9 books for the thinking atheists’ summer reading list

Because there seems to be at least a small correlation between non-belief in supernatural agencies and interest in physical sciences, I want to present you all with a list of science-based books from my own specialty–political science. Although my field is chock full of statistical analysis, it is also a system of theoretical frameworks that lie outside the scope of physical prediction. My field is a social science, which means that as soon as society changes (even a little) the variables change and, thus, the theories we develop become more or less suspect. Still, I am quite taken by this field and believe that, even people with Ph.Ds in cosmological sciences or atmospheric physics will enjoy these books. Read them while on vacation on a beach in Mexico, beer in hand! Summer is just around the corner!

This may be my longest post yet. I hope you can make it through the list.

  • Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (2004) – Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. I’ve mentioned this book plenty of times. Norris and Inglehart explain, using many decades of data, how, although religious societies continue to become more religious (having large families), secular societies are becoming more secular. This leads to the liberalization of social practices, putting emphasis on the individual instead of the state. This happens when existential security rises and people no longer have to depend upon the state for security. As history moves forward, more and more societies will experience rises in existential security and will thus become more and more secular.
  • Modernization and Postmodernization (1997) – Ronald Inglehart. If you  want a more detailed explanation of Inglehart’s theory in Sacred and Secular, this book explains the full phenomenon. Once a society has industrialized, he argues, economic development and cultural and political changes are correlated, and he even sees some levels of predictability. He predicts a transition from an insecure materialist state, focused on strong political order; economic growth; traditional sexual and gender norms; and strong religious beliefs, to a secure postmaterialist state, where political strength falls upon the individual and non-traditional political structures are stimulating; quality of life trumps economic growth; liberalized sexual and gender norms; and a de-emphasis on religion.
  • Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) – Joseph Schumpeter. Joseph Schumpeter makes the case for socialism, not as a socialist, but rather as a scientist. That’s not entirely true; he makes the case that capitalism will naturally collapse because it rests on entrepreneurial innovation, which results in “creative destruction,” business models, which belittle individuals, and rationality, which, Schumpeter believes, pulls intellectuals towards socialism. Schumpeter doesn’t believe that capitalism can survive given these processes that undermine “the social institutions which protect it, and ‘inevitably’ creates conditions in which it will not be able to live and which strongly point to socialism as the heir apparent” (p. 61). On the other hand, Schumpeter is at least somewhat optimistic that a socialist form of democracy can thrive given that certain criteria are met. My inclusion of this book in no way is to suggest that I agree with Schumpeter, but it is a fascinating theory nonetheless.
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1991) – Benedict Anderson. In discussing the cultural roots of nationalism, Anderson argues that nationalism was a secular alternative to religious identities that were growing more diverse. The nation, nationality, and nationalism are abstract ideas without coherent definitions. Therefore, creating a theory to understand nationalism is difficult. Anderson attempts to provide an explanation for this difficulty. Essentially, Anderson argues that we just made up these abstract ideas—or imagined them. Not only is the nation imagined (in the sense that “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” [p. 6]), but also the nation is imagined as limited, sovereign, and as a community. In other words, the nation has borders, and other nations exist outside those borders; the concept of the nation dates back to the creation of sovereignty; and despite differences, belonging to the nation denotes deep comradeship.
  • Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993) – Robert Putnam. Italy has a long-standing tradition of using its civic capital to shape politics. But its success as a democracy has been questioned. Indeed some have called it a failure. Robert D. Putnam conducts an extensive survey of the differences between Italy’s regional governments, finding that, while some (mostly in the South) struggled to function efficiently, some (mostly in the North) thrived. He makes a compelling generalization: Social capital—or civic participation—and history matter a lot to present day political institutional performance. Putnam, despite inherent problems with decentralization, believes that in order for a democracy to succeed, institutions must be placed closer to the people. In Italy, grassroots politics under a decentralized government has helped this become a reality in various regions. He uses twelve indicators (found in Chapter 3) through four strict tests to measure institutional performance. He finds that regions that score high in many of these indicators are many times more likely to be efficient.
  • Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (1998) – Michael N. Barnett. Barnett uses a highly constructivist approach and a somewhat postmodern approach to explaining international relations (IR) in the Arab world. Barnett seems interested in explaining why Arab states have not behaved in ways that can be explained by traditional IR theories. For example, he notes that, while realist theories predict that states will engage in arms races to balance against their neighbors, Arab states have not done this. To explain this lack of materiality, he points to “presentational politics.” That is, Arab leaders view politics as the utilization of words, not might. He also uses the 1967 war to make his case in point: contrary to the realist view, Nasser was willing to sacrifice himself in order to promote Arab nationalism. This suggests that, for the most part, Arab politics is about Arab nationalism, not balance of power or power distribution. But this is not to suggest that Arab states are unified; they have “rival opinions of what [the] norms should be, and a defining feature of [the] dialogues is that Arab states compete through symbolic means to determine the norms of Arabism.” In other words, states compete to build a narrative. The norms, however, remain constant: reactions to the West, Zionism, and the need for a strong Arab community.
  • Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era (2001) – J. Ann Tickner. The end of the Cold War has brought a lot of changes to the study of IR, such as a decline in military-security issues and the emergence of economic issues (more liberal theoretical approaches to IR). Therefore, where conflict does occur, it might be best to explain them with alternative theories, theories that can focus more on identities and cultures. This shift in IR studies also brings more women into the discussion. It also shifts the state somewhat out of this discussion. She quotes Ken Booth when she writes, “the state, the traditional frame for IR, ‘might be seen as the problem of world politics, not the solution’” (p. 2). But feminism still sits on the sidelines in IR to traditional theories. Tickner explains that the third debate in IR focuses on critical theory and is highly postmodern in its approaches. This was the setting for the emergence of feminist theory. Ultimately Tickner does not believe that the post-Cold War world has adequately addressed the problems in international politics because it has disenfranchised non-androcentric issues. Feminists can fix this problem by looking at the individual; that is, to “draw on local knowledge to construct their theories. Emphasizing the need to listen to marginal voices, they often use the term conversation to describe the way in which they generate knowledge” (p. 126). The point is to understand how knowledge is built and evolves, disregarding any notion that objective reality can be obtained. The failure to do so is problematic, not just to women, but also to men.
  • Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War: Guidelines for U.S. Policy (1992) – Michèle A. Flournoy. Flournoy attempts to determine to what extent nuclear policy after the cold war should be reevaluated. She opens in the introduction with the following questions: Now that the Cold War has ended, do nuclear weapons still matter? If so, what are their functions in US foreign policy? How should policy be written? How many weapons should still be in deployment? And how does arms control play into this new era? In answering these questions, she finds “three distinct but related challenges” (p. 1): Mitigating risk of inadvertent detonation, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, and dealing with a defunct nuclear doctrine.
  • The Communist Manifesto (1848) – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This is an incredibly short book, considering its powerful reach as a source of global activism and action. Love or hate communism (or any feeling in between), I believe every human being should take a few hours out of their lives to read this and judge for yourself. Too many people embrace or condemn Marxist ideas without ever reading Marx’s and Engels’ words for themselves, which is like critiquing the bible without ever reading it yourself. This is the perfect book to read on that beach down in Mexico. Doing so should guarantee plenty of conversations with strangers.

This list is by no means complete. Even though I study politics (especially from an international perspective), I reach out into other fields quite often. You should do the same. Even if you’re an engineer with a passion for the physical universe, you should familiarize yourself with the social. These books are good starting points.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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