Mya Nunnally: Atheist characters in fiction hard to find
This article first appeared on BookRiot.com on Dec. 10, 2018, and is reprinted with permission.
By Mya Nunnally
As someone whose religious identity fluctuates between labels like atheist, agnostic or just plain spiritual on a daily basis, I enjoy books that explore atheist characters. It’s always nice to see someone like you represented on the page.
But wow, they are hard to find.
Until I decided to specifically seek out fiction with atheist characters (specifically main characters), I assumed there were plenty. There is a whole genre dedicated to Christian fiction, of course, so why not atheist fiction? But I found barely enough to make a dent in my to-be-read list. After further searching and reading and recommendations, I found the six below that I enjoyed the most.
These works approach atheism in different ways. Some are a little didactic, some are incredibly nuanced, and some are subtle in their discussion of faith. But all of them feature atheist characters without having them eventually convert to Christianity, or die horribly and burn in hell. So, in my book, it’s some good representation. For all my atheists, agnostics, humanists, nonbelievers, questioners, skeptics or those just looking to explore the life of someone unlike themselves: Enjoy!
(by Katie Henry)
This book puts forth one of the finest discussions about faith and organized religion that I’ve seen in literature. In Heretics Anonymous, Michael finds himself in a new town, going to a new school. A Catholic school, that is. For a staunch atheist like Michael, it seems like hell. But then he stumbles upon a secret group called, you guessed it, Heretics Anonymous. Students who don’t quite fit into the school’s mold come together and find friendship in their outcast status.
There’s Avi, who’s Jewish and gay. Eden practices paganism. Max breaks the dress code. And there’s Lucy, a headstrong feminist who wants to be the first female Catholic priest. Everything Michael knows about faith will come into question as he learns about friendship and connection. He might even have feelings for Lucy, despite his lack of faith and her infinite commitment to God.
A Fraction of the Whole
(by Steve Toltz)
While Toltz’s prose
gets a bit didactic at times, it’s always beautiful. This is the story of Jasper Dean and his father, who was a constant source of chaos and turmoil. Now that his father’s dead, Jasper can recollect and retell their history and journey across the globe. Both Jasper and his father are atheists, and this element of their personalities comes through throughout the novel.
Side note: I read this book first when I was in high school, and it was the first explicit depiction of an atheist main character I’d ever found.
Darius The Great is Not Okay
(by Adib Khorram)
A lot of Darius the Great is Not Okay is subtle in a beautiful way. This is a quiet but sincerely powerful novel. Darius’ sexuality is left in a grey area, there isn’t much loud or fast action in the book, and Darius’ atheism is barely mentioned. But, it’s on here for a reason.
This book is a shining example of someone who doesn’t believe in God but revels in the culture and familial practice that comes with some religions. Darius doesn’t identify as Zoroastrian like much of his family in Iran, but when he takes a trip to the country for the first time, he finds a community and connectedness that he never felt at home.
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary
(by Keshni Kashyap & Mari Araki)
This award-winning graphic novel explores high-schooler Tina M.’s exploration of existentialism. Existentialism is, of course, a philosophy created by an atheist and founded on a premise of individuality and free will as opposed to some religions who believe in the opposite. We see how this impacts Tina’s relationship with her Indian intellectual family and the world around her.
While the art of Tina’s Mouth is sparse and not the best I’ve seen in graphic novels, the narrative is compelling and great for teens exploring philosophy.
(by Neal Stephenson)
In the world of the epic novel Anathem, the monks and priests and others who live in convents study not theology, but empirical knowledge, like math and science. They barely have contact with the outside world, and spend their time figuring out the answers to the universe through physics and philosophy. Naturally, the question of belief in a higher power comes up. Most of the monks in the convent are atheists, but they engage in mind-blowing philosophical discussions with the outsiders once they make their way into the strange new world outside the convent.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
(by Mark Haddon)
Fifteen-year-old Christopher is one of the most well-known examples of a character on the autism spectrum in recent literature. He detests the color yellow, knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057, and has a hard time understanding human emotions. He just so happens to be an atheist, as well. Curious Incident tells the story of Christopher as he tries to unravel the mystery of the death of a neighbor’s dog. This is a heart-warming, colorful story with a sweet atheist boy (contrary to popular atheist stereotypes) at its center.
Mya is a writer and poet who attends Barnard College of Columbia. Her poetry has received national acclaim and has appeared in literary magazines such as The Legendary and The Raven’s Perch. She writes a blog for BookRiot.com.