The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Religion satirist James Morrow on the Charlie Hebdo killings

Wednesday’s deadly attacks at the Paris office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo are an assault on civilized people everywhere. But for James Morrow, the American novelist who frequently satirizes religion, the killings strike a particularly personal note.

Morrow has never shied away from making fun of religions. The Denver Post once called him “Christianity’s Salman Rushdie.” His “The Godhead Trilogy,” published in the 1990s, involves the discovery of the giant body of God floating in the ocean. Religious figures, relics and beliefs are all fair game in his cerebral comedies. His new novel, “Galápagos Regained,” which pits Christianity against Darwinism, is being released this week. (Reviewed here.)

“I would be deluding myself if I imagined that I was doing anything as brave as what [the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists] were doing,” he says from his home in State College, Pa. “They knew that the sights of those rifles were trained on them, and they had the raw courage to keep on fulfilling that sacred obligation to be satiric. I’ve worked exactly the same side of that street: I see blasphemy not only as a right, but as a sacred duty.”

He’s received a number of angry letters and posts on social media over the years, but never any physical attacks. “I am apprehensive about the possibility that some evangelical with a gun will do me in, but I don’t think God would ever do that. We all have our parts to play in this grand mysterious drama, and I think God put me here to argue against his existence,” Morrow said.

For Morrow, the goal isn’t to mock or humiliate believers out of their orthodoxy; it’s to keep the conversation going. “It’s a pitfall of all faiths: They are utterly humorless and serious,” he said. While he gets plenty of fan letters from atheists, the letters he appreciates most are the ones from churchgoers who tell him, “You helped me be playful with my faith.”

“By being playful with faith, we’re going to get much further than utter solemnity,” Morrow said. “If there is a god, I think he has a sense of humor. He does not require human beings to protect him from satire.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that Islam never went through its own Enlightenment. “In the West, we’ve benefited from the great Enlightenment conversation. We enjoy the benefit of free speech — it’s the default,” he said. “But that’s a very recent and begrudging breakthrough on the part of religion. I don’t take it for granted.”

He’s quick to note that the gunmen in Paris on Wednesday did not represent the Islamic intellectual classes in any way. But he would like to see “the Islamic world educate its children in a plenary fashion.”

“Manichean dualism is the worst,” he said, “the single worst idea people ever came up with — this notion that you can divide humankind into the children of light and the children of darkness.”

He’d also like to see schools in the West do more to teach children about Islam and its extraordinary intellectual cultural heritage. “This was a world that kept civilization alive,” he notes, citing the lasting contributions of Islamic scholars to science and mathematics.

Morrow believes that a civilized conversation about religion must continue to happen, and he recalls an experience from 25 years ago.

In 1989, when Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for his novel “The Satanic Verses,” Morrow and others in his writing group met in a local bookstore and conducted a marathon reading of the book. Some Muslim students protested, but there were no acts of violence. “Several weeks later, we all celebrated Ramadan together,” he said. “That’s the way this should play out.

“We need to keep domesticating religion. It’s such an unpredictable beast.”