059. Writing Religiously

tldr: in a philosophical sense

I don’t remember too many parts of my application to MIT (as I made the regretful mistake to not save all of my responses in a Google Doc), but there is one short answer that I keep thinking about:

What are your favorite books and/or movies?

In particular, I really liked my short, short response:

Some of my favorite movies and books are about intelligent underdogs who stick to their morals: “Limitless,” “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” and “The Report Card” to name a few.

These were the stories I found relatable. I could see the main character, empathize with them easily, and feel myself hop into their shoes. This is one of the major reasons I started blogging: autobiographies, or at least works with a narrator I can understand, are some of my favorite stories.

I find this a bit odd, given that growing up I used to only read fiction. I hated the droning on of most non-fiction pieces, that for some reason deem it necessary to include every detail and date precisely rather than take a step back and look at the larger picture. Now granted, some people need those tiny details; I don’t deny that these pieces have a purpose, they just weren’t for me. I wanted more insight into the people– insight that is hard for me to find when all we are given is the information at face value.

But some non-fiction pieces, specifically autobiographies, felt different. They were often reflective. Yes the author is recounting their life experiences, but often with an interesting twist. An intertwining of first person and third person, or a well-placed, seamless, time jump from their childhood to their 30s. So, I started falling in love with fiction and nonfiction that had this interesting mixture of reflective realness. Pieces like this intrigued both the writer and the reader in me.

I kept reading books like this, and delving into worlds that were meticulously crafted to serve a purpose, and living outside of my body. Then, after 18~ years, I decided I wanted to jump back into mine; I wanted to reflect on my life and my experiences. And what better way to do that than to start blogging, especially when nearly everyone has some form of blog nowadays (whether that be an actual website or just an Instagram with photos from literally everyday for the past 10 years).

However, this isn’t the only genre of book or movie I enjoy.

I’m also a fan of stories that can only be described as religious/philosophical fiction (depending on who you ask, this description might seem redundant but I digress). Stories that ask the question “what if free will doesn’t exist” and then spent 200 pages entertaining that idea without ever rigorously citing Kant or Hume. The type of religious questions pieces like this try to give some form of an answer to are ones I sit and think about quite a bit, at least at a cognitive level.

But how does one engage in literary or literal conversations about religion in a meaningful way? Blogging was a clear way to understand the genre of autobiographies better and put thought to paper, but the genre of mind-fucks that strive to be taken seriously is a bit harder to approach.

How does one write religiously?

This summer, a visiting student saw that I have a sticker on my laptop that says “Love God, Love People, Love Coffee” from a religious coffee house in my hometown. He asked if I was religious, and I said “Absolutely not.” He took offense to this. To be fair to him, I shouldn’t have been so blunt or rude, but frankly I didn’t even remember the sticker saying Love God, and I was working on research that Wasn’t working. But the next day, he wanted to talk about religion more.

This, in theory, I don’t mind. I think about religion and spirituality a lot, and I wasn’t busy. I actually really like talking about theology and uncertainty (surprise surprise, I wanted to be a philosophy double major for a while). He asked why I wasn’t religious, and I went into an in-depth explanation about why I believe that if I subscribed to some structured religion, I would overall be less moral than I would be otherwise. (The tldr of this concept is that I think I would spend more time debating if something I was doing was moral through the lens of my religion rather than just Being moral.) And his response? “So do you think all religious people are immoral?”

This was one red flag in a conversation of red flags. By the end, he stood up, said “Just know that God loves you.”, and left with the final word. He left the room, but the energy of his statement lingered like a door your parent leaves just slightly ajar after they say good night. Do you get up to close it? Or just try to ignore it and go to sleep?

I’ve been thinking about this interaction recently through the lens of philosophical fiction. Why does it feel so hard to have philosophical conversations light heartedly? At it’s core, these discussions are human. Sure, they contain astronomical levels of uncertainty (almost as a direct result of being human), but they are nonetheless important to have.

Do you know how lonely it can be to feel like you can’t discuss complex uncertainties about existence? Feeling like people would find you crazy for questioning your ability to know anything? Questioning what happens after death, only to be told “it’ll be so sad if I get to heaven and you’re not there”?

These feelings are hard to handle. Some people turn and become philosophers to perhaps find more comfort in the questions they’re naturally asking, but for me this only leads to more uncertainty most of the time. Philosophy is fun(!) don’t get me wrong, but it just seems so clean cut and well-defined when sometimes what I really want is to stare at the stars and wonder how the world works. I want to have conversations with others in some form of philosophical play.

So let’s talk about specific examples and try to partially answer the question asked above: How does one write “religiously”? Of the philosophical fiction I have read, there are a few books that stand out.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard:

If the names Rosencrantz (Ros) and Guildenstern (Gil) mean something to you and you haven’t read this play, it’s likely because you remember the name from Hamlet– and the world of Hamlet is precisely the one that Stoppard utilizes in this two act existential crisis. The tldr on who they are in Hamlet: they’re simply Hamlet’s friends and colleagues. They don’t do much, except at the end of the play they die along with Hamlet. The most important thing to know is that by the end of the play they definitely die. Don’t we all?

Stoppard’s play begins with Ros flipping a coin and declaring “Heads” over and over again in some gambling game. Guess correctly, keep the coin. Except, Ros keeps winning. And then, he says that the coin has come up heads *eighty-five times in a row*. From here, they spiral into questions about free will and determinism– after all, can true randomness/free will really exist in a world that allows a coin to come up 85 times in a row? And furthermore, on a more meta-level, can true randomness/free will exist in a world where no matter what, at the end the characters die. In fact, the title of the play declares that they are dead.

Yet, here the characters are before us. On the stage, questioning their existence, and their ability to do and say what they please. So much so, that at one point Ros yells “FIRE”, questioning if he really has the ability to say whatever he wants (mind you, in a crowded theater). Their entire life is scripted, and their fate pre-determined. But yet, they want to exist. Is that enough? To want to have free will, even if you can never know if your fate is in your control?:

Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking – well, at least I’m not dead!

I read this play in academic decathlon in 11th grade, and God did it resonate with my existential self. Now, nearly four years later (oh my lord I’m going to be a junior), I have been thinking about it from the writer’s perspective.

How did Stoppard write so playfully and philosophically?

I think part of the answer lies in the choice of setting. By focusing on pre-existing characters in a classic Shakespeare play, Stoppard doesn’t need to spend so much time developing the character’s background and the world they live in. In fact, this also adds to his character’s. In the very beginning of the play, Gil asks Ros how long they’ve been playing with coins, only to not remember. Neither of them can remember a world before the curtains went up, nor can they picture a world outside of the stage. They are alive, but in a box. But certainly not every piece of philosophical fiction requires such a perfectly well chosen/previously developed fictional world1.

Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis:

Sometimes, you can take a twist on the real world itself, as Martin Amis does in this novel. In Time’s Arrow, we follow the life of a German doctor during WWII except in reverse chronological order. We, and the narrator (who seemingly doesn’t understand that time is moving backwards, which can take the reader a bit of time to figure out themselves), are thrust into a world we know and (historically) understand a bit, but it’s different. Backwards. In this world, the Holocaust is perceived by the unknowing narrator as an act of creation, of bringing an entire group of people (those killed in the concentration camps) back to life.

Before the Holocaust (or more accurately, ‘after’ given the story is backwards) the doctor was just a doctor: a destroyer. Doctors take in healthy patients, give them money, break their bones and make them suffer, and send them on their way. It’s sadistic. It’s wrong. It’s backwards. Amis raises an interesting philosophical point I think in this way. Our consciousness and our physical bodies generally seem to exist in the same time, moving forward in agreement. But how would our perception of the world change if this wasn’t the case? What if changing how time functions, or exposing protagonists to a higher dimension2 means something?

So how did Amis write in this philosophical way?

To some extent, philosophy is a change in perspective– a question into “why does the world work this way, and what if it didn’t?” Sometimes these questions are purely internally discussed, which is interesting but often hard to follow/understand. What’s so interesting about the novel however, is that it forces the reader to understand. Amis forces both the reader and the narrator to try and understand how a world could possibly work so differently. And sure, it’s a world that’s the same as ours– after all it takes place during WWII– but it isn’t really the same is it?

Both Stoppard and Amis use an interesting twist on the setting (whether fictional or not) to discuss philosophical concepts playfully. But there are plenty of pieces that achieve this without the use of that sort of world-building ingenuity.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett:

In this play, two characters wait near a tree waiting for Godot (God, essentially), only for him to never show up. That’s it. That’s the story. Obviously more things go on than this, and it is an interesting play! It emphasizes the almost religious pain that comes from faith without certainty, and the inability to escape existence. This inability to escape existence (in my opinion) is seen through the character’s inability to leave the tree at the end of both(!) acts. Not to be dismissive of Beckett’s famous work, but in comparison to Stoppard and Amis it’s quite different. The setting isn’t spectacular or dynamic. The only thing that changes in the setting between both acts is that leaves have grown on the tree. It isn’t outlandish or otherworldly3. It’s just, human. It’s relatable. It’s something I want to know how to do.

So. What now?

I don’t think I want to start a blog on religious/philosophical writings, but God I really want to try this writing style out some more I just don’t quite see how. With autobiographies it was easy– just start a blog. But this feels different. It’s like a philosophical essay but without the references. I don’t quite know what to do with that. So, I did what I always try to do when I don’t know what to do: turn to those who might.

Over the last week, I’ve met with both of my previous writing/literature professors to talk about what one does with writing like this. It isn’t like I’m trying to be a published author, I just want to work towards something.

The first professor gave me a plethora of classes and teachers to be on the lookout for over the next few semesters on topics semi-related to this blog post. This is extremely useful for me. Maybe it’s because I like the structure of the classroom, or that writing classes give me a nice push to actually write, but either way it sounds like a useful way to potentially fulfill my remaining HASS requirements.

The second professor gave me a list of books I might like on this topic, such as Stoppard’s Arcadia on causality and quantum uncertainty (which I just picked up today at Trident, fun times) and Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. I think starting with additional readings on philosophical fiction could be a good way to understand the genre more, in the same way I got into autobiographies. Mostly, I want to start deconstructing these works, taking apart the pieces and trying to put them back together.

Overall, both professors suggested that I thinking about this topic. Which is helpful to hear– I often find myself being stuck in my own head but this isn’t inherently a bad thing. I want to keep thinking about the stories I want to tell, and the philosophical discussions I wish existed. And maybe, maybe, I will be able to start writing religiously.

I don’t quite know what’ll happen next with regards to this side-project4, but if anything does I’ll let y’all know.

  1. For other stories that deal with similar philosophical topics set in a classic pre-built world, I suggest
    • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, discussing race and the theology of the cosmos with Lovecraftian horrors, set in a world created by Lovecraft. A very interesting twist on a classic genre.
    • Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play, a play by Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman, set in a post-apocalyptic world “based” on The Simpsons. If you read the play you may see why I put “based” in quotations.
  2. For other stories providing a shift on perspective leading to interesting interpretations of the world, I suggest
    • Flatland, a book by Edwin Abbott Abbott in which a square on a two-dimensional world is thrust into a three-dimensional one, and then thrown back into the 2D one. It is both an interesting take on the concept of a “religious experience”, and provides an interesting thought into how people in lower/higher dimensional worlds might exist.
    • Black Mirror episodes White Christmas and Men Against Fire, in which the viewer and the protagonist see an interesting change of perspective.
  3. For other philosophical pieces in a more realistic setting, I suggest
    • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a relatively short (though dense) story set in the future in which firemen burn books rather than put out fires. While this is set in the future, it frankly doesn’t feel terribly absurdist to me personally, though this was one of the few books I read with a pen and paper.
    • Severance, a show on Apple TV by Dan Erickson about a company that splits your consciousness into almost two different people, so only the Working part of your consciousness needs to do the job, and the other part can do whatever else it pleases. Again, technologically and structurally different from the real world, but not quite as absurd in my opinion.
  4. At some point soon before the semester starts I really need to sit down and write a blog post on What the Fuck I’ve been doing for the past four semesters. Four down, four to go. What. The. Hell.

Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

2 thoughts on “059. Writing Religiously

  1. save all of my responses » the admissions office has them on file if you want

    CNF is the only good genre change my mind

    sounds like a red flag of a person; in my experience there are Good People you can talk to who wont react like that when you talk about religion/other sensitive topics (something something ec)

    have you read kundera’s unbearable lightness of being?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. admissions office >> oh dip! I thought they were all thrown out after the first year to be completely honest. I will think about asking for the file then.

    yeah I think that’s a fair evaluation of the person. Having some of those convos seems like it may be a fun time. Damn something something in another world i definitely would’ve lived in EC but then i had to start liking next smh

    I haven’t! I will look into it


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: