Rushdie says, 'Get religion'

It remains Salman Rushdie's fervent conviction that it's wrong for clergy, jurists or politicos to threaten writers' lives simply because they think their books are terrible.

Not even the shocking success of "The Da Vinci Code" has weakened his pro-novelist stance, he said, drawing laughter at Calvin College's recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This faith in free speech isn't surprising since the apostate Muslim has lived in hiding ever since his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" inspired Iran's top ayatollah to issue a fatwa calling for his death. No one knows better than Rushdie -- who calls himself a "dreadful old atheist" -- that faith, ink and blood can be stirred into a deadly brew.

Nevertheless, he also believes that writers who refuse to wrestle with the power of faith and the supernatural are refusing to deal with real people in the real world. Consider, he said, the daily lives of the gods and believers in his homeland -- India.

"The people in India do not think of the gods as abstractions," said Rushdie. "They think of them as real beings who move amongst them and work upon their lives every day. If you have something that you need, if somebody is sick, if a child needs to get into college or whatever it may be, you would go and find the relevant deity to make the offering to and you would believe that that would increase your chances of getting what you needed in life."

Rushdie, 58, understands India -- with its tense mix of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity -- from the inside out. As a child, he enjoyed asking his Muslim grandfather why he practiced a faith in which the prayer regime required him to spend so much time with his rear end higher than his head. Meanwhile, Rushdie's father was both an unbeliever and a Muslim historian.

After years of airing his doubts, the pre-teen iconoclast celebrated his own loss of faith with a symbolic culinary sin -- a ham sandwich. The fact that God did not strike him dead with a thunderbolt confirmed his newborn atheism.

As a writer, Rushdie said that he has always insisted on treating religion as a "normal part of life." Thus, his goal was "not to give it special treatment, not to hedge it around with the language of taboo and respect because that has always seemed, to me, to be anti-intellectual."

However, skeptics have their own way of avoiding the truth when dealing with intensely religious cultures, he said. Even writers who are unbelievers must realize that almost everyone in a land like India believes in one god or another and views life through the lens of that faith. Skeptical writers who refuse to accept this reality are practicing another form of intellectually dishonesty.

Rushdie does not, of course, believe writers should surrender their right to deal with religion in an irreverent or critical manner. However, he stressed that skeptics must be willing to doubt their own doubts and remain open to the possibility that the believers may, in some mysterious way, be right.

After all, he said, the real world is not completely realistic. Ordinary people believe in miracles and their beliefs are considered normal. Even in modern America, real life contains moments that are utterly surreal.

"So the sense that the miraculous and the mundane, that the supernatural and the everyday, coexist in a completely natural way, is everywhere," he said. "The idea that, somehow, these are separate categories of thing is quite alien. So if you are going to write about that world, you have to take cognizance of that fact. You have to recognize that this is how people think."

Ultimately, religious faith is one of the most powerful forces shaping the myths and stories that bind together families, nations and cultures, said Rushdie. In a free society, people are free to tell and interpret their own stories. Tyranny is when other people have the right to censure or kill the storytellers who get out of line.

"We are, as human beings, storytelling animals," he insisted. "We are the only creature on the earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what it is and what its life means. Therefore the story is of unusual importance to us, whether we are writers or not. It is something unusually important to human nature."