Godless, by Pete Hautman
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
“In the beginning was the Ocean. And the Ocean was alone…”
So begins Godless, Pete Hautman’s National Book Award winning novel for young adults. Loosely based on an idea the author and his friends had thirty years ago, Godless follows Jason, a sulky, snarky teenager who, with a mismatched group of friends, begins to question the Catholicism in which they have been brought up. Jokingly, they begin to worship their town’s giant water tower, and form the Church of the Ten-Legged God (CTG), also known as Chutengodianism.
Together the friends assign themselves functions within the church, make up commandments, and devise a history and philosophy behind their new religion. The majority of them being sci-fi and comic book fans, they’ve got a good start on giving themselves a fantastic context to work within. This context, however, soon begins to break down when it becomes clear that some members are taking the new cult far more seriously than others, and that each has their own reasons for participating. Eventually the splits within the group lead into a rival church being set up, in mimicry of the Catholic/Protestant split. As the person who came up with the idea in the first place, Jason becomes more and more frustrated with not being able to hold the CTG together.
Being pope sucks. I guess that’s why they hire those old guys to do the job. Maybe at their age they just don’t care. I try not to care, but it’s hard.
Jason’s parents are both solidly religious, and they’re as well-meaning and ponderous and annoying and completely not with it as parents of teenagers generally are. Their attempts to get through to their son and bring him back into the fold are both cringe-worthy and utterly recognisable. Punishment for straying from the familial religion consists of being ferried to more and more church youth group meetings and having to write book reports on theological arguments, including the unfortunately named Teen Jesus: His Life and Times. (Would you want to read it, with a title like that? We can easily guess the kind of pap it contains…) As Jason points out:
I have nothing in common with this kid. I’m not interested in woodworking, I don’t have a beard, and my mom’s not a virgin, as far as I know.
These punishments do nothing towards reconciling Jason to his parents’ faith, and actually send him in the other direction. Exploring his feelings towards religion in the context of the CTG is far more appealing, but as Jason does so he encounters the same problems that have plagued other religions. Indeed, the CTG becomes almost parody of suburban religion – for instance, Jason is forced to tell all his fellow worshippers different stories to get them to come to any CTG meeting, knowing as he does that they’ve all got their different reasons for being involved.
Hautman subtly reinforces the centrality of religion – especially substitute religion – in the lives of his community members. For all Jason’s mother complaints about her son’s activities, for example, she herself seems to have a religious reverence for more than the church: with a hypochondriac’s knowledge of disease, she is constantly trying to diagnose her family members with deadly illnesses, reading an enormous medical encyclopaedia like “some people read the Bible”. Similarly, Jason’s best friend Shin collects gastropods and keeps them sequestered in his own fish tank of a universe, until he abandons his role as PodGod after becoming too sucked into the new religion. (Alas, poor snails.)
Shin’s vulnerability to what he and everyone else knows is a made-up religion is understated by the adults’ slavish adherence to their own particular cult. Interestingly, Shin is the scientist of the group, but his rationalism doesn’t save him – indeed, it’s suggested that he has initially latched on to science as his own brand of faith. What science gives him in some areas, however, it doesn’t give in others – Shin is a classic geek and has no social skills to fall back on when membership in the CTG begins to push his personal boundaries. Becoming increasingly isolated in his role of Keeper of the Sacred Text, Shin uses his creative abilities to build a cohesive mythology that he cannot actually disprove, and his reactions as one faith crumbles and another is put in his place is an interesting contrast to the rest of the group, who tend to twist the CTG for their own purposes. It’s an interesting analogue for the beginnings of fundamentalism, and that it’s happening to the person that the reader’s would least expect it to affect is a commentary on how easy to fall into cultish behaviour.
Jason starts and ends the book an atheist, but his understanding of religion, and the difference between it and faith, change as a result of the time he’s spent constructing Chutengodianism, “a religion with no church, no money, and only one member”. Embracing atheism doesn’t mean abandoning the search for meaning or the need to find something to have faith in – it just means that the object of the search is different. Godless illustrates a way in which kids questioning their faith can arm themselves with a better understanding of what they’re searching for – and what they’re not.