The story of belief and doubt in modern literature begins with the emergence of open [CE1]unbelief at roughly the midpoint of the nineteenth century. For the first generation of writers—including such greats as Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoevsky—the sense of conflict and uncertainty was palpable, as they grappled on new ground with classic questions concerning the nature and existence of God, the problem of evil, and the meaning of human life. In the generations that followed, from the rise of naturalism to the heights of modernism into the postmodern, eclectic age we call our own, the overtly Christian nature of the question of belief began to recede from view, and a politically oriented understanding took center stage. To a significant extent, on matters having to do with the relationship between literature and belief, the twentieth century was to witness an ever-widening gap between the view of those matters from the ivory tower and the perspective from the pews and the private regions of the heart. As a result, while powerful theoretical developments were fueling academic skepticism about the role of religion within the academy, outside the academy’s walls men and women continued to grapple with God and to record their struggles for others to read, to hear, and to heed. Given the infinitely diverse and widely dispersed nature of modern culture, these individual accounts of faith and doubt perhaps have not had the same cultural resonance that the explosive explorations of the nineteenth-century writers did. Yet at the same time, they testify to the ongoing vitality of belief, and unbelief, in contemporary literature and experience. At their best, such works are marked by a creative pugnacity, and in their willingness to mention the unmentionable, they continue to serve as a counter-cultural force challenging the pieties of the modern literary and theoretical establishments.
This essay begins by contextualizing atheism in the larger history of literature, locating the first sustained uses of unbelief as a literary theme in the Western world during the first half of the nineteenth century. Schweizer then goes on to clarify fundamental terminological issues such as the distinction between atheism, Satanism, and misotheism, as well as that between implicit and explicit literary atheism. Next follow four case studies of literary atheism, as Schweizer outlines the functions and characteristics of atheism in Büchner’s Danton’s Death, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Camus’s The Plague, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Schweizer concludes that the role of atheism in literature has morphed from being a touchstone for radical and existential moral questions in earlier fiction to serving as a vehicle for metafictional humour and ironic self-inspection in contemporary writing.