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Yann Martel

Yann Martel is the author of The High Mountains of Portugal and Life of Pi, the #1 international bestseller and winner of the 2002 Man Booker (among many other prizes). He is also[…]

The major religions have all had their excesses, but there’s something about spiritual thinking that augments a life.

Question: What role does religion play in your life?

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

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

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

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

Question:rn How did you come to religion? 

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded April 13, 2010