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I've been pondering this for a while. Now, I'm not so worried about losing readers than affecting the quality of my writing. Preaching too much instead of telling the actual story. Here's an example:

Mom proceeded by reading a passage from the Bible. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build up... I wasn’t familiar with the passage. Mainly because I wasn’t a Christian like my mom (she wasn’t the conventional type, however; yes, she prayed at night and went to church every Sunday, but also lit an incense for Buddha now and then).

For my part I didn’t mind her belief. In fact, I was glad she had found it. With my father dead, she really needed something to hold onto. Still, I couldn't help noticing the conflict: if Christianity was truth, then her parents, her grandparents, her great-grandparents, and pretty much all our ancestors were burning in hell right now. Because they didn’t believe in Christ. He wasn’t popular at the time.

Both the mother and the protagonist are Chinese. That's why the protagonist is saying her ancestors are burning in hell. Because Christianity wasn't popular in that part of Asia at the time (this theory is debatable, but I don't want to go off-topic).

As you might have guessed I'm an atheist. Not the 'aggressive' kind, though (one of my best friends is a Christian). But I can't help dropping these atheist 'bombs' now and then in my writing. I'm not sure why. I guess my intention is to make my readers question their beliefs.

Do I risk scaring readers way by doing this? Does it affect the quality of my writing?

  • In a nutshell: yes. Whenever you explicitly espouse a particular opinion, that's relevant and important to real-world issues, then some of the people who disagree with you will take offense. I hope I'll be able to expand on this in the next couple of days, but no promises, alas. – Standback Sep 11 '14 at 21:32
  • By the way, "Christianity" and "Christianism" aren't the same thing. "Christianity" is the general umbrella term for the religion which worships Christ, regardless of flexibility or orthodoxy; "Christianism" is the fanatic evangelist fundamentalist version which wants to dictate that everyone else should live under their strict and particular interpretation of their religion, enforced by civil law and jail time. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 12 '14 at 9:55
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    "Christianism" is a word coined by Andrew Sullivan to describe views he disagrees with. It was purposely meant to be a counterpart to "Islamism," with the same pejorative slant. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianism – dmm Sep 12 '14 at 20:18
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    @Jay Re: "Hard pressed to find many actual Fundamentalists or evangelicals who say they want their religion imposed on others by force of law" — Disagree. I think the Abortion issue in the USA is pretty strong counterpoint. – ghoppe Sep 19 '14 at 19:08
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    @Jay You're right, the politics are thorny so I won't delve too deep. But regarding your points (a) many people are being penalized, by not having access to safe abortion or the protections of marriage. (b) There is no comparison between many of your examples. Lightbulbs? Business practices? What a hardship! I don't even get how freedom to buy energy inefficient lightbulbs is in any way a christian principle, but I digress. I am flummoxed by your comment on being "forced to participate in gay marriage." That's simply untrue and nonsensical. – ghoppe Sep 22 '14 at 14:53
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You need to ask yourself why you add these references in the first place.

Are they relevant to the development of your characters or the plot of your story? When not, you should sacrifice them to the law of conservation of detail. There is little point in wasting your readers time with indulging in your personal pet-issue when it doesn't lead anywhere.

On the other hand, when the reason you are writing the story is because you want the reader to question their believes, you should go all the way and make the question of religion vs. atheism a central theme of your story. You can do this by making the religious views of your characters an important aspect of their character development and make it the motivation behind plot-affecting decisions your characters make.

But be aware that this will make your story controversial, no matter which side you pick (and even when you try your best to not pick a side). This isn't necessarily bad: Controversial stories are the stories people talk about, and when people talk about them, people want to read them. However, be prepared for very harsh reviews and negative feedback by those who don't agree with your point of view (or what they interpret as your point of view). They will not just attack your point, they will attack your whole work and they might even attack you personally. When you can't take that heat, stay away from controversial issues.

Also, when you want to make your religious views a theme of a story, be aware of part 25 of the Mary Sue Litmus Test:

  • Does your character voice political, social, and/or religious opinions or beliefs which you share? (There is nothing inherently wrong with a character sharing some of your views, of course. Problems come in when it becomes clear that your character exists primarily or solely to make it clear how superior your views on everything are)

  • Does xe convince others that xir way of thinking is right?

  • Is spreading these views one of your character's biggest motivations, or even xir sole motivation?

  • If religious, does your character explicitly have divine support or assistance in gaining converts and/or confronting nonbelievers?

  • Do characters who disagree with your character's views/beliefs simply do so out of spite, stubbornness, and/or ignorance?

  • Does anyone who doesn't adopt your character's ideals by the end of the story end up beaten up, humiliated, miserable, and/or dead?

All these are signs of dangerous mary-sue-ness. You can counter them by:

  • Having your character seriously question and maybe even change their believes over the course of the story
  • Also having sympathetic characters with different views (your Christian friend might serve an inspiration for such a character) and unsympathetic characters sharing your view
  • Have a character representing your viewpoint lose an argument about religion once in a while (remember: just because you can counter any pro-religion argument doesn't mean your character can)
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(a) Try to differentiate yourself from your narrator and protagonist. That person is not you. Define that person in relation to the plot: what is his goal, how does he see the world, how does he behave, and how does the world react to him. If you have difficulty with this, write relevant passages in third person and then "translate" them to first.

(b) A novel is not an essay. You can illustrate your world view through the telling of a story, but you must not put forth your opinion in an argumentative manner nor discuss it. Yes, there are novels that do argue quite extensively, but they are from another time and mostly not popular today. Today you need to be more subtle. Educate the reader by letting him experience what brought you to your opinion, but let him come to it (or another opinion) by himself.

(c) If your story is about a person from a non-christian society being christian, then of course religion is a central part of your plot and you need to spend time telling about it. Since you would look at that character (the mother) through the eyes of another character (the narrator), of course that character would think about his mother and the reader would witness his thoughts. In that context, I find nothing wrong with your example, only that you could try to show-not-tell: show how the narrator does not mind, how he is glad, how the ancestors lived, and so on. What you do here is not so much a problem with the topic (religion) but with prescribing his interpretation to the reader. In this, it is the same as saying someone is hungry versus showing how he gets irritable, can't concentrate (because he is thinking of food) and finally gorges himself at the chocolate bar machine, afterwards feeling bad etc. Do religion like everything else: show us what it is and does to the different characters, and then let the readers come to any conclusion they like. A novel is not a text book, so you don't have to make sure your readers don't misunderstand.

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If you make comments that are critical of someone's religion or politics or social beliefs or whatever, some number of people will find it annoying or offensive and be uninterested in reading your stories.

Take the flip side. You say you're an atheist. Suppose you read a book that had many sections that attacked atheism in one way or another. I'd guess that as you were reading you'd be thinking of rebuttals to these attacks. But at some point wouldn't you be likely to say, "I'm tired of reading all these attacks on my beliefs and opinions. I just want to read a fun escapist story, not a religious or political diatribe!"

Let's face it, you don't have to be a closed-minded bigot to say that you just don't want to get into a debate right now, you want to relax. If I was running for office and in a formal debate my opponent challenged some political belief I had, of course it would be absurd to say, "How dare you criticize me! I refuse to discuss this. These are my beliefs, and you should respect them!" But if I'm sitting at home, tired after a hard day of work, and I just want to read a light novel and relax, I might well not want to get into a debate. I just want to read something fun.

All of this would, I think, depend a lot on the nature of the comments and the attitude of the reader. If the comments are rare and mildly worded, a reader might just brush them off and get on with the story. If the comments are expressed in serious philosophical terms and not just nasty ridicule, a reader might find them thoughtful rather than offensive.

I'd especially say that if your comments are vicious attacks on caricatures of someone else's beliefs, I mean if you make statements that make it clear that you have no idea what your opponents really say, but you are just taking any negative statement about them that you can think of, distorting their views to make them sound as absurd as possible, etc, then people are going to be much less interested in continuing to read your work.

I'm a Fundamentalist Christian. I've read lots of stories by atheists that criticize Christianity. In a few cases, the criticism has been intellectually interesting. Like a writer might bring up a point of Christian belief or practice that is not well thought out or consistent. In some cases I'll say, "Hmm, that's a good point. How can I respond to that," and it leads me to think. I'm hard pressed to think of a fiction story that has led me to seriously question my beliefs, but some have been interesting.

But frankly, most atheist attacks that I read on Christianity are just silly and annoying. The writer clearly has no idea what Christians really believe and he's just hurling insults. I'm not going to knowingly buy a book whose purpose is to make rude, gratuitous insults against me. This is not a comment about atheism, by the way, but about specific writers. I don't doubt that there are Christian books that make childish insults against atheists, or Muslim books that make childish insults against Hindus, etc etc.

And just by the way, as a Fundamentalist Christian, I don't find anything about the paragraphs you quoted in your post insulting or offensive.

Oh, and one more by-the-way: If your PURPOSE is to challenge people's religion and persuade them to change their beliefs, then of course the idea that this might cost you some readers is just a price you have to pay. Then the issue becomes, What is the most effective way to get this material into my story? If I'm very blatant, will I shock people into realizing the absurdity of their beliefs? Or will they tune me out before listening to what I have to say? If I am very subtle, will people skim over it and miss the point? Or will I slip thoughts into their head that might germinate later? Etc.

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That's some overt preaching there! I'd say that, as done, it is detrimental. For one thing, you'll automatically turn off many Western readers, who might decide never to read anything of yours ever again. Human nature.

More importantly, though, the character's (your) line of reasoning is weak. The argument assumes things that not all Christians agree on. Even if the argument's assumptions are all true, then the mother's rejection of Christianity won't help her ancestors. (Indeed, wouldn't they urge her to accept it?)

So you're getting into deep water there: You'll have to carefully explain the mother's beliefs (without unintentionally misrepresenting beliefs that you, the author, disagree with and probably don't want to investigate carefully). Then you'll have to introduce another character for your protagonist to debate, and not just toss up straw men for your protagonist to shoot down. A well-done debate like that could be interesting, if it were spliced into the story, in short pieces, in a meaningful way that helped drive the story.

Alternatively, you could purposefully leave the son's blithe condemnation of his mother's faith as it is currently written, to show that he is simultaneously arrogant and shallow (even while loving his mother and wanting her to be happy). That's not a bad thing in a protag, provided your story builds on that. Perhaps he grows over time to realize that things aren't so simple, and neither is his mother. Perhaps he suffers for his arrogance and shallowness.

I don't think it is necessarily bad, as a writer, to ask your readers to question their beliefs. But if you venture into that territory in such a blatant manner, you'd better do it well.

To summarize: I doubt that many readers will appreciate this know-it-all young protagonist's facile criticism of a faith that is held by 1/3 of the human race. Especially since one could switch the same argument to many other religions, so now you just insulted ~70% of humanity. =8-0

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Writers should make their Characters relate to their audience. You are an Atheist writing about the lives of Christian characters, While sneaking in sacrilegious text. So its a recipe for disaster.

When a Christian reader reads about the life of another christian they say 'This character is christian and I am christian therefore i like this character(and by extension the book)'

You don't have to create characters that relate to your audience's current lives. You can make them so that your characters are living lives that your audience would want.

For example: In the Eragon series, David Paolini created a character who had a special connection with a dragon. This is something that any lover of the fantasy Genre would want for their lives.

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    It's more important that characters be interesting to the reader. This often takes the form of how they relate to the character or if the character embodies something they secretly or overtly desire, but compelling characters can be designed by good writers without these aspects (readers don't have to like them or view them as role models). – Anaksunaman Sep 12 '14 at 4:37
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    Writers do not have to make their characters relatable, or inspiring, or "living lives the audience would want." They do have to be interesting. I found Eragon to be extremely badly written and boring; I couldn't get more than a quarter of the way through. "Special bond with the dragon" or not, likable or not, I wasn't interested in the guy, so I stopped reading. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 12 '14 at 10:01
  • And how would you know if an atheist can write successfully about Christians or not? How would you know the religion or lack thereof of any particular author if it's not advertised? You don't have to follow a belief to write about it successfully. And the reverse isn't true either, as you post: Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Christian, and wrote about Christians in his stories who are horrible people who should never be emulated. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 12 '14 at 10:05
  • Dan Brown's main Character from the Robert Langdon series wears a mickey mouse wristwatch. The twilight series used the technique to the point of abuse by creating a character that was tailored to the female psyche. This is a technique that accomplished authors will use. But its not something that is needed for every character you make. – user8727 Sep 12 '14 at 19:03
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I didn't see a problem with it, at least in that short excerpt. Fictional characters can have their own prejudices and opinions, and if that's a source of conflict in the story it's showing not telling. In a story, I'd like to see that difference between the characters have some active consequences rather than being represented by stuck-in speeches or thought-bubbles.

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