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Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Religious and anti-religious themes in 'His Dark Materials'

I have to confess, when I heard they were making a movie out of The Golden Compass -- the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials sequence -- the anti-religious themes in the book were the first thing I thought of. The comments on this post on Friendly Atheist feature a few comments that suggest that the Christian response is an over-reaction. If so, it was an entirely predictable one, for Pullman is an atheist, and he did write these books with criticism of religion in mind. On the other hand, this post on Beliefnet by Donna Freitas, a defence of His Dark Materials from a Christian perspective, speaks of the way Pullman's story can be read as affirming the religious principles on which some people build their lives. That I did not predict -- but it does not surprise me so very much.

The atheism of His Dark Materials is actually somewhat equivocal. In the fictional multiverse of the books, the Authority known as 'God' is an imposter who did not create the universe, and who is destroyed almost incidentally in the third book by the main characters without their even knowing it. It's almost a throw-away scene, one which, if the third book made it to the screen, might be cut simply for reasons of time. Unlike the depiction of the Fall from Eden as a very good thing (which, certainly, some Christians might find hard to swallow) the death of 'God' is actually not that major. However, while the books reject this authoritarian imposter of a God, they do also have an overarching notion of destiny and purpose, embodied in a mysterious substance known as 'Dust'.

What is 'Dust'? The book gives several possible answers: original sin, the human spirit, a substance attracted to an adult's conscious mind and engagement in life. For an atheist, giving this somewhat humanist idea a supernatural tilt is hardly terrible because this is a
fantasy book. A Christian, however, might see a hint of some true God in this idea, a God who affirms human beings in contrast to the authoritarian religion which crushes them. His Dark Materials reads to me like a humanist freedom cry, a blazing beacon of joy in experience, a command to live life richly and fully, unstifled by repressive religious notions. There are more than a few Christians who value some of the same things as humanists, so we should not be surprised that they also find value in these books.

I'll say this outright: Pullman's His Dark Materials sequence definitely strengthened my atheism. It made me much more likely to see certain types of religious notions (such as giving all control over to God, or such as the repression of sexuality) as antithetical to a life well lived. But if you do believe in God, Pullman's books won't necessarily seem to be fighting that notion overmuch. It really depends what sort of God you have.


Alon Levy said...

There's another point to be made here, which is that it's very hard to make a coherent political point in fiction. An attack on religion can thus be read as an affirmation of true religion as opposed to false religion.

What fiction is good at is making observations about character, or general attitudes. You can read Crime and Punishment and reject the idea that Christianity is necessary for salvation, but not so much the idea that people who think they're superhumans aren't.

Lynet said...

In a way, I think it's one of the strengths of fiction that, if done well, it won't provide a prescriptive viewpoint. Instead, it shows you something (hopefully something believeable) and lets you draw your own conclusions. You can have a much greater effect on people by giving them that sort of room to think for themselves. I guess the drawback is that you can't be sure what conclusion they will come to.

Anonymous said...

religious systems are generally rob people of any opportunity to be honest with themselves, so it's a good thing for Pullman to make people question what they believe as far as i'm concerned. if God is God, he would encourage honest questioning (seeking)

John Evo said...

The only reading of fiction that I have done this decade is my recent reading for The Non-Believing Literati (you're invited to join us Lynet - contact the Exterminator) and I'm completely unfamiliar with Pullman's works. I didn't know anything about this until Ordinary Girl recently posted about the coming movie. After watching the trailer, my gut feeling was "why would a religious person take exception to a movie that seems to give credence to the supernatural"? Of course, with a moments thought, I realized EXACTLY WHY such a person would take exception.

That said, I personally greatly enjoy movies about the supernatural despite my conviction that it's all non-sense. Movies are inherently "non-sense" so it matters not to me if the subject is "supernatural", and I only care that it's a well done story, excellent acting, with a great underlying point. This LOOKS like it could be such (who knows from a trailer?), and things I've read from people like you lead me to believe it might be

Alon Levy said...

Non-fiction done well can have that strength, too... but it's a lot harder, and it can seem rambling if there's no overarching point. Unlike any other form of expression, fiction allows delving into extreme depths of character psychology and sociology. Among forms of non-fiction, only philosophy approaches the depths of literature, and even it is stilted and incomprehensible as often as it is insightful.

Lynet said...

I initially didn't join the Literati because I wasn't sure I'd get through every book (or be able to get hold of every book cheaply) -- but since it looks to be a comfortingly sloppy affair, I guess I will join :-)

John Evo said...

EXACTLY Lynet! You do the ones you want. Pick and choose. You pick them up used from Amazon or be like me and get them at the library. Just tell Ex that I talked you into it. He'll be SO impressed with me. :)