As someone with minimal religious intuitions and nominal indoctrination it’s been a long hard slog for me to understand religion as a human phenomenon. Books have been important. Not newspapers. And not just the words of believers. I’ve expressed irritation and exasperation at some readers who talk about things which they clearly have only a superficial grasp of. This is becoming a bit more common, so I’m going to have to take two steps. First, I’m going to actually start paying closer attention to comments on my threads. Second, below is a reading list which explains where I’m coming from. You don’t have to read any of these books, or try to understand where I’m coming from. Life is short. But in that case, don’t comment. I don’t know much about cars, so I don’t talk about cars. I am a fan of the Boston Celtics, but don’t follow the game closely enough to comment intelligently, so I don’t comment. I try to shy away from superficial conversation about serious topics in my day to day life (though I’m game to talk about Jersey Shore in a flip fashion), so I understand that this is a blog, but it seems we’d all benefit more from depth than not (this is not aimed at the transient visitors who arrive via periodic spikes from other websites, and will come & go at will). I’m not interested in winning arguments, I’m interesting in learning more through discussion. I don’t feel that I’m learning a lot in the repetitions of superficial conventional wisdom. This includes both the Islamoskeptic commenters (I count myself as a very strongly Islamoskeptic) and the partisans of pluralism. I accede to substantive disagreement more easily than I do to unintelligent or uninformed concurrence.
The list below is Abrahamically oriented, mostly because readers of this weblog have a stronger interest in these faiths as expressed by the comments they leave. Though I can recommend books on Chinese religious philosophy, and to a lesser extent Indian religious philosophy, if you are curious. Quite often the generalizations people make about human societies are uninformed by any deep knowledge of the broader swath of societies, so a cursory familiarity with all cultures is probably best unless you want to make yourself a fool by ignorance.
I’d say Theological Incorrectness is the thinnest of the three, but most general and elegantly argued.
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
The Rise of Christianity
The Lost History of Christianity
New History of Christianity
The Great Arab Conquests
Divided by the Faith
Making of the Christian Aristocracy
God’s Rule – Government and Islam
The Sacred Chain
Catholicism & American Freedom
Rome & Jerusalem
-History with religious significance
Rise of Western Christendom
A History of the Byzantine State and Society
The Fall of the Roman Empire
The Classical World
Alexander to Actium
Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300
A History of the Arab Peoples
A History of Iran
Sailing to Byzantium
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World
What Hath God Wrought
I think that’s it. If you read only one book on the list, Theological Incorrectness is the one I would recommend. Even well read people who have discussions in good faith get confused and thrown by the fact that I immediately make assertions predicated upon an understanding of the cognitive foundations of any cultural phenomena. This is especially important with religion. When it comes to specific historical detail or interpretation, I can’t say anything more than just assert that this list is a start, not the end. To give an example of what I’m talking about, I recall having a discussion with several readers years ago about whether the victory of Charles Martel during the Battle of Tours was necessary to prevent the Islamicization of Europe (as Gibbon asserted). To be able to offer a non-useless opinion on this topic one has to immerse oneself a bit in the history and historiography of this period. I did do that in mid-2003 because I was curious (I lean against the proposition that Tours was determinative in whether Europe became Muslim or not, though my confidence about these sorts of things is modest at best). If you have a casual above-average knowledge of history I’m not interested in your opinions or interpretations, because they’re going to be shallow and thin for my taste. Entering unadorned facts into the record is fine, though the more ignorant or unintelligent often have an unfortunate tendency of allowing implications to slip in which indicate a total lack of proper contextual comprehension.
Also, if you are curious, I did not put a book of theology on the list because I find theology generally unmemorable and of almost no use insofar as modeling religious behavior is at issue. The last book on this topic I read was Alistar McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction. I found it to be readable, but as usual with theology for me (as opposed to the history of religious institutions) it did not end up to be useful enough to me that it “stuck” in my head.
Do note that the recommendation via the list obviously doesn’t entail an endorsement of any of these books. I am, for example, broadly in agreement with the thrust of the books on cognition, but have become more and more skeptical over the years as to the general applicability of the rational choice model of religious phenomena which Rodney Stark outlines in A Theory of Religion. But lack of general explanatory value does not necessarily mean lack of total utility (I think it’s a good fit to the American religious marketplace, which I over-weight obviously), and even if you believe a model false it is important to engage it quite often.
Recommendations for other books, and questions about specific books or the nature of the list are welcome. And if you want to see some of my other opinions on books, you might be curious about my books website, which I’m slowly growing, Razib on Books.