Why Reading Fiction Should Matter to Atheists January 7, 2012

Why Reading Fiction Should Matter to Atheists

Unlike most of the stories I hear around the atheist blogosphere, my deconversion from Christianity had little to do with my understanding or appreciation of science and scientific pursuits; at its core, it was more about a personal journey through logic and reason, an inward reflection of the logical inconsistencies I observed throughout my years as a Christian. I wasn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of adaptive evolution — I wanted to know about the evolution of the religion itself, and what bits made up its necessary “core.” Essentially, I had the same questions that many doubting believers ask: Which version of my god is correct? Does God actually care for me? Is there really a heaven and a hell? What are the entrance requirements and fees?

Like many Christians, for a long time I fell into a grey area of “hate the religion, love the believer.” I was attuned to the hurt that I saw religion inflicting on the people around me, particularly the horrifying effect that the doctrine of “submission” had on my female friends and relatives, but I was also indoctrinated to believe that morality is contingent on religious belief (with a more youthful understanding and interpretation, I thought that only Christians were truly moral, but later -– how gracious of me -– extended the ability to be moral to persons of all religious faith). For a long time, I was able to get by with blaming “the institution” and letting its individual participants slide — hey, they were only doing what they were told, right? And they’re just a little misguided… right?

It wasn’t science that eviscerated that weakened platform that my religious belief was built on: it was books. Fiction books.

Lots and lots of fiction. And an education that forced me to develop some critical thinking skills in order to interpret said books and write papers about them.

The books that contributed to my deconversion were books that made me re-think the ground-level assumptions I had about how the world worked. Through books, my eyes were opened to new ways of living and new ways of thinking and, most importantly, the ambiguity of the right or wrongness of any one way of life. The books that most challenged me were the ones where my own supposed superiority was challenged. Or forced me to see what I thought were familiar issues from a brand-new perspective. Or forced me to confront my own complacency on certain issues. Or artfully demonstrated the possibilities and limitations of my own agency in the world. Or… so on and so forth. Books that really made me think.

While not everyone has access to a laboratory, most people have access to a library.

Best of all, purposeful, careful reading of media — books, blogs, movies, music, television — doesn’t require a formal education. Like PZ Myers, I believe that one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, when presented with new or conflicting information, is “how do you know that?” Coupled with even a rudimentary understanding of cognitive biases, the pursuit for truth will be ruthless and unforgiving. Ask the difficult questions, the “how” and “why” questions, which serve to foster critical thinking more than the easily-solvable black-and-white “what” and “when” and “where” questions.

After that, it’s up the individual and what sort of ink on paper excites them. There is much to be said about society, humanity, and culture in nearly every genre of fiction (not to mention the possibilities in other mediums I am neglecting in this post — non-fiction, poetry, art, film, theater, and music). For me, the most challenging pieces of fiction were authors that explored themes of gender, culture, and imperialism across the globe: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Sherman Alexie’s Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

Each of these books, hand in hand with the overwhelming amount of poetry and short fiction that I didn’t mention, played a role in developing my understanding of how the world worked and fueled the desire to make such an understanding as reality-based and objective as possible. Reading fiction sparked a desire for understanding that has extended into the realm of science writing; I think the two make a rather handsome couple.

In the atheist community, science is the unchallenged king. Science answers, or attempts to answer, the big questions about life: where we come from as a species, where and how our planet came to be, and why we are the way we are. For many years, religion has had a chokehold on these questions, squirreling them away behind the protective edifice of the Mystery of the Universe, but science — and the individuals who can harness its energy — has a peculiar tendency to ignore such threats, and carry on the tedious business of filling in a god’s gaps.

Science is undoubtedly deserving of its spot on a shining pillar, but if you’re like me, there were more books, movies, and video games under the Christmas tree than microscopes and medical journals. I can understand why we revere science so much and the contributions it makes to society, but I can’t for the life of me understand why we neglect the potential power of the stuff that makes up the bulk of our consumption and pleasure.

What about you? Did fiction play a role in your journey toward atheism, and if so, how? Does bookishness lend itself to the flighty, wishy-washy stereotype, or has it had a profound impact on your thinking?

Most importantly: what books were critical in your journey?

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  • jpg

    Great post. ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is probably the single most devastating (fictional) repudiation of religion I’ve ever read. And, yes, it definitely raised a whole lot of questions about religion that I had never considered before — and still haven’t found good answers to.

  • Mike Hitchcock

    I’m not sure if Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art…’ counts strictly as fiction, but it was a huge influence on my late-teen thinking when I first got hold of it in ’74 and I still read it every couple of years. I always seem to get something new out of it.

  • Though I can’t name any books specifically, fiction definitely helped me transition into atheism. Books have been a huge part of my life since I learned to read. Now, I’m an English Literature major. It’s easy for me to view the world through books. I enjoy reading stories that I can relate to, and that includes books with atheist characters. I have a hard time interacting with people so it’s much easier to understand things through fiction.

  • I hate most fiction.  I especially hated The Poisonwood Bible.  Science fiction–now that’s okay.  I grew up reading it, and it probably contributed to my atheism.  After all, I visited many different societies via SF.  But ordinary fiction about modern life.  Yuck.  

  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy definitely influenced me at a young age (I still wish “Where God Went Wrong”, “Some More Of God’s Greatest Mistakes”, and “Who Is This God Person Anyway?” were real books). Reading lots of Asimov, Heinlein, and Piers Antony didn’t hurt either.

  • Trina

    Sci-fi is still fiction, and some of it is among the highest-quality literature I’ve read…

  • Anonymous

    I recently thought back to the sort of things I read as a child (I was returning some books for my younger step-sister) and I had always been more into non-fiction. My dad taught me how to read by having me read the newspaper to him. I will indulge in some fiction but it has to be about something that can actually happen.  I hate science fiction.
    Books didn’t lead me to atheism but they have been helpful in helping me articulate my atheism better.

  • Joules Reid

    I read a ton of Science Fiction but the books that I was reading during my deconversion (and in truth there were two, I was an atheist for nearly a decade before I realized it) “A Wrinkle in Time” for the first one and “The Starlight Crystal” by Christopher Pike for the second. They’re not religious in the slightest but they raised a good deal of questions, personally, that caused me to further question religion.

  • Marvin

    Nice thing about good fiction, it helps teach you to see the world from other people’s eyes. Once you learn that, the moral horror of much of religion becomes inescapable.

  • Trina

    I’ve always loved to read, both nonfiction and fiction.   A number of factors contributed to my disillusionment with religion; things I read were certainly among them.   What I don’t understand is anti-fiction snobbery from otherwise quite intelligent people – there’s a great deal of intelligent and readable fiction out there. 

  • Sheila

    I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and a sci-fi fan.  But unfortunately for me, I was so brainwashed by my fundamentalist upbringing that I never even considered that any novel might be ‘real’.  They were just stories; the REAL truth was in the bibble.  UGH.  It was nonfiction reading, especially Charles Pelligrino, that finally helped me overcome my delusions.

  • Karmakin

    The works of Douglas Adams were very pivotal works in my life as well. The combination of cynicism and optimism really influenced how I look at the world.

    One thing people should realize is that for a lot of people, fiction is a bit of a tainted well. The way we approach fiction generally in primary school settings forcing academic themes on books where they really don’t belong, I think pushes a lot of people away from reading.

  • For me, it was a love of History that finished off religion….and the knowledge of the History of religions and their grim legacies.  In fiction I most often gravitated to Science Fiction…the classics at first….Asimov, Clarke….but later Douglas Adams, Larry Niven, etc.  Only later did I start reading more mainstream and literary fiction.  But yes, there are some very good/challenging works out there in fiction that seriously question religion.  I always appreciated Mark Twain’s having Huck Finn ponder the morality of slavery and how he’d rather help his friend Jim and face Hell than live in the boring vision of heaven spoken of by the white, Southern adults around him.

    Also, the actual act of literary analysis and study makes you realize there’s nothing particularly special about so-called “Holy texts” and that the same skills and analysis can be applied to those works as any other “non-sacred” works.  “Secular” literary analysis definitely imbues a different, more hard-nosed academic mindset than Theology does.

  • Anonymous

    Joules — Madeleine L’Engle was very Christian, and “A Wrinkle in Time” was thinly veiled Christian writings, replete with Bible verses.  The amusing irony was that, during your deconversion, it didn’t appear to hinder you.  I wonder if it helped on some level?  Did the planet where everyone was made to conform raise question in you?

  • I had the good fortune to listen to HPL’s audiobook version of this before they weeded it (it was a book on cassette) and it was a wonderful reading experience.  Also managed to get a hold (via Interlibrary Loan) of an abridged audiobook copy of the sequel, “Lila”, which was good, but not as good as “Zen…”

  • JimG

    Isaac Asimov said that as a child he read enough Greco-Roman and Norse mythology that by the time he got around to the Bible he clearly knew he was reading Hebrew mythology.

  • Joy Morris

    First Robert Heinlein and later Sir Terry Pratchett were the fiction writers who helped me to see the other worlds that were just outside my own front door.

  • Ren

    Yes yes this! Reading fiction forced me to look at things from multiple perspectives and taught me empathy in a way that made me ask questions honestly. An author of good fiction knows more about the concept of ‘humanity’ than almost anyone. Ursula K. Le Guin, a personal hero and brilliant brilliant writer, was probably the single greatest guide I had from evangelical Christianity to secular humanism.

  • aimee eisiminger

    Absolutely books contributed to my atheism  as well as science.  Books have always been a very powerful instrument in the de-conversion of many of us.   I think that books were my “gateway drug” and science just jumped up when I put away all the superstition.  It is the logical trajectory.  

    I think fiction and non-fiction alike are equally guilty of creating atheists.  But one thing has to be said.  There are those who read extensively but surround themselves in the protective cocoon of one type of literature particularly the type of literature that agrees with their sentiments.  It takes a small step outside of that box and things can change drastically for the open minded reader.  

  • I remember watching a documentary biography of Joyce that feature, I think, a film adaptation of “Portrait…” and there was one scene where Stephen is being critical of the Catholic church and someone asks if he’s gone Protestant and he smirks and says “why would I want to trade a logically consistent Absurdity for a logically inconsistent one?”, or words to that effect (I haven’t actually read “Portrait…” all the way through, nor “Ulysses” nor “Finnegan’s wake”, only audiobook highlights of “Dubliners” and a few biographies of Joyce.)

  • Wow Amanda, you kind of hit the head of the nail right there for me. I agree with you… I was never raised in a going to church every Sunday family, but we believed and had Christian values that my family spoke about, I spoke about these things with mostly my sisters. But once I got into high school, then into college I was introduced to a variety of different genres of literature.  One book in particular that shined the light on me was The Source By James Michener. The book followed an archeologist  into the middle east and
    as he discover the past the book went in to stories from these times. Starting with the first civilization all the way up to the early formation of Judaism and Islam . The book depicted a world unknown to me. Sacrifices of the first born and virgin ceremonies where women were given as gifts to men for having the best harvest in the town. But more importantly it showed the evolution as they left one belief and began to believe something else as the generations evolved with more intelligence. At the time I was reading this book the war on terrorism had been going for about two years and the racist hate towards Muslims was still very strong and It had occurred to me that I was uncomfortable with the comments made by my peers in class about the war, and I began to speak my mind on the subject, which put me at odds, even with my teacher. That foundation from a fiction book is why today I am an atheist. It sowed the seeds for my personal discovery. Thank you for this post Amanda!

  • Ken McKnight

    The book I was reading when I realized I was an atheist was Inherit the Wind.  True, it was based on the Scopes trial, but I’m quite sure reading a transcript of the trial would not have moved me so deeply.  That was almost 47 years ago.  Another book worth mentioning, a hybrid of fiction and science fiction, is Slaughterhouse Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut, an atheist who came from a long line of German freethinkers.

  • Sarab

    Reading Of Human Bondage at 17 made me realise I’m an atheist.

  • I agree John it wasn’t the science for me, it was reading about cultural  history. I know that in order for us to know what happened then in a lot of cases science is the leader, but learning the history was from those sources made up my mind.

  • I can trace my aversion to religion to when I was 3 or 4 years old, but in my primary school days it was definitely “Encyclopedia Brown” detective stories that forced me to search past my cognitive biases. Those books were like “Columbo” for kids. It was a great series of books. Sad that it wasn’t made into a successful movie franchise.

    And through my recent foray into writing a non-fiction book about atheism, and learning more about America’s first militant atheist, Charles Chilton Moore, I have been inspired to write a novel loosely based on his life (I’m changing him to a her.). It will be interesting to see if my female character goes through the same trouble that Moore endured, i.e., death threats and fist-fights. I’m going to assume she’s treated a bit different.

  • I grew up as a free thinker, no de-conversion necessary, so I don’t really associate fiction with my atheism.  I have had it strengthened and validated by the non-fiction greats, Dawkins, Hitch, Harris, and I just finished Penn Jillettes’ book .  But I have two graduate degrees, Biology, and Library Science!  Both of which have enriched my life, I just have never associated fiction with atheism.  Interesting idea.  I love Poisonwood Bible  ;).

  • As a child I really liked reading about Greek mythology as well as science books.  I can’t say for certain which, if either, is more responsible for my disbelief but I’m I do have a vague memory of asking myself “what makes these gods fake and the one i learn about on Sunday real?”   

    Later on things like hearing XTC’s Dear God and George Carlin ranting about religion made me feel like I wasn’t all alone in what I thought.

  • Tinker

    Wow, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how many people came to Atheism through the same route I did. I cut my teeth on Isaac Asimov while I was still a believer. Dr. Asimov had wonderful stories that didn’t need a God to make the universe run. Later while I identified as an agnostic (which I define as belief in God but not Religion) I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the first time. While I didn’t have an epiphany that suddenly I was an Atheist, I did find Adams’ work to be the greatest bit of science fiction/comedy fiction I had ever read. As I finished the 4th book in the ‘trilogy’ I was so pleased to discover that he had extended the series by one and snapped that one up too. 

    Another writer that I have enjoyed for his take on how life works (or could work in another timeline) is R. A. Salvatore. His Drizzt novels show a young man raised in a strong maternal religious society that turns his back on them and does what HE thinks is moral instead. Those novels show that religion is a Dogma that people follow because they are told that is the moral route instead of following their own conscience. 

    Of course the most popular work of fiction there ever was is the reason I am an Atheist today – I read the Bible.

  • mcfa

    Historical fiction, anything and everything I could get my hands on.  It not only showed me that there are other ways to view the world and frequently had a female lead (completely at odds with religious submission), but instilled a desire to know how Christianity formed.  “A World Lit Only By Fire”, which details Martin Luther’s Reformation and the social forces behind it, was the catalyst for leaving the Catholic Church  (well, the pastor at my church leaving because of the sex scandal probably helped . . . .).  “The Last Templar”  and a women’s history course for declaring myself a non-Christian. 

  • Anonymous

    Hurrah for fiction!

    I’m afraid that for me it was a double-edged sword. I’ve been a reader since the age of 2 and a half or so. I read non-fiction (we had an encyclopaedia and books about dinosaurs and ancient mammals and human biology), but much more fiction. I developed into quite the Romantic.* I got a thrill from dramatic, emotional narratives, got a thirst for pageantry and ritual, and gave free rein to fantastic imaginings about magic and the natural world. This led me to study history in school (specifically the history of religion) and it also led me to adopting pantheistic neo-Paganism as my religion.

    Fiction may not have been the catalyst for me to drop religion, but it definitely inoculated me against believing there was one true religion. It also helped to inform my humanist and liberal view of the world which prevented me from ever getting sucked into Christianity. It was the Internet that turned me into a feminist and atheist.

    *To be honest, I can’t tell whether my being an avid reader made me into a Romantic, or whether I would’ve had the same disposition without it.

  • Secular Planet

    I read constantly, but I almost never read fiction. I just don’t like it. I read history, philosophy, science, religion, culture, language, etc., but I just don’t like to read stories.

  • CSA

    Believe it or not; the book that for me really questioning things was The Da Vinci Code, followed up with Holy Blood, Holy Grail. These really got me to thinking about God and the Divine and how it is really all man made.

  • T-Rex

    I always likened Tolkien’s Simarillion to the Bible, but it’s much better written and more realistic and believable than the Xian Bible. The Dune series And George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice are other favorites of mine. Hard to get through the Bible. That’s just horrible fiction.

  • Wow, Amanda. Thank you so much for posting this. A lot of literature, movies and video games especially helped me come to atheism as a logical conclusion. Worth a look: Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” the game “Deus Ex” and the prequel, “Human Revolution.” Cheers!

  • Randyman72

    Yes Trina, I too have noticed a lot of anti-fiction snobbery as well. This summer, President Obama was criticized by many, when he revealed that many of the books on his reading list were fiction titles. In a story on NPR’s “On The Media”, a noted literary critic took these naysayers to task for their snobbery. Said critic noted that Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps our most well read U.S. President (and that is saying a lot!) read everything-he read fictional literature (both past and present), drama, periodicals, science, history,etc. Good old T.R. would probably have found the snobbish criticisms against Obama’s taste in reading material to be utterly absurd, and perhaps even stupid!

  • I recall being struck by a very warped moral compass in _The Source_ in the the narrator seems to be saying that the public sex for the fertility goddess was somehow worse than the infant human sacrifice for some other god.

  • L.Spangler

    For me Shakespeare’s Hamlet was always there since High School always echoing the line “To thine ownself be true.” That has always guided me. 

    The first time I really thought about the inconsistencies, delusions, and fallacies of religion was reading one of the books from David Gemmell’s Drenai Saga where the former priest/priest-on-his-way-out debunks a bunch of religious people who said a villain was killed by lightning sent by god and the man responds that it was not god but the metal spear he was waving in the air. The greater eye-opener for me was when that same character calls religion basically a win-win situation because if, to paraphrase, “the harvest dies then it is god’s test, but if it flourishes then it is god’s blessing.” It really got me thinking how religion always has the “answers” but doesn’t really answer anything or really help beyond placation.

  • I was raised non-religious, but one influence of books pushing me further from religion was reading Gibbon’s _Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire_ and the Roman Empire part of Durant’s _Story of Civilization_. There were mentions of disputes between different Christian sects & I was struck by how it always seemed the be the crazier sect that became orthodoxy.

  • Alt+3

    I’m not a big fan of fiction. I get that a lot of people enjoy it but it just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not particularly big on stories. I tend to just remember whatever I read as a series of mostly unrelated facts, which makes books heavy in symbolism particularly difficult to read. Of the fiction I do read most of it is sci-fi because I like thinking about starships and mech-suits. However my two favorite series are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, probably because they’re so rich in minutiae. The books stand perfectly well on their sheer number of “fun facts.”

  • Anonymous

    Piers Anthony was the first author I ever read who I knew was an atheist. I was actually disappointed at the time, because I really didn’t understand the concept yet.

  • Kyt Dotson

    As a book author and a writer, I’d like atheists to read fiction because I don’t want to lose an audience! One of the things that I’ve discovered from the hyperreligious and dogmatic is that they automatically shy away from fiction because it’s a format that presents ideas that are difficult to dismiss — or it presents ideas that they disagree with in a positive light.

    In fact, I find it hilarious that the propagandists on Mill Ave will happily hand me their literature about whatever thing they’re currently touting, but when I offer them a fiction book from Mill Avenue Vexations they take one look at the goth girl on the cover and reject it out of hand. No audience there.

  • I agree that the moral compass of the book was not ideal, i am just saying that it was the book that opened my eyes to other beliefs and how belifs evolve over time, and to me showed that no religion had the correct answer and that it was all just myth, that people have created to explain existance and if i didnt believe in one religion what made mine more correct, it sowed the seeds. (on a side note the sexual ceromonies was mind blowing to me, and in a way I agreed with the narrator on this matter, and for one reason, these virgin women after the sexual encounters would become pregnant married to these men who already had wives and the first born to any woman would then be sacrificed. They basically delibertaly took more than one wife to have numerous sacrifices to the god. The pubic sex was worse because of what it lead too, and my mother wonders why I’m apposed to blindly following religion)

  • Lana

    I love fiction. Historical fiction, like Johnny Tremain or Calico Captive or A Break With Charity, sparked my interest in history. It was reading books like those as a child that led to adult-me reading historian’s accounts of medieval Europe or the fall of the Roman Empire. I am often baffled by the seemingly common tendency of modern society to dismiss our collective history.

    I love fantasy, because my dad read me classic fairy tales and Norse mythology as bedtime stories. As I grew up, I read the Belgariad series and Narnia and the Golden Compass, among others. I found the idea of mortals interacting casually with their gods much more logical than the weirdly dispassionate idea of worshipping a god who can’t be bothered to acknowledge your existence. I yearned for magic and faeries and pegasi in the real world, but by the time I was 8 I had come to the reluctant realization that no matter how much I wanted magic to exist, it didn’t. And it never would. I still sometimes feel a small ache in my heart when I think about the fact that I will never, ever be able to clean the entire house with a whispered spell. That was the first time I had to deal with the loss of not only belief, but the hope in that belief, and it was painful but cathartic. I also think it laid the groundwork for how I would look at god when I finally examined that question.

    I love sci-fi, because it’s almost prophetic, in a self-fulfilling way. In imagining these incredible impossibilities — interstellar space travel, phasers, wireless handheld communicators, touchscreen computers, colonizing other worlds, interacting with alien species — in imagining them and depicting them, these incredible and fantastic dreams are normalized and made possible. We look at these sci-fi representations and say, “How awesome would it be to have that?” — then go about making it a reality. I think that’s incredible. 

    The only thing I’d like to see more of in sci-fi is what role religion might play in colonizing other worlds. I read a book recently called “God’s War,” where a mostly inhospitable planet had been colonized and terraformed by what was inferred to be a Muslim sect. This sect split, and the schism caused a religious war that raged for centuries. The plot follows a series of characters who range in religious devotion from almost atheist to extremely devout. The atheist/ agnostic characters almost appear to be less disbelieving in god and more just exhausted at the toll war has taken not only on their lives, but on the lives of the lives of their friends, family, grandparents, great-grandparents, and the toll it will take on any potential children. It’s a grinding, exhausting existence that requires all citizens to fight and breed for god and the empire. In the midst of this, a ship comes down from the sky, and the aliens on the ship claim they can help Side A create a weapon for Side B. [[[[SPOILER ALERT :: IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOK DON’T GO FURTHER :: SPOILER ALERT]]] The catch, of course, is that the aliens are in fact an xtian sect who views the entire Muslim-settled world (and religious war) as pointless (because, hello, wrong god!), and just wants the weapons from this world so they can go win their own interstellar religious war. They don’t care if that means killing or intensifying the war on this terraformed planet.

    It was a really depressing read. But it also really made me wonder what would happen if we reach interstellar space travel and otherworld colonization before figuring out how to neutralize and quench religious fervor in our society. It’s an uncomfortable idea, and while I hope we would enact something similar to the Prime Directive, I can’t help the dreading certainty that we as a species will have to, at some point, deal with humans trying to force uniquely human religions and traditions onto alien species.

  • I’m surprised no one has mentioned George Orwell! I think 1984 is a brilliant novel, and the parallels to Christianity are quite striking. Big Brother, indeed.

    I grew up atheist, so fiction didn’t influence my lack of belief. However, it did expose me to many different religions, and I was certainly aware that all those religions made contradictory claims.

    If I had to list my recommendations for burgeoning atheists, I’d go with 1984The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Things Fall Apart

  • Mindy

    Great post!  I am a librarian/book reviewer, so I read a lot of fiction for work and for pleasure.  I very much believe it helped me to move past the black and white thinking with which I was raised.    

  • monyNH

    I can’t exactly trace–or even prove–a connection, but I first began questioning my (relatively liberal) Protestant church teachings around the same time I first heard Kate Bush’s music. She also brought me to British literature (which ended up being my major in college) and a love of Celtic culture–really, she was the first artist to draw me out of the small, if lovely, world I had been living in.

  • Jen

    ISHMAEL by Daniel Quinn 

  • Bevidence

    Most horrifying movie ever? Because it’s a possibility [life after nuclear war] …the British made movie, “Threads” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQo0BQM3OlQ

  • Angie Yates

    I definitely hold your perspective on this. Fiction (especially science fiction) was the window that allowed me to see outside of the heavily conservative Christian world my parents raised me in. I think it was a process of understanding relativity from the point of view of other realities.  
    The books that made the biggest difference for me were ones that showed situations where the best intentions in the form of rules and laws actually resulted in worse societies. Dystopian novels like Brave New World, 1984, The Giver, and even The Series of Unfortunate Events. 

  • walkamungus

    Yep! “There is too much God in Ireland. Away with God.”

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in Ireland and went to a Catholic school, and we had to read this book in English class… which is pretty amazing now that I think about it.

  • Anonymous

     I can’t point to any particular title or even genre that pushed me into disbelief, but I think science fiction first opened my eyes to a much bigger world than the religious worldview allowed, and showed the possibility that earth’s religions are petty and parochial. Later on I read a lot of John Le Carré spy novels, and saw these supposedly good guys living in a bleak amoral landscape – they were really no better than the “bad guys”, just a different tribe. So I think the fiction I read made the emotional argument against religious belief, while science made the logical argument. People believe in religion for emotional reasons, not logical ones. If someone is firmly wedded to their religious beliefs, all the logic and evidence in the world won’t sway them. But if they feel trapped in a small box by their religion, and/or they start to value intellectual honesty more than warm fuzzies, then the door is open.

  • Kit

    What a great article! I understand why  science is important to non-theism, but it’s always irked me a bit that it has become the replacement for religion in a lot of ways. I can value its potential to bring us some answers about our past and our universe, but I don’t need to be a scientist to challenge religion.

    For me, my “ink on paper” is history. I became actively interested in religion after studying history and public history at the graduate level. A couple years ago, while watching
    Bill Maher’s Religioulous, I was struck by how similar the Christian theme park is to Colonial Williamsburg.   Religious people with quasi-historical religious texts sometimes remind me of hard-core Constitutionalists, because of the way they “remember” certain parts of the past in such a personal and emotional way. Since then, I’ve looked at the older religions as cults of historical memory.

  • Albion

    Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Here were two men I admired and respected–each of whom eloquently and repeatedly explained why religion was nothing but the confused scramblings of a flawed humanity.

  • Anonymous

    I say “Science shows us that existence without gods is possible, History shows us that religion is untrue.”

  • Tiffanyyancey18

    Love The Poisonwood Bible! Just finished it in Literature class and it was amazing!

  • I love reading and have read from many genres over the rears.  Non-fiction finally struck me as something that allows one to see a three dimensional character/person/situation better than non-fiction does..sort of like when you look in the bird identification book with photos vs. a book with paintings.  The paintings do a better job of showing different features on a bird.  

    I love non-fiction but I have always read fiction.  I enjoy fiction even more lately.  I know that science is fantastic and I love science.  I also think that a fair number of people got started out of religion based not on science but on how they felt.  Some people couldn’t stand the thought of people burning in hell.  Some couldn’t take the way they were being treated/taught to behave as women and this has led a number of women to question religion.  Cognitive dissonance for some has made them so internally uncomfortable that they simply had to do some research.  

    Science can help a lot at many points in the journey away from religion.  So can the feeling/desire that one wants to be authentically who they are. 

  • Bryan

    Portrait… definitely has some excellent theological critiques, as does Dubliners.

    That said, the only thing I remember of Ulysses (which I could never quite finish) is a relatively graphic description of a man taking a rather smelly dump.  Something about stench rising while he leafs through a newspaper…

    Carry on with your mature conversation.

  • A library is an arsenal of liberty. — Anonymous.
    Ever since I first read that quote, it has (for me) perfectly summed up the entire question.

  • Cass Morrison

    Nice post, I definitely think reading fiction plays a large role in denting the foundations of religion and it’s probably more accessible than science because it’s created to be entertaining. I started with mythology, stumbled over to LOTR then harder sci-fi – all by the time I was 10:) Now I love all kinds of sci fi from dystopian future to space opera to military sci-fi.

  • Jessica

    Great post! The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was one which got me thinking about my gender’s mysterious absence from religion.  Also, as others have alluded to, nothing cures christianity faster than reading the bible!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    For me, the most challenging pieces of fiction were authors that
    explored themes of gender, culture, and imperialism across the globe: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, …

    That one does deal with culture and imperialism, but it has rightly been criticized for its treatment of women. Can you give me the names of the protagonist’s wives?

  • oambitiousone

    Just ran into Pratchett while perusing the library stacks. Any “best” place to start?

  • oambitiousone

    Short version of how I left Christianity: looked up Thomas Paine (Common Sense) and Mark Twain (Letters from the Earth)  while in the library due to a gentle prod by my favorite prof  who dropped those names.  Both were like dynamite in my brain. I never went back to church (as a believer) again.

  • mattcudlipp

    Gibbons  got to love him really,

    “We stand in need of such reflections to comfort us for the loss of some illustrious characters, which in our eyes might have seemed the most worthy of the heavenly present. The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human natures. They filled with glory their respective stations, either in active or contemplative live; their excellent understandings were improved by study; philosophy had purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular superstition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system.”

  • Kate Galey

    Many places. If you want a gentle, seductive introduction into his style, read Good Omens, the book he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. If you want to start at the very beginning with his discworld books, pick up The Color of Magic. I started with his first City Watch book, Guards! Guards!, and it’s still on of my favorite books ever.

  • Good Omens is my favorite book ever. I find Hogfather is also a great overall look at Discworld and much of the philosophy behind it.

  • Charles Black

    No one seems to have mentioned Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, where the characters worship Henry Ford as a diety (C20th Industrialist in case you didn’t know) & the soma (A sophisticated hallucinogenic drug). gives the comfort that religion used to give even though one of the characters dies from it. It can be argued that the author is likening religion to a drug in that it warps a person’s sense of reality & can even kill that person in large doses. 

  • Silo Mowbray

    There is a very much-overlooked book by Daniel Keyes called ‘Flowers for Algernon.’  It’s about a mentally disabled man (with an IQ of around 65) whose world changes when an experimental procedure corrects his disability and he ends up being fiercely intelligent, smarter in fact than the neurosurgeons and scientists who performed the research and procedure. The story is in turns uplifting, heartbreaking, infuriating and eye-opening, and is as much about tolerance and acceptance as it is about struggle and injustice. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has sold millions of copies, but I almost never hear people talk about it. Maybe it’s because its ultimate effect is to trigger deep introspection in its readers. This is a very fine work of fiction that should be required reading in high schools.

  • I must’ve been ten years old (and still nominally Christian) when I reasoned that “Nothing I read can hurt me.” I suspect that the back of the Quisp box (dating myself) had as much to do with my eventual atheism as anything else.

    Of course, reading the Bible when I was 11 pretty much killed the Abrahamic God for me, but I still had to work through the Bhagavad Gita, Vedanta Sutras, Buddhist Sutras, etc., etc., etc. All this took years, growing up in a small town in the Midwest and having other interests. I still recommend both Lin Ye-tang’s translation of Chuang-Tzu and any decent modern translation of the Illiad to anyone who wants to know what first-rate Bronze Age scripture is capable of. (Ecclesiastes versus The Shield of Hephaestus? Are you kidding me? Go, Homer! And Chuang-Tzu — Taoism is the world’s funniest religion in terms of intentional jokes in their sacred texts.)

    SF/F through high school and into college, then modern poetry (Cummings! Pound! Williams!), then scattershot for a couple of decades until I rediscovered Poe, Bierce, M.R. James, and am currently working my way through the more obscure Victorian and Edwardian horror writers (with the French and the Germans on the back burner, this could take a while). Also fiction, but not literary, are pre-Code comics and classic radio drama.

    (“New atheism” is nothing new, and the world was once much more secular, only a few decades ago. You won’t find Jesus in Lovecraft.)

    I had a long transition to Atheism, and, perversely, the works of Joseph Campbell had a lot to do with it. Of course, Campbell favored a kind of Jungian-Universalism rather than Atheism, but he made it damn difficult to read scriptures — or contemporary fiction — as anything other than metaphors for states of consciousness. That of course, led me to investigate “states of consciousness,” and I spent several years watching my cats, who are, so I’m told, non-conscious.

    Long story short, electrical discharge across synapses. That is all. But that’s enough.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Edith Hamilton and Homer in 6th grade.  Followed by large doses of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, and every anthology of classic SF that the library had.  Add to that non-fiction from Bronowski, Sagan, and Asimov.  (I also read The Source in high school, maybe that was helpful as well.)

  • My dad introduced me to both Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” and Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by the age of 13. I started questioning religion at age 13. I’d say both series helped me on the road to atheism – one for deconstructing (although not in the Foucault-ian sense) religion, and the other for being really funny and really skeptical of god.

  • I have never been entirely sure if Incarnation of Imortalality  was pro or anti religion. 

  • Love David Gemmell. 

  • I received a degree in English, and fiction definitely helped pave the way for my atheism. The piece of fiction most influential was the Bible itself, I think, and that led to my becoming a deist and eventually an agnostic.

    I didn’t identify as atheist until or around the time I read Catch-22 (this is pretty embarrassing) and Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” That book was filled with terrible ideas, but it served as a gateway drug that got me interested in actual philosophy and actively reading more fiction on my own, and it led to me reading Hume, among others, whose fictional account “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” was very influential to me. And my interest in philosophy would later lead to my interest in science, as I found the epistemology the most interesting subject and that science was the best way to gain knowledge, these leading to my learning more about the philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and science itself.

  • Fitzy

    I can’t give all the credit to fiction, but I do remember reading the His Dark Materials series by Pullman when I was starting to lose my religion and it really made me think about things I was having trouble processing. A few years later when I had mostly escaped from religion, I watched Battlestar Galactica and it was incredibly interesting in how it dealt with religion. I would say those two had a pretty big impact on me.

  • Small Gods

  • To read I strongly recommend the Liar & Hippopotamus by Steven Fry.  Both are excellent at looking at reality and the world fro a different perspective (and dirty). 

    Reading is only one branch of artistic media and Monty Python needs to be a part of any young atheists curriculum.

  • Greg

    One of the biggest fictional influences upon me was Duncton Wood (and the rest of the books in the two trilogies), by William Horwood. I was young at the time (~10 I think), which perhaps meant that it had more effect upon me than it might have if I’d read it later.

    It was one of the first books I read that dealt with philosophical and moral issues, and I think that’s what made the biggest difference.

    Interestingly, the Christian story was a huge influence upon the first trilogy (or at least the second and third books), but I believe Horwood converted to Buddhism(?) part way through, which is perhaps why it had such an effect upon me – I may have been picking up on his own changes in beliefs.

    I always find it interesting the way my views on the characters and their words have changed as I’ve grown older, and my own religious and moral beliefs have altered.

  • Greg

    Oh, and when I was even younger I used to read a lot of Greek and Roman mythology, so that probably helped too!

  • oambitiousone

    I can’t believe I forgot Tom Robbins — Another Roadside Attraction, Jitterbug Perfume.

    As I look up your recommendations re: Terry Pratchett, it looks/sounds like he might be in the same category as Robbins (philosophy+wit+acid-trip imaginings).

  • BlueJay

    “Illusions” Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach made me imagine how a modern day messiah would be received.
    “Ishmael”, by Daniel Quinn changed my view of bible stories by suggesting that the Cain and Able story might have been about a conflict between tribes.  That made so  much more sense than the traditional interpretation.

  • Mrsmulle22

    For me: Social sciences did it. I have two Sociology degrees, the first one actually obtained from a faith based (but rigorous) learning environment. They didn’t hide the “non-christian” aspects of the science, and they included in my classes books like “The Moviegoer.” All of it together started my journey out. But existentialist books like Percy and Camus sure helped. At some point the popular argument for being able to read books like that… “It is fiction, it is another world where there is no god/god is different. It is just a story, lighten up!” forces you to wonder why that is so easy to imagine.

  • Teknospaz

    Many of Pratchett’s books are something of a series, they can be read as stand alone’s  but you may miss something because of lack of familiarity with characters. “Small Gods” would be an excellent place to start, it is moving and funny, and an amazing take on religion!

  • kaileyverse

    Oh, So amazing. Love that book.

  • kaileyverse

    I read both fiction and non-fiction books with great regularity. I am currently reading Slaughter House Five (again) – and recently finished a book that reported the stories of mothers who were coerced/forced to give children up for adoption in the 50s/60’s.  I don’t think an education is well rounded or even worth it if you don’t expose yourself to all different kinds of ideas.

  • Bryan

    Yes, Small Gods is great.  The concept of a god’s power being directly related to his popularity is ripe for satire (and if Pratchett knows anything, it’s satire).

  • Bryan

    I haven’t actually read the book, so take my comment with a grain of salt (though I have read Waiting for the Barbarians and some other Achebe books).

    However, Things Fall Apart takes place in a patriarchal Nigerian village around the turn of the century. If women had a big and important role, it wouldn’t be very historically accurate.

    Now, again, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know the specific instances we’re talking about, but the women may have been marginalized in the book because they were marginalized in the society.

  • Are you referring to the fact that women are beaten and abused throughout the novel? To me, that’s sort of one of the points of the story. Okonkwo and his people aren’t “noble savages” whose peaceful and progressive culture  is destroyed by the missionaries. His culture is every bit as barbaric, but the arrival of Christianity does nothing to help. 

  • I’ll also note that while the early volumes seem a rather more freethinking type of religion, the series gets almost fundamentalist in later volumes — by “Many Waters” in particular.

  • A lot of science fiction and fantasy probably contributed. Looking about my bookshelves….

    Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy
    Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series
    David Eddings’ Belgariad
    Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” (and “Job”, though less so)
    Frank Herbert’s “Dune”
    Katherine Kurtz’s Dernyi novels (which have a large focus on Christianity — but with a not-quite-Catholic Church, with institutional imperfections major elements of the focus)
    George R.R. Martin’s “Tuf Voyaging”
    Larry Niven’s “Draco Tavern” short stories
    John Varley’s “Steel Beech”
    Roger Zelazny’s “Lord of Light”

  • Craig

    The Saga of the Well World, by Jack Chalder… in essence asks the question… what if “god” were a computer that controlled reality.

  • Anonymous

    for putting up Chinua Achebe’s classic book cover.. also for putting up Sherman Alexie and Audre Lourde

  • Thanks so much for writing this!  Reading fiction has always been a big part of my life and it therefore played a role in influencing my views on religion.  Although reading books that were explicitly arguments against religion/for atheism are what caused me start calling myself and atheist, due to the lack of evidence, it was the other books I read which caused me to doubt religion and got me to a point where the kind of god I believed in was so vague that I had to finally admit it was a belief in my own mind without external support.  

    A few of the authors whose writing influenced me have already been mentioned, including Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Ursula K. LeGuin.  

    I especially enjoy science fiction and fantasy books.  One of the many aspects of these books which caused me to doubt religion was the fact that there are sometimes other fictional religions included in these books (e.g. religions believed in by people on another planet).  So, when the Qur’an challenges readers, if they have doubts, to produce another like it (2:23-24), I could see that there are indeed many other religions that we all agree are fiction, as they were made up for the purposes of a fictional story.  So, if people could make up a fictional religion, then it’s possible that the religions that people believe in could also have been made up.  Not to mention the fact that some of these fictional religions are actually more internally coherent than the religions people believe in.  

    There are so many other aspects of stories that influenced me as well, such as seeing morality portrayed in these stories, but I don’t want to go on and on.  Suffice it to say that I was very much influenced by my reading.  

    Thanks again for writing!

  • kataton

    Excellent, excellent post! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the under-explored relationship between art and critical thinking/atheism. Thanks for bringing this up!

    As for books that got me thinking, “Things Fall Apart” has been one of the most important books of my life. “Hitchhiker’s Guide”, “Good Omens”, and “Hamdmaid’s Tale” are all on my list too. There was also an excellent Canadian author by the name of Margaret Laurence whose works, while mostly having feminist themes, often deal with the question of god and blind adherence to tradition. “The Stone Angel” is a must-read, about an elderly woman facing the end of life.  

    I’m surprised not to see any love for Salman Rushdie or Alan Moore in this thread, unless I’ve missed it? “Midnight’s Children” is just amazing, and I think the fallout from “The Satanic Verses” speaks for itself. What happened to Rushdie after publishing that book has had as much of an effect on my views of religion as the book itself. And his writing is unreal-the man is a true artist.

    Finally, Mr. Moore…I think “The Watchmen” is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. It presents to us a race-our own- that creates gods, then abdicates all personal responsibility to said gods at tremendous peril. A more poigant exploration of the truth that humans and humans alone (however unwittingly) engineer our own fates, I have yet to read. 

    Just thinking about all these books again has made me happy. 🙂

  • I read Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” and it’s awesome!  I’ve been meaning to read “The Watchmen”, as it looks really interesting.

  • banana slug

    I’m sort of surprised it hasn’t been mentioned, but one of the books that started pushing me was Dante’s Inferno.  I also read the Purgatorio, but lost the Paradiso before I finished it.  Anyway, reading it and knowing it was completely made up and really a thinly disguised political commentary got me thinking maybe some of the Bible was made up.  Of course I already knew some of it was from reading lots of mythology, but this made me think more about the NT.

  • kataton

    Definately read it! In addition to masterful storytelling, “The Watchmen” has masterful art. I recommend Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” as well. He explores similar themes to those in “Watchmen”, and it’s very haunting.

  • oli kenton

    I read a huge amount of fiction when i was in primary school and my favourites were Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. When i got around to reading the bible, it just read as badly written fantasy. More over, the clear moral line between villains and heroes in fantasy and sci fi was hard to see in the bible. We kept getting told that God was lovely but he does bad guy stuff. And Jesus and the apostles didn’t do anything heroic at all. Even Christs sacrifice means nothing since he isn’t up there long enough to die from it (he gets the quick way out of a spear in the side instead of the long drawn out death by starvation) and immediately goes to heaven with cool superpowers.
    I’ve continued to love fiction, particularly fantasy and sci fi. I’ve just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (which is awesome) and particularly enjoyed the reaction of the avout (cloistered intellectuals living like monks) to those believing in religion, quaint surprise followed by an inevitable debate as to exactly why their faith makes no sense.

  • Berlie Parks

    I’m a Salvatore fan, too. While I don’t agree with all the philosophical themes of the books, for the most part they are awesome. At the very least, they make you think and show hints of what intervention by a true god would be like.

    I also recommend a book I read many years ago called Voyage from Yesteryear. An excellent book that looks at how the influence of society has a greater impact on our actions, beliefs, and prejudices than most would realize.

  • Eleanor O’Neill

    Just finished Anathem myself. Excellent in all ways.

  • absent sway

    Thank you for this post! Books challenged me to broaden my faith, and then challenged me to dismantle it, not all at once, but little by little. Fiction, in my experience, is very effective at prodding one to examine the way one approaches the world. I was still a believer when I read “Things Fall Apart,” and it really shook me up.

  • Great post here. Curiously, my love of fiction has done the opposite for me, and I can name pretty much most of the books mentioned here as some of my favourites. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, some Greek mythology, Poisonwood Bible, Heart of Darkness, etc. They’ve turned me off atheism and towards Christianity. Viewing the complexity of right and wrong through the lens of these novels hasn’t destroyed or disproved anything for me. I have seen things from ‘other perspectives’ and it hasn’t shown up the moral horror of religion any more than the nightly news or the internet has. The moral horror of religion existed long before Jesus claimed to be God-in-the-flesh. I happen to believe him when he says it; and my love of great, complicated and complex fiction doesn’t change that.

  • I would wholeheartedly champion the title of this post; that yes, reading great fiction matters very very much. Let’s not get carried away by saying why it matter or what it can ‘prove’.

  • Noelle Morris

    I’ve never been a very religious person, but the reading I did as I grew up made me more aware of my atheism. It wasn’t necessarily all from one category; I mostly read fantasy and other fiction novels, but I also read books about science, history, and language. The most influential readings for me, however, have been books about culture, religion, and ESPECIALLY the anthropology of religion. Once I saw that people everywhere believe strange things, and that their religious beliefs tend to feed back into and support their cultural beliefs and social mores, I began to realize that no religious model of the world was any truer than another. It’s strengthened my belief in the power of anthropology — essentially a scientific method of self-reflection — to open minds and encourage critical thinking.

  • Bbowyer

    Loved the post. I remember to the minute when I realized that I didn’t have to believe. I was reading Tom Robbins – even cowgirls get the blues. Never looked back.

  • It’s not fiction, but Shakespeare in the Bush is a perfect companion to Things Fall Apart:


  • I find this interesting, particularly your choice of 1984 as a favorite novel. For me, the similarity of Big Brother to the biblical deity is incredibly striking, especially the punishment for “thoughtcrime.” I have a hard time seeing how Christians (at least traditional ones) could embrace this book, given its condemnation of the totalitarianism and torture that Winston is subjected to.

  • That’s hilarious – I had to read that book in catholic elementary school, and I HATED it. Didn’t pick up on the xian angle.

  • Same here – reading the bible definitely helped, reading about the history of religions/cultures really cemented it for me.

  • And ‘Skinny Legs and All’ – one of my favorite books of all time.

  • So glad you mentioned ‘The Stone Angel’. It blew my mind in high school, and I still re-read my well-worn copy.

  • BdrLen

    I have probably learned many times more about science by reading science fiction, that I ever did in school. Reading historical fiction has made me interested in reading history and learning about the period. I have a library with 4 double stacked bookshelves and a kids bookshelf.

    If I had to pick a favourite right now it would be Robert J Sawyer. Robert J Sawyer’s book are all great. He writes about dinosaurs and Neanderthals and a self aware internet. In the last decade he has really matured as an author and his stuff is amazing.

  • Stacy Reeves

    Stephen Brust’s To Reign in Hell was one of the books that pushed me from reluctant believer to confident atheist.  It’s a sort of retelling of the story of Jesus and the angelic war from Lucifer/Satan’s perspective (with some other mythological creatures tossed in for good measure).  It basically asks, “What if Satan was actually the good guy?” and presents Jesus as the egomaniacal, selfish “Teacher’s Pet” who pushes out Lucifer/Satan, God’s previous favorite, and threatens all those who disagree with him.  Satan loses in the end, of course, and as a result becomes the ostracized scapegoat for all things bad and evil, despite him being the nicest and most selfless person in the entire book.  After I finished reading it, I thought to myself, “You know, this isn’t any more or less absurd than the story the Bible tells.”  And that was when I started to question what I was told, and stop believing that good was good because someone told me it was good, and more importantly, that bad was bad just because someone told me it was bad.  I learned to start playing Devil’s Advocate (quite literally, in the case of this book) and attempt to see things from the perspective of the oppressed or shamed or villified.  

    It was a great read, and I highly recommend it.

  • Adam Agonis

    Ironically, fictional atheists are always wrong. Wrong in such a way it’s like the universe is conspiring against atheistic authors. A god in the universe of their fiction is just another character, while the author is the true god of the fiction.  I just wrote a post about this topic.  While googling a few things, I found this article.  I thought I’d share:


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