How a 1960s Japanese Novel Turned an Atheist Into a Believer (Sort Of)

I still don’t believe in God, but after reading Shusaku Endo’s novel ‘Silence,’ I do believe in God’s absence

I can’t recall being taught about Hell. I feel like I’d remember. I was a literalist little kid who took religious lessons seriously, understanding, for example, that since my parents didn’t have any money I should pray instead to my “real Dad,” the father of us all in Heaven, for PlayStations and bikes, making the deal that if I was good I’d get them. My religion was all clear-cut transactions between me and Himself upstairs: virtues were rewarded; thoughts recorded; prayers heard. If the ministers who came to our school once a week wearing warm porridge-colored jumpers had told me about the chance that I would suffer for eternity too, I’d have incorporated it into my world view.

But ours was a gentle and diluted religion. The separation of church and state in the United States means churches cut their teeth in the real world and know how to hold your attention. In the U.K. we have a national church, which means it has to put in no effort and shrugs along on precedent. With no fireworks to catch your eye, no great threat to pin you to your seat, it’s all on you to care. Rejecting it is as easy as not bothering to think about it at all.

As it happens I was the type to think about it, but since religion doesn’t really hold up to clear-cut interpretation, my hard-headed way of thinking lead me elsewhere. When I was a teenager, and quite despite having no real enemy or torturous upbringing to resent, I built my villain in the air with a minister’s face and rebelled against it. I put on the uniform of a New Atheist and got in line to fight the fight I found in books like Letter to a Christian Nation and The God Delusion and God is Not Great and Rational People Like You Aren’t Really Stupid Enough To Need Religion Are They. I hated people I’d never met. I read the right websites, learned all the rhetorical moves, and treated people I did meet like those I hadn’t: as containers of bad ideas, foils for practicing how to argue. “Have you heard of cargo cults? Comforting ≠ true. Creationists are thicker than the mud and fossils they don’t believe in. Of course there are atheists in foxholes. We all die and become trees and there’s grandeur in this view of life.” If you knew me, I’d make sure I told you that I respected your right to believe whatever you wanted, but this too was just a rhetorical trick, a move in the game. I had no respect for your imaginary friend. You could keep him, though, because I liked being right, knowing that you, in your deepest inner life, were wrong.

A generous interpretation of my own self is that I was a very smart, very awkward kid, who liked ideas and craved company, and the internet has a way of weaponizing loneliness. A less generous interpretation is easy enough.

If you knew me, I’d make sure I told you that I respected your right to believe whatever you wanted, but this too was just a rhetorical trick, a move in the game.

Life went on. I went to university for eight years and got a Ph.D. I took the only job I could get working minimum wage, and lost the will to live. Work is the sudden goodbye to being a young person who dreams of contributing anything of value to the world, and the slow hello to being an adult with an ending, resigned to living out the same day, over and over and over again until it’s over and you die and become one with the empty howling meaninglessness under everything. When I was at university I read books for a living. When I left I had to read books to stay alive, to be anywhere but where I was. I was still me, but didn’t know what I thought anymore.

It felt like an accident when, around this time, I first read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (1966). I hadn’t been consciously seeking out religious fiction. Why would I? I came to it because I was reading through the big Japanese names — reading literature from close to home didn’t take me far enough away — and Endo happened to be the next on my list.

You may have heard of the novel, or perhaps of Martin Scorsese’s recent seven-hour long adaption, but in case you haven’t, Silence is an historical-fictional account of the arrival of two Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan. This was at the time of the Shogun Ieyasu, who, in 1614, issued an edict of expulsion to get Christianity and its proselytizers off Japanese soil. Christianity had only arrived in Japan some sixty years before, and the few Japanese Christians who remained after the Shogun’s expulsion were driven underground by the authorities, afraid of their friends and neighbors and, if discovered, subject to torture and forced conversion. Sebastian Rodrigues is our main character, one of the two Jesuits who come to Japan on a mission to both keep the light of Christ alive with the locals, and investigate the reported apostasy of Rodrigues’s own mentor, Ferreira. The first hundred pages comprise Rodrigues’s letters back to Rome, describing his arrival in Japan and the happiness and hope he brings to the small Christian community he finds there. The letters stop and the novel shifts when it all goes wrong.

Shusaku Endo was himself a Catholic in relatively un-Catholic 20th Century Japan. Much of his writing deals with alienation and culture shock, and Silence is his masterpiece. William Johnston’s translation of the novel is beautiful and powerful, full of humanity and tragedy, and absolutely worth reading. Like most Japanese fiction the prose is simple and sparing and much heavier than it looks. Endo paints a world it is easy to believe once existed: the characters seem absolutely real, and you’ll feel the sea on their faces and the blackness of their long nights. There’s so much to talk about, all sorts of stuff about Japan’s identity and the way religious meaning transforms in the minds of other peoples; about the sincerity of missionaries and “the forcing of love upon someone”; about belonging and unbelonging; about cowardice and courage; about the yawning chasm between past and present and the timeless suffering of human beings.

How Writing Filled the Void Left by Losing God

But what I want to talk about now, and what really got under my skin when I read it, were the scenes of forced apostasy around which the whole story hinged. When the authorities in Endo’s Japan suspect someone of being Christian, there is a banal “cross-examination” at the “magistrate’s office,” a “mechanical question and answer” to prove that they are not of the wrong faith. As a test of their (lack of) Christian faith, Mokichi and Ichizo, two of Rodrigues’s followers, are asked to “trample” on the “image of the Virgin and Child [which] was placed at their feet.” Rodrigues tells them to step on the picture to save their lives, but they cannot do it, or at least not in such a way that anyone believes they meant it They fail the next test of spitting on the image just as badly. For this they are strapped to two wooden crosses (a cruelly ironic torture), and slowly wasted and beaten by the rising tide. God’s world has many means of murder.

It is one of the novel’s great strengths that it does not glorify Mokichi and Ichizo’s deaths. It is tragedy only. As Rodrigues writes in one of his letters back to the Church: “I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints — how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven. […] But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily — in silence.” Anything else would be dishonest. If the novel’s God parted the sea and lifted them up to Heaven, it would be unbelievable, a grotesque lie. Yet if the novel’s God truly existed, and his believers are supposed to trust his love while he does nothing as they suffer, it is just as grotesque.

If the novel’s God parted the sea and lifted them up to Heaven, it would be unbelievable, a grotesque lie. Yet if his believers are supposed to trust his love while he does nothing as they suffer, it is just as grotesque.

Rodrigues himself is so shaken by their pointless deaths that he doubts, hard. If God “does not exist,” he writes, “how absurd the whole thing becomes. What an absurd drama become the lives of Mokichi and Ichizo, bound to the stake and washed by the waves.” Yet “the silence of God” is “something [he] could not fathom.”

Me neither. Their deaths are pointless and cruel and absurd.

But they dislodged something in me. It is difficult to articulate why this scene affected me so much, and why I think it’s so tied up with Endo’s skill as a writer. Here’s the thing. The reason that Mokichi and Ichizo are ultimately tortured is so . . . stupid. Just step on the picture! Fake it! It doesn’t make sense. Do they think their God will be insulted by their attempt to preserve their lives? (What kind of god . . .). Do they believe they’ll be rewarded in Heaven for suffering needlessly? (What kind of god . . .). It is illogical. And, most importantly, Endo allows that Mokichi and Ichizo might be wrong. The novel does not mock their beliefs, but neither does it prove them right. They die for what they believe in and what they believe in is silent.

The novel does not mock their beliefs, but neither does it prove them right. They die for what they believe in and what they believe in is silent.

What was so jarring, and so brilliant of Endo I think, is that the torturers were as cold and logical and modern as me. As one official says to Rodrigues, later, “It’s a tiring business; but the sooner you go through with it, the sooner you get out of here. I’m not telling you to trample out of conviction. If you just go through with the formality, it won’t hurt your beliefs.” This is so profoundly banal and unsettling: Torture yourself with this formality we don’t really care about or we’ll torture and murder you. It forces the victim to value their own beliefs as little as their torturer does. Not wanting to offend your god is your own problem, a uniquely human torture in which your own mind is the device. To the torturer, the solution is easy. To the tortured, getting out with your body and your life intact means that all you have to sacrifice is (what you truly believe is) your soul.

Hell for me was always fundamentalist and American, a pop culture joke. This was different. This Hell is not fire and pitchfork nonsense, the Bible’s “fiery lake of burning sulphur,” but a Hell that is skull-shaped and yours alone. Yes, Endo’s Hell is the material “hell of boiling water,” but it’s more than that: it is Hell as indignity, Hell as the absolute silence of whatever god you believe in, Hell where the mind tortures itself. Endo’s believers keep believing, and we see, though they do not, that they get nothing in return. This ugly, realistic portrait of their martyrdom brings alive in the reader a complete and deep feeling of loss, that feeling that you matter though you do not, that belief that you have value though you have none.

Call it my hard-headed ignorance, but I didn’t expect to find this kind of crisis in a religious novel. The religion I grew up on was irritatingly sure of itself, and I thought religious books were all your John Bunyans with his dweeby rhyming couplets, your All Things Bright and Beautifuls, your You Are Specials. There’s no crippling doubt and horror in Sunday School Ur-texts like If you could ask God one question, which treats the Bible as an authority one need only cite to be right. Like the church assemblies I was made to attend in our big school hall, it’s all self-satisfied and banal anathema.

Endo’s Hell is the material “hell of boiling water,” but it’s more than that: it is Hell as indignity, Hell as the absolute silence of whatever god you believe in.

Teaching children they’re going to burn in Hell is vile. But teaching children that everything is wonderful and that God loves each and every little one of them seems, to me, equally dishonest. There is nothing interesting or human about endless fawning. As stories go, those that do nothing but praise God and regurgitate his word just aren’t worth reading, and religion is least interesting when it’s about Biblical specifics, about the age of the earth and the historicity of Jesus and how to get a ticket to heaven. This is all so much noise.

What reading Endo taught me is that great religious writing starts with what “the Bible passes over in silence.” It’s where God can’t explain himself, where he has nothing to say, that we have to work it out for ourselves. This is why the Book of Job, in which the Lord gives Satan his good man Job for testing, far surpasses any Good News Gospel. You know the old joke about how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans. God does what he likes with us, and oh! “How little a portion is heard” of him when he does. We suffer endlessly and God explaineth not, which is why people write poetry: “Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground; Yet man is born into trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”

If Endo was an accident, now I really was seeking this stuff out. I found it in Brian Moore’s little novel Catholics (1972), where Hell is that “no feeling, that null, that void” that consumes Abbot Tomás. I found it in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (2014), whose titular character is a slice of fire who starts with the Bible’s “very hardest parts,” the Book of Job, which speaks direct to her long struggling soul. Hell is the only language that makes sense in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s wonderful, witty, tragic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), about an absurd and charming flock of monks who worship blueprints from the old world, and fear the rise again of nuclear “weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell.” In this Book of Job for the 20th century, generations perish one after the other, victims of their “clockwork” design and God’s “Infinite Sense of Humor.”

9 Books About Faith That Even Atheists Can Believe In

Following this (admittedly, completely scattershot) literary line I also discovered Blaise Pascal. If you read all the same books I did as a teenager you probably know Pascal as the guy who came up with the wager. As Richard Dawkins summarizes it: “You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation.” (“But wouldn’t God know you’re a sycophant?” is the New Atheist retort, if you’re interested). Who knew that Pascal also wrote beautifully in his Pensées about what it’s like to be born into trouble: “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched. Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is greatness is knowing one is wretched.” Preach!

I found something in Endo and Job and Pascal that I never knew I needed, and never knew I wasn’t getting from any atheist book. The mantra of contemporary secular philosophies is that we make our own meaning, science illuminates a vast and beautiful universe, we are lucky to be alive. There appears to be no room for horror. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins argues that pseudo-scientific and religious thinking are symptomatic of a misapplied sense of wonder, one that could be better turned towards the beauty and majesty of the real world the religious deny. As Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion, the “truly adult view” (as opposed to the “infantilism” of religion) “is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”

Perhaps it’s just hard to take advice from someone who does what he loves for a living. But maybe, just sometimes, Dawkins’s chipper dismissal of the great dark zero we all live in also feels like a kind of denial. Why is it only religious writers who feel complete horror in the face of the cold and silent and pointless universe? Do you have to believe in God to dread his absence?

Why is it only religious writers who feel complete horror in the face of the cold and silent and pointless universe? Do you have to believe in God to dread his absence?

Job might be the truest book in the Bible, but it is also, narratively, one of the worst. In chapter 38 there is a literal deus ex machina, when God speaks “out of the whirlwind” and tells Job how great he (God) is, gives Job “twice as much as he had before” so Job conveniently forgets about all the evil done upon him, and passes over his gross bet with Satan in silence. Pascal is much the same. For Pascal, the deep dark sadness inside us, “this craving,” “this helplessness,” is in fact the proof of “some better state” that exists, somewhere, and from which we “must have fallen.” This is the leap of faith I won’t be making.

My belief in the non-existence of God is as rock hard as it was when I was a teenager at the start of this essay. I’m as atheist as they come. But when I show up to work every day to watch my face age in the mirror, singing to myself my little I-wish-I-was-dead ditty, I’ve found I find no comfort in atheistic thinking. In atheist books the silence of God is an empirical and uninteresting fact. In religious writing, the silence of God is something like Hell and worth talking about. Though I share the Christians’ starting point (the horror, the madness, the endless cold), they have to go on to their conclusion without me (so therefore God). There is no comfort for me in the thought of a loving god. But it is comforting to know that others suffer with you.

I don’t believe in God, but I believe in God’s silence. I don’t believe in a literal Hell or soul, but I believe they are powerful metaphors if you want to put a human life into words.

Part of the reason that Endo’s Silence is now my own religious Ur-text is that it doesn’t really make this leap either. Wikipedia tells me that Endo was devout, but his novel is not a diatribe and not certain of anything. Endo is honest enough to recognize that the world we live in is, for all intents and purposes, one in which God might as well not exist. A believer could read Silence and come out of it believing harder. But at least we can agree on the sadness and the silence.

If what I’ve undergone is a conversion, then, it’s a conversion not to religion exactly but to a religious sensibility. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in God’s silence. I don’t believe in a literal Hell or soul, but I believe they are powerful metaphors if you want to put a human life into words.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that I have a fictional sensibility. Stories that are literally untrue can still be profoundly true, and religious writing is valuable to me when, like all good fiction, it is honest and full of doubt and not really about God at all but about human beings and the way we act and think and suffer. In our story, God and his writers have the monopoly on dread and despair. So call me a believer.

About the Author

More Like This

‘Gun Island’ Is a Surreal Novel About Climate Change and Migration

Amitav Ghosh on the ongoing erosion of the Sundarbans

Sep 10 - JR Ramakrishnan

Why Aren’t White Writers Asked About Authenticity?

Tash Aw on the challenges of being a English writer from outside the Western world

Sep 9 - YZ Chin

The Life of a Male Writer, Told By the Women Who Couldn’t Write His Story

In "The Sweetest Fruits," Monique Truong reimagines Lafcadio Hearn through the women who loved him

Sep 6 - JR Ramakrishnan