Once upon a time, in a far away desert, a priest came to visit a girl working at her poor family’s farm. He asked her, “Do you like going to the Temple?”
“Oh, yes. I look forward to it every week.” She smiled as she fed an impatient nanny goat and her kids. “The Temple is beautiful and clean and quiet.”
The priest was pleased by her answer. “Do you study the scriptures?”
“Oh, yes. My whole life.” Still smiling, she drew water from the well and tipped it out for the thirsty peppers. “The scriptures give me a lot to think about.”
He was impressed. “Do you obey God’s Laws?”
The girl paused with an egg halfway to her basket. She gave the priest her full attention for the first time. “Am I in trouble?”
The priest gave a little placating gesture and a smile. “No, no. I’ve spoken with your family. They tell me you’re old enough and ready to take your first Temple vows.”
Basket and egg were forgotten. “What kind of vows? To become a priest and look after people?”
After a gaping pause, she laughed as though tickled. “Of course not. Worshipers are all mad!”
Funny thing about atheists: We enjoy ritual and song and participating in acts of community as much as anyone does. Many atheists even have a ‘spiritual’ side – an affinity for the unknown and the uncertain that leads many of us to pursue science as a path to personal enlightenment as well as a career. We seem drawn to fantasy in fiction for similar reasons.
There’s a fair amount of sci-fi in which humans discover that their deities are actually aliens, or humans insert themselves into alien pantheons in order to control their behavior. There’s certainly an abundance of sci-fi that borrows heavily from mythology for its major plot points. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done in sci-fi (and speculative fiction as a whole) with regard to race and issues of gender and sexuality, at least pantheons and priests don’t seem to dominate every other space opera on offer.
Fantasy is a different beast. There are exceptions, but it seems that the default is to tie magic with religion in fantasy worldbuilding. Not that mages are all priests in disguise, although that’s sometimes the case, but rather in worlds where magic is a fact of life, often deities are also real. Consequences of this include an unfortunate dependence upon deus ex machina to rescue untenable plots, and a disappointing shortage of compelling secular lead characters in fantasy.
At the very least, there’s a vast and virtually pristine wilderness left to explore in fantasy. There are thousands of unwritten books about brainy little girls who can think and act as well as they can heal and hurl levinbolts.