Books for Atheist Teens: GODLESS by Pete Hautman

So just after I arrived in back in Canada, after fifteen years in Australia and the USA, my husband and I went for dinner with some people he had started playing cricket with. Now I didn’t have very high hopes for the evening, to be honest. The best I could hope for was that they would be either a bunch of single Australian men on work visas, or perhaps, in a dream world, guys like the ones I used to party with at the Caribbean Pavilion during “Mosaic” week (long story).

It was not to be. Instead we dined with a couple of very conservative South African families, the wives of which were mostly silent., the husbands of which talked of nothing but cricket. Thankfully, I found myself seated next to a young teenage girl, maybe 13 or 14. She seemed friendly enough, and we both soon learned that neither of us really wanted to be there, and bonded over that. “I just want to go home to my book,” she said.

My spirits gave a hopeful flutter. “Oh? What book?” I asked casually, but thinking, “please be Harry Potter, please be Harry Potter.”

“Christy Miller,” she answered.

And this, believe it or not, was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Christian Fiction for Teens’.

I’ve never read any Christy Miller books. I doubt I ever will. One the fun things about reading YA is reading about teenagers and their out of control hormones. What is the point if they keep those hormones in check with daily prayer, or whatever?

I bring this up because I’ve recently been wondering, if there is reading material for Christian teens (there is), or Jewish teens (there is), or Mormon teens (there is) or even AMISH teens (there is!) then why can there not be a sub category of reading material for ATHEIST teens? There are many more Atheists than there are Jews, Amish or Mormons in the world. Some estimates put atheists/agnostics in THIRD place worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims. In the USA Atheists equal the numbers of Mormons or Jews (about 1.7%) but those who prefer to choose the term “no religion”  outnumber these groups by ten times!

Most of what I write could be described as atheist fiction. Even if faith and religion do not figure at all in the story I see most of my protagonists as atheists. Some  become atheists through the course of their story.  My upcoming verse novel certainly has atheism as a theme. However, I am but one writer!

So, slowly but surely, I’m compiling a list of fiction for teens that explicitly explores atheism and the question of religious norms in a positive manner. So far, my list is two books long (if I don’t include Phillip Pullman, which of course I should). I reviewed Meg Rosoff’s THERE IS NO DOG last month, so this month I’m looking at National Book Award winner GODLESS by Pete Hautman.

Here’s the blurb:

Fed up with his parents’ boring old religion, agnostic-going-on-atheist Jason Bock invents a new god — the town’s water tower. He recruits an unlikely group of worshippers: his snail-farming best friend, Shin, cute-as-a-button (whatever that means) Magda Price, and the violent and unpredictable Henry Stagg. As their religion grows, it takes on a life of its own. While Jason struggles to keep the faith pure, Shin obsesses over writing their bible, and the explosive Henry schemes to make the new faith even more exciting — and dangerous.

When the Chutengodians hold their first ceremony high atop the dome of the water tower, things quickly go from merely dangerous to terrifying and deadly. Jason soon realizes that inventing a religion is a lot easier than controlling it, but control it he must, before his creation destroys both his friends and himself.

This book manages to find the right balance between humor and teenage snark, boy gross-out and deep philosophy. The main character, Jason is a lovable dork who gets everything wrong, gets in trouble, but still manages to figure out some of the most perplexing questions of our time.

The supporting characters each experience this experimentation with creating a new religion in different ways, from megalomania to outright mental breakdown.  They are finely drawn and believable, though  unpredictable. The book never falls victim to tropes. It’s original and very real.

I would definitely recommend this book to an atheist teen who is sick of reading about fallen angels, reapers and good and evil.  This is a book about religion, more than it is about faith, but the protagonist’s unyielding and arbitrary devotion to his new god accurately reflects the stubbornness not only of teens, but also of some believers.

So that’s two books on the list so far. I’d love to hear of any other recommendations!

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