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

“Satan”

“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.