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by Kathleen McDade

I recently read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. The soon-to-be-released movie The Golden Compass is based on the first book of this trilogy. I enjoyed the books, although I found the end of the trilogy somewhat unsatisfying.

The movie looks promising as well. I’m sure it differs from the book at least some of the time (what movie doesn’t?), but the mood and the characters in the preview look fairly accurate (and exciting).

However, some religious groups are not happy about this movie. It’s anti-religious, they say. Or it’s actually anti-God. Or, too many of the religious/anti-religious statements have been removed for the movie. Is there really a problem?

It seems to depend on your point of view. When I read the trilogy, I did notice that it was very much anti-organized religion, and perhaps specifically anti-organized Christianity. The church is portrayed as an enemy, as more interested in keeping its own bureaucracy alive than anything else. I think that’s a valid criticism; in fact, there’s a growing trend away from organized Christianity even among Christians right now.

The books never say, however, that there is no God. The story does tell that the God (called the Authority) that the church worships is not the one who created the world. He is basically an angel who took over from the Creator and decided to rule the world. Part of the storyline has the children trying to defeat and/or kill this Authority.

Author Philip Pullman does identify himself as an atheist, and he has said that the book is about killing God (Sydney Morning Herald, 12/12/2003, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/12/12/1071125644900.html). For an atheist, however, he includes a great deal of spiritual content in these books. Even as he criticizes the church, and the version of God that it has created, he also recognizes that there is a spiritual dimension to human beings. For instance, in main character Lyra’s world, each person has a daemon, sort of an animal spirit that goes everywhere with the person and is an integral part of the person. When a human dies, the daemon dies with them. Human and daemon cannot move too far from each other without physical pain. And finally, if human and daemon are mechanically separated from each other, both die – or at best, the human becomes catatonic and unable to function normally.

The human-daemon relationship seems to recognize the existence of something more than the physical body in a human being – such as a soul. Whether Pullman himself is an atheist or not, it’s there.

I don’t agree with or like everything that happens in these books, but neither do I think they are intrinsically harmful. Pullman tells a good, engrossing story that makes you think. The strongest critic of the books and the movie right now is the Catholic League, which feels the story is anti-Catholic. Again, yes, the books are heavily critical of the organized church, and certainly the church of the books heavily resembles the Catholic Church. Are these criticisms perhaps too accurate?

Do these books promote atheism? That’s a little more difficult. After reading all three, I’m not sure what they really say about God. I don’t think they say that there is no God, which presumably is what a truly atheist book would say.

Donna Freitas, a blogger on BeliefNet’s Idol Chatter, recently interviewed Pullman about his agenda in writing the books. He basically said that his agenda was to tell a compelling story, not to promote atheism! It’s a great interview – I was practically standing on the edge of my seat, cheering and clapping after watching it. You can check it out here.

Should you let your children read the books or see the movie? Well, as with any book or movie, that’s up to you. I wouldn’t let someone else tell you what you should let your children do. Borrow the book from the library and read it, or see the movie for yourself first, and then decide.

And for yourself? There are some campaigns out there that will actually tell you not to see the movie or read the book yourself, lest ye be corrupted! Well, again, shouldn’t you be the judge of that? Use your own mind to decide what you think about it.

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