Playing God

Religious belief is not just a philosophical issue - it divides families and societies. That is why

We are living through yet another period of strife prompted by certainties and doubts about religion. As a result, debate about the justification of religious commitment is increasing in volume and heat. Theatre is uniquely placed to explore such questions, as it can show audiences what such differences of opinion mean in the context of human lives. This is what Mick Gordon and I are seeking to do in our play On Religion, which opens at London's Soho Theatre next week.

As director of the "On Theatre" project, Gordon aims to explore some of the most profound issues in contemporary society: previous productions have been entitled On Death and On Ego. In the summer of 2005, he contacted me with the intriguing invitation to collaborate with him in writing a play about religion. While on holiday, he had read a book of mine called What Is Good? and he wished to explore ways to portray some of the issues raised in it on stage.

The book traces the history of western civilisation's competing conceptions of value. The first conception, which I call "humanist", says that our concept of good is generated from our understanding of human nature and society. According to the second, which is explicitly religious, good consists in obedience to or con- formity with the will of a transcendent lawgiver.

Transmuting these philosophical problems into a work of theatre was a complex process. We talked and talked, and a succession of ideas and scenarios came and went. Gordon and his colleague Chris Haydon interviewed a number of major figures on both sides of the religious divide, including Richard Dawkins, Don Cupitt, and Rowan Wil liams, and out of the transcripts came ideas and insights which we worked into the script.

The central tension we wished to explore was the motivation of the two contrasting outlooks, faith and reason. Some apologists for religion like to claim, as the new Pope recently did, that religion is a fiefdom of reason, too; and this is precisely one of the chief points of contention in the play. The first format we tried was a court case. After a series of transformations, a final format emerged, inspired by Strindberg's A Dream Play. We tell a story about a family riven by differences over religion, which are exacerbated when tragedy strikes.

Grace (played by Gemma Jones) is a secularist and humanist, a professor of science. Her commitment to the austere canons of scientific method puts her at odds with her adult son, Tom (played by Elliot Levey). Despite his upbringing in a non-religious household, Tom has converted to Christianity and chosen to be a priest. His pregnant girlfriend Ruth (Priyanga Burford) and his secular Jewish father Tony (Pip Donaghy) are caught in the crossfire between mother and son. As the arguments about religious faith and scientific reason rage, it is they - the apparent bystanders - whose perspectives help us to imagine how the conflict could be managed.

Behind the personal drama of a mother and son - a drama which is a signifier for many such conflicts, in all traditions, all round the world - lies a deep and important set of questions. They concern nothing less than our understanding of the universe and our relationship to it. Whatever one thinks about religious belief, it is indisputably a massive and determining fact of history, with a psychological grip on the majority of the world's population. The debate about it turns on precisely the point that drives a wedge between Grace and Tom in the play: the question of justification and grounds for belief. This is what has inspired Grace in science, and it is rejected by her son Tom in favour of the power of subjective conviction as the test of truth.

Critics of religious belief attack the idea that it is ultimately an act of faith. Via scriptural revelation, teaching, and mystical experience, believers choose to treat religious claims not merely as true but as the truth that defines everything else. This choice is in essence a non-rational one, an emotional one. In the Christian tradition, it is a positive merit to have faith without, or even contrary to, evidence and reason - as Tertullian's remark about Christianity illustrates: "It is impossible, therefore I believe it."

Religion's critics argue that faith has less to do with truth than it does with superstition and the attempt to satisfy psychological needs. They also criticise those with a vested interest in perpetuating religious belief for doing so by proselytising intellectually defenceless young children, who cannot scrutinise the grounds of belief for themselves. Another criticism of religion is that it divides people and causes conflict, as history all too bloodily attests. Nations, communities and families have repeatedly been riven by religion-inspired differences, in the name of which some terrible atrocities have been committed. The con temporary resurgence of religious conviction is bringing the nightmare back, threatening polities which for several centuries have succeeded through secularism in keeping the effect of religious disagreements to a minimum.

In religion's defence, believers point to charity, works of art, and personal solace as vindications of its existence. Critics reply that this claim is inconclusive, because there are plenty of instances of all three in non-religious dispensations - such as classical Greece and the modern western world. Further examples are afforded by the long and magnificent history of China, and those parts of the world where the classical version of Buddhism - a philosophy, not a religion - have influence. Here is matter for another debate, which On Religion touches upon only lightly. One cannot deal with everything; art is selection, after all.

The character of Grace owes much to Richard Dawkins and his robust - some would say abrasive - defence of scientific reason. However, she and I have more in common than the first three letters of our names. The play is partly based on personal observation, as I have seen just such conflicts among those close to me. When a division arises within a family, there is usually more than one problem at stake. But differences between religious and rationalist world-views are so profound - they are matters of principle, defining and identity-constituting fundamentals - that any disagreement can be shattering. Public acquaintance with the phenomenon is often restricted to cases where young people are hijacked by cults, and separated from their families as a result. But the private phenom enon is more widespread, and often more permanent.

After the isolation of writing essays and books, engaging in collaborative work for the theatre has been exhilarating. The process gives a privileged first-hand view of the remarkable team effort that a play represents. On the morning of the first read-through, there were 20 people present in the bare rehearsal room: four actors, two writers, and all the other indisp ensable team-members from design, staging, marketing and more. All these disparate people have a role to play in carrying ideas from someone's head into the physical and dramatic reality of actors and audience coming together in a theatre. It has worked so well that Gordon and I have a number of other projects now in view: at least four more plays on subjects of major philosophical importance.

The enterprise is not novel; far from it. It recapitulates what is at the heart of theatre, which is at the heart of the debate that human communities must have with themselves about what matters most. From Greek theatre in classical antiquity, to Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, and on to the brilliant major dramatists of our own day, theatre has always been about the ideas that drive us and destroy us, make us glorious and make us despicable, help us and hurt us. "On Religion" opens at the Soho Theatre, London W1 on 28 November,

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real Afghan war