Human beings are religious. Study any culture from any time and you’ll find people practicing some form of religion. Atheism is actually very rare, historically and globally speaking, and difficult to practice. Especially in extreme situations–like the trenches of war–human beings pray to something or someone. Whatever people may say, they internally wrestle with religious questions: Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? Is there a God? How did this world come to be? What happens when I die? Why am I afraid to die? Is there some sort of future judgment? Why suffering and evil? Is there real meaning or is it an illusion?
When scientists and philosophers tried to teach us that our religious sensibilities were merely evolutionary residue that would eventually die out when we grew up as a species–many of the most sophisticated and influential people believed them. Many authors of fiction believed them–and this religionless, prayerless, godless void entered their stories. Perhaps these authors felt it their duty to enlighten us so that our religious organs might atrophy a bit quicker–For the common good, many believe, is best served by secularism.
If most people you know are religious–particularly in their inner lives–but the characters in our modern stories are not–then how true to the human experience are these stories?
The quote below is from Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis who was an atheist before he converted to Christianity. One of the the things that changed his mind was this problem–that attempts to reduce religiosity in literature left it two dimensional. It lacked ‘the religious sense.’
“Graham Greene criticised modernist writers…for creating characters who ‘wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin.’ There was, Greene argued, no sense of reality in their writings. To lose sight of ‘the religious sense,’ as they had so clearly done, was also to lose any ‘sense of the importance of the human act.’ Great literature depends upon a passionate commitment to a real world–which, for Greene, demanded a foundation in a deeper order of things, grounded in the nature and will of God. Evelyn Waugh made much the same point. Without God, an author could not give his characters reality and depth. ‘You can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.'”Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis, A Life, 133.
The quote could give you the impression that all novels should be explicitly religious–perhaps only written by believers. That’s not what it’s saying. Indeed, the Book of Esther in the Bible is profoundly religious, and never mentions God. Similarly, Christians recognize religion in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings–again, with no explicit mention of God. Besides this, there have been many fiction writers who aren’t personally believers, who have not lost the ‘religious sense’ as they’ve told their stories. So, when you read the quote–please note that when they are talking about the problem of ‘leaving God out’–they are not arguing for an explicitly religious portrayal as the solution. Rather–the insight to include religious struggle as authors portray human experience.