Writers and Religion on Not-So-Close Terms

Article excerpt

FOR most of human history, religion and literature have been virtually inseparable, everywhere," Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh says.

Despite the early connections between writers and religion, however, many modern writers now shun all forms of religion. This antireligious sentiment may stem, in part, from the role of religious extremists in censorship throughout the world today.

* Fundamentalist Christians in the United States seek to ban certain books from American public libraries and schools.

* Salman Rushdie has been in hiding for five years since his book "The Satanic Verses" elicited death threats from Islamic leaders.

* Earlier this month, Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in Cairo by Islamic fundamentalists.

* The government of Bangladesh has banned Taslima Nasrim's novel "Lajja" in response to the demands of religious extremists. A Muslim extremist leader has issued a death warrant against her for "offending religious sentiments." In August, Ms. Nasrim left Bangladesh for exile in Sweden.

"Regarding religious faith, ignorance, intolerance, fanaticism, and fear have become epidemic," says William Gass, director of the International Writers' Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Mr. Gass helped organize an international conference on "The Writer and Religion" held here last week.

The purpose of the conference, Gass says, was "to explore religion as a subject in literature, as an influence on writers, as an instrument of censorship, and as the creation of community."

The six featured speakers - writers from South Africa, the US, Ireland, India, and Lebanon - presented a range of views on the topic. Each speaker presented an essay (to be published by Southern Illinois University Press), followed by a panel discussion. Disdain for religion

Some of the speakers made it clear that they had nothing but disdain for organized religion. "We, as writers, are always working in a very selfish way on our own immortality. That is what we spend our time doing while other people are going to church," said American novelist William Gaddis. When it comes to literature and religion Gaddis said: "We are all in the same line of business: that of concocting, arranging, and peddling fictions to get us safely through the night. …

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