From the top of my head, I can think of a number of books that have had a profound impact on me emotionally and mentally, but one book stands out singularly as having an influence on me to the point of changing my life. This book is The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, and I credit Dawkins's book with lighting the match that started the fire that burned down whatever remained of my lingering religiousity.
In relaying how and why Dawkins's book had such an impact on me, I have to reiterate an important disclaimer that echoes the one in a diary I wrote here, more than four years ago, about the long, painful process that eventually led to my breaking away from religion and a belief in God. I do not intend to spark a debate about atheism or why it is right or wrong for anyone, and I definitely am not going to disparage the millions of people, including the good progressive people of faith here at Daily Kos and elsewhere on the Internets and in the world, who do have a healthy relationship with their faiths, and who do treat other human beings well and strive to serve them genuinely in their actions and words.
Let's face it—most people in the U.S. are religious. Most of my own family and friends are religious, to some degree or another. I do not consider myself "better than" (including more intelligent or evolved than) other people who are religious—and even after reading The God Delusion, a book with an incendiary title that has provoked many responses and rebuttals, including entire books devoted exclusively to rebutting Dawkins's work, I don't get the sense that Dawkins feels this way, either. Regarding religion, I go by the old liberal credo that it is best to live and let live. As long as it's not being used to hurt other people or take away their rights, pick my pocket or break my back, whatever floats one's boat and gets one through the cold, cruel, crazy, beautiful, and so very finite existence we have on this Earth is all right by me.
My diary from 2007 goes into sometimes excruciating detail about the many factors, including political ones, that influenced my decision to abandon religion in my mid-30s. However, until I read Dawkins's book, I still considered myself vaguely spiritual. I thought I believed in some generic form of a Judeo-Christian God but doubted that I or anyone could properly define or describe anything that was all-powerful and all-knowing. Reading The God Delusion changed that. It was, to quote an overused cliché, the straw that broke the camel's back.
After years of existing in this vague state of "spirituality," I felt myself affirming a mental YES! when I read a passage that resonated with me and articulated with beautiful lucidity the uncertainty I had been feeling for so many years but had been unable—or afraid—to put it into words myself. A few excerpts from his book that so moved me:
Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That's not morality, that's just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point…The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.
One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.
When I finished The God Delusion, my husband and I had a conversation about it. It was then that I told him that I thought I was an atheist. That was the first time I had ever considered, even in my own thoughts to myself, that I could be an atheist. I was 36. My husband was down with this—he told me he was an atheist, too. I felt it was weird we were finally having a conversation about this after being married for six years, but maybe we intrinsically knew all along. With the ones you love, sometimes things don't have to be spoken out loud.
Closing Dawkins's book when I finished reading it only opened the can of worms of inquiry—and prompted me to read other works about atheism and people's experiences in moving towards atheism (some more valuable than others). I read books by Dan Barker (and eventually joined his and his wife's organization, Freedom From Religion Foundation), Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I have Bertrand Russell's works on my list to read at some point as well. I've even read books from entertainers who've "lost their religion," including Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Julia Sweeney. All very different perspectives, all interesting, and in many cases, eye-opening reading.
Anyway, so this is going to be a pathetically lame conclusion for my first "Books That Changed My Life" entry, but that's the book that did it for me. Thanks for letting me post my inaugural diary to this group. :)