Although I’m no sort of historian or political scientist, let me venture a grand diagnosis of the zeitgeist. We live in a paradoxical age. On the one hand, something called “faith” has of late become an object of unprecedented, almost fetishized, deference. (Consider the fact that in the USA we now have an unequivocal, if unwritten, religious test for the office of President.) At the same time, we’re seeing the ascent of a hot-eyed and unapologetic atheism. Although I don’t view the latter phenomenon with alarm—indeed, I think it’s long overdue—I appreciate those who argue that the New Atheists are tilting with a caricature of religion, as opposed to the actual, lived experience of believers.
Ideally, our nascent Society for Heresy Studies will discover and chart a middle ground between reflexive deference and uninformed sneering. By its very nature, literature puts a premium on conversation rather than closure. Valuable novels, stories, poems, and plays celebrate ambiguity and the messy wonder of it all: a kind of discourse not reliably available anywhere else in the culture.
I view my own attempts at fiction-making as thought experiments, close in spirit to the Gedanken demonstrations routinely designed by cosmologists, physicists, and philosophers. My best-known novel, The Last Witchfinder, takes off from a single, mind-boggling sentence in Masks of the Universe, a history of science by physicist Edward Harrison. At one point Harrison asserts that the “witch universe,” the world-picture of the late Renaissance, would have “destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” I read that sentence, and I said to myself, “What a great subject for a novel.” Even if he was overstating the case, I simply had to design a fictive experiment exploring Harrison’s astonishing idea: the near destruction of a civilization at the hands of its own theology.
I would categorize myself as a bewildered pilgrim, or perhaps a qualified atheist of the Andre Comte-Sponville school. (I’m enamored of this philosopher’s Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.) To wit, I’m not certain that God doesn’t exist, but I’m certain I believe God doesn’t exist. If I were smarter, I would be the protagonist of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.
Technically, I suppose, my novels are more blasphemous than heretical. For a writer of my sensibility, the challenge lies not in critiquing religion—that comes naturally—but in taking religion with sufficient seriousness that, when my experimental design calls for a person on faith to come on stage, the character emerges as dignified, plausible, and sympathetic.