It happens like clockwork now, the public debate between an atheist and a person of faith. “Does God Exist? Does It Matter?” The rise of atheism has led mostly to disappointing books, polemics about the irrationality of believing in an invisible power, arguments driven to prove that religion is actually a destructive force, the root cause of war and injustice and cruelty.

But on the very small shelf of books about atheism, morality and religion, we can now proudly add James Meek’s wonderful novel The Heart Broke In. It’s a book of philosophical inquiry and ideas, set within a very human story. It revolves around a family, the grown offspring of a British soldier murdered by an Irish insurgent. Ritchie is a former rock star turned television presenter, a little too in love with the trappings of fame. His sister is Bec, a woman carrying around a parasite in her system that she hopes will prove to be the answer to a malaria vaccine. Swirling around them is the British tabloid culture, a family of Evangelical Christians, a debate on public morality and the rise of infertility.

All of this, and yet the book does not seem overstuffed. Every component is vital to tell the complex but compelling story. And all of it is used to illustrate the question beating at the story’s center: How do we know how we should live?

I spoke with Meek about the atheism debate and using fiction to think about issues of philosophy and morality.

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Your books each feel like entirely separate, immersive worlds. There is less interplay between the books than one generally sees in contemporary novels–by which I mean, yours seem to be wholly boxed up in their topic and research and history, rather than carrying through an idea from book to book, like a Philip Roth or a Junot Díaz book. So, I was wondering where the inspiration came from for you–is it that there is an idea that the novel grows around? Or is it something else?

May I challenge your premise, or at least your terms? As a reader it seems to me that what Díaz and Roth have in common, in terms of their metanovels, isn’t so much that they carry through ideas from book to book (although that happens, of course) as that they carry through cultural milieux. The Dominican immigrant experience for Díaz, the experience of 20th-century Jews in America for Roth.

When I read your question, I heard the voice of Don Draper’s father-in-law in Mad Men, bemoaning the fact that Draper brought no relatives with him to the wedding: “He has no people!” It’s true that the characters in my books don’t come from a single cultural background, and this may reflect my own deracinated family origins, which don’t fit into the pattern of native/immigrant. I’m halachically Jewish, but I don’t feel Jewish; I live in London, the city where I was born, but I don’t feel English; I grew up in Scotland, but I don’t feel Scottish; my father moved to Britain from his Indian birthplace when he was eight, but I’m not Indian; my grandmother was Hungarian, but I’m not Hungarian, and so on.

I always thought of this kind of separation from the past and from roots as being a particularly American thing, but perhaps the world has changed: Perhaps in America now it is expected that people will have only two identities, American and membership of a cultural-ethnic community, and the time of the pastless, the re-inventers, the Don Drapers and Gatsbys, has passed. I hope not!

I have to admit I was a little worried when I picked up your book–I had read a review that made the book sound more like an atheist polemic. I was relieved and delighted to find it is much more nuanced than that. (Especially since, as a non-atheist, I was ready to have some arguments with the book.) How important were your own religious beliefs, or, I guess, your lack of, to the writing of the novel?

While I lack religious belief in the commonly accepted understanding of the phrase, I don’t lack religious awareness. I don’t lack the religious instincts, and I live in a state of alternate wonder and dread before the mysteries of the unknowable, beyond birth and death, and the beauty, joy, sadness and horror of the world I live in. I do believe that man created God, rather than the other way round, but I also believe it was an extraordinary act of creation, that it was done for good reasons. God is an imaginary character, but an imaginary character or characters whom billions of people believe to be real, and that matters.

I’m not one of those smug atheists, like Harry in my book, who finds comfort and validation in being “right” compared to believers who are “wrong.” I can’t share the believers’ belief, but I don’t resent it, and it doesn’t help me answer the believers’ critique of atheism, which I think can often be valid. There are religious instincts, needs, that non-believers such as myself find hard to satisfy without God: a need for confession, atonement, absolution; an instinct to pray; a need to express an existential gratitude; a need for answers to “why” questions. Even though I don’t believe there are answers there’s nothing I can do to stop myself being tormented by the questions.

My one argument with the novel was that so many of the characters embodied this extreme position when it came to religion or morality. Either evangelical belief or strict rational atheism, and they viciously defended their corner. At one point Harry's son says that most people just live their lives, without constantly working through the filter of God or No-God, but really only Ritchie and Bec occupy that space. The tabloid culture that a lot of this book circles around is obviously very (hypocritically) moralistic, but I'm wondering if you find that the people you have met have become more extreme in their positions, if this reflects life as you have seen it.

I can’t deny you your sense that many of the characters in the book take those extreme positions, but I don’t see it that way myself. I suppose, trying to see it from the offended believer’s point of view (and I am gratified to think it is possible to offend people with a novel in the 21st century–I want people to have arguments with my book) what’s missing is a sympathetic, credible, decent sort of Christian character. I was aware of that while I was writing the book but once you begin inserting balancing characters you move away from the sphere of art and storytelling and into the sphere of politics and propaganda and marketing.

It’s not that people have become more extreme in their positions from where I’m standing, more that the longer I live the more examples I experience of how extreme the positions are that people have always held. There’s a great compensation for growing older for a novelist, if you can keep it together. The commonplace blurs; the unusual repeats, accretes, precipitates. There’s an accumulation of moments that can be distilled–one hopes–into something true.

The debate about whether one needs god to establish morality is so wearying, and yet people seem so willing to carry on with it. Why do you think it's such a preoccupation for our public life? Whether everyone's moral foundation is strong enough and built with the right materials?

Is it so wearying? Is it such a preoccupation? I’m not seeing that. Or at least, putting God to one side, I’m not seeing a debate about how to decide what’s right and wrong and cleave to it. We need to talk about conscience. It seems to be something only very young and very old people are interested in talking about–something demented and strange and unsettling, something embarrassing, something child-like.

There have been so many scandals here over the past few years where people have done bad things for two reasons: one, because they wanted to, and two, because they didn’t think they’d get found out. The tabloid phone hackers, and, in some cases, the people whose phones they were hacking into; the LIBOR-rigging bankers; Jimmy Savile and his pals; the MPs over-claiming on their expenses; the care home staff abusing elderly patients. Invariably, the inquirers and investigators demand that procedures are tightened up, that new systems are put in place. Nobody ever asks the wrongdoers, “What exactly were you thinking when you did that? What do you suppose happened to your conscience? What do you suppose a conscience is, anyway?” Perhaps these are the child-like questions only a novelist can ask.

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.