Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Moby Dick

There is evidence that this greatest of American novels has hidden anti-theistic elements.

Where a devout reader can see an adventure tale of whaling in the days of sail wherein Ishmael, the hero, is saved by God's will and Captain Ahab, the sinner and blasphemer is destroyed, a skeptical reader looking deeper sees many anti-religious references and a personal declaration of independence from the tyranny of Christian dogma and the sovereignty of an evil God.

Writing in 1851 Melville knew that the reading public would not tolerate any open assertions of malice to God so he crafted deliberately ambiguous situations, used biblical names and references and disguised ironic statements as the examples below will show.

Melville greatly admired the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne and said of him that he took great delight in hoodwinking at least some of his readers. Melville dedicated the book to him. In a letter to Hawthorne Melville wrote "A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb."

Hawthorne wrote in his diary, "He (Melville) can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief."

In Pierre, a novel written after Moby Dick, that Melville called "his spiritual autobiography," his writer hero is made to resort to satire and irony and Melville says of him "Now he gave jeer for jeer… With the soul of an Atheist, he wrote down the godliest things; with the feeling of misery and death in him, he created forms of gladness and life."

Melville's choice of the name Ahab for the main character in Moby Dick, is revealing. Ahab in bible is a king who "did evil in the sight of Lord" (1 Kings) and is led to his death by a lying spirit sent by God. God is shown as a malicious deceiver as he is with Adam and Eve and as he is when he allows Satan to torture Job.

From the writings
In the middle of the novel,Redburn, a story of a gentleman who inadvertently becomes a sailor, written before Moby Dick, Melville devotes two chapters to a Liverpool “Guidebook” which the hero treasures because it was once the property of and used by his father. Unfortunately he finds the “Guidebook” out of date and valueless. Substitute "Bible" for "Guidebook" in the following selection and note the words I have italicized.

“It was a curious and remarkable book; and from the many fond associations connected with it, I should like to immortalize it, if I could... Let me get it down from its shrine...
“As I now linger over the volume, to and fro turning the pages so dear to my boyhood—the very pages which, years and years ago, my father turned; what a soft, pleasing sadness steals over me, and how I melt into the past and forgotten!
“Dear book! I will sell my Shakespeare before I will part with you. Old family relic that you are you shall have a snug shelf somewhere, though I have no bench for myself.
"In short, when I considered that my own father had used this very guidebook, and that thereby it had been tested, and its fidelity proved beyond a peradventure; I could not but think that I was building myself up in an unerring knowledge.”
“Dear delusion! It never occurred to my boyish thoughts that though a guidebook, fifty years old, might have done good service in its day, yet it would prove a miserable guide
“But my faith received a severe shock.... I could not condemn the old family servant who had so faithfully served my own father before me.... I almost completely exonerated my guidebook from the half-insinuated charge of misleading me... It was nearly half a century behind the age! and not fit to guide me....
Though my guidebook had been stripped of its reputation for infallibility, I could not treat with disdain those sacred pages which had once been a beacon to my sire.”


In Moby Dick Ishmael insinuates that Christians do not practice what they preach. The two orchard thieves refer to Adam and Eve and he ridicules the concept that ever since the Garden of Eden mankind has been making installment payments on the debt that they incurred.

“I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid—what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!"


Ishmael is befriended by a savage harpooner named Queequeg who is an idol worshiper. He gives Queequeg a brief course in comparative religions. He concludes that the source of the religious idea of hell was a childish complaint — a stomachache — and, by implication, all religious ideas are the result of human complaints.

“Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person… But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.
“And just so I now did with Queequeg.... I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time.
I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. In one word, Queequeg, said I, hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias."


Ishmael returns from a church service and finds Queequeg performing a ritual of worship before his own wooden idol-god. Melville permits Ishmael to join Queequeg in his pagan ritual by sarcastically pretending to find in the Golden Rule a sanction for his actions. He inverts the Bible quotation and ridicules the Christian concept.

"I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilised hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn toward him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.”

“I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? to do the will of God?—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow-man what I would have my fellow-man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow-man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater.”


Ishmael finds Queequeg sitting like a statue in rapt worship. In this passage Ishmael is equating Christianity with pagan belief.

"I did not choose to disturb him [Queequeg] till towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool…
“I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan;—but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be; I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”


There is a chapter of just three pages that is titled "Queen Mab." In the chapter the second mate, Stubb, relates a dream that he had in which he is insulted by Captain Ahab. There is no reference to Queen Mab in the chapter and no obvious reason for the title. However, Queen Mab is the title of a poem by Shelly in which the theme is the scheme of the universe. In his notes to the poem Shelly wrote: "If god is the author of all good, he is also the author of evil: that if he is entitled to gratitude for the one, he is entitled to our hatred for the other… God made man such as he is, and then dammed him for being so."

As captain of the ship does Ahab stand in for God in Stubb's dream and do him evil?


Another chapter title is "The Hyena." There is no mention of the animal in the chapter but God is portrayed as "the unseen and unaccountable old joker." Perhaps the chapter title links the Joker with a scavenger that picks over the bones of dead bodies and seems to laugh when nothing is funny.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit [understanding] thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own… He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of gobbles down bullets and gun flints… And as for peril of sudden disaster and death itself they seem to only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker”


Melville breaks the action to have Ishmael narrate his brush with savages on a subsequent voyage. Ishmael is on an island where the natives are using the skeleton of a whale as a house of worship. He wants to measure the whale's bones. The priests end up fighting with each other about the measure of their god.

“Cutting me a green measuring rod, I dived within the skeleton. From their arrow-slit in the skull, the priests perceived me taking the altitude of the final rib. “How now!” they shouted; “Dar’st thou measure this our god! That’s for us.”
“Aye, priests — well, how long do ye make him then?” But hereupon a fierce contest rose among them, concerning feet and inches; they cracked each other’s sconces with their yard-sticks — the great skull echoed — and seizing that lucky chance, I quickly concluded my own admeasurements.”


In a previous encounter Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick. Starbuck, the first mate, tries to dissuade Ahab's mad attempt at revenge. Ahab explains that to him Moby Dick represents either a mask of God or God himself. The White Whale is either sent by God to bring evil into the world or the inscrutable one is powerful and evil himself and is deserving of man's hate.

“‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing , Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.’

Ahab answers, “‘Hark ye yet again,— the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the White Whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the White Whale agent, or be the White Whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me."


Herman Melville (1819-1891) was raised by devout parents of the Dutch Reformed Church in the faith as decreed by Calvin. He was taught that God created him and all humans innately depraved and predestined for hell. He might possibly be saved through divine grace, if he threw himself submissively on the mercy of God.

Until 18 he was deep rooted in this belief. Then he went to sea. His life experiences caused him to reject the Calvinistic God. Melville blamed God for evil in the world and personified the deity as Moby Dick, the huge white whale.


Most of the ideas presented here were taken from the book Herman Melville's Quarrel With God by Lawrance Thompson