Books for Atheist Teens: GODLESS by Pete Hautman

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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!

Books for teenage Atheists – THERE IS NO DOG by Meg Rosoff

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I don’t normally do real book reviews here, apart from Marvelous Middle Grade Monday. The blogosphere is inundated with YA book reviews and thus I stick to my pithy book-tweets to let the world know how I feel about what I read.

But I’m going to make an exception for THERE IS NO DOG by Meg Rosoff. This book has one of the cleverest premises I’ve heard in a long time: ‘What if God was a teenage boy?’ The sheer ridiculousness of this premise, coupled with my penchant for both teenage boys and irreverence towards theism made this book seem like a natural choice for me. Well, I was slightly disappointed.

So what, right? Not all books resonate with me. Why does that warrant a whole rant about it? The fact is the book is well written with pithy clever prose, and a pretty good structure overall. Rosoff chose to use a very messy omniscient point of view, which was distracting. But maybe she did that as a little joke. OMNISICENT. Get it?

Whatever.

Perhaps she was aiming for Douglas Adams, a lofty goal indeed, and I can’t really fault her for not quite reaching it. The book is funny, but could be funnier. It’s irreverent, yes, but could be more so.  There are too many characters, none of which is developed as deeply as they could be.

Whatever.

Even that is not enough for me to go all NYT book review on it. What bugged me, what really niggled me in my most sensitive niggle zone is that there is only ONE teenager in this book and he’s a stereotype of all the things I rail against in my support of teenagers. OK, so this teenager is God, and if there was a God he WOULD, in my opinion, be feckless, self-centered and inconsiderate, so yes, it makes perfect sense that “God” (of Bob as he’s called in the book) would be thus, but it grated on me.

Teenage boys, despite widespread belief to the contrary, are not all feckless, self-centered and inconsiderate. It’s not that Bob was unlikeable; I rather liked him (more than I might like God, certainly) but he was unredeemable and that just didn’t sit right with me. The conclusion of the book felt lazy. The whole thing felt lazy, as though it was something Rosoff knocked off while on a cruise, drunk on daiquiris and sizzling in the sun.

I guess what I’m saying is that if this is an allegory about what an unbelievably heartless cad God is, then comparing him to a teenage boy felt a little cheap. Like how calling someone an ass is an insult to donkeys.

I just think insulting teenagers in a book for teenagers is not nice. And this book insults teenagers. Because if a teenage boy DID create the world, there would be much more sex, food, music, sports and TV, and a whole lot less disease, work, school and tears. And colors would clash, rivers would run with beer and the sky would smell like girls’ hair or bread baking, or both.

I’d trade one of my nephews for God any day.