The following questions were put to me by Catherine Lacey (http://www.catherinelacey.com), who is working on a book about faith and spiritual practice. As my answers might provide readers with insight into certain aspects of my work, I asked Catherine if I might include them in this much-neglected blog, and she graciously consented.
Did you grow up in the same faith you practice now? If not, when did you begin practicing this faith?
--I was brought up an atheist by two lapsed Catholics, both immigrants. My mother was French, and her Catholicism had never been terribly serious, as is true for many French—France reputedly being the most atheistic country in the world. My father, however, was an Irish Catholic, and went to Catholic schools in Ireland and in New York City. Although he claimed never to have taken religion seriously, his hatred for religion in general and for Catholicism in particular was so extreme that he would not even allow a Bible in the house. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to characterize the religious attitudes I grew up with as “faith,” but, nevertheless, I still “practice” atheism, though I hope with none of my father’s quasi-pathological fury. Were I intellectually coherent, I would call myself an agnostic, since I know that my “faith” is no more susceptible to proof than anyone else’s, but to do that I would have to lie, since I simply do not have the slightest shred of belief in any sort of deity, or spiritual essence guiding or in any way inhabiting the universe.
Could you give me a summary of your religious background overall?
--Here is the seminal moment in my “religious” development: One day, when I was in middle school, a bunch of kids started attacking me verbally on the playground for not believing in God. They told me that, since I hadn’t been christened, I had no name, and that I also had no morals, since morals come from God. Everything about this moment seemed absurd to me. Of course I had a name and of course I had morals. The very intensity with which my friends asserted these crazy ideas also struck me as absurd—especially when I considered some of the “morals” my friends had absorbed from their Creator (I remember one particularly hilarious conversation in which a friend explained the contorted postures he would have to assume when he masturbated so that he might avoid offending God). But more importantly, I seem to have understood almost instantly that there was a danger in the very notion that we should base our morals on religious doctrine. For one thing, I felt passionately (and maybe this is something I actually did absorb from my father) that I ought never accept an idea without first subjecting it to careful examination—an examination that required considering the rational coherence of the idea and whether there was any hard evidence to support it. I also tended to be suspicious of any proposition that would make the world seem too comfortable, or me too virtuous. The more I wanted to believe something, the more reason I had to suspect it might be too good to be true. It seemed clear to me, for example, that notions such as that the soul lives on after death or that destiny is controlled by a good and all-powerful god fulfilled too many of my most profound wishes to have much chance of being true. Most important of all, I felt that the idea that morality came ready-made from God would make us less likely to recognize that we are all ultimately responsible both for our morals and for the actions they inspire, and would also make us less likely to think our morals through in detail. What is more, it seemed to me that accepting that we, and not God, are responsible for our morality would have a natural tendency to make us humble and tolerant, not just because we would be less likely to think that the results of our own cogitations are absolutely true and universal, but because, as we tried to arrive at an irrefutable foundation for our beliefs, we would inevitably find that many profoundly important values simply cannot be justified on the basis of logic and evidence. To give only one of many examples, I find murder so morally abhorrent that I am very close to a total pacifist and I am a staunch opponent of the death penalty, yet, as an omnivore, I have no particular objection to the murder of animals. I can marshal all sorts of evidence and logic in favor of my paradoxical beliefs, but nothing that adds up to an airtight argument. In the end, I have no alternative but to admit that, while I have made my own moral choice, other people might be equally justified in making very different ones—which is not to say that I think all other choices are justified (I’m not that much of a relativist!). It does mean, however, that I understand that many of my most important moral beliefs are, in fact, acts of faith. Faith is an essential and inescapable mechanism for getting though life, but it is also important that we never confuse faith with the truth. (Note: Having just read over the above, I see that I have implied that all of these ideas came to me in a flash amid that crowd on my middle school playground. Of course they didn’t, but they did follow from my clear recognition at that moment of the absurdity of many things that my classmates were saying. I also want to make it clear that I have profound respect for many religious people. I have written a biography of a man who I think did a great deal of very good work because he wanted to follow the example of Jesus, and some of the very best people I know have clearly derived considerable moral strength and wisdom from their religious backgrounds, even if they are no longer practicing.)
Have you always considered yourself creative?
--I loved imaginative play above all other forms as a child. I decided I would be an artist in first grade and a writer in third grade, when my love of reading really kicked in. I went back and forth between those ambitions (and being an astronaut) through much of my childhood, and even considered applying to art schools when I was a senior in high school. Fortunately, I was wise enough at that point to understand that, however much I may have loved visual art, I lacked the talent and the passion necessary to make a life in that realm.
Have you always considered yourself religious?
--I believed in God for an hour or two when I was eight years old. I even got down on my knees and prayed. I was praying to an old man with a long white beard who was sitting in a giant throne atop a cloud. In the midst of this prayer, however, I realized that the man and the throne would fall right through the cloud, an image that instantaneously ended my religious faith forever. One caveat: My family celebrated Christmas and Easter, but God never entered into either holiday. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were our deities, though really the holidays were celebrations of family and love. I have more or less carried on these traditions with my own children.
How often do you go to services and where do you go?
--I’ve only been to one ordinary service in my life, though plenty of weddings, bar mitzvahs and, alas, funerals.
What do you feel during a service?
--During that one service I mainly felt bored. But also I felt that I was being subjected to intense coercion, both by the Boy Scout leader who insisted I come to the church (we were on a camping trip) and by the sermon, which, as I remember it, was all about how I would go to hell if I didn’t accept Jesus. I had actually been rather well disposed toward Jesus because of all the Christmas lore I had absorbed growing up, and because I have always had a profound response to the notion that one should love one’s enemies, but the Jesus I heard about in this sermon seemed a sick bully and I wanted no part of him.
How important is the community you practice with? (Basically, is your faith a more internal state or a more group-focused one? Feel free to answer this question by disagreeing with its duality.)
--There are only two things I don’t like about atheism: One is that I had no idea what to do or say at my father’s funeral, and wished I had had some sort of ready-made ceremony that would not have been an insult to his most passionate beliefs. (We did much better when my mother died.) The other is that atheism is a solitary practice. There are no atheist congregations—or none that I could remotely stand to be a part of (as they consist mainly of ex-religious nutballs and extremists). But sometimes when I see the photos of the new members of the congregation of Riverside Church (I park my car in the basement), I feel a certain envy and loneliness, especially because that congregation is so ethnically well integrated.
Does your religious life affect the way you live your everyday life?
--My atheism plays a significant role in my every waking minute. Since I don’t believe in any “sacred” or “eternal” “truths,” and feel that I, and I alone, am responsible for every moral decision I make, I take that responsibility very seriously, and have spent much of my ordinary and creative life trying to figure out what is right and what I should, or should not do. I don’t mean that I am constantly making moral decisions. Like everyone else I mostly live (or at least I try to live) according to moral conclusions I reached long ago. I also don’t want to imply that I have adhered perfectly to any moral standard I have ever set for myself—far from it! I am at least as weak-willed, hypocritical and selfish as the next guy. But I do believe it is essential to constantly reevaluate my morals, especially as life is always revealing itself to be vastly more complex than I have ever imagined it to be, and this struggle plays a major role in my writing and, sadly, in my demented 4:00 a.m. cerebrations.
Do you think your religious life has an effect on anything you make? Why or why not?
--My work seems to come from two primary sources. One is my love of language—especially of imagery. The other is my desire to work out certain moral conundrums. A substantial proportion of my work (including both of my nonfiction books—one being a memoir) is about characters who try to do the right thing and fail. And this moral obsession (that is not too strong a word for it, I think, especially since it seems to be completely involuntary) is a direct outgrowth of my “religious” thinking, though it has other sources as well—one being my sense, practically since birth, that I was an unwanted child, that my mere existence was a problem for my parents, who never had a happy marriage, and thus that I was a sort of moral failure from the get-go.
Does guilt play any role in your creative life or your religious life?
--Whoo boy! (See above.)
What (if any) rituals do you have surrounding your creative life? How important are they to your process? What do you feel during your creative process?
--Despite feeling its lack at my father’s funeral, I am actually rather suspicious of ritual. I feel that any habit creates a certain blindness, and I want always to be alert to what is happening in the world and in my heart, and so I desire a certain unpredictability and chaos in every part of my life, so that I may be always on my toes. I also feel that, especially insofar as ritual tends to be a rather mindless repetition of certain behaviors, it can be an effective mechanism for social control, and, therefore, can not only limit a one’s necessary freedom of thought and action (and all the obligations consequent on that freedom), but also make one less aware of the degree to which one is, in fact, being controlled. I am very wary of the power of crowds in particular, or rather of the degree to which all of us—I as much as anyone—want to do what everyone around us is doing. This is the power that the fashion and popular culture industries live and die by, but it is also used by fanatics of all stripes to gather and manipulate their adherents, and ritual is one of the most effective ways of harnessing that power. It may seem sick—and to a certain extent it is!—but on more than one occasion I have found myself jumping up and down and shouting along with a mass of other people at a rock concert and then flashed on the image of all those ordinary Germans lifting their stiff right arms and shouting “Sieg heil!” All that said, I do have my rituals. For example, I begin every day with some exercises to wake my brain, then I go to my computer with a cup of coffee and immediately begin to write before my normal daytime obligations have cut me off from my unconscious—which I think is vastly wiser than my conscious mind. That’s exactly what I did this morning, in fact, and I am now on my second cup of coffee!
Are religion/spirituality separate from creativity/art?
--In practice (and in terms of my very secular variety of “religion”): No. I can never escape the moral promptings that inspire so much of my writing. That said, I think that “beauty” in any form of art has many purely technical components (involving the execution of form, etc.) that are entirely independent of an artist’s own deepest promptings. Interestingly, I feel that attention to and the assiduous fulfillment of some of the technical aspects of my art amount to “spiritual” practice, both because such dedication is an important discipline, and because I often feel that I am in a trance as I write, and that writing is a form of meditation. I have to admit that I feel these “spiritual” elements of my craft rather strongly, even if the word “spiritual,” itself, makes me decidedly uncomfortable.
Do you believe that religion and/or spirituality can be completely avoided and/or not felt for a person's entire life?
--I have avoided and not felt the existence of God my whole life, and I am certain that I will feel exactly the same as long as there is a tremor of sensation in my body. But, that said, I do not feel that it is possible to go through life without grappling to some degree with questions of morality and of what our existence might mean. To my mind, religion is a subsection of that grappling, even if it is the subsection with vastly more adherents than any of its alternatives—or all of them put together!
Do you believe that creativity and/or art of any kind can be wholly avoided for a person's entire life?
--Yes, alas, at least after childhood. But only a very few unlucky souls manage such a thing.
If you somewhat regularly go to a religious service, would you mind if I came with you at some point? (We don't have to sit together and obviously I would be very respectful.) Also, if you practice some form of a service at home, would you mind if I observed or participated in that?
--We could take a walk, or have a cup of coffee, or, even better, have a passionate debate! Debate is as close as I come to practicing my “religion” with other people.