In addition to reading memoirs written by women who lived abroad, I’ve read my fair share of books on religion: those who seek it, those who have it, those who don’t believe in it.
I tend to read books about people who have lost their religion (as I did), but as long as the story is well-written and the author’s view is non-combative (I don’t want to hear from anyone who tries to convince me their beliefs are the only correct option), I will likely be interested.
Here are 20 books I’ve read about religion. Which one should I read next?
1) Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer
Description: Krakauer takes readers inside isolated American communities where some 40,000 Mormon Fundamentalists still practice polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God.
2) Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy, Dorothy Allred Solomon
Description: Since polygamy was abolished by manifesto in 1890, when raids were threatened, families were forced to scatter from their compound in Salt Lake City to the deserts of Mexico or wilds of Montana. To follow the Lord’s plan as dictated by the Principle, the human cost was huge. Solomon, monogamous herself, broke from the fundamentalist group because she yearned for equality and could not reconcile the laws of God (as practiced by polygamists) with the vastly different laws of the state.
3) Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck
Description: As Mormon royalty, Beck was raised in a home frequented by the Church’s high elders—known as the apostles—and her existence was framed by their strict code of conduct. When her son was born with Down syndrome, she and her husband returned to Provo, Utah, where they knew the supportive Mormon community would embrace them. However, soon after Martha began teaching at Brigham Young University, she began to see firsthand the Church’s ruthlessness as it silenced dissidents and masked truths that contradicted its published beliefs. Most troubling of all, she was forced to face her history of sexual abuse by one of the Church’s most prominent authorities.
4) Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, Jenna Miscavige Hill
Description: Jenna, niece of Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, was raised as a Scientologist but left the controversial religion in 2005. In her memoir she shares the true story of life inside the upper ranks of the sect, details her experiences as a member of Sea Org (the church’s highest ministry), speaks of her disconnection from family outside of the organization, and tells the story of her ultimate escape.
5) Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright
Description: Based on more than 200 personal interviews with current and former Scientologists—both famous and less well known—and years of archival research, Lawrence Wright uses his extraordinary investigative ability to uncover the inner workings of the Church of Scientology.
6) Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace, William Lobdell
Description: While reporting on hundreds of stories as a religion reporter, Lobdell witnessed a disturbing gap between the tenets of various religions and the behaviors of the faithful and their leaders. He investigated religious institutions that acted less ethically than corrupt Wall Street firms. He found few differences between the morals of Christians and atheists. As this evidence piled up, he started to fear God didn’t exist. He explored every doubt, every question—until, finally, his faith collapsed.
7) Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, Barbara Ehrenreich
Description: Educated as a scientist, Ehrenreich is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. Here she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here?
8) Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, Dan Barker
Description: Barker recounts his journey from evangelical preacher to atheist activist, and along the way explains precisely why it is not only okay to be an atheist, it is something in which to be proud.
9) An Unquenchable Thirst: Following Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, Mary Johnson
Description: At age 17, Mary saw Mother Teresa’s face on the cover of Time and experienced her calling. Eighteen months later, she entered a convent in the South Bronx to begin her religious training. Not without difficulty, this bright, independent-minded Texas teenager eventually adapted to the sisters’ austere life of poverty and devotion, and in time became close to Mother Teresa herself. During her 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity, she grappled with her faith, her sexuality, the politics of the order, and her complicated relationship with Mother Teresa. Eventually, she left the church to find her own path—one that led to love and herself.
10) Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, Tom Kizzia
Description: When Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their 15 children appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy, their new neighbors saw them as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal. But behind the family’s proud piety and beautiful old-timey music lay Pilgrim’s dark past. He soon sparked a tense confrontation with the National Park Service, and as the battle grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue.
11) The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Kevin Roose
Description: Kevin wasn’t used to rules like these. As a sophomore at Brown University, he fit right in with the free-spirited, ultra-liberal student body. But when he leaves his Brown to spend a semester at Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, obedience is no longer optional. Liberty is the late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp” for young evangelicals, his training ground for the next generation of America’s Religious Right. Liberty’s ten thousand undergraduates take courses like Evangelism 101, hear from guest speakers like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, and follow a forty-six-page code of conduct that regulates every aspect of their social lives. Hoping to connect with his evangelical peers, Roose decides to enroll at Liberty as a new transfer student, leaping across the God Divide and chronicling his adventures in this daring report from the front lines of America’s culture war.
12) Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor
Description: After nine years serving on the staff of a big urban church in Atlanta, Taylor arrives in rural Clarkesville, GA, following her dream to become the pastor of her own small congregation. Taylor has five successful years that see significant growth in the church she serves, but ultimately she finds herself experiencing compassion fatigue and wonders what exactly God has called her to do. She realizes that in order to keep her faith she may have to leave.
13) Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, Sarah Sentilles
Description: Sarah’s relationship with God was not casual. When it began to unravel she was in the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest, a youth minister at a church, and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard. But in the studying of the religion she’d been raised on and believed wholeheartedly, one day she woke up and realized it was over. Sentilles reveals how deep our ties to God can be, and how devastating they can be to break.
14) Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It, Jennifer Fulwiler (review here)
Description: Asking the unflinching questions about life and death, good and evil, led Jennifer to Christianity, the religion she had reviled since she was an awkward, skeptical child growing up in the Bible Belt. Mortified by this turn of events, she hid her quest from everyone except her husband, concealing religious books in opaque bags as if they were porn and locking herself in public bathroom stalls to read the Bible. Just when Jennifer had a profound epiphany that gave her the courage to convert, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition—and the only treatment was directly at odds with the doctrines of her new-found faith.
15) Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, Carlene Cross
Description: Cross looks back at the life that led her to marry a charismatic young man who appeared destined for greatness as a minister within the fundamentalist church. When efforts to hold their family together failed, she left the church and the marriage, despite the condemnation of the congregation and the anger of many she had considered friends. Once outside, she realized that the secular world was not the seething cauldron of corruption and sin she had believed, and found herself questioning the underpinnings of the fundamentalist faith.
16) Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir, Roger Benimoff
Description: An ordained Baptist chaplain, Benimoff spent two tours of duty in Iraq providing spiritual guidance to American soldiers. His experience takes an unexpected turn when he begins experiencing symptoms he had been trained to spot in recruits and veterans: difficulty adjusting to home.
17) Growing Up Amish, Ira Wagler
Description: Ira paints a vivid portrait of Amish life—from his childhood days on the family farm, his Rumspringa rite of passage at age 16, to his ultimate decision to leave the Amish Church for good at age 26.
18) Crossing Over: One Woman’s Escape from Amish Life, Ruth Irene Garrett
Description: Ruth was the fifth of seven children raised in Kalona, Iowa, as a member of a strict Old Order Amish community. She was brought up in a world filled with rigid rules and intense secrecy, in an environment where the dress, buggies, codes of conduct, and way of life differed even from other Amish societies only 100 miles away. This book takes us inside a hidden community, offering a striking look as one woman comes to terms with her discontent and ultimately leaves her family, faith and the sheltered world of her childhood.
19) My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, Tim Guest
Description: At the age of six, Tim was taken by his mother to a commune modeled on the teachings of the notorious Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The Bhagwan preached an eclectic doctrine of Eastern mysticism, chaotic therapy, and sexual freedom, and enjoyed inhaling laughing gas, preaching from a dentist’s chair, and collecting Rolls Royces. Tim and his mother were given Sanskrit names, dressed entirely in orange, and encouraged to surrender themselves into their new family.
20) I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage, Mary-Ann Kirkby
Description: This book is set in the little-known Hutterite colony in southern Manitoba where Mary-Ann spent her childhood. When she was 10, her parents packed up their seven children and a handful of possessions and left the security of the colony to start a new life. Before she left the colony Mary-Ann had never heard of Walt Disney or ridden a bike. She was forced to reinvent herself, denying her heritage to fit in with her peers.