How often is it you find a book for pre-teens and teens that objectively discusses things like agnosticism and faith? The answer is not often and that is perhaps one reason Pete Hautman’s Godless won the the 2004 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Another reason is more straightforward — it’s well written and fun, particularly for its target audience.
Godless tells the story of 16-year-old Jason Bock. Jason is the imaginative type and is beginning to doubt his Catholic faith and rebel against his highly religious parents. In part because he is toying with his religious youth group, Jason concocts his own religion. Its god is the town’s 207-foot water tower. After all, Jason reasons, “Water is Life.” Coming up with much of its doctrine off the top of his head, Jason names the religion Chutengodianism, the Church of the Ten-legged God.
Jason’s best friend, Peter “Shin” Shinner, is there from the outset. As the religion’s Head Kahuna, Jason names Shin First Keeper of the Sacred Text. Shin even begins writing Chutengodianism’s scripture, excerpts of which preface each chapter. Most subsequent members of the religion also are granted a title, although their admission to the religion often is based as much on ulterior motives as their expressing an interest in joining, which is equally likely to be for a lark. For example, Jason’s attraction to pretty Magda Price leads him to name her High Priestess and bully Henry Stagg becomes High Priest because he knows how to climb to the top of the water tower.
As far-fetched as it may seem, Hautman pulls off most of it. While you could nitpick about how Henry’s character vacillates between bully and buddy and Shin’s total infatuation with the made-up cult, what makes Godless so worthwhile is that it is neither pro-religion nor anti-religion. That fact may make a few evangelicals and book-banners howl if it ends up in a school library or curriculum. Yet the book reveals the ramifications inherent with virtually any religion or faith. We see the ease with which some people will join something that gives them a feeling they fit in a bit better. We see those who go off the deep end and become zealots. We see those who are swayed by personality. We see schisms in leadership and doctrine. We see there are consequences to actions taken on the basis of presumed faith alone.
Unlike what one might assume from the title, Godless is not a critique of whether a supreme being exists or a broadside on any religion. Granted, Jason does have some issues with and criticisms of Catholicism and its rites. Still, that largely serves to frame the context. The book’s overall tone makes even that part of the exploration and struggle questions of faith might present anyone. Godless actually allows young adults — or anyone — to think about such issues without advocating any one position and in a context relatively unhindered by the ardor or emotions that tend to accompany most discussions of this sort if a particular religion or faith is involved.