Published by Katherine Tegen Books on August 7, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Religion, Young Adult
Format: E-Book •Source: Overdrive
Michael is an atheist. So as he walks through the doors at St. Clare’s—a strict Catholic school—sporting a plaid tie, things can’t get much worse. His dad has just made the family move again, and Michael needs a friend. When a girl challenges their teacher in class, Michael thinks he might have found one, and a fellow nonbeliever at that. Only this girl, Lucy, is not just Catholic . . . she wants to be a priest.
But Lucy introduces Michael to other St. Clare’s outcasts, and he officially joins Heretics Anonymous, where he can be an atheist, Lucy can be an outspoken feminist, Avi can be Jewish and gay, Max can wear whatever he wants, and Eden can practice paganism. After an incident in theology class, Michael encourages the Heretics to go from secret society to rebels intent on exposing the school’s hypocrisies. When Michael takes one mission too far—putting the other Heretics at risk—he must decide whether to fight for his own freedom, or rely on faith, whatever that means, in God, his friends, or himself.
If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know I’m a HUGE fan of any YA books that incorporate religion as a theme- not because I’m by any means super religious, but because as a Religious Studies major in college it was my job to study and learn about religion from a sociological and anthropological perspective, and old habits die hard. When I heard about Heretics Anonymous I was especially intrigued as I myself grew up Catholic, so I was curious to see how it would portray the Catholic school experience (though I attended public school, I spent my fair share of time in catechism after school as a child). Heretics Anonymous ended up being an extremely quick yet surprisingly thought provoking read that helped to bring me out of a bit of a reading slump I was in.
While the book is pitched as Breakfast Club meets Saved! (probably due to the group of “misfits” at its center), the friend group and pop culture references and comparisons are not what makes this book shine. What makes this book stand out is the fact that it’s not afraid to question religion, to question Catholicism, and is equally not afraid to have the answers either. I really wasn’t expecting to come across meaningful theological questions while reading this novel, but there they were, and I was furiously highlighting my Kindle while I read. While many of hypocrisies of Christianity and Catholicism were brought up (the Bible is actually full of super disturbing stories and Jesus was very much a liberal of-the-people social revolutionary for his time) it also managed to show the strength that many of the characters drew from their religion, and didn’t necessarily glorify the protagonist for being an atheist.
“Heretics are usually true believers,” she says. “Martin Luther was a priest. Galileo was very devout. The only thing more dangerous than someone who doesn’t care about the rules is someone who does—and wants to break them anyway.” – Kindle Edition, Loc 563
Perhaps most uniquely, Heretics Anonymous manages to question so many of the hypocritical aspects of Catholocism, but still show strong, likeable, female characters who were devout yet feminists. Lucy, the object of the atheist protagonist’s affections, is deeply Catholic- her greatest wish is to become a priest- and yet she argues with her teachers about the portrayal of female saints, has progressive stances on issues such as reproductive rights and marriage equality, and rejects many of the sexist teachings of the church. It was so refreshing to have a character who can critique and recognize the issues with her religion and still find it meaningful (honestly that was one of my biggest takeaways from being a college students- being a critical thinker means you can enjoy something and still recognize it as problematic/critically analyze it). It was a super mature personality trait for a YA protagonist and it created a balanced dialogue to the narrative, as the protagonist is so staunchly atheist (and it was hilarious when they were trying to out-horrify each other with scientific facts vs. religious facts).
“Well, if you’re going to ignore the fact that most of those women chose to die rather than do what other people told them to, then I think you’re pretty close to blasphemy.”– Kindle Edition, Loc 184
“I said those things because I’m Catholic. Sister Joseph Marie was diminishing the bravery of women who died for their God.” She pauses. “And my God, too.”– Kindle Edition, Loc 265
My theological musings aside, this book was also a lot of fun to read because of the actions that Heretics Anonymous takes to call out some of the school (and religion’s) hypocrisy, such as sexism, discrimination, etc. and while it eventually (predictably) got out of hand, it not only served to open the eyes of some of the more religious characters, but it also had the reverse of effect of showing some of the non-religious characters that even a flawed, not-your-own religion deserves its respect, and so do the people who are practicing it…basically protagonist Michael’s sarcasm and dismissal of the Catholic religion and challenged too and not written off as “correct” or “cool.”
Overall: Heretics Anonymous was a book that is constantly holding a conversation between its characters and between its readers about Catholicism, religion, and atheism. It’s not preaching anything one way or another, but will challenge readers to think more deeply about these topics than the typical YA book. While unfortunately the characters weren’t especially memorable to me (and I could have done without the romance), the messages and dialogue in this book were really well executed.