God in Fiction: Is it time for literature to leave religion behind?

God is fictionMany novels feature characters whose religious beliefs shape their ideals. An example might be To Kill a Mockingbird, which tops many lists of “best novels ever”, such as Time Magazine’s. The strongly moral Atticus Finch raises his children in a decidedly Christian manner – and, perhaps significantly, is considered a modern exemplar of ethical behaviour. It’s perhaps not coincidental that I see The Chronicles of Narnia high on these lists also, arguably the best example of religious propaganda for children ever (note “arguably” – I do love the books myself and feel strong that C.S. Lewis had the best intentions).

It would be fair to say that religious characters, or at least non-ostensibly atheistic ones, were always likely to inhabit the bulk of our fiction. After all, it’s only historically recently that the world has begun to shift towards science as the source of their answers instead of faith. Distressingly, I read that in a fairly recent study published on Gallup that 40% of Americans believe in Creationism in the strictest sense. A more recent and significant study by San Diego State found that our current generation of teens are the least religiously observant ever, and not as a result of being “unsettled millennials” as previously suspected by the skeptical. It strongly suggests an actual cultural shift away from religion.

For decades, writers of science fiction and fantasy in particular have embraced science theory (go here for a good explanation as to why “theory” isn’t a word that can be used against science in the defense of faith) and speculative science as vehicles for engaging fiction. However, many writers simply can’t help but bring religion back into the mix. Is this because it’s so engrained in our society that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without it (just as many would say, foolishly, that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without a romantic element) – or even simply as a concession to the faithful? It’s almost as though writers feel unable to generate a proper feeling of awe and reverence in their narratives without making reference to god.

Going back a while, The Matrix film series was a good example of taking something which would have been just as spectacular without its heavy-handed Christian symbolism. Its philosophy is actually a clumsy amalgam of messanic, Zionistic, Platonic and Eastern beliefs, a composite that didn’t seem to strengthen the narrative in any case. Watching the end of the cinematic adaptation of Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes me decidedly uncomfortable, with its monotheistic longing for material obliteration and ham-fisted allusions to the leonine Aslan actually being Christ in the world of Narnia, rather than a symbolic literary figure.

The arguments against religion and even faith in general have been expounded by far greater writers than I (love them or hate them, the works of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are essential). Any one of them, I suspect, would strongly advocate the eradication of any meaningful inclusion of religion in fiction. This would be on the grounds that it reinforces mass belief in destructive and antisocial delusions, and that as a go-to for a sense of “spiritual” awe detracts from the pre-existing (and tangible) wonders of the material world. As symbolic references or colourful similes, writers get a lot of mileage out of the old Greek gods, for example. This would be fine. But in 2015, shouldn’t we be exploring more relevant aspects of our universe instead of the tired play of faith and spiritual redemption?

My Western novel, The Gun of Our Maker, makes little reference to religion outside of the title. The key theme is the expectations we place on others and ourselves. It is very interesting to me that the heroes of the Western genre, in literature and in cinema, are often godless. This is despite such characters existing in a faith-based society (regardless of what the American Constitution says) and several of whom were created by contemporary or at least anachronistically-conscientious authors. With the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, why is it that so many protagonists are ostensibly without faith (even the nameless, murderous “Preacher” in Pale Rider seems entirely scornful of Christian beliefs). Westerns often seem to inhabit a decidedly god-forsaken landscape.

Examining mainstream literature, I’m frequently baffled by the constant allusions to faith as noble and worthwhile. The troubled hero, at the inevitable point of hopelessness on his/her quest, goes to a church to pray, or kneels in the downpour to beg god for a sign. Sometimes they are rewarded with a light, or the sudden appearance of a mortal saviour, who inevitably pulls them back from the brink and sets them on the right path. Religious experiences of this kind are always presented as a ‘seeing the light’ moment (best exemplified, tongue-in-cheek, by an early moment in The Blues Brothers), accompanied by sureness and renewed strength. A skeptic would wonder why this should be so, when in reality organised religion has often stymied the pursuit of science, art and freedom – a comparative Dark Ages.

I accept that our perhaps-indelible inclinations towards the gnostic (or agnostic) will always influence our writing, but why does it so often take the form of existing religious structures, such as Catholicism or Buddhism? Is there not enough wonder in the world already? As my beloved Douglas Adams said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As a writer, I don’t object to seeing references to faith in fiction. But why stick with it, when the modern world is providing us so much more material to work with? I congratulate films such as the recent Interstellar, which put us in awe of natural cosmic phenomena, or  writers like Charlie Kaufman, who posits that the complex beauty of orchids should be enough to write a two hour screenplay around.

I challenge writers to abandon god and religion as an element in their fiction. What else in our universe can inspire, clarify, reform, motivate, cultivate, or invigorate? In the endless search for a semblance of originality, this would be a heavenly place to start.


[‘The Gun of Our Maker’ is available now from Amazon here, and Smashwords here.]

Why is the whale lonely? The mystery of the 52 Hertz ‘Lonely’ Whale

"Aquarian" by Harousel via Deviantart.com

“Aquarian” by Harousel via Deviantart.com

Have you heard the story of the world’s loneliest whale?

Almost thirty years ago, sonar researchers detected a plaintive cry echoing through the ocean.  It was clearly a whale song, but like none that has ever been heard before or since.  Measuring a very unusual 52 hertz, the whale’s eerie moaning was far too high to be that of a blue whale (usually 20-40 hertz), for example.

It was first recorded in 1989, and then every year since.  It has been firmly tracked since 1992, following a migration route across the Pacific Ocean every year.  The route is similar, but not identical to, that of the blue whale, and close to that of the fin (or finback) whale – but different to either.  It strongly suggests that the whale is neither species, possibly a new species altogether.  A genetic anomaly projecting its unique, mournful song through the depths, waiting for a mirrored melody that will never come…

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do

Two can be as bad as one, but the loneliest number is the number one

General consensus amongst the scientific community is that the ‘lonely whale’, often called ’52’, is a cross-breed, most likely between a blue and fin whale.  Cross insemination amongst whales is extremely unlikely (not least due to the incredible size differences between species – a fin being 60 feet and a blue being 100 feet), making 52 literally one of a kind.  The probability of malformed mongrel ever finding a mate would fall at zero.

However, the world’s loneliest whale seems to be relatively healthy: it’s been in this world at least as long as I have (approaching the three decade mark), and its distinctive sonar signature has deepened a little over the years, signifying its continued maturity.

You can view an early article in the New York Times here, and find its distinctive spectrographic call (including a recording) here, at the PMEL Acoustic Monitoring Program’s site.

Of course, it’s easy to personify 52’s plight.  The animal is alone, but that does not mean that it’s lonely.  The whale ‘sings’, but those blips of sonar noise aren’t necessarily a lament.  Its soliloquy might remind we ‘thinking animals’ of lonely, painful times, but no-one can be sure of a cetacean’s ability to feel, however romantic its doomed, tragic story may be.

What interests me in particular is how we have crafted stories around the ‘lonely’ whale.  By adopting it as a mascot for isolated people everywhere, what is that saying about us?  Why do we identify with the lonely whale so easily – or at all?  Are there so many people crying out into the darkness?  It is an animal, but then so are we all (although I know people who would fiercely disagree even on that simple fact).  We have personified the animal, even anthropomorphised it, and spun tales about its hopeless search for love and friendship.  Religious purists would despise the idea of an animal having a ‘fate’, but this word has come up so often lately in relation to 52.  What is its fate?  What will become of this desperately lonely soul as it wanders back and forth through the abyss?

It was hard for me to ignore the recent Kickstarter campaign headed film maker Adrien Grenier, who hopes to raise $300,000 to locate the lonely whale.  With less than 3 days to go, they’re just shy of $240,000, which is agonizingly close.  Spare a few dollars and you could bag yourself a mix tape of 52 songs inspired by the planet’s most depressed water mammal, amongst other incentives.

If you’re artistically inclined, you could also check out the recent glut of Deviant Art inspired by 52, with some typically beautiful and heart-rending paintings from the internet’s elite.

I have my fingers crossed for the Lonely Whale.  At the very least, it’s a fascinating mystery and scientific curiosity.  In my heart of hearts, I wonder what a whale truly feels in the isolating gloom of the deep, and wish 52 the very best.