Yann Martel and Religion
“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 suffering”. (In an interview, April 2010)
A reply. Firstly, secularism is a political idea. A political form. It does not have to provide you or me or anybody else anything in ‘the face of death and suffering’. It shouldn’t be discarded as a western ploy to rid the world of spiritualism or religion, such as Yann Martel seems to suggest. This fatuous comment taken from an interview illustrates, rather starkly, Martel’s melancholia that the west has recently become more technological and prosperous. Because it has developed as such doesn’t necessarily mean that the west has abandoned spiritualism or peoples wonder and awe of the natural, the numinous, has been made redundant.
Secularism only states that religion and state should be separate. It purports that one religion shouldn’t be favoured by the state over another and that they should act as private institutions. In a way it ensures the freedom of all religions to practice their beliefs in a state and as such ensures that not one religion is preferred over another by the state. The problem with the religious is they want their religion to be the preferred religion of the state, as this will afford theirs power over others and enable them to spread their doctrine.
This illustrates the irrepressible will of religions to proselytise for their faith; they will not be entirely happy until you and I believe it too. Furthering his range of fatuity beyond the believable he says that “Now, I say that I’m religious, I’m extremely critical of organized religion”. He begins by critiquing secularism and then states that he is very critical of religions. What is it Mr. Martel, would you prefer a secular state or a religiously embezzled one?
From the interview it is not overly difficult to discern Martel’s views on the subject of religion. He remains, like many of us, in awe of the natural world and science and human relations, but he seems to be taken in mostly by the spectacle of religion: the millions of Hindu’s on pilgrimage in India was a turning point of his faith, he says, and was the inspiration behind his prize-winning book Life of Pi. He cites this spectacle in the interview and it’s clear he finds it dazzling. But just because millions of people attend pilgrimage doesn’t mean that the claims of the religion of Hinduism are in any way not erroneous. That millions of mammal primates converge at times doesn’t do anything for the claims of the religion, only that human beings will tend to act in accordance with the stark reality that we are a chromosome away from the chimpanzee.
His refutation of reason is based solely on the idea that reason cannot do anything for you when faced with death and suffering. An utterly fatuous remark and one of bleak superficiality. It unmistakably says that ‘because I am scared by my own mortality I am abandoning my reasoning faculty and committing myself to obscure spirituality’. A contemptible thing, it is a comment that makes Martel seem an infant in my eyes.
I sniffed it out of his novel when I began reading it. Much like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I found the language of the novel petty. The narrative of the novels share a similar tedium, a familiar discourse with emphasis on things like ‘destiny’ and the ‘spirit’ and other such piffle. I can never put my finger on it but I can always tell if a writer is using his narrative to make a religious point, or to paint his or her religion in a positive light. The language used is stained by the distinguishable mark of religious texts. And the religious allegory is always painfully apparent.
The pretense of the novel is in itself erroneous and fatuous. The idea that one can live a life embodying 3 major religions is outrageous. They are incompatible with each other to begin with; each and every one of them contradicts the next. They propose different worldviews, they all have different views on morality, differing views on death and life after death, differing cultural aspects and are generally irreconcilable. Christianity and Islam are 2 religions that are in no way able to co-exist for one directly contradicts the existence of the other. For Martel to give 3 religions to his protagonist and for Pi to try and ‘understand god through the lens of 3 religions’ he is overlooking the direct incompatibility that they share.