It’s easy to hear a lot of misinformation about religious beliefs (or a lack-there-of) that we don’t actively practice. If we aren’t immediately able to debunk these claims based on our own knowledge and experiences, we’re often inclined to believe them without question. I’m a firm believer that with understanding comes acceptance and tolerance. I also believe in the power of literature to provide different perspectives and ideas through which to view the world. With that in mind, I’ve made a list of six godless characters in literature that dispel myths about atheism. Let’s explore.
Christopher Boone, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Atheists are often believed to have more apathetic views of death. This is largely due to the fact atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife. Because of this, atheists are usually stereotyped as being cold and emotionless. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time deals with this topic head-on.
Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism living in England; he’s also an atheist. One night he finds his neighbor’s dog has been brutally murdered. He immediately begins to grieve for the animal, mourning over its body. He resolves to uncover what happened.
Later in the story, when his father reveals he is the one who killed the dog, Christopher panics and pushes him off the bed. He decides he cannot trust his father. Haddon’s depiction of Christopher as gentle, kind, and empathetic is a stark deviation from how atheists are typically portrayed. Rather than a distant response, Christopher finds himself able to relate to the dog and empathizes with the pain of brutal murder. Even more, Christopher’s ability to recognize the severity and viciousness of his father’s actions throughout the story dispels the misconception that atheists have no moral belief system.
Father said, ‘Christopher, do you understand that I love you?’
And I said, ‘Yes,’ because loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father looks after me when I get into trouble, like coming to the police station, and he looks after me by cooking meals for me, and he always tells me the truth, which means that he loves me.”Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Fraa Erasmas, Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Anathem is a novel about monks, the most prominent in the story being Fraa Erasmas. However, rather than studying theology, these monks study physics, mathematics, and philosophy. In contrast to monks in real life, the majority of the monks in the convent of this story are atheists. This beautifully written story gives astounding philosophical debates between the monks and outsiders when they leave the convent. The story is science fiction and, as such, includes heavy elements of advanced technology.
A belief in science is incredibly common among atheists. Anathem does a beautiful job of demonstrating the ways in which atheists believe in something bigger than themselves. This challenges the idea that atheists don’t believe in anything at all. The monks here are trying to understand the cosmos and whatever force may be operating it. Throughout the story, they regularly debate their place in the universe and what else may be out there. Far from the unfeeling and apathetic non-believers atheists are generally portrayed as, these monks find beauty in the vast universe and all of the worlds within it.
The full cosmos consists of the physical stuff and consciousness. Take away consciousness and it’s only dust; add consciousness and you get things, ideas, and time.”Neal Stephenson, Anathem
Every character in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The setting of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Sweden, which has a large population of atheist citizens. As a result, it appears nearly every character in this novel — with the exception of only two women — is an atheist. Having such a large cast of non-believing characters dispels one of the biggest misconceptions about atheism: that it is a worldview. While many atheists can hold similar beliefs that shape their worldview, skepticism being one example, Atheism itself is a single response to a single question about the existence of God.
Larsson’s story is full of different people with varying morals and personal beliefs, nearly all of them atheists. This accurately reflects real-life atheists, who don’t always hold the same belief systems. It also dispels the myth that atheists worship Satan — atheism, by definition, means atheists don’t believe in any deity. Larsson’s portrayal of atheism also shows that it is possible to be an atheist and have a moral compass. As an example, Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s protagonist, frequently exposes and punishes men who abuse women — having been the victim of abuse herself.
No, I don’t believe in God, but I respect the fact that you do. Everyone has to have something to believe in.”Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Ellie Arroway, Contact by Carl Sagan
Ellie Arroway, the novel’s protagonist, is a lifelong religious skeptic. She meets with two religious leaders, Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss. While Ellie remains steadfast in her faith in science rather than religion and frequently calls out the hypocrisies in religion, she is intrigued by Joss’s worldview, and the two are able to discourse respectfully. They share a level of understanding and admiration for their differing religious beliefs. Their relationship, in fact, symbolizes a reconciliation between science and religion.
This does a lot to dispel the myth that atheists hate God or hate religious people. Though Ellie and Joss are theological opposites, their relationship is, for the most part, amicable. It’s an unfortunate misconception that atheists lose their faith in God as the result of some kind of religious trauma or abuse. As a result, many believe atheists are malcontent toward religion and religious people. Contact demonstrates the value of both science and religion and the ability of theists and atheists to coexist peacefully.
We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.”Carl Sagan, Contact
Michael Ausman, Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry
Michael is an atheist, and it doesn’t take him long to figure out that he doesn’t fit in at his Catholic school. To his excitement, he thinks he may have found a friend when a girl named Lucy questions the teacher in class. He learns, though, that she’s not only Catholic, but she wants to be a female priest. Lucy introduces him to other outcasts in the school, though, including a Pagan girl, a boy who prefers to wear girls’ clothes, and a gay Jewish boy. Together, they are free to be themselves openly and without judgment.
The friends find a sense of community and kinship together that transcends religion. In fact, often, they find that acceptance with people of distinctly different religious beliefs. This again dispels the myth that atheists hate God and religious people and dismantles the idea that atheists are resentful or intolerant. Henry’s story demonstrates time and time again how people of various religious beliefs, including those who don’t have one, are able to respect each other.
I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I believe in nothing.”Katie Henry, Heretics Anonymous
Howard Roark, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Howard Roark is a young architect battling against the conventions of an architectural establishment unwilling to accept innovation. Throughout the novel, Roark advocates for individuality and creativity over collectivism and conformity. He argues that competence, independence, and integrity are necessary for human progress. The embodiment of what Rand believed to be the “ideal man,” Roark has a very strong set of unshakable morals demonstrated throughout the story.
The forced conformity and staunch opposition to innovation and originality make this novel seem almost dystopian. Roark, an atheist, makes his moral belief system based on independence and integrity known throughout the novel. This depiction of atheism challenges the idea that atheists are immoral head-on. Roark encourages those around him to think for themselves and make the most out of life, arguing that conformity isn’t really living.
It’s easy to run to others. It’s so hard to stand on one’s own record. You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes. Your ego is your strictest judge. They run from it. They spend their lives running. It’s easier to donate a few thousand to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. It’s simple to seek substitutes for competence-such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence.”Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
Atheist characters in literature may be few and far between, but when written well, they deconstruct a lot of misinformation about atheism. They challenge the stereotypes of atheists being apathetic, immoral, cold, or resentful and instead depict them as curious, insightful people with perspectives that are just as valuable as those of religious people. Now that we’ve uncovered a few of them tell us your thoughts! Do you agree with our list, or do you have another favorite atheist in literature we didn’t mention here?
For more on stories that tackle various religious beliefs, read our article here.