The Role of Religion in a Writer's Life

Man Booker Prize-winner, Life of Pi
The major religions have all had their excesses, but there’s something about spiritual thinking that augments a life.
  • Transcript


Question: What role does religion play in your life?

Yann Martel: Broadly speaking on religion, defining the word very largely and what that means to me is I choose to believe that life makes sense.  That life is not just chemistry, not just chance.  So faith isn’t necessarily a belief in things, it’s just an openness to believing something.  So it’s entertaining the language of transcendentalism.

So I choose to believe that life has transcendental meaning, rather than mere chemical, mere horizontal meaning.  I chose to have, to see life vertically.  And to me, it just makes it a richer experience.  Is it true?  Is it factually true?  Well, I don’t know, but no one who has any kind of faith knows for certain.  You fall in love with someone, you have no idea what the future holds for you.  You have a political faith, you have no idea if your system will work out.  When you have faith in anything, it’s just a disposition to be open and to trust and to move forward that way.  And I find a view of life that entertains a transcendental, that engages with the transcendental, makes things wealthy.  It also, it makes things wealthier in their significance, and it also, it’s a way that makes suffering more bearable.  That’s one of the great limits of secularism.  Secularism is incredibly powerful at delivering things in the here and now.  Good governance, science, human rights, these are all results of the application of reason and their secular triumphs.  But secularism has nothing to say in the face of death and in suffering.

So reason, for example, is a great blood sport in a public arena.  You know, atheists make for great spectacles.  Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins.  In their public performances, it’s amazing to hear them, but once you leave that spectacle, in the privacy of the night, when we all walk away, all on our own, progressive getting older, you know, subject to disease and to suffering, suddenly reason is just a tool that doesn’t help you.  If you believe it somehow in a way you don’t fully understand, that doesn’t make logical sense, somehow things make sense, then suffering is a small part of the canvas of a bigger picture that you don’t see.  And in that bigger picture, somehow the suffering of children is a part of the puzzle and you just accept that.  And it may, so it doesn’t diminish the suffering, but it does put it in a context.  So, if only for that reason, you know, an openness to it.

Now, I say that I’m religious, I’m extremely critical of organized religion.  You know, what’s happening... what has been happening recently to the Roman Catholic Church, I’m one of the ones who are delighted at all these revelations of sexual abuse. It’s an outrage that the Church would value its reputation more than the sanctity of its charges, of these children.  And I think, ultimately it’s better for the Church to be brought down several, several, several pegs.  So I’m as critical about organized religion, you know, the Roman Catholic Church, of its homophobia, of its patriarchy, of its sexism, of its history of anti-Semitism, I am totally okay with these attacks.  But there’s also something more afoot there than just that.  And the same thing with other religion, whether it’s Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, they’ve all had their excesses, but nonetheless, there’s something afoot in that kind of thinking, that I think augments a life.

Question: How did you come to religion? 

Yann Martel:  No, my background is totally secular, I’m from Quebec, which is the most secular province in Canada, was the most Catholic, then underwent something called the Quiet Revolution, which was in a matter of a year or two, people left the church in droves.  And as I said, it jumped from the most religious province to the most secular.  My parents are children of that revolution, so I grew up in a completely secular household and I studied philosophy at university, which is a great way of making you an atheist, a rabid atheist, or at the very least, a rabid agnostic.

What brought me to religion was, well, writing "Life of Pi," and what brought me to writing "Life of Pi" was a trip to India.  India is this continent civilization, where for better or for worse, religion is still a, is part of the mainstream of life.  You see temples, mosques, churches, everywhere.  These famous, massive pilgrimages in which, you know, millions of Hindus join into it.  It’s a dazzling site and it makes, it makes India a place that’s both a very real place and a completely imaginary place.  India is one of these places where, I said, there is a concrete reality, you know, that you can experience empirically, and overlaid on it is this extraordinary, imaginary country... this fictitious, this mythological country.  In most Western countries, that mythological layer has been completely stripped away, which is why, I think, India has been generous, not only to religions, open to it, there’s more religions, I think, per square inch, in India than anywhere else, for better and for worse, I’m saying.  But it’s also, it’s been a place that’s extraordinary generous for storytelling.  All kinds of stories are still possible in India.  Which I think for the last why for the last 20, 30 years, so much great fiction has come out of India.  And once again, for better and for worse.  You know, Bollywood is the largest cinema industry in the world.  Now, I think of the 5,000 movies made a year in Bollywood, you know, 4,999 occupy the last bottom rungs of the worst movies ever made, but nonetheless, stories, that place churns out stories like you can’t believe.

So from someone who comes from a Western background, where we are so taught to be reasonable, we are so pushed to be reasonable, do things for, you know, rational reasons... it’s desiccating, it dries you out, which is why I think so many people go to India and in a sense go wonderfully crazy.  They suddenly want to become Buddhists, they want to become Hindus, they start wearing, you know, orange robes and, you know, praying to elephant-headed gods and they do yoga and they, you know, do funny things.  Well, it’s because you’ve been dried out and suddenly you’re drenched in water, it refreshes you.

And so it was India that brought me to that, I saw a face of religion, a side to it that I’d never seen before, and decided to sort of investigate, "Well, what would it mean to have to have faith?  That crazy, crazy phenomenon where you are obdurately not reasonable, what would that do?"  So I posited this character who had lots of faith, Pi, Pi Patel, who practices three religions.  And from being just a conceit, an artistic conceit, I fell in love with my subject matter and I started being like him and thinking, "Well, why not entertain Brahma and Allah and Jesus and Buddha and the gods of Jainism and, you know, and why not sprites and all these other things?  Why not?  Why not?  What’s to be gained?"

I remember for years, I volunteered in palliative care, care for the dying.  And I remember thinking, if you are dying in your bed, you know, if your legs are like two little sticks and you have a mountain of a stomach and you’re rotted by disease, you know, you’re, the flesh on your face is melted away and you’ve lost your hair, what’s the point of being reasonable?  Why not believe in whatever?  You know, whatever?  Jesus, Buddha, any one of these?  Why not believe that someone transcendentally loves you?  Why not believe that?  And so why not live that way?  To entertain that notion that the operating principal of the universe is love?  Why not believe that?  In the meantime, still be reasonable, you know, still use reason to improve your life, but once reason fails you, why not believe in this great plan, you know, this great cosmic plan where ultimate realization is this massive act of love.  Why not?

Recorded April 13, 2010