Atheism is a Diverse Voice

It’s Banned Book Week and time to tell this story.

In the Fall of 2018, I visited the one bookstore in El Dorado County. I set my award-winning YA debut Snowed there, fictionalized as Oak County. When I asked if they’d carry Snowed, the bookstore manager told me that they wouldn’t carry Snowed or its sequels because the books were “anti-Christian.” I was floored. When I asked why she thought that, she replied that it was because the first book portrayed Christian teens behaving badly.

Pretty much.

“This community is very Christian,” she explained.

“I know,” I replied. “I grew up here. It’s somewhere a teen atheist would get a lot of pushback for being outspoken at school, especially now.” I was referring, of course, to the Trump presidency.

This community is very Christian. 

Look: I’m a former Evangelical. In Eldorado County, I became a born-again Christian in the Church of God — a church related to Sarah Palin’s infamous Pentecostal digs. I was baptized in both water and spirit, spoke in tongues, and proselytized in Sacramento’s Old Town, giving out pamphlets on K Street. I listened to the Bible Answer Man as religiously as I went to church. I was a virgin (mostly) when I got married, believed salvation only came through the blood of the Lamb of God, and lived in grace.

I was also in constant torment because making everything “work” took a huge amount of mental and emotional energy. Constantly sorting what’s of God and what’s of “the world” was a daily regime of Cirque du Soleil intellectual acrobatics that made me miserable and kept me naïve. At its root, Christianity is a Gordian knot of contradictions, good intentions, and outright lies. It wasn’t until I freed myself from all of that that I found true peace. And I could at last view the world with intellectual and emotional honesty.

As I looked around the bookstore, I found all the Bible’s biggest no-no’s: gay romance, murder, adultery, and the occult. Virtually every single idea I’d ever learned to shun as a Christian was represented in the fiction and nonfiction on the shelves. (1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”)

Incidentally, the bookstore carries Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is arguably one of the greatest anti-Christian (certainly anti-organized religion) trilogies ever written. They’re clearly unaware of that. And Charity certainly doesn’t commit anything like the blasphemous act that Lyra Belacqua does in The Amber Spyglass.

So, in a “very Christian community,” it’s okay to sell books that promote ungodly or anti-Christian activities, as well as books that are explicitly blasphemous. But it’s not okay if the book portrays Christians themselves behaving badly — and by badly, I mean as they sometimes actually do.

For what it’s worth, Snowed also portrays the teen atheist protagonist, Charity Jones, behaving badly toward a sweet Catholic guy. And finally, it portrays a bunch of teen jerks that don’t identify religiously either way. Charity and most of her classmates learn in the course of the story how to value and respect one another. That seems like a pretty decent thing to me. 

Sometimes Christians Can Be Meaner Than Hell

My inspiration when writing about Charity and the pushback she gets was the atheist teen Jessica Alquist. In 2012, she filed a lawsuit with the ACLU against her public high school to make them take down their prayer banner.

But when it came to the bullying that Charity encounters, what happened to Jessica was much, much worse. For example:

Texts and Picket Signs from Christian Teens Aimed at Charity


“Burn in hell”

“John 3:16”

“Stop Militent Atheism”

“Atheism = Satinism”

“Jesus is the Reason for the Season”

Texts and Tweets that Jessica Received from Christian Teens

“gods going to f@ck your ass with that banner you scumbag”

”what a little bitch lol I wanna snuff her”

“Let’s all jump that girl who did the banner #f@ckthatho”

“F@ck Jessica alquist I’ll drop anchor on her face”

Further, Jessica was called “evil” by her state representative, received numerous death threats, and needed police escorts. (Don’t take my word for it. Here’s an article that includes plenty of links and references.)

Aren’t “Christian” teens nice, gosh darn it?

School Library Journal Gets an “F”

Some of you are thinking, “Well, that’s just one bookstore. Granted, it serves the entire county, but who cares?” About three weeks before Snowed came out, a two-star rating appeared on Goodreads from someone neither I nor my publicist knew. (We had a very hard time getting bloggers to review the book. We figured it was because YA is a flooded market.) The rating disappeared to be replaced by a three-star rating. Curious as to who could have possibly reviewed the book who wasn’t on our review list, I followed links to the rater’s profile and blogs. It turned out that the mysterious rater was a devout Mormon who had, in the preceding year, met her husband at Boise State in the “Singles Ward,” gotten married, moved to Indiana, and had a baby.

My publicist then confirmed the identity of the mysterious Mormon. My heart sank to learn that School Library Journal had given my book about a teen atheist of color to a white Mormon librarian in a red state — someone who didn’t have the right lens to review my story. Also, an SLJ reviewer would know that thousands of school libraries would base their purchasing decisions on their review. My debut novel Mr. Wicker received a Starred Review from Library Journal, opening a multitude of doors across the globe. Trade reviews are important to libraries, which are an important resource to kids who are disadvantaged.

When the School Library Journal review was published, said Mormon librarian complained about the “Christian stereotypes” that portrayed all Christians as “bullies.” With so many Christian bullies on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, how is this possibly a stereotype? (Christians even admit to bullying.) The review also included this puzzling statement: “After (Charity) forms a Skeptics Club, she deals with extreme bullying for her beliefs.” Seriously?

After what happened to Jessica Ahlquist, clearly the bullying that Charity suffers wasn’t extreme enough

I don’t know why the librarian didn’t recuse herself from reviewing this book. I don’t know how SLJ chose her to review it. All I know is that she shouldn’t have because atheism is a diverse voice. The book should have been reviewed by an atheist or agnostic librarian.

Atheism as a Diverse Voice

I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. As I researched, I discovered that in 2013, just three years before Snowed was published, the Young Adult Library Service Association (YALSA) published a blog post about atheism and agnosticism in YA novels. They found this surprising data from the Novelist Plus database:

The numbers are easier to read in the original post, but at that time there were only 22 books from an atheist point of view and 1,047 from a Christian point of view. Meanwhile, there were 34 books from a Hindu point of view and 83 from a Muslim point of view.

Atheist teens accounted for less than 1% of all YA protagonists.

That’s bananas given that, according to Pew Research, in 2020 about 32% of teens identify as affiliated with no religion at all.

It’s not too surprising, though, that atheism and agnosticism would be underrepresented based on the extreme (and I use this term with statistical justification) prejudice against them. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, atheists were the least-liked “religious” group along with Muslims, who are still apparently persona non gratis in the U.S.

How Erasure Affects Kids

When kids don’t see themselves in books, they feel erased, unseen, and undervalued in their society. And since atheist and agnostic kids are growing in numbers, the publishing industry is erasing them more than ever. These kids need to see others with their perspective navigating goodness and various ethical challenges in our world, not a fantasy world.

Books that reveal power struggles and prejudice are what diverse publisher Lee and Low calls “window books.” Since many Christians insist that they’re either being “persecuted” or facing “intolerance” whenever anyone pushes back on their narrative to make room for other ideas, it’s important to have windows books that focus on Christian behavior. This can be helpful to kids who are also suffering from bullying in a similar environment. Even kids who are being bullied by Christian teens online can benefit from it.

Obviously, #NotAllChristians

And I can’t emphasize this enough. I have many Christian fans and friends that mean the world to me. They are acutely aware of the bullying that goes on, especially in certain parts of the country with particular political leanings. We all agree that the way forward is love, tolerance, and compassion from everyone. And that’s exactly what Snowed is about.

As author and Antioch University professor Kate Maruyama said of Snowed, “This book is good for the planet.”

Boy, does our planet need goodness right now.

Why We Need to Stop Saying That Something Isn’t “Christian”

As some of you know who’ve read my silly personal essay, I’m a recovering Pentecostal. When I was a teenager, I went to the Assemblies of God Church (just like Sarah Palin), and later continued onto the far less intense yet just as committed denomination of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my childhood before that, my family converted to Judaism for several years. I went to Hebrew school and attended synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.

I have a long history of biblical study. While I certainly am not as up on my verse quoting as I used to be since I ceased to be a believer in 1996, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in both Old and New Testaments. As a result, while imperfect, my understanding of what many would call The Word of God is better than average. And I recall vividly the intellectual Cirque du Soleil I had to perform each day to make sense of my life as I tried to follow Christ.

So, when I see a non-believer telling Christians what is or isn’t “Christian” — and I see it multiple times a day in my social media feeds — it’s clear that they have a superficial understanding of the Bible. Of course, the definition of “Christian” has been an apocalypse-inducing topic for 2000 years. But the surface definition that secular people are using is only creating deeper rancor in our discourse as we struggle with cultural issues like the rights of LGBTQA people.

Did Jesus Preach Acceptance?

The greatest secular misconception about Jesus regards The Golden Rule. He certainly did preach in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” And in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (New International Version)

We love this. It makes sense and helps us get along, creating a more compassionate society. It’s not necessarily acceptance, though, or even tolerance, which is what secular folk crave.

You see, Jesus profoundly contradicts himself in other verses, giving Christians the ability to construct a far harsher, more nuanced stance on social issues.

The Catch

Many non-believers don’t understand Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament. You know Leviticus? That book with all the horrific commandments about stoning people to death for committing adultery and homosexuality? We like to trot out some of the more esoteric and ridiculous-sounding verses from that book as examples of its irrelevance to modern life, like how it’s an abomination to wear mixed fabrics or to eat shellfish.

But here’s what Jesus says about The Law in Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

By these words, Jesus was not only down with not eating shellfish, he was for stoning your daughter to death for adultery.

But What About “Casting the First Stone”?

This story (which was not even in the original Greek text) is told at the beginning of John 8. Most secular people are familiar with Jesus’ words in verse 7: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

What most do not know is how that story ends in verses 10-11.

“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

11No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’

That’s my emphasis. It’s clear that even when Jesus was hypocrisy hunting, he didn’t let anyone off the hook. Just replace “leave your life of sin” with “stop having gay sex,” and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s a Hot Mess

I first encountered the crazy dance between Jesus and The Law when I was in my early teens, trying to convince my parents who had purportedly converted back to Christianity that it was okay to eat “unclean” meat like pepperoni. One verse would say one thing, but the next two would reverse the previous conclusion. Whenever I questioned pastors and Bible teachers, they sorted out the contradictions by making priorities. Who cares if you eat pork? Just don’t murder anyone or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time. That’s more serious.

So, Christians actually have quite the scriptural arsenal at their disposal if they want to create an argument, say, against gay couples adopting children or for denying employees health coverage for abortifacients (or what they think is an abortifacient, anyway). It’s perfectly “Christian” to do anything legally or morally that supports what the Bible says about certain human behaviors, even in the Old Testament.

That’s why secular folk are better off not playing the “This isn’t Christian” card in social issue debates. It doesn’t in the least, nor should it, shame a believer into thinking they don’t understand the Bible when they do — far better than the person making the accusation, in fact. You can imagine how infuriating and insulting that might be. Think about the last time someone contradicted your understanding about climate change evidence or even the age of the earth. We’re not talking about the same kind of data, obviously, but it’s the same reaction.

It’s totally legitimate to point out that people are clinging to some verses over others, such as eating lobster over stoning people to death. (For the record, even in my holy roller days, I was always a lot more about eating lobster. Not so much about stoning.) That’s getting to a deeper issue about biblical inconsistencies, but it isn’t about being Christian per se.

The Stronger Position

And I understand why this is so frustrating. The rest of us for the most part like to see the similarities in religions, to take the wisdom of each to create a more loving and peaceful place for us all. We seek tolerance in a world where religious conflict is eating us alive, destroying nations, ripping apart families, murdering LGBTQA people, and oppressing women and young girls. In our rage, our fear, we latch onto anything that might give us leverage in our discourse. But this, I’m afraid, isn’t it.

I don’t have any answers. All we can do is continue our quest for compassion and tolerance, to promote peace and understanding where possible, and to fight for justice for those who have been treated unfairly. Staying on our own turf and speaking about the benefits of compassion and inclusion rather than venturing into a religious debate when we don’t know the intricacies of that religion is the stronger position, giving us a more powerful voice.

And now I’m going to go eat some pepperoni.

(I’m also turning off comments. For the sake of my sanity and time, I have no interest in publishing the sort of debates that might ensue here. Thanks for your understanding.)