Where Are the Atheist Fiction Books? May 14, 2012

Where Are the Atheist Fiction Books?

Robin Hanson wonders why atheists — lovers of truth, so we say — don’t give up fiction:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love… truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more… truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

The answer seems obvious: Most of us enjoy fiction because it allows us an opportunity to see ourselves in the characters, to see how they grapple with problems that we face — or will have to face in the future. It’s also fun to use our imagination and explore new worlds through the eyes of a gifted author.

More to the point, though, we enjoy fiction because we know we’re reading stories. People aren’t making the claim that Harry Potter must be real and then basing their lives and creating laws around that. People do that all the time when it comes to Holy Books.

Here’s a related question: Why is it that books described as “Christian fiction” (like the Left Behind series) are so predominant that they get their own shelves in bookstores, but atheist books are overwhelming non-fiction? It’s always about science or arguments against god/religion… I mean, can you even name a fictional book centered around atheism? There have been some, but certainly not many. Is there a reason atheist authors rarely dabble in the fictional world?

***Edit***: Readers point out that there are several other authors of atheist fiction — e.g. Phillip Pullman, Douglas Adams, Gene Roddenberry — so maybe a better question would be why atheist fiction isn’t as popular lately?

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  • Stephen

    It’s unfair to say that fictional stories are somehow separated from what is true. The great fictional stories are the ones that deal with ideas, emotions and experiences that are very real, and define an element of the human experience.

    As for atheist authors, you’ve left out the Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman. While God is in the story, the stance of the books are critical of religious institutions and mindsets. Like all great sci fi and fantasy, it creates another worlds that mirrors our own. Fiction, with truth.

  • Fsq

    I laugh my ass off when I see the Christian Fiction sections…..seems rather redundant to me….

    That said, in additions working for a magazine journalistic style, I am also a published author. I am currently under contract for my second book, this time a work of fiction (my first book was non fiction and based on experiences living in small town Alaska).

    Writing fiction as an atheist is no different thAyone else writing fiction. It is joy to flex imagination and create. It is nothing more, and nothing less that.

    Take the latest blockbuster The Avengers. I saw it twice in the first weekend and loved loved loved it. Yup, it has gods and magic and crazy shit. Just because I enjoy it and let my imagination get carried away in fan boy joy does not mean I go home and worship Thor or pretend the celluloid world is real. If anything, it is more that the theist pes have real issues with fantasy and fiction.

    The only line in The Avengers that bugged me was when Captain America is getting ready. To jump out of N Irplane and help the others with Loki. The female character says to sit this one out because he is doing battle with gods and magic to which he replies “I only know of one god ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that”.

    That line was put in there deliberately to prevent religious freaks from calling for boycotts of the movie because it pays homage to Thor and Loki. Bullshit yes, necessary for financial success, probably, forced by theists with no imagination yes. Atheists would not call for such nonsensical pandering.

  • “Christian fiction” warrants its own section because it involves glurgy books filled with predictable plots.  Protaganist is a devout Christian who suffers a crisis of faith but comes through it with stronger-than-ever faith in the end.  Alternatively Protagonist is an Evil Atheist who is shown The Light and becomes a True Believer.  There’s little real drama (except the finding of gawd, of course) and certainly no romance beyond hand-holding or a chaste hug. 

    What would “atheist fiction” be?  Would it be fictionalized accounts of real-life situations faced by atheists, fiction written by atheists or merely fiction that doesn’t include religion? 

  • beijingrrl

    When I read a fiction book, unless the author specifically brings up their religious beliefs, I just assume the characters are atheist.  I’m sure Christians assume they are Christian.  Thankfully, most authors don’t drag us down with the religious beliefs of their characters.  Even with books I know have a Christian bent now that I’m an adult – I’m looking at you “A Wrinkle in Time” – I still don’t think of the characters as religious.

  • mcbender

    Don’t forget Sir Terry Pratchett.

  • Ideally, atheist fiction would just be … fiction. With atheists. I don’t like “agenda fiction,” where the author is spending as much time or more making sure you get the right message as they are telling a story.

    I suspect that there are a lot of atheist authors writing fiction, but maybe it’s just not as noticeable because they’re not writing agenda fiction.

  • IndyFitz

    Tell me about it! Last year, I published an anthology of truly thought-provoking atheist-centric speculative-fiction stories, called “Atheist Tales,” but getting anyone to buy it has been next to impossible. I’d LOVE to have an “atheist fiction” shelf in the bookstores!

  • For kids, there is Octavia Boone’s Big Questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything by Rebecca Rupp.  For teens, there is Godless by Pete Hautman.

  • Because there’s difference between enjoying something you know is not true, vs. believing something is true that isn’t.  We can appreciate The Starry Night and a starry night, and not confuse the two.

  • I wouldn’t consider the Dark Materials series to be atheist at all. It’s alternative universe fantasy, and is full of magic (as well as God).

    It certainly is, as you say, critical of religion, and in that sense it’s a good read for atheists, and of course for children. But I think that to label something “atheist fiction” it really needs a story (or more likely a major character) centered around atheism- not anti-religion.

  • Anon

    That line in The Avengers pissed me off too but at the same time I can understand it in character. As a good boy from the ’30’s and ’40’s Steve probably would have been at least nominally Christian.

    On the other hand, if said religious freaks had seen ‘Thor’ then it would have been clear that Thor and Loki are very much not gods. They are essentially aliens who appeared on Earth a couple of thousand years ago due to magictechnology and because they exhibited supernatural powers they were hailed as gods.

    But The Avengers was pretty awesome, wasn’t it.

  • I think the (original) question is fundamentally flawed by the assumption that somebody can choose to become religious. How exactly does an atheist do that?

    I think there are several answers to the second. First of all, it’s more of a challenge to write about the absence of something than its presence. Second, until recently, you needed a publisher to produce a book, and publishers are mostly big companies that don’t want to be too controversial. And of course, atheism is controversial, although much less so in the last decade than it was before that. How much openly gay fiction was there, say, 50 years ago?

    With the growing acceptance of atheism, as well as the ability to easily self-publish, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more stories with openly atheistic protagonists becoming available in the near future. And of course, the whole civil rights twist to the subject could make for some great tales.

  • Because it’s easier to write stories that ignore scientific realities. Making up whatever you want to create tension, drama or to wrap up your story in a nice little bow is preferred. Making up fantasies is the easiest way to do it. Deux Ex Machina is considered lazy for this very reason. There are ways to create an entire universe full of fantasy concepts, but at the end of the day it has to relate to the human reader. You have to retain some semblance of reality. There is a reason we get angry when the author kills a character only to have them come back through magic with no consequences. We intrinsically acknowledge (even the religious) that dead is dead in this world.

  • Richelle

    It’s not fictional literature, but this past season’s Doctor Who contained an episode called The God Complex – the two main companions, Rory and Amy, are nonchalantly revealed to be atheists, and it deals with issues of hope and faith in the face of fear. It was really good.

  • Arc

    Hanson’s asinine question strikes me as something a stoner philosopher would say to blow the minds of his friends or maybe something Ray Comfort would smugly ask thinking it was some sort of “gotcha.”

    Frankly, there’s Christian fiction sections because there’s a market for it. Some Christians will read nothing else, like those who will only listen to Christian rock. Their entire lives revolve around Christ, so when they want the trappings of modern life, those trappings have to revolve around Christ as well. There simply aren’t many atheists who live their life this way. If there were, you’d see the “atheist fiction” sign right next to the “Christian fiction” in Barnes and Noble.

  • Coyotenose

     That’s Captain America’s character, Fsq. It doesn’t have to be an agenda-laced quote, and even if it actually was*. Cap is the quintessential American, and that includes being religious, because that’s what people were when he was growing up. It also includes minding his own business. The only reason he even brought it up was that he was being told to stay out of the affairs of “gods”. If anything, Cap was indicating that he does NOT defer to supernatural ideas simply on the basis of their existence. Even demonstrably real gods of myth and legend can’t make him back off. Frankly, as an atheist Marvel fan, I found it to be good writing.

    *Why would it be? The Thor movie did just fine without throwing bones to Jesus, and
    Disney movies have non-Christian gods in them all the time. And by the by, Joss Whedon commonly includes religious themes and references in his work. He understands them as Joseph Campbell did. He doesn’t encourage or discourage them; he gets that they exist as cultural elements that cannot be ignored and that can add to a story.

    Also, a boycott would have HELPED this movie. Streisand Effect, you know.

    “Writing fiction as an atheist is no different than anyone else writing fiction.”
    This post isn’t about that. it’s about writing atheistic fiction, such as the His Dark Materials trilogy, which tears apart Christianity pretty thoroughly without ever even bothering to mention it.

  • fett101

    The movie does take place within the Marvel universe where there is a single being of ultimate power named One-Above-All.

  • Kelly

    Just taking a quick a look at my bookshelves, I’d like add the names of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov and Nick Hornby. 

  • revaaron

     Defined so narrowly, who would want to read “atheist fiction?” Atheism isn’t an ideology, philosophy, worldview, or religion- it’s a stance on a particular issue. Atheism doesn’t require or imply skepticism, materialism, naturalism, scientific thinking, and/or humanism. Fortunately, most atheists think souls and magic are about as silly as gods and fairies, but atheism certainly doesn’t mean one can’t believe in silly things like that.

    What would such “atheist fiction” entail? Some guy figures out that there is no god? Maybe after some thrilling encounters with some priest-rapist and an imam with a secret fetish for gay BDSM and a few false starts the hero figures out that they’re lying? Sounds way too close to Christian or Soviet ideological fiction, except for the complete lack of ideological meat.

  • Chrisbrock_nc

    I’m glad to give Christian Fiction (Chri-fic?) it’s own section just to reduce the likelihood that I  pick one up on by accident.

  • Joshua Bushey-Anello

    I think Neal Stephenson’s book should count. In every book of his I can think of at least one of the protagonists is an atheist (although I can’t remember off the top of my head if Protagonist was one) and his books always seem to include a lot on rational thinking and a kind of derision to magical thinking.

  • Coyotenose

     A central theme of His Dark Materials is skepticism; even the beings that clearly are the God and angels of the Bible are really just old, mortal beings that evolved first and differently. Everything in Pullman’s universe is explicable by its physics. There is no “magic”, only things the protagonists don’t understand at first. Even souls exist in a sense… but again, they’re explicable, manipulable, highly finite things, just more energy and matter, subject to even the Law of Entropy.

    HDM is pretty positively atheistic in that sense. The protagonists not only see that the emperor has no clothes, but that they themselves were dressed as kings the entire time. Their existences cannot fail to end, but they determine to decide how and when for themselves. They even realize that they will live forever in a sense (and not at the whim of a cosmic being), because energy cannot be destroyed, and what are they if not energy?

    Now if only the movie hadn’t sucked, because the daemons were AWESOME.

  • revaaron

     Except, some atheists (at least in this thread) would call for similar nonsensical pandering, though in the other direction. Some people seem to confuse atheism with a system of ethics or philosophy like materialism or humanism.

  • Mogg

    I distinctly remember my Christian mother being cross at “A Wrinkle in Time” for equating Jesus with other religious leaders, as well as artists and philosophers.  I’d call it New Age, rather than Christian.

  • Ashleywhittal

    I think it’s less to do with atheist fiction being less popular and a lot more to do with the fact that as a diverse group we aren’t looking for the same kind of books.

    Christian fiction is all about affirming their beliefs. It’s a separate genre because at least in America there is a demand for it.

    There is no real demand for atheist fiction because we don’t read to affirm our beliefs, we read to be entertained.

  • revaaron

    How can it be that no one has mentioned Ayn Rand yet? Feel free to toss in all the prattle on objectivism under the heading of “fiction.”

  • DG

    “and publishers are mostly big companies that don’t want to be too controversial.”
    As one who worked in the publishing world, I can assure you that controversy well placed is a marketing dream for publishers.  It sells after all.  Quality and/or sales potential is more likely the issue.  The better question might be, why do publishers imagine that fiction books promoting or advocating atheism won’t sell, or won’t be bought by atheists?  They will publish non-fiction books, no matter how controversial, since they know there is a market.  Why don’t they think there is a market for non-fiction? 

  • Revyloution

    Funny you should bring up atheist fiction.  I was just talking about a book that I thought had a subtle secular message.   My daughter wanted to read the Hunger Games,  and I like to read with her so I picked up a copy.  

    HUNGER GAME SPOILERS!!I was really surprised at the total lack of religion in the entire society of Panem.   When Katniss recalled her fathers death and funeral,  there was zero mention of a priest, or a religious ceremony.   For a book that is so centered around death,  it was rather striking that there wasn’t a single mention of an afterlife.   Everyone seemed to just accept the fact that when you were dead, that was it.

  • Coyotenose

    Unfortunately, thanks to hyucking man-child Rand Paul, Ayn Rand’s asshole characters are no longer a matter of fiction.

  • Annie

    If you want to read a hilarious (and obviously atheist) fiction story, I suggest “Peter’s Out: How the Catholic Church Ends” by Albert So.  As someone who spent 12 years in catholic schools, I am finding this book to be hilarious (though, I must say, at times it is a bit too crude for my liking, but funny enough to make up for that).  I bought it on Amazon for my kindle for 99 cents… money well spent.

    As for the question, I think there are tons of books out there that are fiction and not “Christian” fiction, so no need to name them anything.  Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” comes to mind.  Although this was a story of a missionary family in Africa, it is obviously not pro-religious.  There are many fiction books out there that are anti-religion.  I think of Sherwood Anderson’s classic from the 1920s, “Winesburg, Ohio” and the priest who threw a rock through the church’s stained glass window so he could watch a female neighbor undress.  It’s out there, and there is no need to call it anything.  Its just good literature.

  • Chrisbrock_nc

    Also, I think a lot of “Christian Readers” (not all readers who are Christian, but those who would prefer to read Christian Fiction) are afraid of accidentally being confronted with a new point of view and finding it… valid.

    Most readers of fiction (especially Sci-Fi/Fantasy) that I’ve met and talked too relish the chance to read about the different beliefs of people from distant lands and what not.

  • revaaron

    I know it won’t meet the criteria of some folks, but James A. Morrow’s GodHead trilogy fits the bill for me. I’ve only read “Towing Jehovah,” and enjoyed it quite a bit.

  • 0xabad1dea

    I write an awful lot of fiction (none of it public et) but I don’t think anyone would classify it as “atheist fiction”… I don’t need to hit people over the head with a philosophical hammer.

  • If one sees religion as fiction, that’s what giving up religion means, isn’t it?

    I don’t think religion is very good fiction either.  I prefer modern fiction, which tends to be more self-aware, and informed by events of the 20th century.  And even my favorite works of fiction, I ultimately just return them to the library, and move on to the next book.  Not at all like what religious people do.

  • jefe carlos

    According to ‘The Storytelling Animal’ by Jonathon Gottschall, people who read fiction are more empathic, having mentally put themselves in countless social situations.  Also, it is my own impression that fiction often expresses great truths, while many of the books in the non-fiction section are pure malarkey.  That would include all the religious books, most of the diet and nutrition books, and many of the financial books.  I recently heard Zig Ziglar state that he never reads fiction because it’s a waste of time; he only reads non-fiction.  I’d wager most of the non-fiction he has read has been complete BS, including his own books.

  • Coyotenose

     Correction: obviously Cap does defer to at least one supernatural idea 😛 Nobody’s perfect. The great thing about Steve Rogers, though, is that he would acknowledge that he’s only human and can’t be skeptical through his entire life. But he would always be skeptical when it *mattered*, and make choices based on Constitutional and secular American ideals. The character is a tough write, because he’s intended to be about as perfect as a person can be and still act in this world, and that can be really boring.

  • Thomas Farrell

     I disagree. I think “christian fiction” gets its own section strictly because the people who buy it are usually highly prejudiced about what they’re willing to read and thus won’t buy anything else, so if you’re a bookstore and you want to make a buck off of them, you give them their own section so they’ll be able to identify the books they’re willing to buy instead of giving up and departing.

  • Thomas Farrell

     I believe that Phillip Pullman has said plainly that he *does* consider the His Dark Materials trilogy to be atheist literature.

  • Towing Jehovah is a great book, but you can’t possibly consider it even remotely atheistic? Morrow is clearly a — ahem — “spiritual, not religious” man.

  • I just assumed we were talking about readable fiction. 🙂

  • I read the original post, and I feel a lot is being lost in translation here.  Robin Hanson does not appear to be making a “checkmate atheists!” argument here at all.  Rather, he gives a few quotes saying that TV makes people less accurate judges of risks and rewards, and yet narrative fiction “fosters empathic growth and prosocial behavior”.

    I think the comparison to religion is still very weak.  Religion directly causes people to believe wrong things.  Fiction may possibly make people biased (citation needed), but if so it’s very indirect.  The obvious solution is to be aware of bias rather than giving up fiction that we enjoy.  This solution cannot be applied to religion, because to be aware of the wrongness of religious beliefs is to give up religion.

  • I don’t see why one has to be better than the other? I prefer nonfiction, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who read fiction. It’s just a matter of taste.

  • There are plenty of novels by atheist authors, and plenty that contain atheist characters, but relatively few books seem to be centered around atheism itself. Perhaps that makes sense, since atheism is rarely the central or defining feature of most of our lives. In the majority of novels, a character’s atheism might warrant a passing mention, but would most likely not be a significant part of the plot.

  • revaaron

     Huh? Morrow is a self-described atheist. I can’t say “Towing Jehovah” made me think he was a “spiritual-not-religous” type- seemed rather more like a work of religious satire and speculative fiction chock full of allegory and thought experiments. It might not seem so obvious to me if I hadn’t heard about his work in a Minnesota Atheists interview.

    A few quotes:

    “I guess the militant agnostic humanist feminist is maybe closest in some ways to my own sympathies.” (from a 1994 interview)

    “Some readers say that, given all the woolly speculation in my
    fiction, I must be an agnostic. But I don’t like that word either. I
    find it evasive. It lacks sinew. An agnostic is an atheist who has lost
    his nerve.” (from an 2000 interview with SF Site)

    See more at:

  • Interesting! I haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, but I’ll bump it up the list. A lot of YA dystopian novels have interesting depictions of religion, some with atheistic societies, and some in which religion has evolved in very different ways.

  • revaaron

    Or, “Hey man, you should check these guys out. They sound just like Green Day, except they’re Christian! How cool is that?!” — My Assemblies of God pal in middle school, ca. 1993

  • Allison

    For teens, there is Godless by Pete Hautman.

    Squee! Thank you! I’d seen this book in the store but didn’t have the extra change at the time and forgot to write down the title and author. It’s turned out to be somewhat difficult to find randomly, which is ridiculous given that it won a National Book Award for Young People.

  • I definitely agree with your recommendation of Rupp’s novel.

    I created a list not too long ago about atheism in children’s fiction. It’s a lot more common to find atheist characters in YA novels, so it can be challenging to find them in books published for children under the age of 13:


  • Madeleine L’Engle was an Episcopalian who believed in universal salvation. I bet a lot of Christians were cross with her for that!

  • I answered this question several years ago in my old blog:  http://awvarchive.blogspot.ca/2006/10/answer-out-of-time.html

  • Actually, I would like to read a good “loss of faith” story. There are memoirs that fit the bill, but I don’t see why a novel couldn’t explore the process of transitioning from theism to atheism.

  • revaaron

     I completely agree- but there’s a big difference between a novel or two exploring the transition from theism to atheism and a genre defined by that. Even so, such a book would really be about relationships and internal strife than *about* atheism. That’s all I’m trying to say.

  • Gregory Lynn

    I haven’t finished writing it yet.

  • Atheist fiction? Isn’t all fiction atheist? Scratch that, C.S.Lewis et al. What’s wrong with Science Fiction? If the vampire and werewolf stuff is religious, what then is not. Clearly Harry Potter is not big with the bible thumping crowd. Serenity was atheist and Star Trek positively the antithesis of Abrahamic faith. All fiction is taking a beating right now. Not sure if you have heard of it, but this thing called reality tv is spreading through the culture like Stuxnet, zeroing in on intelligence and stealthily destroying it. It is the road to idiocracy. I do not look for anything that is specifically atheist… non-believers can claim anything that is not religious.

    If religion were to die tomorrow, non-believers would have everything but religious fiction to themselves. Why not claim it now. If it’s not religious it is atheist fiction. Why is it assumed that an atheist writer must write about atheism? Seriously, why?

  • Edmond

    Any fiction not about gods is atheist fiction. 🙂

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I think that argument is based on a false dichotomy that if we reject one religious claim (that there is a god) we must reject all the other dimensions of religion as well, or anything superficially similar to religion.  

  • Yes, I agree that an entire genre devoted to atheism seems like it would be pushing it. Once you get past debunking religion, there aren’t too many other topics to explore. Atheism just isn’t that complicated. I’d prefer secular fiction with atheist characters. I would like to see more nonfiction about atheism that goes beyond “Atheism 101,” though.

  • revaaron

     In a way, there really isn’t anything other than “Atheism 101.” Atheism is a consequence or destination, not path. To me, it seems like anything beyond “Atheism 101” quickly becomes a book about secularism, humanism, science, skepticism. Seems that way to me, at least.

  • Ibis3

    There’s atheism–a negation of belief in god(s), and atheism–a community or movement grounded in scepticism about god claims, tending to an ideological adherence  to the scientific method and naturalism, and generally espousing secularism and humanistic ideals. (Sometimes referred to as “New Atheism” or, jocularly, “Gnu Atheism”).

    Some people seem to think only one of these definitions is legitimate. They are, of course, confused and their notions somewhat out-dated.

  • Patrick

     Loads of fiction is atheistic.  Every fantasy novel that treats religion and gods as a concept to toy with (like dragons or unicorns) instead of a reality?  That’s atheistic fiction.  Every novel about the future that treats religion as something humanity will largely get over, or as simple superstition?  That’s atheistic fiction.  The entire fantasy and science fiction section of the library is pretty much all atheistic, even when it features gods.

  • I think there are other topics that could be explored. For example: atheist pop culture (movies, television, books), atheist history, atheist countries (Zuckerman’s Society Without God is excellent), atheist parenting, atheist education, and atheist memoirs. You could have a book about atheist homeschooling, personal essay collections that revolve around a particular theme, a compendium of atheist characters in television and movies, and so on. 

  • Ibis3

    Here’s another for your atheist bookshelf: Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley (Yahweh’s in there, but definitely not as the protaganist. But be warned, there’s a brutal rape scene in it.)  Oh, and what about Catch-22?

  • I’d like to see a Left Behind for atheists…(half-joking?)

  • Mdwelch27

    Please ask Robin how in the world religion makes one’s life better.  I am stronger, happier, and more satisfied now that i have cast away the anchor of religious delusion and guilt.  I enjoy atheistic fiction because it has a greater ability to deal with life on its own terms – without the religious BS.  Great fiction has the power to illuminate reality – sometimes better than non-fiction.

  • There’s a TON of secular fiction out there, where religion and gods — either the real world’s religions or fantastical ones — aren’t ever mentioned.

  • Renshia

    I don’t know if Terry Goodkind is an atheist, but his Sword of Truth novels are one of the greatest critiques of religion I have read. It is a great fantasy series and the “Imperial order” is the epitome of religion.

  • Renshia

     Hey jefe that is a great point. When you look at all of those, especially the power of positive thinking crap. It is amazing the crap that is sold as non fiction. I would bet that if you took a close look, over half of what is spouted as non fiction is nothing but.

  • Conspirator

    I just read those books, and I saw no sign of religion in them.  

    Heck, I’d say most fiction I read doesn’t have religion.  Unless you count the Force in Star Wars, and I wouldn’t, it’s not religious.  No one worships the Force, and it definitely exists in that universe.  Was there any real religion in Harry Potter?  Sure they celebrated Christmas, but it was purely about feasting and gifts.  Lots of popular fiction has no religion, I guess the question is, is that the same as atheist?

  • John Small Berries

    “What would such ‘atheist fiction’ entail?”

    Well, there’s Harry Harrison’s short story, “The Streets of Ashkelon”,  in which an atheist interstellar trader opposes a Christian missionary’s attempt to evangelize to a newly discovered alien race. Unfortunately, it’s typical of Harrison: a heavy-handed, unsubtle tale burdened by one-dimensional characters and stilted dialogue.

  • Conspirator

    Yes, what would the point of atheist fiction be?  A thrilling story of someone’s break from religion?  Not hardly.  For a story like that to be interesting it needs to be based on real life.  

  • Mle292

    Pete Hautman wrote a very good YA book in which an atheist/agnostic teen protagonist creates his own religion that gets out of control.  It was called Godless. 

  • Actually, I think that sort of story could be interesting. A good coming-of-age novel might focus on a character who leaves his or her family’s religion. There are plenty of memoirs on the subject, but I haven’t come across novels about the process of deconversion. Of course, the character would have to encounter resistance from friends/family/clergy; otherwise, there wouldn’t be enough dramatic tension to justify it being the main part of the story.

  • But there’s the kind of controversial that sells, and there’s the kind that doesn’t… and on top of that might even anger what the bosses see as their major customers.

    Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean there’s a market, or at least enough of a market to justify the risk of publishing.

  • As a physicist, I have to say there are some mighty odd things in the Pullman universe… much more like magic than physics. If you want to say that universe isn’t magic because it follows its own “physics”, fine… but by that standard there’s no magic in Harry Potter, either.

  • amycas

    I still enjoy A Wrinkle in Time though.

  • amycas

    My niece just go The Hunger Game series for her birthday, and I’m giving her the His Dark Materials series for her birthday too (she’s having a family b-day party this weekend). I’m excited about this because her parents are highly religious, or at least, they act like they are. I’m excited that she’s finally old enough to start reading really eye opening fiction without her parents getting irate about the content.

  • Linda Doll

    Robert J. Sawyer. Brilliant writer, lots of science, philosophy, questioning. Pervasive atheist / humanist viewpoint. Unfortunately pigeon-holed as “just science fiction”.

  • Paige Jeffrey

    Agreed. One of my favorite fantasy authors is LDS – but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying his books in the least. (In fact, he recently had the guts to portray a likable, fleshed-out female character who is a very open skeptical atheist.)

    Fiction is fiction. I don’t need it to be labelled to enjoy it, whether it has a religion or not.

  • That would be great. After the rapture, nobody left on Earth but atheists, who- free of the irrational- go on to create the greatest society of all time. The real Paradise, right here on Earth.

  • katsudon

    There is a lot of fiction with atheist and non-religious characters, particularly if you read genre. Think about what you’ve read recently, and how prevalent religion was to the main character. It’s actually widespread enough that I’ve seen a few authors wonder if there’s some kind of allergy to people writing religious characters in genre fiction.

    The other point to consider is that unless religion is an issue that is directly related to the story or to the character’s interaction with the story, it may not even come up at all. So you may not know if a character has a religion or lack thereof, and so what? Was the story good? 

  • Revyloution

    I’d say yes,  in my view, the ideal atheism is one that simply has no gods at all.  Today, atheists battle all kinds of gods. From Yahweh to Homeopathy,  we fight against nonsense on all fronts.  When/if humanity truly embraces atheism, then the battles will stop, and no one will even think to mention the silliness of our ancestors. 

  • Tinker

    Let me say that I love fictional stories. Some of my favorite stories are Christian in the telling. One of my favorite movies is Angels in the Outfield, I watched the entire run of Highway to Heaven and one of my favorite bands calls themselves Christian. But for me it is all just stories.

  • Just thinking about it, I would say that Phillip K. Dick may have played a role in my deconversion. Of course he wasn’t an atheist, but he certainly helped me to start thinking outside the box when it came to questions about the nature of god and his existence. Valis in particular made a hell of an impression on me.

    Anyway, I guess I wouldn’t be too quick to try and file the fiction pieces into the camps of their respective authors.  Some of the better writers successfully explore ideas well outside their actual views.

  •  I was wondering when someone was going to mention Pterry in these comments. I think many atheist authors, like Sir Pratchett, are fascinated by the IDEA of gods, precisely because they’re not blinded to the silliness of them.


  • Coyotenose

     River Tam in Serenity is certainly an atheist. Malcolm Reynolds seems to be a believer who hates God. There’s nothing else specifically atheistic about Serenity. Hell, Shepherd Book, the preacher aboard ship, comes across as the sympathetic, reasonable one when dealing with those two (granted, both are mentally ill with severe social issues…)  Religion is never treated as a negative quality in itself, only in its misuse.

  • Donalbain

     That line was there because it was true to the character. Captain America is a white American from the 1930s-40s. He would almost certainly be a Christian.

  • Coyotenose

     Well, technically, no there isn’t magic in Harry Potter, since anything “magic” that affects the world is just undiscovered physics, but I won’t argue that. 😛

    The difference is that anyone can learn and utilize those “magical” traits of the Pullman universe that are different from ours. They can be studied and theories can be crafted from that study, and are consistent insofar as we see them. Harry Potter magic is just hand waving.

  • compl3x

    “A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak?”

    I love the idea one can simply “turn on” the religious part of their brain and start believing despite perhaps an entire lifetime of not.

    Also, why would it give you a better life?

    Many people are miserably because of their religion. Should those people abandon religion because it makes them miserable? Seems that’s the logic at work here.

    These kinds of questions are amazingly silly.

  • No-one has ever tried to restrict my reproductive rights / sexual freedoms / right to work / right to exist based on His Dark Materials. 

  • DG

    That’s why I said controvsy well placed.

  • Fsq

    Y’all are missin’ the original American atheist author…..and one who has sold quite a few tomes…

    Mark Twain

  • The Hunger Games trilogy also has a couple of descriptions of wedding ceremonies (spoiler note – a description of the ceremony does not necessarily imply that anyone’s actually getting married) and there’s likewise no religious component.

    I think this neatly illustrates the problem with the idea of ‘atheist fiction’ – is HG ‘atheist fiction’ because there’ no obvious religion in it, or not, because there’s no overt mention of atheism either? I think this is why there’s not usually an ‘atheist fiction’ shelf – it just doesn’t make much sense.

  • Glasofruix

    Well, atheists are normal people that enjoy fiction because it’s entertaining, what’s wrong about that? We just don’t believe that fairies exist in real life.
    This guy is an idiot.

  • I’m a fiction writer, and I’m an atheist. I’m not published yet, and I don’t think I’ll be published for a couple years. My books are just… stories. The reason Christian fiction gets put in its own genre is that it’s evangelism wrapped in a (usually crappy) novel. Regular fiction, one that doesn’t pursue an evangelical mission, is what I’d consider “atheist” fiction.

  • Brian Westley

    Edward Elric of “Fullmetal Alchemist” is an atheist.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Atheist fiction is mentioned – but no one drops Ayn Rand’s name? Hallelujah!

  • Reginald Selkirk

     As an added bonus, Rand’s novels are not just atheist fiction, but economic fiction as well!

  • Reginald Selkirk

     And if you can’t bring yourself to write the Rapture, you could substitute a mass Kool-Ade drinking suicide scene.

  • There was a Venture Bros. episode where Hank replied with “An aeronaut and an armored bear!”


  • There are quite a few books these days that just don’t mention religion at all or only in passing – The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are great examples, not coincidentally two series which have been condemned by Christians because of their “satanistic” content.

  • MarnieMacLean

    That question seems illogical. We recognize fiction as fiction and treat it as such. It is the biblical literalists who have the problem. They cannot define fiction in a way that is consistent with their own interpretation of reality.  They read every word of the bible as the true, unerring word of god regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Atheists often read religious texts. They read it and may even appreciate the anthropological and poetic value it may have (if it has any). They simple see no reason to accept it as some sort of truth or moral compass.

  • Ynthrepic

    What about Terry Goodkind? High fantasy about the prevailence of reason. Also was NYT best seller. TV spin off was garbage though.

  • The question posed is so ridiculous. Gee, I don’t know. Maybe we keep stories because they’re harmless escape, whereas religion is far from harmless? Oh, and I don’t use fiction as a guide on how to live my life. I don’t ask myself things like, “what would this fictional character do?”

  • When the show came on TV, my husband was having a fit about how they strayed from the books. He’d read them and I hadn’t. After reading the first book, there was no way I could watch that damned show again. The books are great and I love Richard’s insistance that people think rationally for themselves.

  • Phillip Jose Farmer wrote a series called “Riverworld” containing several atheist protagonists, including Mark Twaine.

  • Coyotenose

     Man, that’s a lot of poisoned Kool-Aid. A little water-to-wine action might be necessary to help everyone get a swig.

  • Although absolutely not a Christian, I think Twain was arguably Deist 

    The one I’m surprised nobody has mentioned is Heinlein.

  • J_cole_25

    I think there are lots of atheist authors (especially in Science Fiction).  The difference is atheists don’t feel the need to center books we write around the fact that we are atheists.   

  • There is Blashemy by Douglas Preston.  It is kind-of a fun read.


  • LifeInTraffic

    Much of the fiction I read just never mentions religion. It’s a total non-issue. Much of what I do read that contains any kind of deity or supernatural isn’t in any way related to what exists in this time, place, and planet (and probably doesn’t exist anywhere outside the author’s imagination), but simply because it has those elements doesn’t make it “religious,” any more than the stories using items or ideas that are supposed to be from advanced science make it…science.  They make it fiction.

  • LifeInTraffic

    (sorry, didn’t mean to hit reply).

    I think much of fiction could be considered atheist. Religion is just such a non-issue in much fiction (especially in sci-fi and fantasy genres) that I think it would be hard to see a lot of it as anything but atheist. 

  • Fsq

    What about The Golden Compass series?

    If not outright atheist they sure are fervently anti catholic.

  • I enjoyed Duck Egg Blue by Derrick Neill; the plot centered around atheism, creationism, and the Boy Scouts.

  • The closest I’ve read is Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers,” which deals with a mass disappearance of believers and nonbelievers alike. Those that are “left behind” question why they’re still around, some people lose faith, some join cults, and some just carry on believing and hoping that they’ll catch the next Rapture.

  • That would work.

  • Just put it in the water treatment facility…

  • Ant Allan

    Or, perhaps, they simply care more for precision in language than you do.

    To use “atheism” unqualified to refer to “gnu atheism” or “the atheist movement” is to invite equivocation fallacies and other confusions.


  • TimothyWells

    Is that Orson Scott Card?  I’d get his books second hand because the money you spend toward reading a likable fleshed out atheist character is then funneled into his anti-gay agenda. 

  • TimothyWells

    Christian Fiction is like diabetic candy. It’s a captive audience that seeks it out because they can’t have (or with christians the believe they can’t have) the real stuff. They seek out the christian equivalents of popular authors/musicians/etc.

  • Neil

    One thing a few others have mentioned…there is lots and lots of fiction wherein the characters  refuse to look to religion or god for answers(or are severely disappointed by what they find), even in a religion-soaked world.

    One commenter mentioned Kurt Vonnegut…even his stories which contain bucketloads of religious thoughts or mildly supernatural stuff are obviously atheistic (and awesome).  It’s all about the humans.

    Although they don’t come right out and say it repeatedly like Vonnegut does, there are many, many authors from the last couple of centuries, especially 2oth century writers, that fit this mold.  Their own beliefs aside, they present a real world where the problems and solutions (if any) are all about humanity.

    Despite tons of religious imagery, read anything by John Steinbeck and tell me that the stories aren’t pretty much atheistic in worldview.  God and religious ideals serve only as symbols of humanity and the human condition.  Same for what I’ve read of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway.  Melville and Joseph Conrad as well, maybe?

     More explicity anti-religious or non-religious: Mark Twain, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke Charles Bukowski, Douglas Adams, H.G.Wells, Anton Checkov, Marquis De Sade…the list goes on.

    If the question is “Why isn’t there much explicitly atheistic fiction as compared to explicitly religious fiction?”, then I would guess its because there is a huge market for explicitly religious work, whereas a whole lot of mainstream work is atheistic and humanistic by default, while maybe not explicitly advocating atheism.  I’d like to see more, to be sure, but the stories have to be solid and the themes and messages reasonable…unlike the market for feel-good bullcrap woo, the atheist market isn”t going to fawn over bad writers and contrived, unrealistic plots or characters just because “Yay, Atheists!  Woo Hoo!” 
    “Atheist fiction” as a genre only makes sense in the context of overly religious societies negatively affecting humans…if that conflict isn’t a serious part of the particular story, it won’t make sense to keep bringing it up.

    Still an interesting question, though…I would like to see more explicit criticism of religion and promotion of rational outlooks in mainstream fiction, for sure.   There are plenty of woo-filled works of fiction that rely on well-worn storylines…lots of “prodigal son” type stories, lots of “messiah figures” sacrificing themselves for some unlikely greater good, lots of “finding one’s place in the universe” or “mysteries beyond human comprehension” type excuses for all sorts of crappy human behavior(and bad plots). 
      Maybe we need some new narratives, ones that play up the value of truth without falling into the “everyone’s truth is equal” or “eternal mystery”cop-outs.   There are a ton of good, solid, true-to-life themes available…the freedom of being unshackled from dogma(without the inevitable fall from grace and return to the slave-pen), the evils and pitfalls of faith(without the lukewarm excuses), or the fact that the deepest mysteries and most compelling journeys are not the worship of the unknown, but the pursuit of understanding the unknown.  It’s a fertile field to be sure, but harder to plow than the usual soft-headed mush that passes for good writing.                   



  • Stuart F Taylor

    Ahem. I wrote a book for this very audience as I found myself asking the very same question. Sceptical fairy tales!

    Toot toot!


  • Avid reader

    My daughter read a young adult novel called the Cheetah Diaries. The protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl. She loved it. 

  • Katios

    Can we please call Anne Rice’s works atheist fiction or does the author have to be the atheist in this equation?

    I know Hemant called for recent fiction, but I’m compelled to recommend E.M. Forster for atheist/agnostic/humanist/etc readers. I don’t know if he considered himself an atheist, but religion (especially with characters ignoring, questioning, or humoring it) is a major theme in his works. Passage to India is one of my favorite books, and I suspect my sister realized she’s an atheist while reading A Room with a View. These were published in the early 20th century, but still relevant.

  • Wait. What constitutes atheist fiction exactly? It can’t be simply fiction written by atheists. Hemant says fiction centred around atheism, but then we have the inclusion of Phillop Pullman, Douglad Adams, and Gene Roddenberry. Well, Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ centres around the villainy of organised religion but God still happens to exist in his universe. Does a sentiment against organised religion equate to atheism? Likewise Star Trek seems to have a fairly humanist underpinning in the sense that human society has become utopian, humans are generally portrayed as the pinnacle of what other species should strive to be etc. But then various god-like being still exist in Star Trek. The Q would be an example. There is that film where a being claiming to be God shows up and demands obedience, and gets the response “why?” Which I suppose is fairly on the nose. But I’m not sure a “humans are awesome” and “gods exist but they’re not worthy of worship” really lives up to being called atheism. Douglas Adams. Well, I love his yarns, but I think one would be hard-pressed to find any one coherent central theme in them except for “whatever makes you laugh.” 

  •  I’m not sure I agree with you that anything “magic” that affects the world is just undiscovered physics. Especially in the context of Harry Potter. I think for something to count as undiscovered physics it has to make a minimal amount of ordered sense. I.e. Carl Sagan liked to vax lyrical about how we live in a universe that’s precisely neither too ordered nor too chaotic, but somewhere in between just sufficient for it to be knowable. If the universe was too ordered, it would just be static and physics wouldn’t work. If it were too arbitrary, then there would be no regularities to discover and, again, physics wouldn’t work. I think there’s a definite case to be made for the magic in Harry Potter falling somewhere on the far side of ‘too arbitrary.’ I recommend the fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality as an example of the absurdity that would ensue from placing HP magic under rational scrutiny. The results would just be all over the place.

  • I recommend Neal Stephenson’s ‘Anathem.’ I’m not sure it’s rightly categorised as ‘atheist fiction’ but it’s certainly ‘rationalist fiction.’ Which I think is the proper kind of fiction for atheists anyway. I.e. it’s not about not believing in gods regardless of whether they exist, or about being obstinately antagonistic toward the gods even if they show up. It’s about believing things are true because you have good reason to think that they are true. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to exist much of that kind of fiction. Probably because it’s very hard to write. I know only of Stephenson’s ‘Anathem’ and Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter fanfiction. If anyone knows any other fiction that fulfils these criteria, I would be very, very interested to know.

  • walkamungus

    Atheists should not miss his novel _Small Gods_, which IMO beats Neil Gaiman’s _American Gods_ (which won both the Hugo and the Nebula). In fact, don’t miss any of Pratchett’s novels, because he squelches religion, along with everything else, quite regularly.

  • walkamungus

    I would like this 50 times if I could. Perfectly succinct.

  • I’ll recommend him, too. Forster did identify as a humanist, and certainly seems to have been an atheist. In addition to the books you mentioned, Maurice also includes characters leaving religion behind.


  • Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100.
    Terry Pratchett’s Nation.

  • Connie Willis, particularly her novella Inside Job.  And then of course HL Mencken.

  • The thing is, there’s nothing particularly special about atheist fiction.  Like Sunday mornings, atheist fiction is mostly identifiable by what it’s not.  When a character faces a crisis and deals with it without relying on God for help, it’s atheist fiction, even if the author is not Christian.

    Was L. Frank Baum an atheist?  I don’t know and I don’t care.  But I do know that Dorothy never looked beyond herself or her friends for answers to her problems.  

    When Kip was stranded on Pluto after the earthquake, he didn’t pray before suiting up to go out and try to set off the Mother Thing’s signal.  He didn’t pray for strength when arguing for Earth’s continued existence before the council.  Maybe Heinlein was an atheist (although he was also a Mason, and they don’t admit atheists).  Maybe he wasn’t.  It doesn’t matter; Have Space Suit — Will Travel is still atheist fiction.

    Christopher Stasheff’s Catholicism permeates his science fiction.  Obviously, Sister Carol Anne O’Marie’s mystery stories of the adventures of Sister Mary Helen are as well.   Religion permeates the works of Madeleine L’Engle; in her work A Swiftly Tilting Planet, every crisis is solved by a deus ex machina miracle prompted by a line of Patrick’s Rune.   Orson Scott Card fills his works with references to the Mormon community and ideals.  Harry Turtledove’s Judaism is frequently referenced in his work.  But when religion came up in John Grisham’s The Appeal, it was as a way to manipulate people politically.  When in Connie Willis’s Passage, Joanna’s sister announced that, having failed to accept Jesus, Joanna was in hell and she is turned on by Vielle, that is an atheist statement as well.  Passage, with its criticism of Near Death Experiences, is hugely atheist.  

    If you want to read a fictional book critical of religion besides The Appeal, I recommend Memoirs of a Bookbat by Kathryn Lansky and Duck Egg Blue by Derrick Neill.  In Memoirs, a teenage girl who is an avid reader has to deal with her parents’ becoming migrant proselytizers.  In Duck Egg Blue, a teen whose parents are divorced has to struggle with his ideas about God, with conflict arising from his Young Earth Creationist father and his mother, who is dating his science teacher.

  • Gscloon

    Try THE RUPTURE, by George C. King–a satire of the rapture and a work of atheist fiction

  • Star-silver

    Good post.  Unfortunately, you show an all-too-common ignorance about what should be obvious when it comes to religion as practiced across the globe in such variety for centuries (the current literalist evangelical Xian view of religion is a brief pimple of misreligiosity that will be barely remembered as a footnote two centuries from now, but it’s a pimple we have to live through for the moment in the U.S.).

    For most monotheists, polytheists, and Christians-who-are-not-fundamentalists, the answer seems obvious: Most of us enjoy the myths in our religions because they allow
    us an opportunity to see ourselves in the characters, to see how they
    grapple with problems that we face — or will have to face in the future.
    It’s also fun to combine our imagination intuition and intellect to grapple with new truths through
    the metaphors and parables and mythic tropes.

    More to the point, though, we enjoy religion because we know we’re reading catalysts to inspire our own nonmaterialist understandings of meaning, life, and humanity. Yes, a very very loud (and powerful) minority of evangelical fundamentalist Xians
    make the claim that everything in religion must be scientific fact and literally true and then basing their
    lives and creating laws around that.

    But anyone with a grasp of history and world religion realizes that very few people do that when
    it comes to Holy Books.  We just forget that because a powerful minority has been doing it in the U.S. for a handful of decades (not even a noticeable moment in the long history of our species) and because so many monsters-in-power in history have used bogus science and bogus religion to whitewash their monstrous actions — although why so many (understandably) angry atheists blame religionfor bogus religion while refusing to blame science for bogus science strikes me as evidence of a bit of a bias.  Maybe it’s just because they have allowed the evangelical fundamentalist Xians to pollute their understanding of religion.

    (People who studied history and world religion do not conflate evangelical fundamentalist Xians with the far more pro-science gayfriendly humanitarian Christianity that has existed through most of history — and they definitely don’t condemn polytheism by listing the flaws of monotheist faiths!)

    If a story is true about people and life, it is true about people and life regardless of whether the author self-identified as atheist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, pagan, agnostic, Buddhist — or never self-identified at all.

  • Tara S

    I don’t know, based on my experience at university, I would say that if a larger proportion of the population were paleontologists, there would be wars about whether a dinosaur bone should go *here* or *there*.  I think the fighting is about IDEAS, not religiosity per se.  People can make Gods out of whatever they want – even their doctoral thesis, or their muscular physique, or their unassailable intellect, or their boyfriend, or their Krispy Kreme donut.  Not even the most evangelistic strains of atheism could change that.  🙂

  • Atheist fiction?  I wrote an an atheist novel just recently, “Cross Examined,” available as in print or ebook form on Amazon.

    This is the only novel I know of in which apologetics, both for and against Christianity, plays a major role.  http://amzn.to/s9p3EQ

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