Recommend some good books for a budding young skeptic

As I mention in this post, I have a female cousin in her mid-teens who got into trouble a couple of weeks back for refusing to budge on her skepticism at church. In addition to grounding her, her parents confiscated all her books and culled all the ones they found objectionable–which means, among other things, all the hard science (you can imagine how her parents reacted to the Dawkins stuff) all the science fiction, and almost all of the fantasy–including, mysteriously, all the Tolkien & Lewis. They’ve left her with nothing but idiotic, homogenized pap suitable for third graders.

I mention all of this because my wife and I were just looking over all our first-year anniversary presents. This included several bookstore gift cards–about $150 worth–as it’s the paper anniversary and everyone we know knows that we’re nerds. Kim wants to use the cards to rebuild my cousin’s library, which we’ll keep here so my cousin has access to the books whenever she pleases (once she’s off punishment) and can take them with her when she goes off to school I thought I’d ask you guys for some input.

What we don’t need: Tolkien & Lewis. We already have multiple copies of LotR, Hobbit, Silmarillion, & the Chronicles, as I’ve been buying hardbacks to replace paperbacks. Likewise Heinlein.

Thoughts, anybody?


My very religious grandmother didn’t like to see me reading The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe.

“Flim-Flam!” by James Randi.
“The Demon Haunted Word” by Carl Sagan.

Stephan Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man isn’t specifically about religion, but it is about healthy scepticism and rational thought.

You know, I was gonna recommend the Bible, cause there’s no better way to flummox fundamentalists than to know the Bible better than they do. But I see on the other thread that she’s reading the Bible already, so it’s all good.

Hm. How far down the road do you want to go? As far as God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything? Along the same lines, there’s The Quotable Atheist and The Atheist Mainfesto, which are handy guides for crafting arguments with believers. And if she’s never read it, an oldie but a goodies is Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian.

The Flight of Peter Fromm is on my To-be-read shelf. Anybody know if it’s any good?

From the OP, it’s not clear whether you’re specifically asking for books that encourage skepticism (religious or otherwise), or, more generally, books that feed the mind and/or the imagination but that she can’t have at home. And I’m a little bit surprised you’re asking, since I would have thought that you, of all people, would already have plenty of ideas for good books, from among books that you yourself have read and loved or profited from.

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer

The interesting thing about Shermer (for those who don’t know him) is that he was once a fundamentalist Christian which provides him with an interesting perspective.

My wife isn’t an atheist, and the cards are as much hers as mine; and it was her idea anyway. Sagan’s a really good idea, though.

I thought it would be an interesting discussion, and I hoped that you guys would think of things I’m overlooking. For instance, I had totally blanked on Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, but it is pretty much the perfect book to encourage the little girl to think.

I guess I would ask how much you value your relationship with this cousin and her family. Because when – not if, when – her parents find out you are supplying her with reading material you know damn well they don’t want her to have, you may well find that you have seriously damaged your relationship with her parents and ended your relationship with her. I would also point out that expecting her to keep your arrangement secret from her parents is another thing her parents may well object strongly to, regardless of the subject on which you ask her to not tell her folks.

I’m not weighing in on the relative worth of skepticism and fundamentalism, except to point out both those terms cover a lot of ground. I think you can certainly leave your own books out in your own house for her to look at when she’s there, and you can certainly let her know you’re open to discuss any issue with her at any time, and you will be honest about what you believe, or don’t believe, or why. But to directly and intentionally undermine her parents and how they are trying to raise her, because you don’t agree? That is miles beyond your role, and any parent would seriously resent it.

I mean, just flip the situation around for a minute. What if you were trying to raise a skeptical child who questions unsupported beliefs and rejects the idea of “god”, and you found out her cousins were spending money to buy her a nice new library of religious, anti-skeptic books to have for her very own, and telling her not to tell you about it?

It’s not a religious issue. It’s a parenting issue. You are not this child’s parent, and IMO you owe it to her parents to not undermine them is so direct and intentional a way.

An oldie but goodie: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner.
I’m a big fan of Gardner and have all his books. His more recent book along the same vein is Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus.

The bolded part is the only thing I’d personally have a problem with, as a parent. If some relative or friend wants to keep religious books at their house for my kid to read while she visits, fine, whatever. I raise my kids to be open-minded. Telling the kid to lie to me about it would not be okay, however. But, Skald didn’t say he was going to encourage his cousin to lie.

Back on topic, I was going to suggest Why People Believe Weird Things and The Demon-Haunted World, but I see that unsurprisingly, they’ve already been mentioned.

Perhaps I read to much into it, but I really don’t see how he can expect her fundie parents to even let him give her the books, much less keep them, if they are aware of what he is doing. Surely that will put a quick end to the child coming to Skaldie’s house. So I assume a certain amount of “wink wink nudge nudge let’s just keep this between ourselves,” because otherwise he could just as well set the gift cards on fire as use them to buy books the kid will never see.

ETA: And you, like me, would be find with people keeping religious (or anti-religious) books at their homes for our kids to read – great, in fact, I would encourage it. But clearly we are not this particular kid’s parents, nor likely to have the same mindset they apparently do.

ET to again further A: I am not arguing for religion or against skepticism, but I do see a big hairy family problem coming down the road, and it seems like one Skald and wife might want to consider before taking action. That’s all.

I agree with this. I’m an atheist from way back, and I cringed when I read about the situation with your niece. But she’s your niece, not your daughter.

The repercussions from this will be worse for her than the original punishment. When the parents find out, you will more than likely be cut off from her, and she will lose her main outlet for reason. I say, better to keep her around than to risk losing her entirely.

Also, I think this is a battle she needs to fight herself. As said above, leave your books around to borrow, talk with her about your thoughts, and be there for her.

I’m sure you would never intend it to, but something like this may make her into a pawn in the battle of yours and the parent’s about faith and reason. That would be unfair, and a little uncomfortable for her, to say the least.

So far as having books when she visits :slight_smile:

I second the recommendations for Hitchens and Russell. Why I am Not a Christian was a particularly good read when I was younger.

Also, how about some good TV for her vists - Penn and Teller’s Bullshit has some good pieces on all sorts of things, if you can handle the language.

How To Think About Weird Things.

Crimes Against Logic.

True. But so what? I can stand up for her and give her some respite, or be secret best friends with her. I believe I shall ask myself what Peter Griffin would do, and choose an opposing course.

I was a really bad parent, so probably I’m the wrong person to say this, but I should hope that I’d be honest enough with my kids so that they would come to me with any doubts. Moreover, her parents have already made it clear that they don’t intend to deal honestly or fairly with her.

No, I owe it to the little girl and to myself to be a non-jackass.

I’m not encouraging her to lie. I don’t even plan to encourage her to be an atheist. Nor do I plan to encourage her to confront them with her skepticism, because frankly all that’ll get her is more punishment. I am, however, inclined to agree with Mrs. Rhymer that it would be nice for her to have a clean, well-lighted place where she can sit and read without getting any shit. She is going to get endless shit on her skepticism this weekend in particular (big religious convocation she will be required to attend, and big family get together afterwad during which there will be public prayer centered on the state of her soul). She’s going to get endless shit till she submits, and I want her to have a safe harbor, because nobody gave me when I was that age and getting yelled it for wondering aloud about the theory of evolution.

To me, this is analogous to providing a voice to a gay kid whose family insists that fags & dykes all go to the hottest part of Hell. I know my extended family, and that’s the kind of crap some of them are readying.

I have many of the books recommended, and would myself recommend them, but I don’t recall her age. I assume she’s beyond third grade. Also, I don’t know her preferences.
I’d recommend:
Stephen Jay Gould’s books, especially his collections of essays.

Willy Ley’s books, if you can find them. He was a great science popularizer

Likewise L. Sprague de Camp’s essays. His SF and fantasy are great, too, of course, but not obviously skeptic.
Much of Martin Gardner’s stuff. His Fads and Fallacies is good, but dated. His Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener is good reading for adults and adolescents.

Jow Nickell’s skeptical books.
Philip Klass and Robert Schaeffer on UFOs

And, of course, those Straight Dope books. I hear they’re pretty good.

You might also try any of Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon Guide to …[whatever]” books. He has a ton of them out, and the historical ones (History of the Universe in three parts, plus the modern world) are great, but he tacles Physics, Comnputer Science, Ecology, Genetics, Communications, and…Sex, as well.Not to mention US history

So I should support her in a fashion entirely imperceptible and useless to her? Wow. That’s better than praying for her soul, as it doesn’t require kneeling.

This part of the discussion is better suited for IMHO or GD, so I’ll answer your post and then be still. I’m not encouraging her to do anything. I’m not setting up a room in the house as Skepticism Central. I am making sure she has a few books available to her whenever she wishes, which she can read without getting punished. I intend to give her physical custody of the books once she moves out and is on her own.

I’m not fighing a battle of reason versus faith with her parents. I’m not inclined to try to persuade them to change their belief system, because I don’t care what they believe. That’s their business. But I like the kid, and at little actual cost to me I can make her life a little happier.

I hear that that Cecil Adams fellow writes some interesting books.