Those of you who have read my novels know that the characters are sometimes engaged in discussions about religion. This is particularly true – unsurprisingly – of the characters in Sin & Contrition. Before I explain, I should tell you a little about my religious background. In a word: checkered. I grew up in a family where my father was an atheist, and my mother was agnostic. Still, my mother thought I ought to be introduced to the church (Episcopal), and I was pressed into service as an altar boy. I particularly remember, at the age of about eight, nearly fainting from a combination of incense smoke, heat, and sacred solemnity. I also went to Sunday school in the same church. When I was a little older, I was sent to a private Quaker day school: William Penn Charter School. I wasn’t sent because it was Quaker, but because it was a good school, and my father had attended it. Once a week, there was an hour long Quaker meeting, which was silent unless someone felt moved to say something religious. (I was never so moved – mostly for fear of saying something stupid.) I then went through about ten years of hibernation: in high school, college and in the Navy. During this time, I went to church when it was socially necessary: weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc. When I got married to my first wife, we were married in a Congregational church, and most Sundays we attended the service there. But, because it was closer to where we were living, we joined the Presbyterian Church, and it was here that I was inspired by the minister, Joseph Bishop. Those of you who have read Sin & Contrition will recognise that name as the minister I interview in the last chapter. The real Joseph Bishop has been transformed into a fictional character preaching in New York City. But his sermon about praying with Christ at the bedside of the dying woman is absolutely true. So for a good portion of my adult life, I was a Presbyterian: teaching Sunday school and serving as an elder. When I moved to England, I attended the Church of England, but this wasn’t particularly satisfactory because my wife, Anna, is Catholic. When she found a church and a priest she liked, I went to see him, and he invited me to attend. When I said that I wanted to take communion, he said I should do so. So now, Anna and I go to mass on Sunday, and even though I’m not officially a Catholic, I behave like one. Why have I not made it official (as Tony Blair has done)? Because, while I have great respect for the Catholic Church, I don’t agree with some of its dogma. So, why do my characters talk about religion? Because it says quite a lot about their character and values. Caterina in Fishing in Foreign Seas is a committed Catholic, but she doesn’t question it. Her faith is just ingrained in her: she believes in doing things the right way, which is what she was taught as a child. Bettina in Sin & Contrition was brought up a Catholic, but she becomes a member of the Presbyterian church so she can meet the right people who will get her into the right country club. She’s an amoral religious opportunist. (And a little immoral.) Also, I think that a novelist should encourage his readers to think: to examine their own views and values. Several of my characters are agnostic. They have doubts of various kinds. None is an atheist, because I regard atheism as a logical impossibility. How can one say categorically that something doesn’t exist without proof? Merely naming it suggests at least the possibility that it does exist. In my third novel (not published yet) there are Muslim and Jewish characters, and for two of the characters, their faith is explored to reflect their values. While I’m a Christian, I have respect for the Islamic and Jewish faiths, because we worship the same God, and because those religions have some core beliefs which I find attractive: a daily regimen of prayer in the case of Islam, and the strong sense of family and community in Judaism. As good as their core messages are, I have little interest in the polytheistic religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.
More recently, as in my fifth novel, Sable Shadow and The Presence, I have begun to explore the conflicts between good and evil on a theological level: if there is a God, is there also a devil? If so, who controls our destinies, why and how? If there is good in the world, is there necessarily also evil? When I lay out these issues, I try, through the characters, to suggest what the answers may be, but, at the same time there are other characters who will take an opposing view. Ultimately, the reader must decide.