I read this book a while back because of the movie that was coming out at the time. I try to read the book before I see a movie based on it whenever I can because I want to see what movie the book creates in my head first, then see the movie that was actually created, and make a comparison. (If you haven’t read/seen the book/movie and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.)
In the prologue before the story proper, the man who eventually interviews Pi (who narrates the main story) is told by an old man who sends him in Pi’s direction: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” Reading this, I thought to myself, Well, that’s a bold claim, but show me what you got
, and I kept on reading.
In the end, I was disappointed. Disappointed, in fact, to the point that I never got around to seeing the movie.
Oh, the story was interesting along the way, don’t get me wrong. The boy Pi spends two-hundred-some-odd days shipwrecked at sea, on a lifeboat smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a 450-pound Bengal tiger for companionship. That’s an interesting premise right there, and the author Yann Martel kept me interested throughout. That wasn’t the problem.
The problem surfaces when Pi reaches civilization. He is interviewed by two representatives of the company that owned the ship that sank and put Pi on that lifeboat. He tells his story about being with the tiger for 227 days — and they regard him with incredulity. Where is the tiger, the ask? Jumped out of the lifeboat and disappeared into the jungle immediately upon reaching shore, Pi says. They still don’t buy it. And after hours of gentle prodding, he gives them the following (as he calls them with disdain) ”facts”:
There was no tiger on the lifeboat. When the main ship first capsized, the lifeboat contained Pi, his mother, and the ship’s cook, a Frenchman. After a few days stranded at sea, the Frenchman kills Pi’s mother, possibly for food, possibly because he’s losing his sanity. Pi then kills the Frenchman. And he has to spend the rest of those 227 days, all by himself, alone with that memory.
When he’s done, he asks the interviewers, “Now…which is the better story?” When they say the story with the tiger, he replies, “So it is with God.”
In other words, religion is a fiction you choose to believe in because reality has become unbearable.
When I read these words, I was reminded of the words of a certain science fiction writer (I can’t remember his name): “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” For me at least, this story had a downer ending because the reality was a downer. And as a result, I completely lost interest in seeing the movie.
Pi’s story does not strike me as a reason why you should believe in God. It does strike me as a reason why people do believe in God. People like stories, and in general they don’t care if a story is true so long as it is good.
A perfect illustration of this can be found with Washington Irving’s story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. As you read that story, it becomes fairly obvious that it’s Brom Bones who chases Ichabod Crane out of Sleepy Hollow while disguised as the Headless Horseman. But Sleepy Hollow’s citizens choose to believe that Crane was spirited away by the actual Horseman because it makes for a better story. This is even true outside of the story itself: in almost every movie adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (including the popular TV series) there are two changes made:
1) The Headless Horseman turns out to be real.
2) Ichabod winds up hitched to Katrina.
This is because the idea of a Headless Horseman is interesting, and because, in fiction at least, people tend to root for the underdog. But just because something should be doesn’t mean it is. As the saying goes, wish into one hand, crap into the other, see which fills up first.
The flaw in Pi’s (actually Yann Martel’s) reasoning is that belief in God (my opinion, of course) shouldn’t fly in the face of reality, but take it into account.
So, you might well ask: what would be a good argument for belief in God?
How about this: belief that life is meaningless is not a survival trait.
People believe in God in an attempt to give some meaning to existence. It might be that God is a personification of that meaning, just as the Grim Reaper is a personification of death. But the existence of any meaning can’t be scientifically proven. In the realm of science, questions of meaning are, well, meaningless. According to science, we human beings are just so many walking excrement factories that function for a few decades, and then break down and decompose into all the excrement we’ve manufactured. According to science, the Mona Lisa is just so much pigment on canvas, and Mount Rushmore is just a big rock. But humanity didn’t get as far as it has by thinking that way. We all like to think that we are more than this too, too solid flesh. Thing is, you can only choose to believe that these things are more than their component parts, or not. Meaning is something you have to choose to believe in. And God, if He does exist, does so in the same way as that meaning.
Here endeth the sermon. :-)