During my time as a believing member of the LDS church, almost all of my pleasure reading was related to Mormonism. I read dozens of biographies of church leaders, doctrinal exegeses (including the infamous first edition of Mormon Doctrine), and, of course, the official canon.

Reading was a huge part of my transition out of the church. For the two years leading up to my resignation, I was spending six hours a day voraciously devouring any information I could get ahold of. When I wasn’t reading books, articles, or journals, I was listening to Mormon-themed podcasts and YouTube interviews.

When I left the church, I pretty much stopped reading for a while. I was exhausted and needed an intellectual break. With time, I got back into it, and now have a few gems I think would be especially valuable to secular people coming out of a religious background.

Here are my top reads from last year. If one of them catches your eye, consider purchasing it through our Amazon affiliate link. You can also listen to any one of these books for free if you haven’t done a 30-day free trial of Audible yet and feel like doing so. (Why not, you know?)

1. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Anyone who has left a high-demand religion should be used to questioning the fanfare of predominant narratives. Not only does this book question some of the most prominent characters and institutions of the United States, it also sheds light on the human cost of our foundational systems: capitalism and imperialism.

This book provides a shocking alternative view of “the greatest nation on earth,” by telling its history from the perspectives of some of its most marginalized members: Native Americans, African Americans, women, soldiers, and laborers.

While a refreshing departure from the whitewashed nationalist narrative, this book IS challenging—not in the sense that it is overly intellectual, but that it forces the reader to reevaluate some of their basic preconceptions about our socioeconomic mechanisms.

Perfect for history buffs and laymen alike, this book will help anyone develop a more mature vision of the most powerful nation on earth.

2. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This book movingly portrays the best and worst aspects of human nature at work in the American criminal justice system. You’ll be fundamentally disturbed by the corruption, exploitation, and cruelty, but profoundly inspired by the salvational work of a modern-day Atticus Finch, Bryan Stevenson, as he defends the most vulnerable victims of institutional injustice. You won’t just need a tissue, you’ll need a whole box!

It doesn’t matter if you lean liberal or conservative, this book will affect the way you think about the death penalty, racism, poverty, and our entire criminal justice system. I consider this one of the most eye-opening (not to mention heart-opening) books I have ever read.

3. More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux

Questioning is contagious. So I guess it’s no surprise when people who have overturned their entire worldview and identity begin to question other social constructs, like the nature of their sexual/romantic (the two aren’t always interchangeable) relationships.

This book is not an attempt to diminish monogamy or even necessarily promote polyamory. It is simply a guide for navigating relationships without the rigid structures imposed by Western traditions.

You don’t have to be polyamorous to benefit from this book. Even the most traditional monogamists will be able to better understand their own physical and emotional needs, how to communicate with partners, how to navigate difficult emotions like jealousy and anxiety, and above all, how to value actual PEOPLE, not just the roles they play in our lives.

This book was essential in helping me view all my relationships as evolving life forms, not stringent blueprints.

4. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

Though any of Alan Watts’ books or lectures could be listed here, I chose this one  because it speaks so perfectly to those who have had their worldview obliterated and now must ask questions like, “who am I?” or “what is the purpose of life?” or “what is the nature of universe?”

In this enlightening book, the exceptionally articulate Alan Watts builds a perfect bridge between Eastern philosophy and the Western mind, helping us understand what exactly we really are and how to have peace in increasingly anxious times.

This book was essential in helping me heal from the nihilistic despair induced by the loss of God. More than anything, it provided me with a conceptual framework for understanding the universe and my function in it, and opened the door to my own personal mindfulness practice.

5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book is ONLY listed last because I’ve already plugged it so much in other places. It’s actually my top recommendation for anyone at any level of religious belief/non-belief.

I call this book the Bible of our time because it provides a the most contemporary view of human origins and “progress,” tracking our evolution from savannah-dwelling primates to global civilization builders. Unlike the Bible, it doesn’t promote myths; it exposes them.

Again and again, Harari reveals the power that stories have in uniting large groups of individuals around a common cause. Be it religion, money, or the state, we have always been most motivated by shared illusions. This book peals back the curtain of our most prevalent cultural constructs to reveal the sometimes grim mechanics of human history.

Without an accurate view of where we come from, it is hard to understand where we are going. This book uses the most modern biological and historical evidences to help us reexamine outdated narratives, connecting our turbulent past to our precarious present so that we can understand what it takes to build an ideal future.

Tanner Gilliland is a writer, artist, and jazz hands enthusiast based in Salt Lake City, UT. Check out his art on Instagram: @tanner_gilliland, his jokes on Twitter: @tgilliland789, and his poverty on Venmo: Tanner-Gilliland

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