Got a Plot Idea for an Atheist Novel? October 21, 2008

Got a Plot Idea for an Atheist Novel?

November is National Novel Writing Month and at least one of our readers, Jennifer, wants to write that 50,000-word beast of a novel.

She wants it to be about atheism…

But she needs a good plot idea.

If you ever wished to have more fiction novels that deal with atheism (or related topics), throw out any plot ideas you have. I’m open to any suggestions! Even tips for what NOT to do (how not to stereotype atheists/theist, etc) would be appreciated. So…brainstorm here, and maybe you’ll actually find the book by me some day!

And just as an aside…I generally like to write things that would be considered futuristic/speculative fiction, with some sci-fi/fantasy in it. I guess I would be aiming to create something along the lines of the Golden Compass, but not necessarily as fantasy like. Any help would be greatly appreciated =)

What advice would you offer?

All I know is that any story about atheism must include: babies, communion wafers, and the banana that saves the day.

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  • Robin

    How about a novel about an exorcist who is successful based on the notion that he/she “cures” demonic possession by proving that the demons don’t actually exist?

  • Polly

    Isn’t virtually all Sci-Fi atheistic?

    I hate to rain on the parade, but novels, stories, TV shows, movies, whatever that are crafted with the intent toward “a message” tend to be lame. I’d hate to see atheists start producing the equivalent of Xian fiction literature.

    A Mormon friend watched the Golden Compass movie and enjoyed it. He didn’t get an atheist message from it. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, so I don’t know.

    So, my advice: be SUBTLE. Don’t lay it on too thick. Don’t have Captain Rational swoop in and save the day using evolutionary biology or some such thing while all the characters stare in awe. No overly caricatured theist nemeses, either.

  • Gabriel

    Write an atheist romance novel. I bet that hasn’t been done yet. During climax your protagonist could yell out “Flying spaghetti monster”

  • Gabriel Says:
    one yet. During climax your protagonist could yell out

    I never though of the awkwardness that atheism could lend to sex. Phrases like “Oh, my non-existent god”, or “Invisible pink unicorn” don’t really roll off the tongue in a moment of passion



  • I’ve got a few ideas!!!

    But I already used them myself. 😉

  • amz

    There is one example of an excellent novel where one of the key themes is atheism: Contact, written by Carl Sagan, the one who taught us that astronomy is looking up. 😉

  • Maybe a quixotic quest for a god to worship – looking for Yahweh, Zeus, Vishnu, etc. It can be humorous AND insightful.

  • fmitchell

    In my novel I have “Flat Earth Atheists”: witches who know magic exists, and perceive a Source of magic beyond human comprehension … but to them “gods”, including the Big G, arose from fumbling primitive attempts to harness magic. Why channel power from an uppity spirit, never mind *abase* yourself to the damn thing, when you can go back to the Source itself?

  • HP

    Write a High Fantasy novel, only instead of elves, dwarves, and dragons, feature God and Satan and angels and demons.

    For example: An atheist dies and is astonished to find himself standing corporally before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Despite leading an exemplary life, he is summarily banished to Hell for his atheism. Once in Hell, he sets out to improve the lives and ease the suffering of the Damned. Eventually he begins to organize the Tormented Souls to resist Satan and his minions. Once the Damned have liberated themselves from Satan, they set their eyes on the real prize — reaching out to Blessed, to shake them out of their complacency and cast God out of Heaven.

  • amz

    @HP: That sounds a lot like His Dark Materials.

  • I love some of the ideas above where a deity is incorporated as part of the fantasy.

    Maybe some sort of further extrapolation on the “Chariot of the Gods” scenarios where astronauts find the “creator”, solve the Prime Mover issue.

    Or maybe where an atheist society recreates a deity long after such is passe’.

    Maybe they find ways to actually animate the deity with human emotional energy and it takes on a life of its own, ala “Hal” but much bigger.

  • Jay

    I actually have already wrote two novels which are about (in a general way) atheism, but I am currently searching for a literary agent but have found many who are afraid of any novel that deals at all with religion.

    My first novel was 90,000 words and it’s sequel is nearly 100,000 words. Either way, I continue to work hard trying to get representation.

  • HP

    @ amz: Hmm… Never read it; never saw the movie. Great minds, huh? You gotta admit, it’s a pretty good story. Well, back to the drawing board.

    Jennifer could always write a roman à clef about her own journey to atheism.

    Or, how about this: The protagonist begins as a faithful member of a Pentacostal/Evangelical/Fundamentalist type church. In these early chapters, the supernatural is as real and tangible as can be. A series of events leads to the gradual erosion of the protagonist’s faith, and at the same time the supernatural elements fade, grow abstract, resolve into natural phenomena, etc., until they’re finally absent.

  • Mike

    Hey, I actually did this in the last Nanowrimo! I failed miserably, but I got a few dozen pages done. Here’s the idea, and take it away: Near future, Christian government (this year there’s an easy scenario: McCain wins (hey, this is fiction!), dies, and Palin’s in charge). Follow the travails of a very closeted atheist and his Jewish coworker as they get embroiled in an underground atheist club which gets raided when they are there. The rest of the book is them on the run from a scary scary government. Then some epic ending wherein they expose the government and get people to think for themselves somehow. Nondeus Ex Machina!

  • Gabriel G.

    @HP: It’s close to an old idea I had.

    An atheist finds himself in the afterlife standing in an empty white space. A voice calls out to him and sends him to hell. After going to hell, he seeks out Satan for answers. Turns out Satan, while not being a saint (hardy har har), isn’t really a bad guy. He rebelled against God for always being treated like a slave to an “over-controlling bipolar old man with short term memory” (his words, not mine). Any who, the atheist makes a deal with Stan (yes, Satan’s real name is Stan) that, in return for fighting for him, he (Stan) will help him (the atheist) get into heaven and to God.

    At that point, I’m not sure how it should go. One way could be that it was all a dream and the atheist was just in a coma. But that seems kind of cheesy or something.

    Never said it was a good idea >>

  • Future setting. Devoted bible believer goes back in time and finds out that the Exodus never happened and that Jesus never existed.
    Discouraged but not defeated, believer goes back even farther to the time of Tiktaalik, and finds out that at least that existed.

  • Thanks for the plug, Hemant! *gobbles up all the ideas*

  • mikespeir

    Isn’t virtually all Sci-Fi atheistic?

    Actually, no. I wrote three Christian sci-fi novels before I de-converted. Since then I’ve tried to write atheistic novels, but find it hard not to get preachy. Then the plot suffers. I’m generally more interested in writing a good story than pushing a philosophy.

    And, yeah, 50,000 words seems a little small to be called a novel. The one I just finished was 82,000–the shortest I’ve written.

  • A priest who loses his faith, fights depression and alcoholism, but reluctantly ends up on a mission or quest to help people in war zone/natural disaster/famine/victims of dragon attacks/etc. and discovers the good that exists in humanity and finds his purpose in helping others. He ends up giving his life to save some people.

  • Steven

    Here’s an idea that Spider Robinson mentioned but never (as far as I know) developed any further. You might want to check with his representative before expanding on it:
    Suppose a time traveller were to rescue doomed children from throughout history just before their deaths, then place them on a planet with technology to meet their needs and answer their questions – but no adults. Would they develop an atheist culture?
    If I can come up with any original ideas I’ll be sure to post them.

  • Idea 1: Protagonist dies, relives various out-of-order moments in his/her life. Protagonist learns stuff. It’s a simple premise, and I’m sure you could work whatever subtle atheist themes you like into it. Oh, maybe there’s a “guide” who is choosing the order of the story, but we eventually come to question the guide’s intentions?

    Idea 2: Futuristic setting with lots of technology, but nobody understands how it works. They think they understand, but their understanding consists of superstitions. Um… bad stuff happens, hero saves the day?

    Idea 3: Fantasy setting. Protagonist is meant to fulfill a prophecy. Antagonist believes in a different prophecy, and is trying to stop protagonist. Both prophecies, as it turns out, were wrong, though not necessarily malicious in intent.

    Er… I think my ideas are only getting progressively worse as I list them.

    Idea 4: Fantasy setting. We follow the life of an atheist in a universe that has obvious supernatural qualities (the flat-earth atheist archetype). It’s a comedy?

    Idea 5: Realistic setting. An atheist and a theist walk into a bar. Wait, no, I’m out of ideas.

  • Epistaxis

    A handful of normal people go about their normal lives. Religion is never mentioned.

  • umm.. all novels are atheistic- they do not believe in a supreme being… but that aside how about a social themed science is amazing kind of work- exploring the wonders of science and using rational explanation….

  • All I know is that any story about atheism must include: babies, communion wafers, and the banana that saves the day.

    Sounds like you’ve got your NaNo plot all ready to go, Hemant!

  • Polly


    When I was about 12 I read a Xian sci-fi book. For a kid’s book, I don’t think it was too bad. The idea still seems somewhat intriguing. Discovering an “unfallen” world.

    I also watched a xian version of the time-machine. It was very much what one would fear. At the end we learn that the time machine cannot go more than a few years into the future even though there’s no inherent technical problem…can you guess why not?

    I had 2 ideas for xian sci-fi. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned them before, either here or on DA. One idea involves discovering the petrified remains of the Tree of Life and cloning it to regrow it in modern times.

    But, now I’ve strayed into the opposite of the topic.

  • I’m partial to plots involving time travel, so I would like to see that worked in.

    One word of advice: It would be a good idea to not involve the railroad industry or architecture 😉

    I’m just sayin’!

  • Cathy

    As far as the scifi goes, anyone else ever read Heinlein’s Revolt in 2010? It is a bit outdated and sexist, but it still might be a good starting point (the plot involves a future where the US has turned into a complete theocracy). Or, you could go satirical like Adams or Pratchett. Pratchett coauthored a novel with Neil Gaiman called Good Omens which is a personal favorite. It pokes fun at the Christian Apocolypse story. You could try something like that, taking a biblical story that everyone thinks they know and showing how ridiculous the idea actually is.

  • Lynn

    As someone in the storytelling business once said, if you wanna send a message, use Western Union.

    Actually, I’m paraphrasing, and the quote has been attributed to one or another of the great studio heads at some point.

    But it’s true.

    If your intent is to send a message, your book will a)suck and b) not get published.

    Just write a great story. If you have a noble character who happens to be an atheist (as long as the audience isn’t taken out of the story every three paragraphs and reminded of the fact), that says more than writing some horridly dull little book meant to shove atheism down people’s throats.

  • Gabriel

    You could watch the “dance like a monkey video” that would make a pretty cool atheist novel. I wonder if you would have to share royalties with the new york dolls?

  • David Broome

    I actually just got done reading what could be considered an atheist novel. It is called Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston. It was surprisingly engaging and a fairly easy read. Its about finding “God” in the singularity of a brand new powerful collider, like the LHC. I highly reccomend it for a good science fiction, religion-critical story. The twist in the story was really cool, but I dont want to give anything away. Very pro-science and pro-reason.

  • RNB

    Re fantasy fiction, I like SciFi, but some of it is definitely not atheistic, in fact some of it appears to be quasi-religious.

    However, all detective and mystery fiction is atheistic. Almost by definition. Because if there were to be a supernatural explanation for anything, it would just be a rubbish story. Nobody would believe it. Which is why it’s so sad that people believe the supernatural explanations in real life.

    I won’t link here, but have blogged on the subject.

  • Kyle

    I have suggestion. Have you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? A father and son are at the end of a long journey in a post-apocalyptic world. The father has clearly come to understand there is no god (it’s subtle, as they say, not a polemic). There are references to “blood cults” rising up and fading away. There is widespread devastation and hopelessness (and cannibalism!)

    But at the end, there is a sort of religious cop-out; the son is saved by a band of wandering future-believers. The novel implies this is the seed of hope (and religion) in the world.

    My suggestion – write that novel but change the ending. Find a way out for humanity that does not involve God-belief. I would read that.

  • Cafeeine

    mm.. all novels are atheistic- they do not believe in a supreme being… but that aside how about a social themed science is amazing kind of work- exploring the wonders of science and using rational explanation….

    I’ve always thought the opposite. Novels are inherently theistic, in that an intelligence has complete control over them.

    Here’s my contribution, which I will try to implement myself, but lacking in time and talent I doubt it will go far.

    Theoretical physicists get out of their slump and discover the Unified Theory, along with indisputable testable proof for the atheistic nature of the known universe, told from a creationist perspective. Wacky hijinx ensue.

    Challenge: not to turn it in to an anti-Left Behind book.

  • mikespeir

    A handful of normal people go about their normal lives. Religion is never mentioned.


    Personally, I think that’s the best suggestion. Demonstrate a world where God or gods aren’t given a thought, yet the universe and people work like they always have.

    At the end we learn that the time machine cannot go more than a few years into the future even though there’s no inherent technical problem…can you guess why not?


    Uh, it’d give the time of the Rapture away, and we aren’t supposed to know “the day or the hour”? C’mon! That’s it, isn’t it? What do I win?

  • Polly

    LMAO! hmmm…I have some wristbands that look surprisingly similar to rubber-bands. 😉

    The weird thing is that the closing shot is of the scientist continually resetting the machine for a slightly nearer future each time. The clear implication being that he is going to discover the day and the hour of the 2nd coming. At the rate he was going, it would’ve taken him a few hours at the most. So, they contradict the Biblical teaching. This man CAN discover the day and hour. They probably end the movie to avoid such a conundrum.

  • mikespeir


    There’s another problem: you could still find out when the Rapture is not happening. Most pre-tribbers also believe in imminence. With your time machine it would be possible to determine that it won’t happen in the next, minute, hour, week, year–whatever point in the future you could reach. That wouldn’t set right with them. Of course, they could claim that the future isn’t fixed; that whatever future you visited wouldn’t necessarily be the one that would happen to you. But that would obviate the other problem as well and effectively blow the whole point of the plot out of the water.

  • @HP, you wrote:

    Write a High Fantasy novel, only instead of elves, dwarves, and dragons, feature God and Satan and angels and demons.

    You should check out Ted Chiang’s stories, like “Hell Is the Absence of God” and “The Tower of Babylon”. He is as close as you can get to my favorite SF writer, but he’s frustratingly non-prolific. The first story is a great one set in the modern world where a literal Old Testament style God is very real. The second one looks at the classic story as if it really happened but with some SFnal twists.

    One idea I like, but which has been done already a few times in Star Trek and probably many other places, is the idea of Yahweh being real, but not as we think. For example he could actually be an alien. (I actually find this possibility although vanishingly remote, still more likely than the standard story. See when you die, Alien Yahweh will just load your sorry atheist butt right into his virtual Matrix hell! Yikes!)

  • vivian

    How about a book for all the christian females out there? A novel about a woman who writes children books with atheist overtones, and her struggle with the christian society. In the end, she suceeds and leads the next generation to grow up atheists, and all religion is banished. Which also leads to a better society, and a better world. OK maybe that’s more of a wish than an idea.

  • Almond

    If I could think creatively, I’d be a writer instead of an accountant, so I can only offer more examples of non-theistic SF. I just finished Ursula LeGuin’s the telling in which the heroes practice a godless religion. It was fantastic. She’s one of my favorites. I also read Hell Is the Absence of God when I was still trying to be a believer, and was profoundly impressed by it.

  • Beijingrrl

    Actually, there is an atheistic romance novel with sci-fi elements. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Henry, the time traveler, does not believe in God. Clare, his wife, starts out believing in God and I’m not quite sure where she ends up, but there are some interesting discussions. It’s a small part of a very long book, but quite well done. It’s one of my favorite recent novels, but I had to be prodded into reading it because I generally hate love stories. No chick lit for me! I actually view it as more of a tragedy or horror story although it is undeniably about love. If you’ve been reluctant to read it because of it’s reputation as a romance, fear not.

  • A respectful retelling of the Exodus story, pretending that it has some historical basis but subsequent myths and legends have blown it out of proportion. Moses starts out as this Gandhi-like figure—maybe not even the son of an Israelite himself—who’s sensitive to the plight of the Israelites and helps free them, overcoming his fear of man and lending authority to his rhetoric by attributing many of his ideas to a God higher even than Pharaoh.

    As they move into the wilderness, it becomes apparent that Moses is completely unprepared to lead so many people through it. He quickly loses the respect of the people and they fall into anarchy. Distinct tribes arise among them (perhaps all 12, if you can make it fit.) Through diplomacy, Moses brings them together, and the leaders try to form a set of rules for a structured society that cares for all men as best it can, and according to the ethics of the day. The talks take place on Mount Sinai. They get close to forming an agreement, until an unrelated squabble at the foot of the mountain divides them once more, and they leave to return to their tribes, arguing. Only Moses and Aaron are left on the mountain.

    Disgusted, Moses realizes he alone doesn’t have the ability to stop men squabbling and oppressing one another. He brings together the treaty they had been working on and rewords it as though it came to him from God. He tries to abstract God as much as possible by making up rules that no idols of God can be carved etc., but he knows that any God figure will ultimately be used by authorities like those in Egypt, to oppress people. He just can’t think of a quicker, easier way to bring people together to travel through the wilderness. Aaron is critical of the idea that an extra higher authority is needed.

    The book closes just before Moses descends the mountain, while Aaron sets as much of it on fire as possible, to catch everyone’s attention.

    “You’ve set a god in stone,” Aaron warns him just before Moses begins speaking. “You’ve made a Pharaoh from words themselves, and set in stone. That’s a pharaoh no one can conquer.”

    Moses stands there for a while, looking at the crowd, who’ve fallen silent in awe of his theatrics. He smashes the two tablets against a rock on the mountain, then tells the crowd that no law, no man, and no god lasts forever, but he has brought from the mountain a law from a god who has promised to help them through the wilderness to the promised land, if only they’ll help one another.

    The end! Woo! Best novel idea ever! Clap clap clap!

  • Bostonian

    The most interesting uses of religion in sci-fi books that I’ve encountered re-frame existing religions by offering a glimpse into what “really” happened. (Advance warning: the examples below contain spoilers.)

    The best known example is certainly The DaVinci Code, in which we discover that the original religion of Christianity was centered on both a male and a female spiritual leader, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who married and had a line of descendants who would have been a royal lineage. But a misogynistic version of Christianity in which Mary was a prostitute arose and squashed the real one, so those descendants had to be kept secret; they were the “royal blood,” or sangre real, a term that over the years had morphed into san grael or “holy grail,” which in actuality is a family and not a cup. In other words, it presents a plausible alternate history that utterly repudiates an established religion, and while it’s a work of fiction it nevertheless makes thoughtful readers consider what sorts of religious history have been blotted out by religious institutions.

    Another one I recently read is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which takes place in a future time when society has gone entirely laissez faire (in other words, you wouldn’t want to live there). In this time a right-wing religious leader has taken over the Pentecostal church and seems to be responsible for launching inexplicable cyber-attacks on people who are connected to the Multiverse, an advanced version of the Internet. The attacks actually kill people in real life, a la The Matrix. The revelation toward the end is that when the Pentecostals speak “in tongues” they are actually speaking an ancient human language that evolved along with the human brain, and that allowed people to transfer information by effectively programming each other with words. At a historical time called the Infocalypse this language was replaced by dogmatic religions and non-inherent (i.e., “made up”) languages like the ones we speak today, and that Infocalypse survives in human memory as the Tower of Babel story in the Bible. The attacks on the network users in the story turn out to have been attacks using this ancient language, which still works on our brain structures and can be administered in visual or viral form. It’s a lot to absorb all at once, and I have no idea how Stephenson pulled it off, but like The DaVinci Code it’s a stellar re-imagining of religious history, both Judaism and Christianity. It actually deals with a lot more religious historical specifics than I’ve hinted at above.

    Were I to write an atheist novel I would do something like these stories have done. I’d try to upend established truths from one or more major religions by building the story’s underlying concepts around an alternate history.

  • Bostonian

    … Actually I hadn’t read Falterer’s comment, just above mine, which is a similar treatment, though Falterer is proposing that you write an actual alternate history of Exodus. I’m proposing a more sci-fi treatment that would make use of such a history.

    So taking Falterer’s idea and giving it a more sci-fi treatment, you could make your novel take place in the present or future but rely upon Falterer’s history as its underlying bedrock: perhaps the true history of Exodus becomes important for some reason and some characters discover the real story.

    You’d need a future-time sci-fi concept that relates to Exodus. Maybe a viral outbreak was the real story behind the “plagues” that preceded the migration of the Israelites. How that virus’s DNA was incorporated into the human genome affects how we have to fight off the infection today. Maybe an antagonist is using his knowledge of the real Exodus events and the agreements of the Twelve Tribes to locate and find/destroy an ancient sample of the original, unmutated virus at the tomb of Moses at Mount Siani.

    Or whatever. I can’t easily come up with a novel-worthy concept in one sitting, but this is the sort of thinking I’d be doing if I wanted to target religion using fiction (fighting fire with fire :).

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