannot possibly stress how important it is for everyone to read the actual sources themselves.
  4. Meredith, Hickman, Rogers, and Kirkby, The Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions: Internet-Linked. (Usborne, 2010) This is a “kids'” book, but like everything Usborne does, it’s a hell of a lot more informative than anything you’ll encounter in the vast majority of mainstream media. It’s also lavishly illustrated, something that’s really important as you try to wrap your head around new and foreign faiths, and it’s Internet-linked to all sorts of extra articles, pictures, and videos. This may actually be the very best place to start if you’ve never taken a course on world religion. NB: The link is to the book listing on the UK Usborne Publishing page, but Usborne books are available here in the States too, both through home distributors (think Tupperware, but with awesome books instead of burping plastic) and, increasingly, in retail outlets.
  5. Matlins, Stuart, and Arthur Magida, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fifth Edition. (Skylight Paths, 2010) This may be one of the coolest books around. Religion by religion, sect by sect, it gives you the basic etiquette to guarantee you don’t embarrass yourself at religious ceremonies of any stripe. Practically speaking, it’s awesome if you’ve got a diverse group of friends who do things like get married, give birth, or die, but it’s also a fascinating read cover-to-cover, and should be considered for the bookshelf of any graduate or world traveller.
  6. Swami Tapasyananda (trans.), Srimad Bhagavad Gita. (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003) You may have picked up a free copy of the Gita from a table on your college campus, but this is the edition of the essential (if not only) Hindu holy book recommended by a very smart and learned Krishnavite friend. It’s part scripture, part epic poem, part philosophical treatise, but it sums up with passion and poetry some of the most compelling concepts of Hinduism.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Religious Life. (Bantam, 1993) This is a wonderfully simple introduction to Western Buddhism, especially the core concepts of mindfulness, compassion toward all living things, our attachments to the material world, and the practice of meditation. Western Buddhism certainly isn’t the same as all the Asian variants, but this explains those central ideas in a way that sets the reader up well to make more far-reaching inquiries.
  8. Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. (Atria, 2001) I have it on very good authority (from an honest-to-goodness Jewish school teacher!) that this is one of the most popular texts for people new to the Jewish faith; it’s even used as a textbook in conversion classes. I need to pick up a copy myself, come to think of it.
  9. Beard, North, and Price (eds.), Religions of Rome (2 vol.). (Cambridge University Press, 1998) This is a very scholarly two-volume set–the first volume is synthesis and analysis of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire at its height, and the second is full of annotated primary sources (inscriptions, imperial proclamations, legends, and rituals). It’s geared toward the expert reader, but if you want to get a clear view of exactly how much like every other Mediterranean mystery cult Christianity was, and how fundamentally weird that was in the history of human religious practice, there’s no better starting place.
  10. Wansbrough, Henry (ed.), The New Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday, 1999) My Latin and Roman History teacher calls this the “Scholar’s Bible.” The translation is directly from the original Hebrew and Greek by some of the best biblical experts in the world. It’s not the easiest version to read, but it’s probably the closest to the original text as we’re going to get.
  11. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. (HarperOne, 1999) I can’t recommend against any of Crossan’s work, but this one’s particularly good at highlighting the historical truth that Christianity was not founded by Jesus, but about Jesus, by lots of other people. Crossan is one of the leading experts on the historical Jesus, and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the real horse race Christianity was in for its survival, and how unlikely in many ways it was to have been the faith that came out on top.
  12. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. (Vintage, 1989) The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the 1940s revolutionized our understanding of Christianity in the decades following the life of Jesus. Most Christians get a very tidy, unified history of the development of the faith’s core principles–even the compilation of the Bible–when the truth is very far from that. We knew other gospels existed, but until the Nag Hammadi texts, we only knew them based on what more orthodox critics said about them. This book tells us about the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, among others, and illuminates the radically different interpretations of Jesus’ life and message among his own followers.
  13. Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (Vintage, 1996) Pagels is another historian whom it’s hard to go wrong with, much like Crossan, when it comes to the history of early Christianity. I also recommend this particular book, though, because it highlights the point at which Christianity was no longer the outcast under attack, but the dominant power that could attack others, even other kinds of Christians whose beliefs weren’t officially endorsed. It also helps us understand the anti-Semitic foundations of Christianity that reverberate into the present day.
  14. Aslan, Reza, No God But God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. (Random House, 2011) The absolute best book on Islam I’ve ever read. You get it all–history, culture, faith, practice, conflict, poetry, mysticism, expansion, controversy. Aslan’s analysis is unflinching. I wish more universities would make this their freshman read as students come into the collegiate world.
  15. Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Ballantine, 1994) Armstrong is one of the world’s most respected experts on world religion, and she makes it incredibly accessible for regular readers. She’s written dozens of books, on many different faiths, but I wish more people read this one so they could see the full extent to which the Abrahamic religions are interdependent and similar. Armstrong is also doing great work with her non-profit foundation Charter for Compassion, which promotes understanding and dialogue among people of all faiths.
  16. Comte-Sponville, Andre, and Nancy Huston, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. (Penguin, 2008) This slim volume is surprisingly full of simple, elegant wisdom. Don’t let the title mislead you, though–this book isn’t out to convert anyone away from believing in gods or religion. Instead, it blends science, philosophy, humanism, and history to prove that there’s immense mystery and majesty in what and where humans are, even before we try to understand the unknowable.



  • Some good Stuff there I am also a big fan of Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic. And the conversation between Walter Benjamin in Theses on the Philosophy of History and Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

    • Thanks, Eric. I love the perspective on the formation of our understanding of how the world traditions fit together that Masuzawa’s book gives. There’s a similar title (that escapes my memory at the moment) that talks about how our notion of “Western Civilization” is such a new, modern construct. And Keith Thomas’ book is one of my favorite reads of all time. There’s one line in the middle that goes something like “In 1529, two men climbed to the roof of a building in London and tried to ascend to heaven.” I laugh at that every single time I think of it. 🙂

  • I won’t say I’ve read all the way through each of these (although I was somewhat surprised at how familiar these were), or that I’d put them all at the top of my own list, but this is an awesome compilation. I give a good hearty second to the “How to Be a Perfect Stranger,” for anyone with just a mild interest in the intersections and interactions of religion…if you like it, I’d say, “Come back to this list; there’s a whole lot more.”

    • Many thanks for your endorsement! I’m glad to hear I managed to flog out a solid list of basics. For a while, all I could come up with were the really technical and obscure ones!

      • Hah! I was thinking about, “Which ones would I recommend from my shelves,” and all I could come up with were the sensationalistic ones that need a good grounding in the basics before letting anyone loose with them. It’s not easy! I also kept finding myself throwing in more and more mythology texts with obscure references that I want people to know when they read something else… so knowing where to stop is just as important. I can see I’m adding more to my wishlist again… [grinning]

        • Yeah, it was hard to leave off books like Bulfinch’s Mythology, The Golden Bough, Carmina Gaedelica, and others that had a huge influence on me. And I didn’t even touch any of the stuff on institutional Buddhism in medieval Japan or papal politics that I find riveting, because it’s so messy and complex. If you want more advanced suggestions, I’m always happy to assign extra credit. 🙂

  • Cool stuff!

    What of atheism? I realize that atheism is not another religion (it bothers me when people describe it as such) but a philosophical position (i.e., you can’t know much about an atheist’s ethics, spirituality, community, ethos based on the mere fact of being atheist). But in any conversation about religion Materialism or Scientific atheism seem to come up and things can get quite intersting or sharp with a more strident kind of atheism (of say a Richard Dawkins variety). I have a goodly number of friends/co-workers who would regard any and all forms of religion at best a crock of shit and at worst an irrational brainwashed groupthink. I find much of their critique valuable but only in that it’s in the realm of the ‘left brain’, and I esp find their absolutist and ideological tendencies to be very tiresome (again, the Dawkins variety); I find that they tend not to use much of their heart or imagination in such critiques and explorations (which I guess is sort of their point). But as I say, if the person is humorous or you can drink a bit, I get a lot of conversations with my atheists.

    • Number 16 is for the atheists. 🙂 And it’s not shrill like the ideological extremist atheists.

  • […] and it’s a good way to get to know them; many of the authors on last week’s book list are in this film. All this flies directly in the face of the tidy, sanitized, fait accompli history […]

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