Writers and Religion On Not-So-Close Terms

FOR most of human history, religion and literature have been virtually inseparable, everywhere,'' Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh says.

Despite the early connections between writers and religion, however, many modern writers now shun all forms of religion. This antireligious sentiment may stem, in part, from the role of religious extremists in censorship throughout the world today.

* Fundamentalist Christians in the United States seek to ban certain books from American public libraries and schools.

* Salman Rushdie has been in hiding for five years since his book ``The Satanic Verses'' elicited death threats from Islamic leaders.

* Earlier this month, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in Cairo by Islamic fundamentalists.

* The government of Bangladesh has banned Taslima Nasrim's novel ``Lajja'' in response to the demands of religious extremists. A Muslim extremist leader has issued a death warrant against her for ``offending religious sentiments.'' In August, Ms. Nasrim left Bangladesh for exile in Sweden.

``Regarding religious faith, ignorance, intolerance, fanaticism, and fear have become epidemic,'' says William Gass, director of the International Writers' Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Mr. Gass helped organize an international conference on ``The Writer and Religion'' held here last week.

The purpose of the conference, Gass says, was ``to explore religion as a subject in literature, as an influence on writers, as an instrument of censorship, and as the creation of community.''

The six featured speakers - writers from South Africa, the US, Ireland, India, and Lebanon - presented a range of views on the topic. Each speaker presented an essay (to be published by Southern Illinois University Press), followed by a panel discussion.

Disdain for religion

Some of the speakers made it clear that they had nothing but disdain for organized religion. ``We, as writers, are always working in a very selfish way on our own immortality. That is what we spend our time doing while other people are going to church,'' said American novelist William Gaddis. When it comes to literature and religion Gaddis said: ``We are all in the same line of business: that of concocting, arranging, and peddling fictions to get us safely through the night.''

The prevailing attitude of the conference speakers, in fact, was antireligious. American novelist A.G. Mojtabai represented the minority opinion on the panel supporting religion.

Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh, whose last name means ``religious man,'' confessed that the ``first time I thought about religion as an influence on my writing was three months ago, when I received an invitation to speak to you on this topic.''

Irish poet Eavan Boland asked whether the relation between religion and literature is valuable or dangerous. ``The answer may well be that it is both,'' she said.

Spiritual hunger

Despite the loneliness of her position, Ms. Mojtabai made a strong argument favoring an enlarged place for religion in literature. She called the serious literature of today ``willfully inarticulate to spiritual need.''

``It is my conviction,'' Mojtabai said, ``that there exists today a religious hunger in our country and in our world so widespread that writers ignore or disdain it at our peril.''

``I'm not talking only about the peril of backlash, of censorship and repression from the outside,'' she said, ``but of something even more deadly that eats away at us from within: untruthfulness, shutting out the voices we don't want to hear.''

Mojtabai points to the scarcity of omniscient narrators in contemporary serious fiction as an indication of ``a waning of our faith in our own ability to know.''

``I suppose it points to the decline of the God idea among writers,'' she said.

Many conference speakers focused on the oppression of censorship. ``By a curious paradox, the room for dissent has shrunk as the world has grown more free,'' Mr. Ghosh said. ``And today in this diminished space, every utterance begins to turn in on itself. This is why, I believe, we need to recreate, expand, and reimagine the space for articulate, humane, and creative dissent. In the absence of that space, the misdirected and ugly energies of religious extremism will only continue to flourish and grow.''

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