Tonight I attended the Perth Writers Festival opening address from novelist Lionel Shriver on Literature and Religion. I have long wanted to hear more about Shriver’s thoughts on religion, knowing that she is an atheist with a father who is a prominent theologian.
I had imagined she had at least had a period of belief in her childhood and youth only to reject it; but by her own account, she never believed. She began questioning Christianity by the age of eight and at thirteen had to be pulled (by her hair, she adds) to church.
For her, religious belief is incomprehensible, and that has why she has almost never written about it. (Her one sympathetic religious character, the elderly Gabriel in So Much For All That, loses his faith in God over the course of the novel.) While I feel atheism makes far more sense to me than to most people of faith (as in, I get why people are atheists), her lack of any belief in the possibility of God ever is a little incomprehensible to me, especially when she was brought up in a home steeped with God-talk.
She remarked at one point that religion takes away the ambiguity of the world, the mystery of existence, which is one of the pleasures of life. Of course, faith should have its own mystery and ambiguity. And her atheism could be seen to lack these qualities.
Shriver disproves a theory I’ve harboured in my mind: that it’s unintelligent fundamentalism which produces atheist children; her parents are both intelligent, engaged people, with, she says, high IQs. The moderate Presbyterian faith they brought her up in was not a fundamentalist one.
I was unsurprised by Shriver’s stridency against religion. Her writing is always strident, always serious (even when it’s trying not to be), and often didactic. She was all these things tonight. She also lived up to the strengths of her fiction – insightful and even generous as she spoke of the common ground she has defined between the way her father has lived his life and the way she’s lived hers.