I have read seven novels from young men and women in the past two years that have had what I consider modern, representative "religious" characters. In all but one of these books, the characters were agents of the most self-righteous kinds of oppression. In fact, in some texts, the words Catholic or religious have become synonymous with all things that good and ordinary people fight against.
As I said to one young man: "I like how you forgive the squeegee kids for pummelling the evangelist to death with his own Bible."
And to a young woman: "I think the only people you didn't show compassion for were those terribly ignorant and pregnant Catholic girls, the three rednecks in the truck, and that picture of Jesus Christ."
"That's because I don't think religion should come into my work," the woman boldly said.
"Well, I agree with you - but you really shouldn't scapegoat so many of them to make your point," I declared.
These were silly remarks, but they do have very serious implications in our broader literary and social culture. And it is an ongoing debate that should be recognized.
For who today wants to write kindly about rednecks, or for that matter religious people? And what becomes of you if you do? In fact, many of our younger writers might not know many Catholic girls, even if they caricature them in their work. And unfortunately it is not only the right wing in our Western society that exploits cultural stereotypes.
Being interviewed about my last book, The Lost Highway, brought this idea home. The child Amy and her faith were viewed positively, especially toward the end of the book.
"But isn't that conservative?" one interviewer cautioned, smiling kindly, knowing I must have made a mistake. That's because, within Canada's writing and intellectual community, many people I know will not consider the idea that skepticism toward the existence of God may not be absolutely progressive.
It is a credulity of thought that is almost prerequisite in much of our literary culture. Darwin proved it, or someone proved it, and now our literary quest is to make such proof absolute. The derision toward anyone who believes is swift and non-negotiable among many writers today, or at least in their writing. It is as if a doctrine has been set in motion in which not to demean religion is sacrilegious.
That is not to say I want anyone to write religious books. Far from it, let me tell you. Anyone who thinks that misses the point entirely.
I am simply reflecting on the plethora of anti-religious elitism that passes for both comedy and concern among people who lecture from the stage. It is a kind of swaggering doctrine that in its own way is as rigid in its essential belief as the evangelical or Catholic dogma it mocks.
There is also a tendency on the left to believe that the very belief in God is itself too conservative or right-wing to have intelligence, leading to an unspoken assumption of comfortable agnostic pluralism. Seeing the lunatic religious fringe, those who would burn our books and libraries, as a danger, there are some who have transposed this danger to anyone who disagrees with any value that the literary left deems safe.
Of course the religious lunatic fringe would burn libraries and destroy freedoms that are established for the security of us all. But so would some of the literary left who believe only so-called politically correct writing to be fair writing - and this thinking can be extremely dangerous and limiting as well.
In fact, I have noticed the same tendency in people who have the power to shape opinion about other people's work. Their qualifying discretion is at times so dangerous and limiting that some who put juries together and judge awards believe that mentioning sin in a work is tantamount to ... well, sin. It is this kind of thinking that is more noticeable among my peers than any other.
And it is that way because books are, to some, supposed to be the answer to liturgy. Especially, among some of my closer friends, Catholic liturgy.
In so many novels, the characters stand up against a predetermined set of values that the reader is familiar with but have been taught by these books to fear, ridicule and mistrust - even if, in private, many of the readers might in some ways trust and depend on the values castigated. So a falsehood is set in motion by the very presumption of casting out falsehood, and the reader is the vulnerable target.
That certain writers I know and admire are prone to this duplicity is more upsetting than those fundamentalists I do not know and do not admire telling me works of genius are false. For it so happens that people I admire who have found a comfortable niche in the writing community have said this as well, about certain works that I admire very much.
This anti-religious sniping has become more prevalent over my lifetime because of a dual condition of pandering: one by the artists themselves to the audience; and the other by the audience's acceptance of this pandering as their due without seriously questioning it, so as not to displease others in the audience who, they believe, must share a common ideology.
Only the middle class could act this way toward the middle class, and deem this pandering somehow a forthright and noble condition for an ongoing discussion of justice. Many will not admit to the discomfort they feel when they hear this creed spoken to them, out of fear or disinterest - to stand against it is not within the boundaries of their own moral compass.
So it becomes within this kind of pandering an oxymoron to suggest that the ongoing search for justice has anything whatsoever to do with an ongoing search for God. They have become the antithesis of each other. This has been at least part of the mainstay of our literary jurisprudence since the 1950s and is now so ingrained into the consciousness of young writers that many of them have found few independent ways to think of God, except either to dismiss or to rebuke.
But even this in a strange way is an acknowledgment of God.
Now, I don't mean all writers are like this, but I am certain many are. For writers, if not careful, will find themselves conforming to what is popular in order to be considered unique. And I suggest it is intellectually dishonest to view the world this way. And this intellectual dishonesty will in some way either shrink or lessen the value of their work. Because many of them deny their own continuous search for a meaning beyond themselves - one that is greater than ourselves.
Am I speaking of our great writers, such as Alice Munro or Al Purdy or Alden Nowlan or P.K. Page or Jack Hodgins or Alistair MacLeod? No, I am not. Yet I do think in many ways religion and faith have become the one true polarizing gap within our culture. And in a strange way I feel this is inhibiting even if it is thought of as liberating. And that young man and woman I spoke about above are cases in point.
Do I think that questions about religious power and control have no place in our literary discourse? The secret is if I didn't I wouldn't be writing this polemic. The church has done an enormous damage. It has not forgiven when it should have; it has held sway over people and oppressed them and it for a long while forgot how to love.
Yet there is still much good that it does, and there is power and control on both sides of the aisle. Many people of faith, like little Amy in The Lost Highway, are truly innocent, without any power at all, and more importantly their beliefs are as valid as anyone else's.
So I have been bothered on occasion, especially reading younger people's novels, by the largeness of certain religious targets, the ease with which the mark is hit, and the smallness of the points sometimes made. It has become, in many movies and many books, the status quo of our Western society, and leaves out so many people I grew up loving.
But if Tom Hanks can save the world from Catholicism every two years, I can remind myself that there is still much good in my religion. If Bill Maher can tell me my faith is silly, I can at least answer and say it is not. If Christopher Hitchens can courageously take on Mother Teresa or declare the Ten Commandments meaningless - as if he bore false witness in any other universe he wouldn't be known for exactly who he was - I can at least say I disagree, and face the ridicule if I have to.
If Richard Dawkins can tell me I cannot prove there is a God, I can remind him that he cannot prove something else: He cannot prove that he doesn't pray to God every moment of every day in ways he might not himself know for reasons that benefit only himself.
And if one of them asks me what faith is, I can say it is not something we have, but it is who we are. No matter our numerous failings and trials in this life, it is part of the very cortex of our humanity. It is the one thing God gives us that we cannot refuse, and if we did not have it, nothing would ever happen - not even the line I am writing now.
Adapted from God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World. Copyright © 2009 Newmac Amusement Inc. Published by Doubleday Canada. All rights reserved. In stores this Tuesday.