Salman Rushdie is not, of course, a conventionally religious man. During the recent Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing he went out of his way to call himself a "dreadful old atheist." Nevertheless, Rusdhie -- with very good reason -- seems to "get religion." You might even say that influential Muslims still want him to "get religion" in such a way that he has an opportunity to discuss the concept of blasphemy with the Almighty face to face, sooner rather than later.
Listening to a press copy of his Calvin address, I was, however, struck by his emphasis on the powerful role that religion plays in the life of real people living in the real world, even if they are living according to beliefs that Rushdie does not share. Much of his discussion was of India, his homeland. However, he also makes it clear that he is also talking about modern America (in the age of Bush, in particular) and the vast majority of the world's nations and cultures (taking a lovely little shot at the low-grade mush of The Da Vinci Code, along the way).
In this address, Rushdie was discussing the work of novelists.
However, I thought his words might also sound as a sobering warning to journalists. Thus, here is a large chunk of the Scripps Howard column I filed this morning.
Please consider this material a kind of "thoughts for the day" offering:
As a writer, Rushdie said that he has always insisted on treating religion as a "normal part of life." Thus, his goal was "not to give it special treatment, not to hedge it around with the language of taboo and respect because that has always seemed, to me, to be anti-intellectual."
However, skeptics have their own way of avoiding the truth when dealing with intensely religious cultures, he said. Even writers who are unbelievers must realize that almost everyone in a land like India believes in one god or another and views life through the lens of that faith. Skeptical writers who refuse to accept this reality are practicing another form of intellectually dishonesty.
Rushdie does not, of course, believe writers should surrender their right to deal with religion in an irreverent or critical manner. However, he stressed that skeptics must be willing to doubt their own doubts and remain open to the possibility that the believers may, in some mysterious way, be right.
After all, he said, the real world is not completely realistic. Ordinary people believe in miracles and their beliefs are considered normal. Even in modern America, real life contains moments that are utterly surreal.
"So the sense that the miraculous and the mundane, that the supernatural and the everyday, coexist in a completely natural way, is everywhere," he said. "The idea that, somehow, these are separate categories of thing is quite alien. So if you are going to write about that world, you have to take cognizance of that fact. You have to recognize that this is how people think."
In other words, even devout skeptics need to "get religion" if they want to write about reality in this day and age. Do you think we should we ask him for a quote for our blog's masthead?