Can There Be an Atheist Novel?

M. M. Owen in The Point:

ScreenHunter_3023 Apr. 01 21.29The Hungarian philosopher György Lukács called the novel “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” Other forces played more obviously into the form’s rise to literary preeminence—the consolidation of a middle class; advances in printing technology—but the link between the emergence of the novel and the decline of religiosity is strong. Three hundred years ago, reading novels (as opposed to the classics, or Shakespeare) was widely seen as vulgar, indicative of a deficient mind. So was not believing in a divine creator. Today, at least among the sort of people who tend to read literary magazines, both these thing are more likely to be regarded as signs of intellectual and moral refinement. For the critic James Wood, this is no coincidence: the novel is “the slayer of religions,” a form that swept away Biblical certitudes and replaced them with fictional narratives that move “in the shadow of doubt,” asking readers for a belief that is fundamentally and irreligiously metaphorical.

One author who would agree wholeheartedly with Wood is England’s Ian McEwan, who asserted in 2013 that the novel is a product of the Enlightenment that “has always been a secular and skeptical form.” McEwan is a committed nonbeliever, so committed that he qualifies as a junior member of the intellectual movement-cum-publishing-ploy known as New Atheism, which emerged in the wake of 9/11. Christopher Hitchens dedicated his God Is Not Great to McEwan, and McEwan blurbed Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, calling it “lucid and wise, truly magisterial.” The critics Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate, in their 2010 study The New Atheist Novel, write of McEwan “it is tempting to say that—if his fiction did not exist—Dawkins and company would have had to invent it, so completely does it vindicate their worldview.” McEwan’s protagonists are universally, as Edward says in On Chesil Beach, “grateful to live in a time when religion has generally faded into insignificance.” Ostensibly, this view is never seriously challenged, the gratitude never corroded.

More here.