Picture an author at work, creating a hero. The notes and the drafts cover many traits: height and weight, the color of their hair and eyes, what clothes they wear, where they live, where they went to school, what family they have, even their favorite food and the playlist on their mp3 player. References to all these things and more are worked into the story, but one topic doesn't come up much: their religion. Not that they necessarily don't have one (they might or they might not); they just don't talk about it, and the world in which they move, while it has one or more thriving religions, doesn't make a big deal of it either. Why is that?
Obviously, most authors want to appeal to as large an audience as possible, and one way to do that is to reflect the audience and their world in the work. Depicting a lot of church services that aren't plot-relevant may bore the audience, taking a particular religious stand may turn some people off, and most people are neither holy rollers nor antagonistic atheists. Conversely, some authors write for a niche market of conversion stories and starting the target of the conversion in this middle-of-the-road place is both more likely (a devout member of one faith is less likely to change to another, nor is a strong atheist going to "get religion" so easily) and more common statistically speaking.
The Law of Conservation of Detail can be a factor. If a given plot doesn't require a character to be in a church service, the audience won't see him in one. Over time, this can lead to the audience assuming this character doesn't have a religion or doesn't practice it much. Other aspects of a story may simply preclude religious participation, such as a character working in a demanding job or on an unusual schedule. More obvious examples show these characters interacting with religious figures (usually due to plot demands) so that the topic of religious practice (and his lack thereof) comes to the fore. In these instances, the character will express his religious apathy overtly or have it described or both. Occasionally the issue may be sidestepped by having them attend the Church of Saint Genericus without ever mentioning denomination.
Many other reasons for downplaying religion involve characterization. Perhaps our hero prefers to live his creed rather than profess it much; for this guy, his deeds are his devotions, and "God helps those who help themselves." Then again, perhaps he's compartmentalized his life; he goes to church once a week and the rest of the time he's getting on with the business of living (these cases have some overlap with the Nay-Theist). Maybe he's a believer who's uncomfortable with asking for divine help or bothered by the idea that Somebody Up There might be taking an interest in him (if God Is Evil or a jerkass, can you blame him?).
Note that the in-universe society might have a common religion that everyone presumably follows (such as medieval settings or other places with a dominant religion), or it may have many religions with no one sect that's predominant. Also note that this hero may not believe in a deity at all and finds it a waste of time to dispute the matter with others. The hero's secular nature may only become clear if/when religious topics are addressed. For whatever reason, this guy has better things to do.
This trope is neither the Hollywood Atheist, who expresses lack of faith in a negative way, nor the Flat-Earth Atheist, who holds back belief despite evidence to the contrary. In works with Physical God(s), a character who acknowledges but does not worship them is a Nay-Theist. Characters who are simply agnostic or atheist without it falling into the latter tropes would also qualify.
See also Church of Saint Genericus.
- Much of the SSS in Angel Beats! initially thinks that they're living some kind of Hell (even though they know they're dead) and swear their vengeance against the god who put them there. As such, most of them aren't too vocal about their religious preferences, especially the SSS's leader, Yuri Nakamura.
- Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist claims not to be interested in religion, even though he's met God. Though he didn't know it was God at the time and The Truth isn't visually represented by anything your standard God would look like.
- While the original Angel of the Bat's closest portrayal was the decidedly Naytheist Batman, its sequel expands the roster a bit. While he's the roughest around the edges of the current Bat-family, Damian Wayne is still heroic and tells Cassandra that he doesn't see religion as useful or much but manipulation. Connor Hawke is a Buddhist, like his canonical self, but between stating he isn't one for orthodoxy and his personal dismissal of its more supernatural aspects, it is hinted he is a secular Buddhist.
- Creation: Charles Darwin, who is portrayed as being irreligious to begin with and only growing more so as his discovery of evolution drives him further away from religion, but portrayed sympathetically still.
- Ciaphas Cain, THE HERO OF THE IMPERIUM, lives in a violently theocratic civilization where not worshiping the God-Emperor of Mankind is punishable by intense physical torture and, eventually, death (or simple burning at the stake). He is a fairly quiet man on the topic of religion and doesn't engage in much directly religious activities beyond attending services which he is socially obliged to due to his rank; he thinks the Emperor is too busy fighting the countless forces of the Warp to care about him, personally. So of course he ends up with a splinter sect worshiping him as the Emperor's will incarnate, although he's never made aware of it.
- Deryni: Despite the medieval setting and the presence of many clerical characters, some characters are less than devout.
- Nigel Haldane: The opening quotation describes him preparing to have his nephew King Kelson trigger some of the family's arcane powers in him. Given that he's facing an unfamiliar arcane ritual that also makes him confront the unwelcome possibility that he may become king himself, he feels the need to pray: "A little awkwardly, then, he bowed his head and framed his thoughts in a far more formal petition than was usually his wont..."
- Alaric Morgan fits as well, partly in contrast to his more devout cousin Duncan McLain. Morgan once used his magic to contact his aide-de-camp during a religious service, and used fasting as a cover/excuse when he fainted from the effort. The morning after the knightly accolades of Kelson, Conall, and Dhugal, Morgan arrives late to an Ash Wednesday Mass, having stayed up to celebrate with Nigel and an excellent port the night before. He is elsewhere described as being uncomfortable with the idea of receiving the attention of Heaven. He does ask his cousin to give him a blessing (after said cousin became a bishop), and Duncan expresses some surprise at this request; it happens on the day Duncan (who is like a brother to Morgan) was leaving on a military campaign, with the unspoken possibility they might not see each other again.
- Dragon Queen: Trava isn't really religious, given that her father is blind and the main religion in her world thinks blind people are cursed.
- Discworld: With the notable exception of Brutha of Small Gods, who is more spiritual than religious despite caring for an avatar of his God, none of the Point of View characters pay much attention to any of the Disc's many gods. Although Moist von Lipwig does get minorly involved with several during one of his schemes to get the post office up and running. This is particularly understandable since as a rule the gods of the Discworld are basically petty, small-minded jerks who pretty much solicit worship by bullying people into acknowledging them. Not exactly the kinds of deities to provoke very sincere faith or reverence. Or as the Witch novels put it, they don't believe in gods, they know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.
- The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden is not religious, despite working for archangels, being friends with holy knights on payroll from God Himself, and seeing how incredibly powerful faith can be. He is a direct inversion of the most common application of this trope — instead of being too heroic for silly little churches to bear his awesomeness and insight, he respects religion, but thinks he's not a good enough person to be associated with it.
- The Yiddish Policemens Union: Detective Meyer Landsman is obviously culturally and ethnically Jewish, religiously agnostic. Landsman's personal issues, including his (lack of) religious identity, are a major subplot.
- Father Kienzle, of Robert Koessler's murder mystery series, lives a life largely of quiet faith, laughing at the more ridiculous rituals of the church and bending the rules where he feels it leads to a more harmonious conclusion.
- Since Everworld is about kids from our world in a setting full of Physical Gods, the author decided to address some religious issues. April is staunchly Catholic, and Jalil is staunchly atheist; both simply refuse to believe that the super-powered beings they interact with are "gods" in any meaningful sense of the word. David and Christopher seem to fall into this trope, though we know David is ethnically half-Jewish. Senna is more complicated: she grew up when her mom was going through a Wicca phase, and presumably she went to church when she moved in with April's family, but for the most part, she only worships herself (and turns out to be running a cult).
- In the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, Percy finds out that his father is Poseidon and reasonably asks what this means about any sort of religion other than Greek paganism. He's essentially told "don't worry about that," and the topic never really comes up again (for what it's worth, the Greek Underworld seems to be the legitimate afterlife in this world).
- A Spin-Off series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, addresses it a bit more: Magnus doesn't really believe in God, and discovering the existence of multiple mythical pantheons only makes him more skeptical. Meanwhile, Sam(ira) is a Muslim who has to deal with the weirdness of becoming a Valkyrie and learning that she's the daughter of Loki.
- Journey to Chaos: Eric's only interest in the many religions of Tariatla is academic because he's a bookworm. On the other hand, he spends a lot of time chatting with a big name like Tasio because the god thinks they're "bestest friends".
- Vampire Academy: Rose Hathaway isn't particularly religious unlike her other classmates and her best friend Lissa in St. Vladimir Academy, who are adherents to Orthodox Christianity.
- Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica (2003) does not believe in the Gods. This leads him into conflict with President Roslin on several occasions. Adama's theological views evolve in the course of the series from atheist to non-religious believer.
- Jeff, the main character of Community, is agnostic and opts for not talking about religion to keep the peace in the study group, whereas all other characters have relatively strong religious or atheistic beliefs:note "To me, religion is like Paul Rudd. I see the appeal and I would never take it away from anyone, but I would also never stand in line for it."
- On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy uses crosses and holy water to fight vampires and demons, but never really ponders the religious implications of that. At one point a new vampire asks about the existence of God and she notes that she knows "nothing definite." (This was after she'd been to Heaven.) The only legitimately religious characters on the show seem to be Willow and Tara, whose Wicca falls squarely into Religion Is Magic territory; Drusilla before she became a vampire; and assorted villains who worship demons, Glory or the First Evil.
- In Firefly, Shepherd Book is a Christian preacher, and Inara is apparently Buddhist. The other characters don't have a problem with an open display of religion, but Mal most definitely does. "You're welcome on my ship... God ain't." However, a flashback to the Battle of Serenity Valley has him kissing a cross for luck and expressing religious beliefs. It's heavily implied that due to the Browncoats losing the War, Mal has lost most of his faith and become very angry at God as a result.
- Doctor Who:
- The Doctor has met several godlike aliens, one of whom claimed to be Satan himself, but does not consider any of them particularly divine. When confronted with monsters who could only be repelled by faith, the Seventh Doctor chanted the names of his former companions.
- The fact that Rory is neither religious nor superstitious is a plot point in "The God Complex". Everyone else in the building, including the Doctor, had some central point of faith (religious or otherwise) to exploit. However, the Minotaur left Rory alone because he doesn't really believe in anyone or anything, not even in the Doctor. It's implied this was the result of his 2000+ year stint at the Last Centurion and what he endured. When confronted, he only sees fire exits, though he remains behind, not willing to leave his wife Amy or the Doctor.
- This is the default for human characters on the various Star Trek series — Gene Roddenberry was himself a staunch secular humanist and believed that humanity would evolve beyond religion. After his death in 1991, the franchise did sometimes explore the spiritual beliefs of alien characters and species: in the later years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Worf is shown to struggle with his spiritual convictions, Captain Picard appears to believe in a deity plus an afterlife, and on Deep Space Nine, Kira is a devout practitioner of the Bajoran religion and Sisko's primary character arc revolved around his gradual acceptance of his status as a religious figure to the Bajorans. Star Trek: Voyager also had some exceptions, as B'Elanna, Neelix and Chakotay practice/struggle with spiritual beliefs, though the rest of the characters are still not portrayed as having any.
- Dragon Age II - While her late husband was a Church Militant, Aveline is the closet thing the game has to an agnostic and states that she married a man but not his religion. Sebastian, Carver, Bethany, and Anders are all Andrastians (though the latter two have issues with The Church), Fenris goes back and forth on how much stock he puts in religion, and Merill worships the old elf pantheon. Isabela comes one of the few non-Andrastian human nations and Varric is a surface dwarf who treats his race's ancestor worship with some irreverence. And also Andrastian.
Aveline: I have heard the Chant. It is lovely; perhaps that's all it needs to be.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition: Despite being considered the Herald of Andraste and supreme leader of an religious organization, it's perfectly possible for the Inquisitor to be an unbeliever, if not outright an atheist. This will become part of your character after Act I when Haven is destroyed by the Big Bad when an important dialogue option will decide your faith or not. Even so, it's perfectly possible for the Inquisitor to fight for what is right even if they don't believe.
- Also from Bioware, Commander Shepard of Mass Effect will only have his/her religion established in one conversation with Ashley; your options range from expressing shared belief to respecting her right to her religion to straightforward mockery. Ashley herself has such a vaguely defined belief system that it probably counts, that same conversation being about as far as it goes.
- While Reimu and Sanae from Touhou are Shinto Miko, the religious affiliations of other heroines like Sakuya, Youmu or Reisen are unknown. In fact, characters who have an official affiliation also tend to be very important people in their respective religion rather than "just believers". Marisa has been shown to have experimented with religion - however, she does so entirely in the context of her magical craft, and Kanako, the addressed deity, confirmed her faith is directed fully at magic.
- Sonozaki Shion of Higurashi: When They Cry was sent to a Catholic school (against her will) and escaped, later on saying "If I stayed in a place like that, I'd either end up brainwashed or insane!" She also denies the existence of the village god, Oyashiro-sama on a lighter note.
- Roy from The Order of the Stick:
Bureaucratic Deva: Let me ask you something. Why did you never consider becoming a cleric yourself? You have halfway decent Wisdom and Charisma scores, you could have pulled it off.
Roy: Well, this is awkward to say, given where I am, but I've never really been that religious. I mean, I guess my mom raised me to worship the Northern Gods, but I always just figured as long as I don't actively offend any of them, they'd leave me alone.
- Though the Pines family from Gravity Falls display some Ambiguously Jewish traits, series creator Alex Hirsch has clarified that they are not practicing any religion, explicitly stating that Dipper and Mabel were raised nonreligious (though they celebrate all holidays, at Mabel's insistence) and while Grunkle Stan was raised Jewish, he became an atheist later in life.
- When asked, Young Justice co-creator Greg Weisman is willing to speculate about characters' faith; however, the only explicitly religious content in the show (aside from Wonder Woman briefly mentioning "the gods") was a scene when, after a "Reason You Suck" Speech from the original Roy Harper, Roy finds Ollie sitting miserably in a hospital chapel.
- Family Guy: Early on the family were fairly regular churchgoers, with some conflict with Peter's extremely religious father. Issue Drift and Seth MacFarlane's atheism put an end to that. Most explicitly we have the episode where Lois finds out that her mother is Jewish; she experiments with the religion a bit, but ultimately concludes that she doesn't want the family to be any religion, despite the fact that she was the most devout one in earlier seasons. Brian's explicit in being an atheist, despite having met Jesus personally earlier, as Stewie notes.