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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

Belief and unbelief get center stage in 'Grace'


Grace Friedman is a wife, mother and brilliant professor. Her bold assertions on the “absurdity” of religion have propelled her to center stage in the public debate over the existence of God. But Grace’s private calm is severely shaken when her son, Tom, announces a career change from civil rights attorney to Anglican priest.

This is the situation depicted in “Grace,” a new off-Broadway play directed by Mick Gordon and written by A.C. Grayling. The characters are fictitious; however, the questions it raises are real. “They are the issues of this age,” said Mr. Grayling during a telephone interview from his hotel in midtown Manhattan.

A.C. Grayling

Mr. Grayling, a writer and philosophy professor in England, has penned numerous books and essays on this topic but says his urgency to bring real debate to the forefront has grown since Sept. 11, citing “religious-inspired terrorism” and calling religion “a cloak for extremists.”

He hopes the emotional impact of presenting the argument in dramatic form, showing a family split apart over the importance of religion, will help people “try to think their way through.”

The play is not trying to proselytize, he said, but rather to confront people’s emotions rather than just their intellect.

“Theater presents a window into a kind of reality that can prompt people to think in a more concrete way. It’s really important to show the desperate division and how people nevertheless get along with each other and are kind.”

The London premiere in 2006 was well-received, selling out for its entire six-week run. “We’re interested in what kind of reaction people will have here,” Mr. Grayling said, noting the contrast between England, which is largely secular, and the United States, where a great number of people practice their religion.

Mr. Grayling’s views are well-known in England. In an interview last year in London’s Daily Telegraph, he equated belief in God to believing in fantasy. “Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies,” he said.

The “new climate of religious assertiveness” makes it important for nonbelievers to speak out now, to be less conciliatory, he said.

What “Grace” will show, Mr. Grayling hopes, is that the humanistic tradition is just as rich in its emphasis on the importance of relationships, finding fulfillment and being kind to others as religions are.

“Humanism energizes people to think for themselves and make good choices,” he said.

The play may also clarify terms, such as the word atheist. Grace, who is played by Lynn Redgrave, strongly rejects this label. “Atheist, young man, is a religious term,” she tells Tom. “Like pro-life. Like intelligent design. The word itself gives credence to the idea it is pretending to criticize. It’s pernicious. Atheist is not a description; it’s advertising. I’m a naturalist.”

Grace believes religion gives cover to “the nutters,” the extremists. But Tom sees it differently. He is convinced that “the dangerous situation to get into is to see the world as a battle between those that have religion and those that don’t. Where those that have religion are defined as zealous. Whereas for me, there’s a really important role for those who want to say, we need to have better religion. ... I don’t provide cover for sexist, homophobic, bigoted people who put bombs on planes. I did that when I was a lawyer!”

When he tells Grace he’s an enlightened person and religious, she calls that a contradiction in terms. “You can’t have it both ways. It’s faith or reason. You have to choose. ... Rigorous rationality, proportioning belief to evidence, is not cold, simplistic, logic-chopping! It’s the only outlook we can truly rely on.”

She maintains that religion is “the most pernicious source of conflict in our world today and you, my son, are one of its salesman.” To which he replies: “And you’re a fundamentalist.”

While Grace and Tom represent extremes of belief, the play’s other two characters, Tony and Ruth, offer the middle road. Tony, Grace’s husband, would rather ignore the discussion by having a drink and looking the other way.

“That’s the old way of doing it,” Mr. Grayling said.

Ruth, Tom’s fiancée, emphasizes the need to be kind in the face of deep disagreement.

Mr. Grayling said he has never been religious but is happy to count three archbishops, one of whom is Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, as friends with whom he has many discussion about religion. He hopes “Grace” will prompt similar debates among members of the New York audience.

“They’re an intelligent family, principled. They have outlooks they believe in deeply. That’s why such sharp divisions of view are both intellectual and emotional. I hope great passions will be engaged on both sides,” he said.

The American premiere of “Grace” runs through March 8 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Retta Blaney’s blog, Life Upon the Sacred Stage, features news, reviews and insights into the worlds of faith and the performing arts. The address is

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National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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