The main character, and the person whose viewpoint the story is told from, is a scientist and subscribes to agnosticism.

And there are sentences in my story like:

"Trees stretched into the sky forever, like the stilts of heaven."*

Is this acceptable? I know that heaven can mean "a very enjoyable or desirable scenario", but in that sentence it is clear he is referring to the religious location.

Even if that's okay, there are other sentences in the story, like:

"A cool breeze whispered by my ear, like the voice of a kindly god."*

The character is American, a country with a Christian majority, so it's at least clear that he is not referring to God himself, because of the use of the indefinite article and lower-case "g", but a god is still a god.

Perhaps this doesn't matter as much because he's using the word "god" in a simile, but I'd still like to hear your views on this.

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    What's the context? There's a radical difference between your protagonist telling a story to his 10 year old nephew and him writing an official report. There's also a radical difference between they way he would describe a parallel universe to which he's been transported by fairy magic versus the way he would describe the line of trees between the parking lot of his doctor's office and the road. It would certainly be weird for anyone (and, from what I've seen, especially an agnostic scientist) to reach for similes like that. Would it be too weird? We need more information to say. – Jean Luc Picard Jun 11 at 15:59
  • @JeanLucPicard Well, first I should let you know that he is not actually saying these things, nor is he really thinking them through true cognition. The story is told from his viewpoint, but those sentences are mainly for descriptive, scene-setting purposes. As for the context, in both sentences he is the leader of a group that is exploring an undiscovered island, so the environment is fairly impressive. – SealBoi Jun 11 at 16:18
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    Friends, it is neither helpful nor kind to start criticizing OP's phrasing as "purple" or "flowery" in a question which isn't about that is not helpful or constructive. These are simple examples which serve the specific question; going into stylistic criticism is a complete tangent, and a needlessly discouraging one. – Standback Jun 12 at 11:16

15 Answers 15

Yes, agnostics and atheists can do anything they want with religious language!

I am another atheist, and a practicing scientist at a university. I don't regard any entity in any religion as real or sacred, and have no problem speaking of them. I know many religious people, including half my extended family, so I am conscious of not offending them, but I don't see any problem with using religious concepts in the same way THEY do: I also don't hold my own atheism sacred, I don't think I have any obligation to only use atheistic language in my life. I'll use the concepts of "soul," "God", "Heaven", "Hell," "Angels" and "Demons" whenever they are good shorthand or good description for what I want to say.

Should a person that claims to be a Christian be prohibited from reference to Zeus or Aphrodite or Cupid, Olympus, Valhalla, or the River Styx? Must I believe King Arthur was real to be allowed to refer to Galahad? Must I believe magic exists to say my character was entranced?

Your narrator should feel free to use any language they feel conveys the scene, without apology or explanation of why. It is not a contradiction for an atheist to refer to "heaven" in a figurative manner, no more than if they referred to garden fairies or bridge trolls in a figurative manner.

There are two ways religious concepts appear in speech.

First, there are common expressions: "Oh my god", "go to hell", etc. Those are a natural part of our speech, we hear them all the times and do not give them much consideration. An agnostic or an atheist is likely to use them the same way, without giving them a second thought. You can use those freely. A person could make a conscious effort not to use such expressions, but that would be an exception rather than the rule. (For example, as a Jew, I make a conscious effort not to use "Jeez" in everyday speech. I recognise that it is more natural to use the word, and that my choice is an active one.)

Second there are free associations. Those are not common expressions, but images born of one's mind. "Like the stilts of heaven" and "like the voice of a kindly god" come under this category, I believe. The problem here isn't the mention of religious elements. But searching for an association, a descriptive image, I do not think an agnostic or an atheist would use those particular images; they'd use other images instead. Consider: I live in Israel, I have only ever seen snow a couple of times in my life, while visiting Europe. I can theoretically describe someone's eyes being "blue like an iceberg" - there's no reason for me not to mention icebergs, but it's more likely that my first thought would rather be of the sea on a summer day. The iceberg is not a part of my day-to-day, thus it is not a part of my internal imagery. Similarly, religious concepts (god, heaven) would not be part of the atheist's internal imagery. (Note that I do not disagree here with @Amadeus: a person can use whatever imagery they find convenient. I question the likelihood of a character choosing this language over alternatives.)

On a personal note, "the stilts of heaven" and "the voice of a kindly god" evoke nothing in me: I have no image of a heaven that has stilts in it, nor any idea what a god, kindly or otherwise, would sound like. This could serve as an indicator for you that someone who is not Christian might not use those particular associations.

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    I know about 100 atheists (my [American] university has a club); the vast majority are quite familiar with religious images: I have met more atheists that have read the bible cover to cover than I have christians! In fact, a common start of their atheistic journey is reading the Bible from Page 1 to know all of it, about God and their religion (a very scientific impulse, I think, to learn the foundations of something), and then either stopping the read (or continuing to the end out of stubbornness) and putting the Bible down as an atheist. We're surrounded by it, and we're used to it. – Amadeus Jun 11 at 14:05
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    @Amadeus I do not claim unfamiliarity. I am familiar with icebergs, on a theoretical level - I know they exist, I've seen pictures, I understand their movement and the implication of their shrinking. But when I need to describe something as "blue like the ...", I would still think of the sea, or the sky, or washed jeans, or or the Jay's wing. – Galastel Jun 11 at 14:13
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    As an atheist, I find it odd that you say that religious concepts wouldn't be part of my internal imagery. Religions are simply mythologies, and mythologies can be culturally pervasive. Growing up in the US, our culture's stories are heavily steeped in christian imagery, enough that yes - it is part of my internal imagery. The difference between atheists and religious people is that when we picture these things there's no association with it being "real" any more than any other pervasive fictional story. – David Rice Jun 11 at 14:18
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    Agreed. And to be more specific in this case, for "impressive height" or the sound or feel of a breeze, I would not resort to heaven or the voice of a god (wouldn't god's voice be rather booming?), and certainly not "stilts", which strikes a more comical note in my ears. To each their own poetry, I guess. – Amadeus Jun 11 at 14:26
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    @hyperpallium Galastel isn't (I think) saying someone couldn't come out with such phrases, but that – in general – it would be less likely for an atheist/agnostic to do so than a theist (and the degree of "lessness" would probably depend on whether they were brought up as/in a theist environment, and later chose to become/drifted towards atheism/agnosticism or were atheist/agnostic from birth). And – yes – a single striking image could embed itself in your brain (cf. the madeleine in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), but most pictures of icebergs probably wouldn't do that. – TripeHound Jun 12 at 11:48

This depends on the character.

You're quite right to realize that the set of images a character will use, should depend a lot on that character's "inner lexicon"; on the particular imagery that character would plausibly reach for and use. It makes sense that, when feeling unsteady on their feet, a sailor might think "like during a storm," a city-dweller might think "like during an earthquake," and a cowboy might think "like on a horse that's gone berserk." Each character has their own frame of reference.

And you're equally right to wonder whether an atheist might have religious imagery in their frame of reference -- because that's not a trivial thing. On the one hand they don't believe in it; on the other hand they're likely familiar with it. And on the third and most important hand, different characters are going to be different, and each will have their own associations.

An atheist who used to be devout, and gradually lost faith, will think of heaven one way. An atheist who used to be devout, but was eventually hounded out, and left out of spite, will think of it another way. An atheist who approaches all religions as facets of human imagination and beauty will have one view; a stark rationalist will have another.

So the answer is: you'll need to decide this based on what you know of your character -- or, maybe you'll be deciding something new about the character, in order to know how they'll describe these things.

Is your atheist character someone who would talk fancifully about "voices of kindly gods"? What kind of person would he need to be to use that phrasing? What might he mean by it? It's your choice -- and making interesting choices can be absolutely fascinating.

As Amadeus's one and other answers have pointed, atheists do use religious vocabulary in real life quite often. However, please keep in mind that anything you write can be used to convey some idea to the reader. If being an atheist is an important feature of the narrator, you can underline that feature by making him not to use religious language at all, specially if you want to contrast him with another character who is religious and often uses religious language.

Yes, you can. Because you do not believe in God does not mean that you don't know the concept. I am atheist and I wrote some auto-fiction where I wished to access God's Library.

If I say that something is stuck as tight in a rock as the Sword in the Stone, it doesn't mean that I necessarily subscribe to the literal truth of the legends of King Arthur, it just means that those legends are part of my culture. The same applies to religious metaphors and similes.

No, a practicing agnostic (one who holds the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable) wouldn't generally use such language. But, as with anything - there are exceptions.

They might, perhaps, use phrases like 'for heaven's sake' or write things like 'OMG (oh my god)' in their texts as well as use equivalents such as 'ay, caramba' or 'begorra', but only because these are in common usage.

But the phrases you are suggesting are not common. They would require some prior thought and invention so therefore would not be used by your average agnostic.

That said, if someone is a casual agnostic - one who really isn't bothered either way, and they had a tendency towards purple prose, then maybe they would use such phrases. But I doubt it.

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    I would downvote but I haven't been here long enough to. I am an atheist, and I would use such phrases, this sounds like a scientist who enjoys flowery language, metaphors and artistic licence. These phrases would be understood by the audience. – WendyG Jun 11 at 11:15
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    Thanks for the feedback, @Wendy - appreciate that. We live and learn. – robertcday Jun 11 at 11:51
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    Agreed with @WendyG. Only a militant atheist would be so over the top as to exclude common language just because it pertained metaphorically to God/heaven/gods. There's a nebula called "the Pillars of Heaven", it's not called that because anyone - religious or otherwise - thinks they are actual Pillars in a realm of departed souls. – pbhj Jun 11 at 13:49
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    Thanks, @pbhj - appreciate that you took time to leave me this feedback. – robertcday Jun 11 at 14:02
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    @pbhj I don't think the point is that an atheist would exclude common language ("oh my god"), but rather that they would not naturally gravitate towards religious similes or metaphors. – Beska Jun 12 at 17:42

Do the trees seem "like stilts of Heaven" to the narrator? Does the narrator think the voice in his ear is like that of a kindly god?

These are the words you're putting into your narrator's internal dialogue. Only you can decide if it's appropriate to the character or not.

If this character really is a narrator, then remember that every word you write originates from this character. If the way you want to write and the way the character thinks or senses things don't match up, you might want to reconsider the first-person narrative format.

  • I'm an atheist and frequently use phrases such as "Oh my god", simply because they are deeply imbued in the culture and language. (I find it a bit ironic that I "flip" a few common phrases -- such as saying "God bless it" instead of G-D, or "God is in the details".) But you should be careful not to present an atheist character's thought processes as heavily laden with meaningful religious imagery. If he's frequently viewing things in his internal dialogue as god-like or literally heavenly, your readers will start to suspect he's a closet theist in denial of what he actually believes – Stephen R Jun 15 at 15:42

'Oh my God!' or 'For Heaven's sake!' are things anyone, including an agnostic/atheist might say. They are part of everyday language.

'Like the stilts of heaven' is not. If you give such words to an agnostic character, you're sending a strong signal that he is open to belief.

This is not about what YOU believe. It's about what the character believes.

There's no reason an atheist/agnostic character can't use religious language, but whether they will depends on the character's circumstances. You need to decide what the "standard" language of your character would be, and whether they have enough reason to deviate from that.

Did your character grow up in a religious community? Did they have a lot of exposure to classical art and music?

Were they personally raised religious? If so, how long ago did they stop believing? Was it a rebellious conversion, or just a personal epiphany?

Do they have any other reason to specifically want to avoid religious language, such as bad personal experiences, vocally anti-religious friends, etc.? As a scientist, they may want to make a point of sticking to what's "real," but that's no guarantee - plenty of scientists either are religious or have no problem borrowing its symbolism to describe the mundane, such as Einstein's famous quote: "God does not play dice with the universe."

Anecdotally, I was raised Christian and became an atheist as a teenager. For a while I made a point to avoid Christian language or "ironically" use pagan phrases in its place, but as I got older I stopped caring so much about that and went back to using what felt natural.

Yes, but.

Something to consider: you are depicting a character, not attempting to describe a realistic person.

Every phrase you use tells us something about the narrator. As evidenced in the replies, it's entirely possible for an atheist or agnostic to think in romantic religious metaphors like these, AND it's entirely possible that one would think they were meaningless, simpering nonsense. Stephen Fry might talk this way; Richard Dawkins probably wouldn't.

Using such descriptions paints a picture of a person with a poetic frame of mind, who despite being atheist doesn't object to drawing from the well of religious imagery. Is that what you want readers to think about your character? If so, great. If not, try to find a way to describe things that tells us about the character, in terms of the lens they view the world through.

Religion is a great contributor to popular culture. It is therefore common for people of any religious alignment or lack thereof to reference religious language in common casual and even business and academic speech. Literary works are intended to emulate the culture and community of the characters in it and the contemporaries of the writer who will read it. Why wouldn't you use such language? It will make the story connect better with the reader and make the narrator seem more authentic.

Yes.

I'm an atheist, and I still say "thank god" and "god damn it" on occasion.

It's your job to make the language feel like an authentic part of that character. As long as you can do that, it's fine.

Yes, because the use of language in this sense is cultural as well as religious. If one grows up in a Judeo-Christian culture, these terms are in common parlance in a cultural sense, and so they are perfectly acceptable for use by anybody including agnostics or atheists.

In this case, the answer would depend on two things, in my opinion.

  1. Is the person a religious agnostic, an atheistic agnostic, or a pure agnostic?

I, myself, am a religious agnostic. I believe that there is a "something" there that is deity-like, but I don't know what it is, whether there are one or a billion of them, etc. And I could be wrong. But my speech is influenced by my belief that there is "something" there.

An atheistic agnostic is one that really thinks that there isn't anything there, but admits the possibility that there actually is something there. They wouldn't be likely to use religious metaphor in their thoughts and speech.

A pure agnostic doesn't know and doesn't care. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't, but its no skin off my nose either way. Who knows what they would use? It would probably be affected by their upbringing, which leads into my second point...

  1. Were they raised in a highly religious background?

Your upbringing and environment affects how you think and speak, even if you take off on a different path yourself. A highly religious environment when growing up would influence a person towards thinking in religious metaphor (Or, perhaps he was raised around "purple prose people" (?!) and just thinks in that manner.)

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