Top 5 Non-Religious Books on Living a Good Life

There is a prevailing, and fairly common belief, that we need religion to live a truly ethical and moral life, and that a life without a god (pick any, they all claim it), leads you down the road to immorality. It is pure nonsense of course, and tempting as it might be to explain why, my immediate motivation for this post is not to go there, but rather to highlight a rather interesting list of secular books on the topic of living a good, and yet completely godless, life.

Well-known British philosophy professor, A.C. Grayling, has had a lifetime ambition to distill into one volume the very best secular thoughts, and so after many decades of work, he finally completed it, (if curious, you can click here for more details on his new publication “The Good Book”). Anyway, my point is not to point you at that specific book, but since I’m on the topic, do check it out. Instead I want to make the observation that he spent a heck of a long time  plodding through thousands of texts to complete his book, so he has now got specific recommendations – a Top-5 list of books “on how to live a satisfying and morally good life.” …

I was quite surprised at a couple of them.

The list itself was published in Slate article about a month ago (OK, I’m a slow reader, but I get there eventually). That article containing the list is here, but it is the actual list that is of interest, so here that is … (with both US and UK links to amazon so that you can get a copy) …

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, c. 322 B.C.E. (UK link here)

Do not be put off by the forbidding name: Nichomachus was Aristotle’s son, and he prepared this wonderful book for wider dissemination after his father’s death. It is the greatest classic of ethical writing in the Western tradition, a work of powerful thought and fine sentiment, and should be required reading for anyone who can read.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1789  (UK link here)

Although the whole of this gripping and majestic work is too much for most people in our hasty and hurried age, the (in)famous and important chapters 15 and 16 are an instructive read, for whose sake the whole is worth having. But the whole is worth having, too, for its salutary lessons regarding the fate of a great power, warning inheritors of its mantle what the future can hold.

J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 1869 (UK Link here)

This essay-length book is one of the pillars of contemporary civilization—a lucid account of what liberty truly is, and why it matters. Mill argues that the autonomy of the individual is the necessary condition for good and well-lived lives; respecting the autonomy of others is the necessary condition of morality.

Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, 1993  (UK Link here)

It took many hands over a long period to make the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, by processes of editing, textual interweaving, interpolation, rewriting, and periphrasis. Lane Fox explores the history of the Bible’s origins in constructively deconstructive fashion, giving us yet more reason to look with critical eye at the cultural heritage it has fostered. His book teaches us how to evaluate the “holy books” that purport to tell us how to live good lives.

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, 2009 (UK Link here)

What could be a greater show than the story of life on this planet, evolving into myriads of intriguing, exotic, amazing forms over billions of years since the first minute organisms emerged from organic soup? Dawkins knows his stuff and writes superbly about it, giving a compelling biography of the descent of life through the eons. By understanding our place in the natural order, we can better understand what is good for human beings. Those who only know one side of Dawkins should experience the scientist and lover of nature for themselves.

Of course no list could ever be complete, and it is always a hard choice as to what to include or exclude, so he also (quite rightly) tacks on five more suggestions …

Cicero, On Friendship
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
William Hazlitt, Selected Writings
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Least you wonder …

  • No, I don’t work for amazon, and no I don’t earn anything if you decide to buy anything via one of the Amazon links, those are there to give you easy access to the book and also to reader comments on the book. I don’t do ads and this site is not about earning revenue, but is instead about the promotion of critical thinking and science … period.
  • No, I’ve not read them all … yet.

Any book list is of course subjective and can never be definitive, however, the fact that this comes from A.C. Grayling after he has plodded through thousands of books over many years, I’m inclined to think it truly worthy of listing here. So happy reading folks. Oh, and if you have anything you would like to personally recommend, then please do drop a comment. Lots of folks out there are always interested to know what is worth reading, and perhaps also appreciate guidance on what might look like it is worth reading, but is best avoided.

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