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Austin Cline

Anti-Atheist Bigotry Behind Attacks on "Golden Compass"

By December 1, 2007

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You won't find nearly as much in the way of defense and support of Philip Pullman's books and new movie on atheist sites as there has been of, say, Richard Dawkins' writings. Why? Because Phillip Pullman's works aren't specifically promoting atheism over theism or secularism over religion. They are, instead, encouraging skepticism and criticism of authoritarianism — in the movies it's authoritarianism generally, in the books it's more specifically religious authoritarianism.

Critics, though, have launched what can only be called a hysterical, hyperbolic campaign against the books and movies. Their rhetoric and tactics give the impression that nothing less than the future of Christianity is at stake and that Phillip Pullman is just the latest in a line of atheist assaults on religion. More sober and sensible religious believers recognize the falsehood of such concerns and the likely truth is that complaints are being driven more by fear, prejudice, and hatred of atheists than almost anything else.

While there is little doubt that Pullman intended to portray a theocracy wielding dangerous power, nowhere in the novels is the Catholic Church overtly criticised. Rather, Pullman's supporters contend, the books attempt to show the dangers inherent in all organised religion when political power rather than spirituality becomes its driving focus. This is an argument which has been lost on the Catholic League in the US, whose president, Bill Donohue, has accused the film of acting as "bait" to lure young people to read Pullman's novels, where he claims they will find a "pernicious atheist agenda". ...

The saga has distinct echoes of past attempts by the Church to condemn films it believes are insulting to its faith. In 1988, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis and starring Willem Dafoe, sparked outrage for scenes in which Jesus imagines himself engaged in sexual activity. In the US, preachers railed against the film, but the most dramatic protest happened in Paris, where arsonists connected to an extreme right-wing organisation started a fire at a midnight screening of the film at the Saint Michel cinema, leaving 13 people hospitalised.

Source: The Irish Independent

Just how "atheist" is Phillip Pullman, anyway?

Pullman does, in fact, describe himself as an atheist, but his vocation is storytelling, and his only agenda, he said during an interview with NEWSWEEK, is "to get you to turn the page." "To regard it as this Donohue man has said—that I'm a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people—how the hell does he know that? Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers?" Pullman sighed. "Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world." (Donohue tells NEWSWEEK that he has "no respect for Pullman because of one word: honesty. He is a dishonest man. He didn't go after the Politburo, he went after the Catholic Church.")

Source: Newsweek

Donohue complaining about another person's alleged dishonesty would be amusing if the hypocrisy weren't so dangerous. To cite just one example of his own lack of rudimentary honesty, in 2006 he linked to one of my satirical "War on Christmas" posters and treated it as if it were genuine. Just to be certain that his readers wouldn't find out what he was doing, he refrained from linking directly to the article that accompanied the poster; instead, he only linked to the isolated image, removed from any context.

I truly believe that William Donohue will say and write whatever it takes to promote his religious agenda — it doesn't matter how much hyperbole, how little honesty, or how few facts are required. Phillip Pullman is an atheist, but there is nothing "militant" about either him or his work. He is an atheist who wrote books critical of authoritarian institutions and apparently that's sufficient for bigoted authoritarians to attack him. If he were to choose any "model" for the authoritarian institution in his books, why not choose one that continues to affect the lives of billions and has affected the lives of billions in the past?

As James Ball notes, there is something quite odd and even hypocritical about Christians who proclaim a duty to evangelize the planet but complain when any other ideas, or anything critical of their institutions, shows up:

The extent to which these books are genuinely anti-religious is debateable: God may be portrayed as a senile despot, but he is at least real. A truly atheist series would set about disproving him - but that would be far less entertaining. If we're counting the Golden Compass as anti-religious, fair enough: provided we remember it is offset by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Lord of the Rings, and, well, the entire machinery of Christianity.

Children of religious parents are often indoctrinated into faith from birth. They are baptised - and baptism is irreversible - before they can give their consent, told Bible stories from earliest childhood as if they are unquestionable truth, and taken to church each week. Why should atheism wait until kids grow up before mounting a fightback? ...

Christians have a biblical duty to evangelise and spread the faith. This was once backed up with harsh punishment for heathens and apostates, but thankfully those days are over. Spreading the good word remains a worthy way for the faithful to spend their time, though. If Christianity is allowed to convert the heathens, I think it only fair that the heathens are given a chance to fight their corner.

Source: Guardian

The anti-atheist bigotry of people like Donohue has real-world consequences, as for example in the case of the Canadian schools which pulled Pullman's books from the library shelves in order to protect students from the possibility of being exposed to them:

"I find the notion that it promotes, essentially that God is dead, is not one that's consistent with our mission statement," said [Durham Catholic District School Board director of education Paul Pulla], who's read the books and thinks they present a perspective that's counter-religion.

The board has reviewed books in the past, including the Harry Potter series, which were approved as suitable for young readers. "We didn't find there was an attempt to indoctrinate in any way. My assessment of 'The Golden Compass' is it's definitely indoctrinating the notion that God is dead and at the very least God was mortal," said Mr. Pulla.

Source: News Durham

Who else will be banned from Catholic school libraries on account of presenting ideas which are critical of authoritarian and organized religion? How about Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Sagan, Ayn Rand, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Douglas Adams? What will be left in libraries once the bigoted censors get through combing the shelves for subversive and iconoclastic material?

Some religious believers argue that rather than pro-atheist propaganda, Phillip Pullman's books are in fact pro-theism insofar as they offer strong attacks on human-created, authoritarian institutions that get in the way of human relationships with God. According to Donna Freitas, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University:

These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of "His Dark Materials" is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings - the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.

The book's concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman's work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman's work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman's work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.

This emerging controversy, then, is deeply unusual. It features an artist who claims atheism, but whose work is unabashedly theistic. And it features a series of books that are at once charming and thrilling children's literature, and a story that explores some of the most divisive and fascinating issues in Catholic theology today.

Source: Boston Globe

I think that Donna Freitas is reading far too much into the books, personally. She of course has a right to read them in whatever manner she wants, but at the same time there will always be better and worse ways of doing so — and hers strikes me as poor. Using God as a character in a novel doesn’t make one's work pro-God any more than having Hitler as a character makes the work pro-Nazi.

Freitas is on very strong ground when she reads the books as an attack on authoritarian figures and institutions, but on very weak ground when seeing the books as promoting her own view of her own god in their place. A Newsweek article by Freitas advances the same claims and describes how she discussed them with Pullman where he is cited as being intrigued with idea of being described as an "edgy theologian." I find it telling, though, that there's no statement about whether he agrees with her conclusions about his works.

December 1, 2007 at 2:33 pm
(1) Child of Thorns says:

When I saw Bill Donahue on the news raving on about an “evil atheist agenda”, I just thought, did American atheists or another group like that do the same when narnia was produced?

December 2, 2007 at 7:05 am
(2) tracieh says:

Harry Potter got similar criticism from Xians. Does anyone else find this interesting?…

1. Xians complained mainly that Harry Potter was aimed at minors, and promoted witchcraft as a positive thing. Many of them indicated Xians and Xian children, in particular, should not read or promote the books.

2. I never read any science blogs or articles that encouraged scientists to not allow their children to read Harry Potter–as it promotes witchcraft/magic, as opposed to actual physics/science.

IMHO, this speaks volumes about the level of justifiable premise behind the two worldviews. If my view of the universe is so tenuous that a fantasy children’s book challenges everything I could possibly teach my child about what I consider “reality”–how solid do _I_ actually consider my own perspective?

Scientists (in particular physicists) don’t see concerned that Harry Potter will undermine scientific principles in the minds of children. Why not? Could it be that they understand that when a kid waves a want and says “luminous”–and the lights don’t _really_ come on–the kid will grasp the difference between reality and fantasy? But when your reality is simply another form of fantasy–then you have plenty to beware. When waving that wand has as much affect on reality as praying–perhaps my child might recognize he should discount both as not being very accurate reflections of reality?

What’s actually funny is that Xians who complain about Potter wouldn’t ever acknowledge this–and sincerely so. What they would say is that dark spirits exist that could infect their kids if they dabble in such things–even in a fantasy context. That’s what happens when you get a really successful meme going–it will do whatever is necessary to protect itself–even get you to accept more and more fantasy as reality.

December 2, 2007 at 7:58 am
(3) Katie Molnar says:

Love the comments re. Harry Potter. I began to read them some time ago, but put “Goblet of Fire” down near the end, having lost all interest. The story doesn’t compel me much, but it’s turned a lot of kids on to fantasy and fiction in general, and that is in line with the noblest pursuit of humankind — to imagine, to dream, to learn, to explore. To strive every day to make our dreams into reality to make the job of the dreamers a little harder. =)

Of course, this works both ways. While one group of dreamers is trying to think up how we can get to Mars and back, and others wonder where we might go next, a rather different group is straining its considerable philosophical hive mind to make their old, stale dreams cope with reality.

Well I kind of got off on a tangent there. I do that. Often. As for Golden Compass, I haven’t seen it, but now I want to! =D

December 2, 2007 at 5:09 pm
(4) namvetted says:

There’s a good article in The Atlantic Monthly about this. Seems that Hollywood watered down Pullman with his okeydokey. He knows how to spin so’s the money flows.

December 3, 2007 at 11:26 am
(5) Eric says:

Maybe I’m reading the pop-culture pulse wrong, but the Golden Compass doesn’t seem to be generating the hysteria among religious folk as Harry Potter did. Indeed, most of them didn’t seem to notice it until the movie buzz started. I wonder why.

December 3, 2007 at 12:23 pm
(6) Child of Thorns says:

“Maybe I’m reading the pop-culture pulse wrong, but the Golden Compass doesn’t seem to be generating the hysteria among religious folk as Harry Potter did. Indeed, most of them didn’t seem to notice it until the movie buzz started. I wonder why. ”

It did in the UK.
I think it really isn’t as popular as HP with childeren though, which is why fundies aren’t so worried about it. The film however, will defenitely popularise it a lot, making it mre of a threat to their idea of what childeren should believe.

December 3, 2007 at 5:53 pm
(7) JonJ says:

Bill Donohue seems to have the most peculiar mind of almost anyone around. He sees anti-Catholicism in anything.

December 5, 2007 at 1:09 pm
(8) John Edvalson says:

I am a believing Christian and had no problem with the books at all. While I am religious, I have no problem with being exposed to other ways of thinking about the world. I also think that it is a good think to question religious authority, especially when that authority marries itself to politics. Has anyone read about what the Middle Ages were like? Spanish Inquisition? The original strength of Americas relgiosity was that it seperated church and state. If Christian parents want their children to have genuine faith, they would be well asdvised to allow them the liberty to think and reason for themselves, and be able to discover faith in the Divine of their own free will.

December 8, 2007 at 9:45 am
(9) Joel Kontinen says:

I think that there is a rather intriguing thing about atheists: you seem to be obsessed with God’s existence. Would this have to do with the idea that if you really believed there is no God, you would not bother about Him? But perhaps you aren’t absolutely sure. Richard Dawkins, for instance, keeps on writing about God almost all the time. BTW, this post is not meant to be hate mail, it’s just a sincere question. Defending Christianity is not the same as hating atheists.

Anyway, atheists in the west are fortunate in that –unlike in some Arab cultures – they are unlikely to become one head shorter if they question God’s existence.

Joel Kontinen

December 8, 2007 at 9:54 am
(10) Joel Kontinen says:

Sorry if I expressed myself unclearly in my post. I meant to say that religious freedom is a result of Christianity. In many Islamic countries, Christians are subject to almost similar discrimination as atheists.

December 8, 2007 at 11:54 am
(11) Austin Cline says:

I think that there is a rather intriguing thing about atheists: you seem to be obsessed with God’s existence.

What I find intriguing about theists like you is how you make so many assumptions and claims about atheists without ever even trying to support them.

Would this have to do with the idea that if you really believed there is no God, you would not bother about Him?

I don’t bother with any gods. Belief in gods, and believers in gods, I do bother with though because they can be such a nuisance. To cite just one example, believers in gods have a habit of making outlandish claims about nonbelievers without ever stopping to consider the value of asking questions first and maybe learning something.

BTW, this post is not meant to be hate mail, it’s just a sincere question.

If it that were true, there would actually be a question in your comment. There are no questions, here, though, just assumptions and unsupported claims.

Defending Christianity is not the same as hating atheists.

That is true, but you aren’t trying to defend anything, you are just making assumptions and claims about atheists — and that is definitely compatible with hating atheists.

Anyway, atheists in the west are fortunate in that –unlike in some Arab cultures – they are unlikely to become one head shorter if they question God’s existence.

That is true, too, which just goes to show how much morality is actually produced by sincere, devout religious theism.

Sorry if I expressed myself unclearly in my post. I meant to say that religious freedom is a result of Christianity.

Feel free to support this claim. In the process, you might want to ponder how religious freedom in the West increased at the same time as the power of religious institutions decreased while secularism and secular nationalism grew. Perhaps that was just a coincidence, though, in which case you’ll be able to explain how and why.

June 12, 2009 at 2:15 pm
(12) Kathryn says:

Sorry, wrong analysis.

The problem with the Golden Compass film was it was rubbish.

The book was over rated but it wasn’t that bad, but the script was awful after the Hollywood cuts.
The choice of actors in their respective roles was bizarre.
The special effects were way too expensive to film, heaven knows how much it would have cost for the next two books, perhaps the whole thing should have been done as an animated film, its very much a kids book/film so that would appeal.

Being made to sit through the film as an adult was shocking, I would never go to see a Pullman film again.
Changed too much from the book and it was always going to be a big challenge to make. The film was such a turkey it singlehandedly sunk one of the most successful film companies permanently, how can you defend it as anything but a diabolical turkey.
No one will touch the other two books now, they are seen as the worst box office poison of all time.

Methinks you protest too much, try the real world.

June 12, 2009 at 4:07 pm
(13) Austin Cline says:

Sorry, wrong analysis.

Then you should be able to point out where I wrote something incorrect. Curious that you didn’t.

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