Pete Hautman won America’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with his novel “Godless”, and has been kind enough to let Nexus interview him about some of the questions raised in the book. Thanks, Mr. Hautman!
The idea for “Godless” came out of the memory of yourself 35 years ago, in your own mock-worship of a water tower. There are probably a lot of kids who, just for fun, make up their own mythologies in the same way. How do you think this adds to their knowledge of religion?
When you want to teach a kid to draw, you hand him (or her) a crayon and some paper. If you give him a coloring book and tell him to stay within the lines, well, that doesn’t work so good. Smart, curious teens are always revising, modeling, and recreating the social systems they are asked to adopt. It’s part of the normal and admirable exploration of the world, and it starts in the womb.
The Chutengodian Commandments are pretty funny – especially the one about not eating asparagus. I agree it’s quite disgusting. The idea of having to create your own commandments is, depending on your perspective, either frightening or fulfilling. Do you create your own, and how do you integrate them into your life? Would you recommend personal commandment creation as an essential part of ethical maturity?
I am rather fond of asparagus.
We all create our own commandments. Most of us use existing religious, social, and cultural rules as a model, then we tweak them: You shall not kill. Unless it is in self defense. Unless they really piss you off. Unless they control large oil reserves. Unless they scare the crap out of you.
There are a lot of religious parallels in “Godless”. The most obvious is probably Shin, the Pod-God, deity to his collection of gastropods. Shin comments that God is a matter of relativity. Do we find our own gods, do you think? Do you think that they can be found outside religion – for example in science?
Modern science is notable for its lack of gods, but it does have some similarities with religion, and it relies, to some extent, upon faith—as in, I have a degree of faith in my endocrinologist, without which it would be impossible for her to practice her craft effectively. I also have “faith” in the theory of gravity, even though I do not understand it. For the most part, however, science and religion are antithetical.
To answer your question a different way, we each create our own gods and our own religions in the same way we create our own commandments. Everybody sitting in, say, a Lutheran congregation does not believe in the same version of God, and each of them has a unique interpretation of the tenets of their denomination.
Do you think the traditionally non-religious can find or need to find spiritual fulfilment outside organised religion?
I don’t know what “spiritual” means. As for fulfillment, I do not think religion is at all necessary for one to live a joyous, productive, and admirable life. I know hundreds of non-religious people who sleep well at night and cannot wait to get up in the morning.
The Chutengodian kids join the Church of the Ten-Legged God (CTG) for several reasons – for fun, to show irreverence to their parents’ beliefs, as an excuse to flirt or to find adventure, and as an interesting intellectual exercise. How well do you think this tracks with an individual’s need to join a religious community today?
Never having joined one I cannot say, but I suspect that the impulse to join a religious community is driven more by loneliness and fear and desire for approval than it is by curiosity and adventurousness.
It should also be said that there are practical reasons for joining a church. One might thereby gain emotional support of a community, business contacts, mating opportunities, child care, and so forth.
Shin’s curiosity eventually turns into obsession, and there are times when Jason, the founder of the CTG, is on the verge of being convinced by him even though he knows it’s not actually real. How much do you think the faith of others impacts on what we think we already know?
The impact is immense. A person with strong “unshakeable” faith is enormously attractive. We are hardwired to respond positively to confident leaders, and faith is confidence taken to an extreme. When someone believes something without showing a shred of doubt, we feel compelled to consider their point of view.
The group eventually splinters into rival churches with different sets of commandments. Do you think it’s possible to retain one monolithic faith in an age of questioning?
Sure, people do it all the time. But why would you want to?
Although it starts as a joke, the CTG has some serious consequences and Jason is forced to confront them on his own terms. What do you think he has gained from his experiences?
He learned that he has power, and that with power comes responsibility—and a price.
You end with Jason commenting he has “religion, but no faith”. What do you think is the essential difference between the two?
Faith is a belief in something that is so powerful that it can withstand almost anything including physical evidence to the contrary, logical inconsistency, and personal travail. It is a psychological phenomenon.
Religion is a formal system of worship—a system developed by humans. One might think of it as a sort of construct, a machine for communing with the Almighty.
Jason’s story is essentially a journey to that place where he has “religion, but no faith”. That’s a journey a lot of people are on these days. Where do you look for the answers?
I just look at the world around me. Answers abound.