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.")
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.
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.