Books are my life. Quite literally, books are what pay my bills. I write books, have a degree in publishing and a master's in creative writing, worked in bookstores for just under thirteen years, work for a publisher now, and have my own library. If I have an expertise in any subject, it would be books. As a teenager who grew up without a television, books were my only gateway into a world outside my own. I gobbled up anything and everything that seemed the least bit interesting. I read medical textbooks, ancient history, literary classics, sci-fi, fantasy, sociology, religion. The only two genres I don't gravitate towards is mystery and romances. Mysteries because I don't care in the least bit for surprises and romances because I find romance cloying, particularly in romance books. Books were also the first places where I "met" atheists.
Atheists are particularly present in sci-fi books, my favorite genre by far. When I was younger I used to just assume that if the character in the story was an atheist, then the author themselves was an atheist. It never occurred to me that there could be more nuance than that. As such, the minute I saw an atheist on the page, I would immediately be defensive. After all, atheists have an agenda so surely there was something the author was trying to get across in their book. Exceptions applied if the faithless had a bit more faith by the end. Ship of Fools by Steven Russo is a book in which the main protagonist is a staunch atheist on a religious pilgrimage deep space vessel. But he has an experience involving the giant stained glass windows depicting Christ while on a space walk and begins to see the beauty of religion. As a Christian, I loved that. I assumed that the author must be religious because only someone religious could write something so meaningful. (for the record, the books is amazing and I definitely think I was reading more into it) Since my deconversion I've only come across a few books where the main character is unapologetically atheist and I've disliked all of them for various reasons. Ready Player One for example is a fantastic novel, but there is an entire page dedicated to Wade's meandering thoughts on religion. And then it is never mentioned again. It's a diatribe against religion, but is pointless since it means absolutely nothing to the story. An authorial intrusion at its worst as it serves no purpose in the story.
Recently, I finished reading Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry. In this contemporary young adult book we are introduced to Michael, whose dad has moved them yet again to a new town with a new school and new friends. Except this time, this self-professed atheist is sent to the best school in town, which also happens to be a Catholic school. Michael is out of his depth from the beginning, but quickly finds a few friends who started a secret club called Heretics Anonymous. This small crew of five mostly sit in the basement and complain about the school. Unlike Michael, all of them are believers who just don't agree with all of the Catholic church's teachings. Hence the name of their little group. Michael is technically an apostate, but they let him join anyway. Right away Michael starts to shake things up, convincing other in the group that they should go public, using malicious compliance as their main tool. The dress code says they can only wear ties ordered from one particular company? Okay. The kids order the ugliest ties they can find on that company's website and pass them around the school. The pranks begin to really shake up the school, but not for the better. Soon kids are getting in trouble for things that HA did, one girl seems to be on a personal mission to destroy HA, his friends are becoming frightened, and his fledgling relationship with the leader of HA is in jeopardy. Not to mention that Michael is having a really hard time holding back his deep resentment of his dad for bringing them here in the first place. When things go south, Michael takes the blame, but deep hurt doesn't go away with one apology.
Sounds like an interesting premise, right? Atheist stuck in a private Catholic school surrounded by religion and bucking the system? My problem with the whole thing though was that Michael knows absolutely nothing about religion. Growing up in a culture surrounded by religion, he knows the very very basics of Judeo-Christian religions, but has never even cracked open a Bible. But he sure as hell has some strong opinions about religion. This bothered me. A lot. Those who grow up with a lack of religion, rarely even think about it. It's so normal not to believe and they seem miffed by the whole religion thing in general. It's been such a non-thing for them. The angry atheist stereotype (which is how Michael comes across often) are usually those who have left religion and are harboring a lot of anger towards the "lie" they were taught. I see a lot of these on Reddit, a lot of which are young people. They were raised in a Christian home and after lots of research have come to the conclusion that there isn't evidence for a God, particularly the Christian god and they feel disillusioned. Some, like a lot of YouTube activists become rather "militant" (for lack of a better word) about it. But these people actually know religion. They know what it is they are against, what teachings they abhor, what doesn't work for them, why they don't believe. Michael knows nothing. To me this makes him the worst kind of atheist.
Now, I am aware that this is fictional, but Michael is the epitomy of atheist stereotype....from a believers perspective. I've seen it over and over again now, this belief that those who don't believe in God, just haven't had the right experience yet or haven't read the Bible or just need to make the right friends in order to change their minds. Michael is all three of these. The reason Michael bothered me so much though was that he knew so little. He is militant in his beliefs, yet hasn't taken a moment to find out about the faiths of others. Without any Biblical knowledge, he looks like an idiot in theology class and can't argue any point because he doesn't know what the other side believes. If he just wanted to be chill and not rock the boat, perhaps this would be okay, but since he feels the need to be in your face about his nonbelief, it's just unacceptable. Nevermind that Michael in this book is just a general asshole overall. He disparages other people's beliefs at every turn, without knowing what they believe or why. He is in your face for absolutely no reason beyond being a jerk. Not only didn't I like Michael as a character, I also hated him for being the Christian stereotype of angry teenage atheist who knows nothing about religion.
I don't know the author's religious viewpoints, but I would wager that she was raised Catholic (quick Google check...yes, I am correct) and although she probably isn't as religious as her parents would like her to be now, she still holds onto the upbringing as something positive, even if there are cracks in the foundation of belief. I'm sure she has met several atheists over the years, but can't seem to shake the stereotypes she grew up with. I can also see that she was really trying not to make religion the good or bad guy, showing the reader that there is more nuance than that. I just don't think she did it well and Michael was a terrible foil for it. The character I wanted to understand and never really did was Lucy, Michael's love interest. I wanted to know why she had trouble with the Catholic church, where those ideas were coming from. Did she read the entire Bible and came away with questions? Was her faith eroding? Did she find herself staying up at night thinking about theology? What were her original motivations for starting a group called Heretics Anonymous? Once Michael takes the blame, why is she so angry with him still? She went along with almost everything except the thing that got him caught. Was she mad at him for going against the group's wishes or was it the way it was done? The reader was never given much of a glimpse into Lucy's motivations, but she was by far the more interesting and complex character. She was also not a stereotype.
There aren't many outright atheist or agnostic characters in children's literature. Young adult books would obviously be more prone to have them, but authors seem to steer clear of this by just not mentioning religion at all. That's why they stand out. I used to be defensive when I came across any book with this type of character. It turns out, I still am.
This is a personal, but secret, blog archiving my deconversion from a Christian to a non-believer.