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Book Review 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & Do You Believe? & r & by Antonio Monde & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Do You Believe?, an Italian Catholic film scholar conducts brief but pointed interviews with 18 luminaries -- novelists, mostly, but also filmmakers, intellectuals, and even Jane Fonda -- about belief and atheism, the afterlife and nothingness, religious fundamentalism and the destructiveness of organized religion.

Browsing through Antonio Monda's collection (subtitled Conversations on God and Religion) is like being at a structured, highbrow cocktail party: The conversations are intriguing, but you only hear snippets. And somebody keeps repeating the same questions: Does God exist? Do you agree with Dostoevsky's claim that "if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted"? Aren't atheists simply worshipping a false idol like human reason?

Several respondents criticize fundamentalists (of all faiths) even as they praise religious writers like Flannery O'Connor. Richard Ford disdains "institutionalized" religion but worships the sanctity of art. Grace Paley respects believers but thinks they're deluded -- and yet she has started attending a synagogue again. Elie Wiesel promotes Christian activism, asserting that for believers, any victim of prejudice should become the "center of the universe." Derek Walcott envisions God as an old bearded white man; Michael Cunningham says that "she's black." Toni Morrison eloquently equates knowledge and compassion: God is "an infinite growing that discourages definitions but not knowledge," she says. "I believe in an intellectual experience that intensifies our perceptions and distances us from an egocentric and predatory life." Saul Bellow believes in offering prayers of gratitude but not in petitionary prayer; he refuses to "bug God" with his "trivial requirements."

Monda's vision is blinkered: Discussions keep reverting to the spiritual components of Italian cinema (as in the conversation with Martin Scorsese) and to defenses of Catholic liturgy in the face of extremism. Monda prides himself on being an "indiscreet ... and perhaps also impertinent" interrogator. But there's nothing overly aggressive about asking atheists if perhaps they're placing too much trust in human powers of perception. And then, just when things get interesting, the conversations end. Monda would have been better off by doubling the length of the interviews and halving the number of interviewees.

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