An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse

At both the BASR conference at the University of Kent last September, and the Ways of Knowing Post-Graduate conference at the Harvard Divinity School last week, I presented the early research I’ve conducted so far for one of my post-thesis projects.

Originally, this idea came to me when I read Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and then Crace’s similar Quarantine, both of which tell different perspectives on the Gospel narratives.  Having studied these authors in my research on Atheism, it struck me as rather intriguing to see how two different types of Atheists chose to represent Jesus in two different, yet still critical, ways.  This then led to the question: do these novels present a type of Atheist discourse, a fictional representation of these author’s Atheism, isolated within a particular (and shared) fictional context?  I then researched a bit more, and discovered that not only was the Jesus novel a genre with roots reaching back to such critical texts as Strauss’ (1835-6) Da Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeited (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) and Renan’s (1863) La Vie de Jesus (The Life of Jesus), but that it had also become a contemporary genre with examples coming from notable names such as Anne Rice and Anthony Burgess.  As well, I likewise found that there were in fact a few more Atheist gospels beyond Pullman and Crace’s examples.

This then developed into a (rather fun) research project.

I’ve provided more detail below, presented as it would, for the benefit of the reader, on a Post-Doc application.


Introduction: Discourse, Narrative, and the Precariousness of Defining Atheism

PART ONE: The Afterlives of Jesus

Ch. 1: The Historical Jesus

Ch. 2: The Fictional Jesus

PART TWO: An Atheist Gospel

Introduction: Fairclough’s Three Analytically Separable Elements

Ch. 3: Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation

Ch. 4: Saramago: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

Ch. 5: Crace: Quarantine

Ch. 6: Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

PART THREE: Analysis

Ch. 7: The Atheist Gospel and Fiction as Ethnography

Ch. 8: Literary Atheism: Jesus as Myth, and the Atheism of Fictionalization



In the last decade, Atheism has become more and more publically disseminated, due in large part to the popularity of the ‘New Atheism’ of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. At the same time, the academic study of Atheism has in many ways echoed this popularity, creating a rather sundry discourse about how we methodologically approach the subject, as well as how we might theoretically define the term itself. As such, and regardless of the simplicity we might assume about its meaning, Atheism has become a rather precarious concept, to the point that we might accurately assert that there are just as many definitions of Atheism as there are Atheists. Thus, not only is constructing a definition an altogether difficult task, so is determining the philosophical foundations that underscore an individual’s identity as an ‘Atheist.’

This is partly the blame of our own academic discourse, a theoretical perpetuation of the manner with which religious scholars have stipulated or generalized the meaning of the term ‘religion.’ Perhaps, then, we might argue that a more expedient methodology would be to substitute this type of approach with one that affords the Atheists we intend to study with the opportunity to discursively define their own Atheism, and thus the manner with which they define the term, both individually, and in relation to an established religious belief. This research project will be an attempt at doing just that.

This is not, however, the only way in which this project will provide a distinct voice. In addition to the promotion of a discursive approach to the study of Atheism, the discourse chosen to conduct this research will come from sources not yet considered by previous or current researchers in the field: the ‘Jesus novel.’ Namely, this project will conduct a close analysis of four fictional texts that collectively share a common thematic interest: the story of Jesus Christ. Though for the last few centuries this genre has mostly presented apologetic accounts of Jesus’ ‘missing years,’ there has arisen an occasional text that provides not only a critical interpretation, but also a particular type of Atheist discourse. These ‘Atheist gospels’ will be my central focus, and my analysis will determine both the distinct Atheist voices used to construct these narratives, as well as how they themselves shape the meaning, and literary description, of Atheism on a larger scale.

Developing its methodology from the emerging study of the ‘Jesus novel’ (Ziolkowski 1984, Crook 2007 and 2011, Tate 2008a and 2008b, Ramey 2013, Maczynksa 2015, and Holderness 2015), this project will use these four texts as unique types of fictional ‘fifth gospels,’ novels written by Atheist authors, which present critical perspectives on the gospel narratives. What I intend to argue with this project, then, is not only that these ‘Atheist gospels’ offer a distinct contribution to the fictionalization of those gospel narratives, but that they equally provide a unique insight into the Atheist philosophies underscoring their own narratives. The result of this analysis will thus be twofold: an innovative discursive approach that will both question, as well as theoretically progress, the use of fictional narratives as sources on cultural concepts, that will likewise provide a useful insight into how such a concept can be determined by a textual representation that functions less like fiction and more like ethnography.


Though not structured as such, the research programme that I intend for this project is perhaps more easily determined by three themes: the ‘Jesus novel,’ fiction as ethnography, and Atheist discourse.

With the first theme, I will establish both a theoretical base upon which to build my own research, as well as indicate the lacuna that I intend to fill, by focusing on the dichotomous interplay between Jesus’ two leading ‘afterlives:’ the study of the ‘historical Jesus,’ and the study of the ‘fictional’ one. As such, I will be dividing this first theme into three essential parts: the Historical Jesus, the Fictional Jesus, and the novels that represent the latter. For the first, I will develop an introductory (and necessarily cursory) discussion of the Historical Jesus, utilizing early and essential sources such as Bultmann’s exegesis, Schweizer’s seminal Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), as well as a number of additional voices, such as Wright (1999), Ehrman (2011), and Bond (2012). For the second, I will likewise introduce the notion of the ‘quest for the fictional Jesus,’ relying on texts that have devoted their research to establishing this as a particular field. For the third, I will undertake a preliminary analysis (by means of an introduction) of the ‘Jesus novels’ themselves, so as to better introduce the genre, as well as further establish where within it my notion of the ‘Atheist gospel’ might fit.

For the second of my three-part thematic programme, I will turn my attention to using the ‘Atheist gospel’ as an ethnographic source. This itself will entail three specific foci: an introduction to the ‘Atheist gospel,’ how I might use these sources ‘anthropologically,’ and how they might represent an ‘Atheist narrative.’

For the first focus, I will introduce the texts themselves: Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Crace’s Quarantine, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. With the second, I will establish a correlative link between the literary aspects of reading and using ethnographic texts, and the use of fiction in the analysis of particular cultural identities. As such, I will trace within a number of theoretical examples (notably Clifford 1986, Geertz 1999, Eriksen 1994, and Ellis 2004) how ethnographic writing in general involves an act of fictionalization, thus giving way to the notion that even when focused on a fictionalized world, a novel can provide for us an insight into the author’s opinions and beliefs. This methodological perspective will then feed into my analysis of each ‘Atheist gospel.’ For the third focus, my examination will follow a specific discursive paradigm, which I will amend from Fairclough’s (2003) ‘three analytically separable elements’ in the study of discourse: the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text. As such, it will focus first on a biographical examination of each novelist’s Atheism, determined by an investigation of their non-fiction, as well as interviews I intend (though not yet secured) to conduct with the two currently living authors (Crace and Pullman). Then, I will interpret how their Atheism has penetrated their texts, linking philosophical and cultural distinctions between their fiction and their non-fiction. This will be followed by my own ‘reception’ of these texts, wherein I will shape my final analysis around a discussion of their ‘ethnographic value.’

With the research programme’s third thematic element, my focus will center on linking the Atheism within these novels to a number of equitable sources on Atheist argumentation, from Bertrand Russell’s criticism of religious belief via his ‘celestial China teapot,’ to the critical notion that a further fictionalization of Jesus’ life not only makes the statement that the gospels themselves are ‘fictions,’ but so too is the character of Jesus as well. This third thematic discussion will likewise examine the ‘argument from fictionalization,’ taken up by contemporary Atheists such as Sagan (1995), Baggini (2003), and Dawkins (2004), as well as the Biblical scholarship that underscores the notion of the ‘Christ myth theory:’ Doherty (1999), Price (2000), Harpur (2004), and Carrier (2014).

To conclude the text, I intend to further argue how the ‘Atheist gospel’ functions as both an ethnographic description of a particular identity, as well as an example of Atheism in literary form.


Discourse Analysis

Fairclough, Norman. Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge,

Gee, James Paul. An Introduction To Discourse Analysis: Theory And Method, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2005.

Jaworski, Adam and Nikolas Coupland. “Introduction: Perspectives on Discourse Analysis” in Adam

Jaworski and Nikolas Coupland, eds., The Discourse Reader, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Paltridge, Brian. Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. London: Continuum, 2006.

Schiffrin, Deborah, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton. “Introduction” in Deborah Schiffrin,

Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton, eds. The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Taira, Teemu. “Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies.” Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2013.

van Dijk, Teun A. “The Study of Discourse” in Teun A. van Dijk, ed. Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Volume One. London: Sage, 1997.

von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Discursive Study of Religion: From States of the Mind to Communication and Action.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 15, 2003.

———. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 22, Nos. 2-3, 2010.

———. “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2013.

The Definition of Atheism

Aveling, Francis. 1907. “Atheism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Baggini, Julian. 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bremmer, Jan M. 2007. “Atheism in Antiquity” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Buckley, Michael J. 1990. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bullivant, Stephen. 2014. “Introduction” in Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Drachmann, A.B. 1922. Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishing.

Eller, Jack David. 2004. Natural Atheism. Austin: American Atheist Press.

———. 2010. “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Fergusson, David. 2009. Faith and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Flew, Anthony. 1976. The Presumption of Atheism & Other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom and Immortality. New York: Barnes and Noble Press.

Hiorth, Finngeir. 1995. Introduction to Atheism. Pune: Indian Secular Society.

———. 2003. Atheism in the World. Oslo: Human-Etisk Forbund.

Hyman, Gavin. 2009. “Atheism in Modern History” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ———. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I.B. Tauris.

Kahn, Charles H. 1997. “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment.” Phronesis 42 (3).

LeDrew, Stephen. 2012. “The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches.” History of the Human Sciences 25 (3).

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. London: Double Day.

Maritain, Jacques. 1949. “On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism.” The Review of Politics 11 (3).

Martin, Michael. 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

———. 2007a. “Atheism” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. New York: Prometheus Books.

———. 2007b. “Introduction” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2007c. “Atheism and Religion” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Masterson, Patrick. 1965. “Contemporary Atheism.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 54 (214/215).

Non-religion and Secularity Research Network Glossary of Term. 2011. Available at:

Reid, J.P. and B. Mondin, eds., 2003. “Atheism” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America.

Robertson, Roland. 1970. “Epilogue: Secularization” in Roland Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Smith, George H. 1989. “The Scope of Atheism” in George H. Smith, ed. Atheism: The Case Against God. New York: Prometheus.

———. 1991. Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. New York: Prometheus Books.

Stein, Gordon. 1980. “The Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism” in Gordon Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. New York: Prometheus.

Walters, Kerry. 2010. Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum. 

Historical Jesus

Allison, Jr., Dale C. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Bond, Helen. The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T& T Clark, 2012.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Poirier, John C. “Seeing What is there in Spite of Ourselves: George Tyrrell, John Dominic Crossan, and Robert Frost On Faces In Deep Wells.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2006.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. W. Montgomery, trans. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005.

Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, Second Edition. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove: Intervasity, 1999.

Fictional Jesus

Crook, Zeba. “Fictionalizing Jesus: Story and History in Two Recent Jesus Novels.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2007.

———. “Jesus Novels: Solving Problems with Fiction” in Delbert Burkett, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Jesus. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Holderness, Graham. Re-Writing Jesus: Christ in 20th-Century Fiction and Film. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Maczynska, Magdalena. The Gospel According to the Novelist: Religious Scripture and Contemporary Fiction. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Ramey, Margaret E. The Quest for the Fictional Jesus: Gospel Re-Write, gospel (Re) Interpretation, and Christological Portraits within Jesus Novels. Eugene: Pickwick, 2013.

Tate, Andrew. “This Other Christ: Jesus in Contemporary Fiction,” in Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Jesus Myth

Brodie, Thomas L. Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, Ltd., 2012.

Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, Ltd., 2014.

Doherty, Earl. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999.

Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2004.

Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner, 2007.

Price, Robert M. Deconstructing Jesus. New York: Prometheus, 2000.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. London: Vintage, 2007.

Wells, Albert G. Did Jesus Exist? New York: Prometheus, 1975.

Gospel Re-Writes

Alderman, Naomi. The Liars Gospel. London: Viking, 2012.

Archer, Jeffrey with Francis J. Maloney, The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot. London: MacMillan, 2007.

Burgess, Anthony. Man of Nazareth. London: Magnum Books, 1979.

Chopra, Deepak. Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment. New York: Harper One, 2008.

Faber, Michel. The Fire Gospel. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2008.

Holmes, Marjorie. The Messiah. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.

Lagerkvist, Par. Barabbas, Alan Blair, trans. New York: Vintage, 1951.

Langguth, A.J. Jesus Christs. Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2002.

Lawrence, D.H. The Man Who Died. New Delhi: Rupa, 2004.

Mailer, Norman. The Gospel According to the Son. London: Abacus, 1997.

Moore, Christopher. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. London: Orbit, 2002.

Oursler, Fulton. The Greatest Story Ever Told. New York: Image Books, 1989.

Ricci, Nino. Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Rice, Anne. Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt. London: Arrow Books, 2006.

———. Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. London: Arrow Books, 2009.

Toibin, Colm. The Testament of Mary. London: Viking, 2012.

Atheist Gospels

Crace, Jim. Quarantine. London: Picador, 2010.

Graves, Robert. King Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1946.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Last Temptation, P.A. Bien, trans. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Moorcock, Michael. Behold the Man. London: Millennium, 1999.

Saramago, Jose. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Giovanni Pontiero, trans. London: Vintage,

Vidal, Gore. Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal. London: Abacus, 1993.

***In my search this week for the perfect ‘featured image’ for this post, I came across these hilarious re-interpretations from the tumblr “Jesus-Everywhere,” which, though they present an interesting type of criticism, might likewise be viewed as just as valid in their appearance as any visual, or fictional, representation.***

jesus mariachi tetris jesus jesus wobble jesus pool party jesus hang gliding jesus corn dog jesus bull riding jesus model

Vanilla English

Leaving the XXI Quinquennial IAHR in Erfurt, I stopped off at the University for one last coffee before boarding the tram’s Liene 6 (Riethe, Erfurt) to the train station (Hauptbahnhof).  On the tram, a gentleman I’d not met at the conference shouted over the noise, “English?!”

It took me a few seconds to decipher whether he meant, “do you speak English,” or, “are you English.”

It was the latter.

He had seen that my name tag, which also functioned as a free public transport pass, had the word ‘Edinburgh’ printed under my name.

I responded, “No, American,” to which he asked: “North or South?”

I told him: “North, Southern California.”

His response, in a rather heavy accent which I, embarrassingly, was having trouble understanding, was: “Is it cold in Edinburgh?  Snow?”

Our conversation then descended into the banal, yet polite, sort of back and forth conversation that people have when limited by language differences.  We talked about the weather in our countries, and the winters in Scotland and Lithuania, before he stood to exit at his stop and bid me a friendly, “Nice to meet you, enjoy English.”

When I arrived in Berlin, I dropped off my bag at a locker, and decided to ‘walk the streets,’ which really meant, walk from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), through the Brandenburg Gate, and then the length of Unter den Linden to Museum Island and the Berliner Dom (Cathedral).

When I passed through the Brandenburg Gate, after deftly avoiding all the people taking pictures straddling where the wall once separated East and West Berlin, I entered out onto the wide expanse of Pariser Platz.  There, in the centre, intoning loudly and with sincere passion, was a bagpiper.

He was playing “Danny Boy.”

I took a picture, lamented the fact that pipers follow me everywhere now, had a pretzel, a few pilsners, and returned to the train station a broken man.

At the airport (Schönefeld, not Tegel), I squeezed into a small section of an Irish Bar, the only place to sit and eat and drink before one’s flight (Schönefeld is a terrible airport to fly out of).  I ordered a German beer, because a Guinness or a Kilkenny felt out of place.  I also borrowed a stool from two elderly travellers, who seemed rather put out to let me have it.  It turns out, they were saving it for their coats, for when their wives returned from the duty free shop.  They let me have it, of course, though grumbled in German.  After that we politely ignored each other for a few minutes.

When the gate for my flight was announced, I noticed they too began to gather their belongings.  I politely gave them back their stool (in case they needed it) and thanked them.

One of the gentleman suddenly asked, “Oh, you speak English?”  I answered him that I did, to which he responded: “Only English?  No French, or German?”  I told him a little French (Je parle un petit peu le français), and he smiled back.

“Oh,” he said, “just plain vanilla English.  Ok.  See you on the flight.”

A few minutes later, as I stood in line to board the flight, and as my new friends slowly made their way behind me with their bags of liquor and chocolate, I found myself feeling somewhat conflicted.  I was certain that his association of my language as ‘vanilla English’ was meant as an insult, likely referring to it as being bland or boring.  However, it also seemed like an intriguing thing to analyse.

First, I thought, why do we associate vanilla with something bland?  Vanilla isn’t boring.  It’s actually rather exotic.

It was originally cultivated from the Mexican vanilla orchid, which the Aztecs called, tlilxochitl, which was then introduced to Europe via the conquistador Hernán Cortés (alongside its dichotomous partner, chocolate) in the early sixteenth century.

Since then, it’s literally traveled the world, and comes from a number of equally ‘exotic’ locations: MadagascarRéunion island, and other tropical islands within the Indian Ocean (Vanilla planifolia), the South Pacific (Vanilla tahitensis), and the West Indies, Central, and South America (Vanilla pompon).

As well, the means to produce it outside Mexico have needed to adopt ‘by-hand’ pollination, as it was originally dependent upon, and could only produce, when pollinated by a particular species of bee (Melipona).  In fact, according to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, it’s the second most expensive ‘spice’ after saffron.

Vanilla isn’t bland.

As my ticket was scanned I continued to think that perhaps this was a perfect metaphor: to call my language ‘vanilla English’ seemed, in fact, a rather apt description.  Regardless of whether or not he meant it, my new friend at the Irish Bar in Berlin was properly describing the diversity of English, exemplified by the fact that, in an Irish Bar, in Berlin, he was using it to describe my language as ‘vanilla.’

Likewise, maybe this distinction was meant as a way of referring to the English language as something accessible to all.  After all, not only is it universally used, there are in fact a number of different types of English: from British to American, Canadian, and Australian, a whole diverse world of Anglophone speakers adjusting and amending the flavour of the language with unique vernaculars and cultural and contextual influences.

Second, this association of my language as ‘vanilla’ is yet another reminder that, as a flavour, differences of perspective should not be seen as adverse to each other, but rather as individual and unique.  When combined, then, they create something new, a discourse of flavours coming together in a melange, an immersion of both likewise and disparate ideologies that develop and evolve and become something just as, if not more, meaningful because of their blending together.

On the plane, these thoughts were mixing nicely with the free wine and peanuts.  I started to think back to my presentation, which I wrote about last week, and about the differences between those of us who study Atheism (usually more history focused) and those of us who study Non-religion (usually more social-scientific).  These are like flavours, and like the idea that vanilla and chocolate are opposite, they are in fact extremely close relatives, introduced to the ‘western’ world at the same time, and from the same ‘exotic’ origin.

Thus, our language, though different, should not be seen as wholly separate or divided, but of equal essence and quality.  As I argued last week, our differences of opinion or approach don’t represent a weakness, but rather a wider discourse, leading us to a better understanding about a subject and concept, and how those whom we study go about describing themselves in a myriad of different ways.

As such, and just as how a discursive approach to the study of ‘religion’ works to release us from the precarious and difficult task of theoretically ‘defining’ the term, I find myself once again in praise of polyvocality.

After all, who hasn’t enjoyed an ice cream cone swirled with both vanilla and chocolate?

As we made our descent into Edinburgh, and I strained my eyes to make out the two towers of New College (still tragically draped in festival banners), I noticed a fly buzzing around the edges of the window.  When we landed and they opened the rear door, I caught one last glimpse of this little stowaway as it escaped into the night air.  Later, as I approached the immigration desk, I thought to myself, do you think the fly’s first thoughts, as it exited the aircraft, were:

Was soll der unsinn?  Ich spreche kein Englisch.  Wo bekomme ich ein ticket für die straßenbahn?

Comedic Criticism: A Discursive Source of Atheism

In our tutorials for Atheism in Debate this last week we discussed Feuerbach.  The week before that was Strauss, and before that was Hegel.  Understandably, its usually around this point where the energy of the course begins to wane.  In order to try and remedy this, I tend to use video clips, usually of one of the four ‘New Atheists,’ to break up the monotony of just talking about the reading.  For this round of clips I tried to find ways to connect the ‘anthropomorphism’ of Feuerbach’s deconstructive theory about religion being ‘human nature reflected, mirrored in itself,’ with the way Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens diminish religion to infantile self-creations.  For those interested, these are the clips that I chose:

As I was searching for these I came across this interesting video:

Here was a listicle of ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”  This got me thinking.  What is the difference between these ‘comedy routines’ and the statements being made by the ‘New Atheists?’  Are they not equally ‘scripted’ critiques of religion?  Do they not function the same way as the rhetorical use of the ‘Atheist discourse‘ being presented by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

I thought I’d look into this a bit more.

I came across the work of Patrick McKearney at the University of Cambridge who, for a few years, was the ‘Atheist comedy guy.’  Aside from the four conference presentations he gave on the subject (“Public Belief and Civil Society: A Case-Study of Contemporary Anti-Religious Stand-Up Comedy;” “The Ridicule of Religion in Contemporary British and Irish Stand-Up Comedy;” “‘What are you laughing at?’ The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation;” “Methods for Investigating Non-religiosity in Stand-up Comedy”), he also participated in a BBC 4 discussion on Comedy and Religion, and published two articles on the subject in The Guardian (“Heard the One about the Pope?”) and Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge (“Slap in the Faith“).  The latter is focused on issues of comedic criticism and the reactions we might see in fundamentalist religion striking back (such as we saw with the attacks against Charlie Hebdo a few months back).

Likewise, my good friend Katie Aston deals with this a little bit in her Doctoral Thesis.

So how might these comedic criticisms present a useful example of an Atheist discourse?  I believe the answer lies in some specificity.  For pragmatic reasons, then, I will be using two methodological points made by Norman Fairclough in his Analysing Discourse (2003).

First, in consideration of the utility of discourse analysis in the study of texts, let’s broaden our conception of that term itself:

“written and printed texts such as shopping lists and newspaper articles are ‘texts’, but so also are transcripts of (spoken) conversations and interviews, as well as television programmes and web-pages” (Fairclough, 2003, 4).  

In this way, these video clips, as edited versions of the stand-up comedian’s routine, are texts, filled with, and exemplary of, particular ‘language in use.’  In other words: ‘discourse.’

Second, let’s specify how we might more directly consider these texts via a three-part interpretation:

“the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text” (Fairclough, 2003, 10) 

In this way, we can be a bit more specific about the discourse being used, as well as establish a contextual boundary within which it emerged, was presented, and subsequently received.

These things established, let’s look at three examples, two of which were also on ‘Generation Xero Film’s’ “Top Ten Anti-Religion Comedy Routines.”

The first comes from Ricky Gervais, and focuses on a critical analysis of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark:

The second comes from Bill Maher, and focuses on examples of religion ‘doing harm:’

The third, and perhaps most famous, comes from George Carlin, and focuses on religion as ‘bullshit:’

From out of a cursory analysis of these three clips as ‘texts,’ we can establish a number of discursive specifics:

  • Each are reactionary, and thus present a criticism directed at a particular subject.
    • The first (Gervais) presents a critical assessment of the fictionality and inherent unbelievability of a Biblical myth through the lens of modernity.
    • The second (Maher) is directed at issues of morality, and the fact, as he sees it, that ‘religion’ is harmful and immoral.
    • The third (Carlin), like Maher, presents a critical assessment of the harmful and equally immoral dangers of religion/religious belief (though with the caveat that his ‘Sun Worship’ (not ‘prayer-to’) is still practical.
  • The ‘religion’ of their collective criticisms is somewhat vague, though we can presume via their language they are reacting against a particular monotheism, likely Christianity (though Maher intermixes this with critiques of Islam).
  • While seemingly problematic, these differences tell us a great deal about their contextual discursive language use.  Gervais’ routine was given in 2010, the same year as Maher’s.  Carlin’s routine comes from 1999.  So, we might concede that Gervais’ and Maher’s routines stem from a ‘New Atheist,’ or post-September 11th discourse, though that might be presuming a bit much.
  • However, simply as ‘texts,’ they do not tell us much about their ‘Atheisms.’  Yes, we might assume (or presume) that they are being inherently ‘Atheist’ by means of their criticisms, it is not as specific as, say, an informant telling us about his or her ‘Atheist identity,’ and how he or she has constructed that identity in a specific way.

So how might we use them as textual discursive sources?  By taking up Fairclough’s three-part interpretive method, we can begin to shift them from mere textual examples to more direct discursive ones.

  1. Learning about how they were produced (written) we can learn a great deal about the individuals doing the writing, the context that writing took place, the type of Atheism they themselves identify with, and the influences that shaped their texts based on that type of Atheism.
  2. Then, our cursory analysis (such as above) becomes a bit more nuanced.
  3. Finally, we can look at how they are received by individuals (audience or viewers) who equally identify as ‘Atheist,’ while equally deciphering how these texts assist these individuals in their own identity constructions.

By weaving these together, we begin to form a much clearer (in my opinion, at least) conception of ‘Atheism,’ such as we might use to better understand the discursive elements that influence the New Atheist clips presented above.  While this isn’t a better means of approach then conducting interviews and ethnographically shaping a textual representation, as a means of understanding the discourse that might underscore or influence the identities that make up such an ethnographic textual representation, this seems quite beneficial.  Likewise, I believe this works much better than merely speculating or theoretically stipulating what we think these sorts of things (like Atheism) mean, and is therefore a much more useful (and, to be honest, more enjoyable) means of researching precarious concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘Atheism.’

Norman Fairclough, Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research (London: Routledge, 2003).

*As an extra bonus, here is an animated version of Louis CK (who is not an Atheist) talking about ‘God as a shitty girlfriend,’ and the oddity of ‘saying Jesus Christ with a shitty attitude.’

A Feeling of Ownership

Though perhaps not as many as others I know, I have presented at a good number of conferences.  One thing that I have learned throughout the process is the utility in using these experiences to better shape my research narrative.

Like a story in itself, the thing that we research often becomes something told and retold on so many occasions that it transforms into a part of our personal discourse.  That is, our research topic transmutes into something that describes us, and vice versa.  It becomes a part of our identity.  This is, partly, why my twitter handle is  Moreover, at the early stage, when we are focused so myopically on the PhD Thesis, this is ever more prevalent as we begin to try and describe (and in the process come to realise) what it is that we are actually researching in the first place.  This is perhaps best reflected by a friendly exchange that recently took place between myself and two other individuals who are studying Atheism/Non-Religion.

The three of us met at a cafe in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of shaping together a roundtable discussion for our Atheism in Debate course here at New College, which we each tutor on.  I wrote briefly about the course in a  previous post.  The locus of the idea came from Liam Fraser, who’s research on Atheism and Fundamentalism argues “that these apparently irreconcilable movements share a common intellectual structure, and derive from a common theological and philosophical source.”  Very interesting stuff.  The other in our group was Christopher Cotter, who I’ve mentioned previously, and who’s research at Lancaster University on the discourses that underly the social constructions of notions about Non-Religion and the ‘secular’ is definitely worth a read.

While Chris and I have known each other for a few years now, this was our first introduction to Liam, so our conversation, as so often happens when three individuals who study similar things meet for the first time, was focused as well on what Liam so aptly called our ‘elevator pitch.’  I’ve heard this phrased a number of different ways, perhaps the most popular of which is the ‘three-minute thesis,’ which is also the name of a world-wide competition that began in Australia.  In essence, the ‘three-minute thesis’ is as the title suggests, or as the website states: the reduction of an 80,000 word thesis into a three minute presentation.  It isn’t really that easy, despite the ease with which some are able to do it.  See, for example, this last year’s winner Megan Rossi:


Regrettably, I have never really tried to reduce my thesis in this manner.  So when Liam asked for my ‘elevator pitch’ he, perhaps begrudgingly, received a fairly long and detailed account of how I intend to change the academic world with my substantial and original ideas.  As I was detailing all of this to him (and Chris, who got to hear it all over again) I began to consider how this pitch not only describes what it is that I’ve done these last four years, but me as well.

This thought returned recently as I sat down to write up another conference presentation, which I will expand on a bit more later this month.  In the process, I came to realise that there exists an odd feeling of ownership to these subjects, a bizarre association with ‘Atheism’ and my name, or the way I feel as if I have some sort of hold on the notion of Atheism and fiction and Ian McEwan’s novels, the latter of which always seems to surface when I meet someone who’s read one of his books and we carry on in a special conversation only we understand.  It’s like having an exclusionary knowledge about a subject, being ‘in the know,’ or privileged in some odd way.

Whenever I find myself thinking this way I am reminded of a line Malinowski noted in his diary during his observations in New Guinea for Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

Joy: I hear the “Kiriwina” [another name for the Trobriands; more strictly the northern province of Boyowa].  I get ready; little gray, pinkish huts.  Photos.  Feeling of ownership: It is I who will describe them or create them.[1]

Though he never, as far as we might assume, intended to publish these personal thoughts, and though their publication made way for the Writing Culture debate that would follow in the next two to three decades, I would argue that Malinowski’s own feeling of ownership is not all that surprising.  In fact, because he saw himself as the translator of Trobriand culture for the Western World, his sense that he ‘owned’ it is as equally reflective of his idea that this would be his subject.  He would introduce it to the world.  He would translate their ‘imponderabilia,’ the nuanced and specific day-to-day that only one who has lived amongst his subject might be able to understand.  He would create them.

Beyond the conversation we might have about how an observer’s textual representation (or even interpretation) might in any way equal anything akin to ‘creating a culture’ (which will come up eventually, I assure you), this might better explain what i mean by a ‘feeling of ownership.’  When we undertake these sorts of research projects, we not only immerse ourselves fully into the subject, the subject begins to infect us as well.  There becomes a blurring of sorts, a consolidation of subject and object.  This might explain why, on occasion, and especially depending on the subject of one’s research, we often get confused with what we do.  This appears infrequently in religious studies.  On a number of occasions I have been asked by friends and family if my intention is to become a ‘minister,’ or if I ‘actually believe’ what it is I study.  Likewise, this might explain the jealousy we feel when we discover someone who studies what we study, but with (horrifically) a different perspective.

While this sort of thinking resurfaces from time to time, it is not something that I would argue is entirely an inaccurate assumption.  We are our subjects, because our subjects shape our research narrative.  They play an integral role in not only shaping the story we intend to tell, but the story of that story as well.  In this way, when we reduce our research into an ‘elevator pitch’ in order to easily describe it, we are likewise finding a way to describe ourselves.  Of course, and again, I do not have an elevator pitch.  Rather, I have a blog.  This is my elevator pitch.  However, the elevator is very slow, and this building has a whole lot of stories.

So, as I once again cobble together a presentation on Atheism, Atheist Narrative, Fiction as Ethnography, Atheism in McEwan’s Fiction, and Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism, I am once again reminded that, for no other reason than the obsession it takes to fully baptise oneself in a subject, when I give this presentation I will be the one who owns it.  I will be the one to describe and create it.  Of course, that does not mean that it is entirely mine.  This is just a story I tell myself, a feeling of ownership I pretend exists, to keep me from feeling like what I have to say means something beyond the boundaries of my own thoughts.

[1] Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Norbert Guterman, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 140.