Losing religious faith can be a shattering experience, turning a universe that seemed full of providential order into a frightening and meaningless void. It is first of all an internal catastrophe – the voice of God falls silent, comforting certainties are overturned, notions of right and wrong vanish into thin air. This is surely one reason why writers of literature, the best means we have for depicting interiority, have been drawn again and again to the drama of faith and doubt in the individual soul. But a process that begins in the soul rarely ends there: losing faith can also mean losing family or community, and can force the former believer into seeking different ways of living, new illusions or new salves for pain.
In my memoir Original Sins I tell the story of my own religious crisis and its aftermath. I grew up the son of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher in south Wales, but a devastating loss of faith in my teens soon led me to search for a substitute for God. At first alcohol and drugs seemed to provide the same sense of heavenly transcendence I’d once felt in church. But soon I developed a near-deadly addiction to heroin and crack, leading to brushes with suicidality and homelessness, a spell in a psychiatric unit and Hepatitis C. At last I set out to try and discover what life might look like without either drugs or God.
Although my story is an unusual one, there is a sense in which it reflects a universal human experience. After all, don’t we all grow up in cults of sorts? Aren’t all of us indoctrinated in the more or less benign worldview of the people who raised us? And doesn’t becoming ourselves involve a more or less successful attempt to overcome our conditioning and to see with our own eyes? The 10 books I have chosen here tell stories of individuals wrestling not only with doubt in God but in families, institutions, political systems and the meaning of life itself. And, taken together, they seem to suggest – to me, at least – that ultimately our best hope of salvation lies in the miracle of art.
1. The Book of Job
The book my parents called the Bible is actually a far more diverse, complex and contradictory set of texts than I was brought up to believe. Take the Book of Job: when God allows Satan to murder Job’s 10 children and afflict him with an agonising disease, he cries out against an unjust universe and at times doubts his creator altogether: “What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit shall we have, if we pray unto him?” God is given the last word, but it’s difficult to read Job’s tortured lament without feeling he has won the argument.
2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
We have no idea what Shakespeare believed – as likely as not, he grew old a conventional Christian – but when I read his great tragedies I feel sure that at times in his life he knew intimately the sense of meaninglessness that can follow the collapse of religious faith. No other writer has captured nihilism in words as electric as Macbeth’s after he has embraced demonism and murder, and life begins to seem to him “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing”.
3. Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
This 1907 memoir, a powerful account of a son’s gradual alienation from his father, also depicts a seismic moment in the struggle between Victorian Christianity and modern secularism. Gosse’s father is a famed biologist and a Plymouth Brethren minister whose attempts to reconcile his biblical literalism with the new discoveries of Darwin lead him into bewilderment and confusion. Edmund looks on with love, sorrow and pity, weaving un unforgettable tale of his liberation from his father’s authoritarian faith.
4. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s first, autobiographical novel is one of his finest works. Johnny Grimes was raised to become a preacher in the Harlem church where his father is a minister. But Johnny secretly hates the man, and bitterly resists the burden of parental expectation. Gradually he forges his own conception of the spiritual life by embracing human flesh and frailty. Suffused in the Bible and the blues, Baldwin’s story is ultimately one of redemption by way of love.
5. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s memoir is the true story behind her semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Adopted by a Pentecostalist couple in Accrington, she grows up haunted by a sense of sin and shame. When as a teenager she falls in love with a girl from school, her church’s leaders try to exorcise her of demonic possession. This is a brave and lyrical account of the author’s emergence from the long shadow cast by her traumatic past.
6. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
When Gifty, the daughter of Ghanaian migrants to the US, discovers that her brother has died of an opiate overdose, she loses her Christian faith in an instant: “One minute there was a God with the whole world in his hands; the next minute the world was plummeting, ceaselessly, towards an ever-shifting bottom.” Gyasi’s short novel takes in a host of themes – religion, family, addiction, grief, science, race – in a fearless exploration of the various ways we seek to survive unbearable loss.
7. The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère
Carrère fuses fiction, memoir, reportage and history in this unique work. The Kingdom is an exhilarating account of the early days of Christianity that glides between trenchant scholarship and eccentric speculation. But knitted inside it is a meditation on the author’s own youthful embrace – and ultimate rejection – of Catholicism. Funny, moving and intellectually bracing, it reconceptualises the essence of Christianity as a doctrine of radical humility and service.
8. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Ali’s explosive 2003 debut called to mind Jane Austen with its tale of a young woman torn between social convention and the imperatives of the heart. When Nazneen migrates from Bangladesh to London at 18 to marry an older man, she seems set to live out her days as a dutiful Muslim housewife. But the appearance of a beautiful young man in her life upends all her certainties. What follows is a moving tale not so much about theological struggle as the power and perils of earthly love.
9. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Toews grew up in a strict Mennonite community in her native Canada before drifting away from the sect. In several books she has chronicled the pain and exhilaration of abandoning an old way of living and seeking out a new one. In All My Puny Sorrows, sisters Elf and Yoli are living in the wreckage of their former faith. Yoli watches helplessly as her beloved sibling loses faith in life itself and is repeatedly tempted to take her own life. Although it tells a tale of unspeakable loss, this beautiful novel contains as much joy and humour as it does grief.
10. The God That Failed, edited by Richard Crossman
As my other choices show, religion is just one of the ways in which we can experience faith and its loss. For many leftist intellectuals in the 20th century, faith took the form of devotion to the ideology of Soviet communism. In this 1950 volume, thinkers including Arthur Koestler and Richard Wright describe how communism once satisfied their longing for dogmatic certainty and the promise of a just world to come. And any former religious believer will identify with the disillusionment and anguish they felt as the horrors of Stalinism were revealed.
• Original Sins by Matt Rowland Hill is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.