For a man who is both an avowed skeptic and who was once sentenced to death by Iran’s spiritual and political leader, Salman Rushdie is remarkably open toward faith. It’s not that he’s got it. “I would argue that religion comes from a desire to get to the questions of where do we come from and how shall we live,” he said Thursday at the opening of Columbia University’s new Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. “And I would say I don’t need religion to answer those questions. Regarding origins, I think you can say [they are all wrong.] The world was not created in six days and God rested on the seventh. It was not created in the churnng of a giant pot. Or the sparks unleashed by the udders of a giant cow against the boulders of a a gigantic chasm. And regarding ‘how shall we live,’ I don’t want answers that come from some priest.” (Read “Salman Rushdie, Asian Hero”.)

“But,” he continued, “When I’m writing books, something weird happens; and the result is the books contain a large amount of what you could call supernaturalism. As a writer I find I need that to explain the world I’m writing about. As a person I don’t need it and as person I do. I would agree, that tension is irreconcilable. [But] it’s just there. It’s just so.”

Over the last few decades, the secular study of religion on America’s campuses has become a right-wing pinata. In the full understanding that they are swimming against the cultural, if not the academic, stream the folks at the new Institute pulled out Rushdie, who, although he is not one of their faculty members, writes fiction that acknowledges the centrality of faith to culture without the author’s pious participation. From his astounding breakthrough work, Midnight’s Children, through his current The Enchantress of Florence, he has been obsessed with both formal and informal belief, but from the point of view of a highly-educated Muslim-born sceptic. This potentially flammable combination combusted in 1989 when Iran’s then supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, sanctioned Rushdie’s execution by the faithful for alleged blasphemies in his fictional exploration of Islam’s origins, The Satanic Verses.

The fatwa — now more or less lifted — did not sour Rushdie from his conviction that religion is necessary to writers, if only because it provides the only available language on certain topics. “I think that a lot of us, whether we are religious or not — there are no words to express some things except religious words,” he said. “For instance, ‘soul.” I don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, yet there isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood. Whether you’re religious or not you may find yourself obliged to use language shaped by religion.”

Under the prompting of Gauri Viswanathan, a Columbia professor of English and Comparative literature, Rushdie expressed a deep appreciation for the outward expressions of faith. “I grew up looking out my window at Kings College chapel [the iconic building at Cambridge University, which Rushdie attended],” he says. “And its hard not to believe in the capacity of religion to create beauty” with that sight in his memory. He then expressed wonder that, as a non-Christian secularist, he was invited in 1993 to preach a sermon in that same chapel and did. “There are moments in your life that surprise you,” he said.

Of course, the occasion of that pulpit stint was the fourth anniversary of Khomeini’s fatwa, over which Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Iran and during which time Rushdie, on whose head a private Muslim foundation had placed a $2 million bounty, was under police protection. Finally in 1998 Iran said it would neither “help nor hinder” Rushdie’s execution, and Rushdie resumed his version of a normal life: there was no obvious security at last week’s event. But that experience allowed him to make a strong indirect point in favor of the new Institute. Conservative clerics and talk show hosts have complained bitterly at the way that secular universities treat religion — sometimes justifiably. When scholars insist on seeing faith as a brute exercise in authoritarianism they are being almost as reductive as religious fundamentalists. But at its best, secular religious study continues to offer a freedom that institutions entrenched firmly in one or another faith tradition can simply not afford.

Rushdie emphasized this with regard to Islam, whose understanding of the Koran as an inerrant divine document dictated by an angel to the prophet Mohammed makes any Muslim study of its non-supernatural origins almost impossible. One of the several things that offended Khomeini was The Satanic Verses’ willing creation of a fiction around precisely that historical process. But in some ways historical research is more threatening than invention. “There is so much contemporary scholarship about the origins of Islam,” Rushdie said, pointing out that Mohammed lived well within the historical era. “If you insist that the text is the uncreated word of God, then the social and economic conditions of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century are unimportant, because God works on a broader canvas than that. If, however, you are willing to look at the text as an event inside the history of the period, it illuminates the text. And I think it’s a tragedy that it’s not really acceptable to do this inside the tradition.”

He mourned that kind of limitation, that kind of self-destructiveness within religions; and he recalled what Muslims have done to fellow Muslims. He spoke of “great cosmopolitan cities, great seats of culture — to see they way they’ve been destroyed. It leads one to say, there are many things for which one can blame the U.S., but the destruction of Muslim culture by other Muslims is a self-inflicted wound. And it’s a grievous wound, I think.” But the answer, he says, is not necessarily to end religion. There is, he said, “to my mind a more beautiful approach to the world.” He added, “the answer to religion is not no religion, but another way of thinking of it. Another way of being in it.” And that may be one reason why, despite the dangers he has faced, Salman Rushdie has not stopped writing.

David Van Biema