Pullman’s Atheist Propaganda Film Hits the BBC News

Last night the BBC on the Six O’ Clock News did a little piece on Philip Pullman’s atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. They gave a short synopsis of the movie, and briefly covered the issue of its antagonistic stance to religion. As Pullman is a very outspoken atheist who makes no secret of the fact that he wrote the book and its successors in the His Dark Materials trilogy to counter what he saw as the Christian propaganda of C.S. Lewis’ books, I thought this latest development demanded comment here. The film hasn’t even opened in the cinema over here yet, but already the adverts for the movie are plastered over the buses in town. There’s some real hype going on for it, and it’ll get worse the closer we come to its premier.

There’s already been a great deal of concern about its atheist propaganda content by Christians already. Frank Walton in his Atheism Sucks blog has put up a post about it. I’ve also seen at least one book, which expressly critiqued and rebutted the books’ anti-theist assertions from the Christian viewpoint. I’ll see if I can track that one down before too long, as clearly Christians need to present their case against the film and book in a cogent, well-informed manner.

As for the film itself, going by the synopsis the Beeb presented, it seemed boringly familiar. A tale of heroic scientist struggling to bring about his revolutionary discovery against concerted opposition by the Church, here presented as an evil conspiracy. In this instance, the hero is a scientist researching the existence of parallel universes, while his ecclesiastical opponents are a shadowy group called the Magisterium. We’ve been here before: it’s the war of science against religion again. And of course the religious types have to be evil members of a conspiracy. And some how I doubt very much that it’s an accident this conspiracy is called the Magisterium. There’s more than a strain of anti-Catholicism here. We’re back in Da Vinci Code territory, served up this time as a kind of anti-Narnia.

The Beeb’s brief coverage of the religious angle simply consisted that there were anxieties about the book’s anti-religious stance, and whether this would make it into the movie. Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman, the two stars, were briefly interviewed. Day-Lewis stated very clearly that the film was anti-religious, and felt that this should have been explored further in the film. Nicole Kidman denied that it was an anti-religious film at all. I’ve heard that Kidman is actually a Roman Catholic, so it’s possible that by saying this that either she doesn’t want to face up to the fact that it is an anti-religious work, or else it’s such a grotesque parody of religion invented by Pullman that bears no relationship to the reality of religious faith and practice that she simply hasn’t recognised how irreligious it is.

Now let’s say a few things about the movie.

Going by what’s been said on the Beeb, the film’s wrong on a number of points from the outset. No historian takes the view that there has been a war of science with religion. There are tensions and controversies, but never an outright war. Nevertheless, the myth that there has been a war between the two areas of human experience and endeavour has proved an enduring favourite with intransigent Naturalists like Pullman. This is atheist fantasy, and not just at the literary level.

Pullman’s espousal of the Many Worlds theory is also severely flawed. Despite its immense popularity, very few scientists actually take it seriously. A Christian friend of mine told me he always thought that science was solidly behind the idea of a multiverse, until he was shown otherwise by the Wessex Sceptics, a rationalist group devoted to debunking the paranormal, like CSI and James Randi. The multiverse is quite popular among some New Agers, and I’ve come across one work of popular science, which traced the idea across the centuries in science, literature and religion. So despite the fact that some atheists have made the multiverse an article of their rationalist faith, rather than face the possibility of a Creator god, I suspect that if a scientist really claimed that multiple universes not only existed but were accessible, he’d face more criticism from within the scientific community than outside.

Nevertheless, a lot of Naturalists seem to need to support the theory in order to avoid the tricky issue of the apparent creation of the universe in the Big Bang. A few years ago Channel 4 screened the popular science series, What Remains To Be Discovered. Hosted by the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Martin Rees, this had a very strongly naturalistic slant. It was very strongly in favour of Multiple Universe Theory, unsurprisingly, since Dr. Rees is one of the major researchers in this area. The fine-tuning of the universe was briefly discussed, with various scientists stating that when they discovered it, they felt real anxiety at finding signs for a Creator. It was significant that even when discussing the possible evidence for God, they couldn’t even say the word. Then Multiple Universe Theory was presented as the solution to this apparent problem: no need to believe in Creation, Multiple Universe Theory means that it didn’t happen. No God is required.

Now not only has this view been attacked by Christian philosophers like J.P. Moreland, most scientists probably don’t believe in it either. So it’s fair to describe the aggressive promotion of Multiple Universe Theory by Naturalists as a piece of atheist propaganda – a faith position intended to win converts, but which need not represent reality. Pullman’s use of Multiple Universe Theory in opposition to religion is clearly another piece of atheist myth-making.

Then there’s the conspiracist angle to the book, with the religious opponents of the noble scientist being an evil clandestine group. Kh123, a commentator over at one of the posts on Atheism Sucks stated that it should be no surprise that the supporters of God and religion are presented as an evil conspiracy considering the way the Jewish people had been portrayed as just such a conspiracy down the centuries. He’s right, but the conspiracist libel against people of faith isn’t confined to the Jews. Denyse O’Leary pointed out how much the Da Vinci Code charicature of Opus Dei was based in Protestant charicatures of Roman Catholicism. That’s true, up to a point, but you could also find similar conspiracist attacks on Protestants in some Roman Catholic countries. What I found looking at the conspiracy literature is that such representations of clerical organisations as evil murderous conspiracies, like Opus Dei in The Da Vinci Code and the Magisterium in Pullman, is that they’re essentially based on libels directed against the Jesuits. That particular order was the subject of rumours by both Protestants and Roman Catholics that made them into a vast, murderous conspiracy. They were supposed to be experts in brainwashing, torturing any of their novices who were unable to believe their doctrines in dungeons in their monasteries. They were alleged to prey on young widows, using all their charms to persuade them to give their wealth to them, rather than keep it themselves or pass it on by marrying again.

And they were the ultimate assassins who were secretly present at every level of society, and with absolute loyalty to the Pope. When not murdering their opponents themselves, they used all the pomp of the Church to brainwash the men acting for them into complete fanaticism. Blood curdling rituals were supposed to go on in their monasteries, in which the would-be assassin was ceremonially presented with the richly decorated dagger he was supposed to use to despatch his victim, and promised that if killed in the act, he would go straight to heaven. The twisted image Dawkins and the rest of the self-declared Brights have of people of faith as brainwashed, theocratic would-be suicide bombers ultimately has its origins in such myths about the Jesuits. Dan Brown gave new life to such old conspiracy theories in the Da Vinci Code, although the murderous order there was Opus Dei, rather than the Jesuits. Now Pullman has served it up once again as ‘the Magisterium’.

The appearance of such conspiracist paranoia within a certain type of virulently anti-religious secularism isn’t coincidental. It goes all the way back to Voltaire in the 18th century who denounced organised religion, and Christianity and the Roman Catholic church in particular as a conspiracy against society. And such myths have consequences. The libel of the global Jewish conspiracy created anti-Semitic oppression and culminated in the horror of the Shoah. The paranoia about the Jesuits led to their suppression by states all over Europe in the late 18th century. And it was because Christianity was a conspiracy that the French and later Communist revolutionary closed churches and other places of worship, and systematically imprisoned and martyred millions of religious believers. Pullman by creating the fictional ‘Magisterium’ is thus part of a long tradition of paranoid anti-Catholicism, most definitely in the ‘paranoid style’. As literature there’s nothing particularly new in Pullman’s attack on religion. There’s a very strong atheist subtext in several of the novels of the British Fantasy writer, Michael Moorcock. The various incarnations of his hero, the Eternal Champion, are pitted in epic battles against the gods of Chaos and Order which rule Moorcock’s multiverse. Several of these novels culminated in the slaying of these gods in order to free humanity and the other inhabitants of that particular fantasy world. In the last book of the Chronicles of Corum, Moorcock’s hero of the same name is killed in fulfilment of a prophecy by a weird amalgamation of man and harp. As it shoots him, the harp proclaims ‘Death to all gods!’ In one of his other novels, the hero enlists in the legions of Hell in the war against the angels of Heaven. He also wasn’t afraid to generate controversy with specific attacks on Christianity. In his novel, Ecce Homo, the hero, Glogauer, travels back in time to meet Christ, only to find that the Lord and Saviour is a severely mentally retarded idiot. Shocked, Glogauer takes Jesus’ place, acting out the events of the Gospels, ending with the crucifixion. The veteran SF author and one-time colleague of Moorcock’s at New Worlds, Brian Aldiss, in his treatment of the book in his history of SF, Trillion Year Spree, denied that the book was blasphemous. In his opinion, it was a serious exploration of a philosophical issue. I’m not convinced, as I’ve seen the same subject – that of a time traveller who becomes the hero he travels back to meet – treated without any reference to religion. The hero of Tim Powers’ Fantasy novel, The Anubis Gates, for example, travels back in time expecting to meet the 19th century poet Ashbless, only to find that Ashbless does not exist, and he must adopt Ashbless’ role, writing his books and living out his life. It’s the same theme, but without the religious subject matter of Moorcock’s book.

Gore Vidal did something similar to Ecce Homo a few years ago in Live from Golgotha. This was about a TV crew who travel back in time to film the Crucifixion. Instead of a person with learning difficulties, Vidal’s book cast Jesus as a time-travelling Zionist terrorist not at all like the Prince of Peace of the Gospels. The book ends with Jesus being defeated before He can commit the terrorist atrocity He has been plotting, and is then recast as the more pacifist figure of the Gospels by St. Paul. The book was performed in London as a stage play a few years ago now. The British satirical magazine, Private Eye, which has been ruthlessly lampooning bad literature, as well as everything else in public life, which strikes them as ridiculous, gave Vidal’s book a blistering review. After pointing out its numerous failings, the magazine concluded that despite being bad and offensive literature, it wasn’t blasphemous. It was so ludicrous that it really didn’t say anything about Jesus or Christianity. What it did show was Vidal’s own preoccupations – human sexuality, and anti-Christianity and anti-Semitism. Vidal’s logic in the book seems to be that Jews are terrorists now, they were against the Roman 2,000 years ago, and so Jesus, as the Jewish messiah, must have been a terrorist too. And of course, the Christian Church being notorious for forgery clearly covered this up.

So in writing his anti-religious work, Pullman actually isn’t doing anything new or different from what a number of other writers have done before. There’s still the question of what Christians can do about it.

My own approach would simply be not to go to see the movie. Don’t indulge in displays of anger and outrage, like burning books. Just don’t give Pullman, Day-Lewis and Kidman your custom and your money. And if you’re mounting a campaign to show your objection to the movie, do it in a calm, reasonable manner giving clear, reasonable justifications. They’re there, and reacting in a low-key, reasonable manner over this will frustrate Pullman more than a campaign of outrage.

Pullman and those who share his viewpoint see people of faith and Christians as fanatical bigots who want to stop people thinking for themselves. The campaigns by outraged Christians in the past against certain books gave some of them the satisfaction of seeing Christians live up to their prejudiced view of them. The British Horror writer, Ramsey Campbell, for example, said in an interview in a British SF magazine a few years ago that he has a video of Fundamentalist Christians in America burning one of his books, amongst numerous others. Every time he felt depressed, he put this on the video.

There is also a real danger that any attack on Pullman’s movie will be presented as an attack on Fantasy literature as a whole and as a campaign to control children’s imaginations. This is what happened in the 1980s when some Christians mounted campaigns against the increasingly adult themes and material, such as homosexuality, that were beginning to be incorporated into comics and other genres of young and young adult fiction. Many people, and not just atheists, were upset and concerned by the violent denunciations of the Harry Potter books and films for supposedly glamorising the occult to children. The attacks on Potter to those not convinced that the books represented anything more than a fairly standard type of children’s story- there have been children’s books about magic and wizardry since the 19th century, including at least one set in a private school – seemed to be irrational, hysterical and intolerant. It’s important to avoid making the same impression again, and strengthening the image Pullman and his fellow New Atheists wish to give of Christians and other people of faith as intolerant bigots opposed to literature and imagination.

In fact there’s not only a way to avoid giving this impression, but in Pullman’s case to turn it around against him and interrogate his book and New Atheism over the question of who is trying to control and limit whose imagination.

It needs to be pointed out that while Christians, like everyone else, object to literature they consider is immoral, this does not mean that Christianity is opposed to literature as a whole. Literary scholars have suggested that the modern novel has its origins in the genre of spiritual autobiography of the 17th century. As regards Fantasy, this has its basis in pagan epic, medieval legend and folktale, but is not necessarily antichristian, and Christians have valued such literature down the centuries. The great epics of Irish mythology such as the Lebor Gabala, the Book of Conquests, were written down in the Middle Ages by Irish monks. They objected strongly to paganism, but like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe who copied Homer, Virgil and the pagan Latin authors, they clearly saw these tales as worth preserving as great literature. Similarly the great medieval legends, which include the later staples of genre Fantasy of errant knights, noble ladies, giants, dwarves and elves, were all written by Christians and were permeated with the medieval Christian worldview. While the Christian content of such tales may have diminished over the centuries, nevertheless the culture which produced the literary fairy tale in the 17th century was Christian. The 18th century chapbook, The History of Fortunatus, includes a variety of magical events, including a wishing hat and the hero’s meeting with the goddess Fortune, is nevertheless very much written from the Christian worldview. It specifically states that teh hero, Fortunatus, wishing to have children after marrying his wife, Cassandra, ‘made it constantly the petition in his prayers to God, that he would be pleased to send him an heir’. 1 It was this legendary lore of supernatural adventure and wonder that inspired genre Fantasy when it arose in the 19th century. Although much Fantasy literature now is very secular, nevertheless it has its Christian writers and exponents, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The importance of Fantasy as a genre in developing children’s imaginations is still valued by Christians. Pope John-Paul II once praised J.K. Rowling because her Harry Potter books had done so much to stimulate kids’ imaginations and sense of wonder.

It’s also the case that the supernatural element in folktales has resulted in objections from some Secularist parents. The folklorist Linda Degh, in her study of contemporary legend, Legend and Belief, discusses instances where Secularist parents have complained to school authorities after folktales with a supernatural content, like ghost stories, were told in class. They felt this was indoctrinating their children with a belief in the supernatural. Similarly the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim in his study of the positive benefits of fairy stories for children’s emotional and mental health, The Uses of Enchantment, states the objections some parents have to telling fairy stories to their children in case it promotes magical thinking and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Bettelheim strongly argues in his book that this is not the case, and the magical worldview of the fairy tale is a different thing entirely from the magical thinking of OCD. Additionally, although Fantasy literature is now a secular genre, many of the authors who founded it in the 19th century were profoundly alienated from what they considered to be the dehumanising effects of contemporary industrial, mechanised society. The development of genre Fantasy by authors like William Morris, one of the great founders of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and one of the leaders of the British Gothic revival, was partly a reaction to the disenchantment created by industrial rationalism. Pullman by creating an atheist Fantasy novel has effectively subverted the worldview on which such novels are based.

Now I have to say that I like Fantasy literature, and am a great fan of Michael Moorcock. Moorcock at his best is a great novelist with a deep love of heroic fantasy and a mastery of its conventions. His characters are baroque, memorable, and often humorously grotesque, and his books are filled with an inventiveness, which enriched the genre. Like the other members of the SF New Wave, Moorcock drew on a number of different literary genres, including Surrealism. He creates worlds of wonder, depicting lost cities, strange, alien peoples and races from bizarre civilisations, awesome vistas of the weird past and far distant future. It was the stuff of Romance and legend, and his doom-laden, tragic heroes, who are drawn inexorably to their fate as events move to their inescapable conclusion, have the pathos and heroic pessimism of the ancient epics. Beowulf ends with the hero’s death by the dragon he succeeds in slaying, while Hercules, after all his feats dies after putting on a poisoned shirt. So Moorcock’s best-known hero, Elric, meets his end after a tragic career, which sees him kill his wife and destroy his civilisation. It was rich, full-blooded heroic stuff, and a welcome relief from the bleak realism of much of serious literature and popular culture. It’s a pity that Elric has never been translated to the big screen.

As I said, there’s an atheist subtext to some of Moorcock’s work. However, Moorcock’s gods are fictional and so, while Ecce Homo was blasphemous – in my opinion – mostly I took the atheist statements in some of the books to be simply a statement of his own point of view without any particular relevance to my own beliefs. I enjoyed the books, but didn’t feel threatened by the atheism in some of them or found it attractive. It was no doubt what he genuinely believed, but it could also be viewed as a literary device affecting only the imaginary gods of Moorcock’s fictional worlds.

And that’s one of the ways to approach Pullman and his work of explicitly atheist propaganda: rather than accept it uncritically, encourage an informed and discerning attitude towards it.

It’s possible to turn the Secularist demand that people of faith develop critical thinking and think for themselves back against Pullman and his associates. The British literary scholar, Martin Barks, in his study of children’s comics, their history, and the controversies over them and their perceived influence on the young, Comics, Ideology and Power, points out that when reading a text, people don’t necessarily accept its content uncritically. Rather, they enter into a dialogue with it, and take from it that which they find satisfying, and leave what they don’t. Now Pullman is clearly hoping that people will accept the atheist message of his book and film. However, a major obstacle to this is going to be if the audience he wishes to reach have a critical attitude towards his text. Greg Bahnsen, in the excellent videos giving his students an introduction to worldview in preparation to their encounter with secular philosophies, which Frank Walton has posted up at his Atheism Sucks site, recommended to his audience that they critically examine what their professors and fellow students were saying to see if it conformed to the Christian worldview. In the case of Pullman and his movie, clearly it doesn’t. Do the book and the movie say anything true or worthwhile about God and His worshippers? No – they’re just a grotesque charicature. So is there is any reason to take them and their message seriously? None at all. You could probably even turn this into an opportunity to get people to be critical about anything claimed to be true from a Naturalist perspective, but whose presupposition were extremely dubious – like that Darwin has somehow made God irrelevant, for example. My guess is that the last thing the self-proclaimed champions of critical thinking and independent thought want, is to have their own philosophies subjected to critical thinking and people to be independent from their worldview.

As a writer of Fantasy literature, I have to say I don’t have much respect for Pullman. Unlike some of the great masters of Fantasy literature with a similar anticlerical or secularist slant in their books, Pullman doesn’t seem to respect the genre in which he writes. Moorcock, on the other hand, for example, has a deep love of the genre. In his overview of heroic fantasy, Wizardry and Wild Romance, he’s keen to defend it from the disparaging view of the literary establishment and makes it very clear that he believes that a return to its Romanticism would invigorate and renew literature as a whole. Writers, publishers and fans of Fantasy and SF have stories of Moorcock’s own generosity and help to people trying to set up SF and Fantasy magazines and similar genre-based enterprises. Amongst his colleagues who like and respect him are those who take their Christian faith very seriously, such as the British Fantasy artist, Rodney Matthews, who has illustrated a number of his books, the best known being Elric at the End of Time. Pullman, while doubtless a great bloke personally, on the other hand has stated that Fantasy is a very trivial genre, and the only reason he wrote it was because his adult books simply didn’t sell. It’s a very cynical attitude towards the genre that I dislike.

So, Pullman really isn’t doing what others before him haven’t done in creating an atheist Fantasy. Although the books and the movie are clearly intended to make atheism attractive, it’s based on bad history and conspiracist paranoia, which Christians can easily counter. As for any charge that Christians are intolerant for criticising Pullman’s film, the reply is that Christians have always enjoyed good Fantasy literature, while some atheists find supernatural tales problematic. This isn’t an attack on literature, or Fantasy or an attempt to control children’s imaginations. Christians are merely concerned about its misrepresentation of religion and object to its distorted worldview and propagandistic message. And rather than merely accepting things uncritically, Christian do think for themselves. It’s because they do so that many Christians aren’t impressed with the movie and the book on which it’s based. Christians should encourage people to think critically, and apply this critical interrogation to the film and its atheist message.

And the New Atheists can have no complaint when they do, and the book and film are found to be flawed and rejected. After all, they’ve been asking people to think critically all along.

Notes

1. ‘The History of Fortunatus’ in John Ashton, Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century with Facsimiles, Notes and Introduction (London, Skoob Books, undated), pp. 134-5.

9 Responses to “Pullman’s Atheist Propaganda Film Hits the BBC News”

  1. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    No historian takes the view that there has been a war of science with religion. There are tensions and controversies, but never an outright war. Nevertheless, the myth that there has been a war between the two areas of human experience and endeavour has proved an enduring favourite with intransigent Naturalists like Pullman. This is atheist fantasy, and not just at the literary level.

    Greetings from the other side of the Pond.

    Back in Atlanta.

    I suppose you’ve heard of histoiran Daniel Boorstein?
    He might not take that grand negative view, but it certainly comes out in the book The Discoverers.

    As to scientists, themselves, well—the quote I showed you from an aquaintence of mine is more than typical of this line of thinking from some who work in the hard sciences and cry murder at the notion of secularism=darwinist meaning, or that religion offers anything, etc.

  2. CJ (cj.23) Says:

    Actually Beast, I doubt I’ll see the film, but you have convinced me to read the books. Apparently they are rather jolly, and i doubt any level of atheistic propaganda will do me much harm. 🙂 I’d encourage folks to see the film if they like that sort of thing, and enjoy it for what it is – an entertaining fantasy. I simply don’t think that these things impact much on our belief structures – I have been reading the Aeneid all week, and I don’t fear the wrath of Juno, or feel that reincarnation is likely – nor do I think that I will start offering sacrifices with head covered, or (sadly) found a great dynasty as the new Augustus. Well, one can hope!

    cj x

  3. Frank Walton Says:

    I’m sure most people will watch the movie despite the anti-Christian bias. The bias is a bit subtle from what I’m told. Who knows, I just might watch the movie or read the book.

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Wakefield, CJ and Frank!

    Regarding the war between science and religion, Wakefield, I think I’ve heard Daniel Boorstin’s name mentioned before in that context. I don’t doubt that he really does believe there’s been some kind of conflict between science and religion, but his is a minority view and it can be challenged. I’ve got a feeling that Bede of Bede’s Journal has criticised him. As for the scientist you mentioned, I’ve heard the head of the British Association for the History of Science say that most scientists actually don’t know much history of science, nor are they are interested in it. One of the professors at University who was with him actually agreed. According to her, they have a job getting prospective science students to come to lectures on the history of the subject because they all imagine they’re going to discover the TRUTH, despite the fact that ‘in ten years’ time it’s all going to be different’. In other words, most scientists aren’t interested in the history of science because it points to the mutability of scientific explanations.

  5. beastrabban Says:

    Back to Philip Pullman, it seems I’ve shot myself in the foot and protested too much, if that ain’t a mixed metaphor.

    I’ve heard that Pullman actually is a very good writer, though I’ve no desire to see the movie or read his books. Hopefully the antichristian bias in the film will be slight so that it can be ignored if you want to. My problem with comparing it to Homer is that while there are very few today who would accept the original metaphysical message of Homer, Pullman on the other hand is trying to promote and reinforce a particular contemporary metaphysical message. Also it is aimed at children, rather than adults who may have a rather more sophisticated view of the world and a bit more scepticism about the author’s message.

    On the other hand, I myself have argued that children don’t uncritically accept what they see or read, so perhaps all the kids out there who’ll go to it will enjoy the movie but won’t take it as being any deeper or more meaningful than any other Fantasy movie.

  6. Travis Morgan Says:

    I just seen the movie and thought it was great. I can respect any movie that focuses on the pursuit of truth and the rejection of any agent that attempts to misdirect one away from truth.

  7. Mercer Says:

    While I agree with most things I’ve read on this blog, and your discussion of science and religion in this article, I think you have to accept that this is fantasy: also, that criticising a book and film based on seeing trailers is hardly representative. For instance, the ‘hero’ is not Azreal, the ‘scientist’ (explorer would be a better term): he’s actually an incredibly morally complex character, and in some ways very much like Coulter, the ‘villain’. The hero is Lyra, the child, and her gifts are inspiration, courage and story telling, not some atheist ideal of science.

    My impression of Pullman is that, while he does swallow certain key atheist myths, his attitude is fundamentally spiritual, and his books have a lot to offer Christianity. Their ‘grotesque charicature’ is something religion can become and should strive against. There’s a very interesting interview where Pullman recognises this spirituality (despite some of his earlier press releases which came across as crudely atheist.

    Every theist I know who’s read these books has really enjoyed them and found them both challenging and inspiring

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Travis Morgan and Mercer – thanks for reading my blog and commenting. I’m glad you’ve both enjoyed the film.

    Regarding respecting a film which urges you to follow truth wherever it may lead, and reject any agent that misdirects you from that quest, this doesn’t necessarily make the film any good or support the author’s message. Most of us respect and admire those who pursue truth, and continue to do so despite opposition from oppressive groups. The problem is that in the past some extremely oppressive ideologies have used this natural respect for the pursuit of truth to support their own twisted, and false, interpretation of history.

    For example, the German author, Bertolt Brecht, did much the same in his play The Life of Galileo . Galileo is presented as an heroic scientist taking on the repressive Church and its dogmatic rejection of science. The problem with this is that it’s an oversimplification of the conflict between Galileo and the papacy, with the added twist that Brecht himself was also strongly involved with an oppressive order. Brecht was a Communist who spent the War in America after fleeing the Nazis in Germany, before leaving the country for the former East Germany. It’s true that his experience of Communist Germany made him increasingly disillusioned with the party to the point where his career and his artistic freedom was severely curtailed, and he deserves to be respected for that. On the other hand, he took a long time getting there. During the 1950s there was an uprising in East Germany against Communism, and the Russians sent in the tanks. Brecht waved at the tank crews as they passed him on the street.

    A praiseworthy respect for truth expressed in a film does not, therefore, make that film’s interpretation of events themselves true, and can make a piece all the more pernicious as propaganda because of its apparent respect for truth.

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Mercer!

    Thanks for the comments on the spirituality behind Pullman’s writing, and the link to the interview. You’re not the first person to have expressed such a view. Going through one of the bookshops here in my home city I found a book on the Christianity shelves written by two Christians which said essentially the same thing. I also have a number of friends who’ve read and greatly enjoyed the books.

    And I certainly take your point that religion can degenerate and become oppressive. Alister McGrath, who is certainly no atheist, in his book The Twilight of Atheism states that atheism can provide religion with a valuable service by critiquing its negative aspects so that it does not become oppressive.

    My problem is still that, however well the books are written, they are still intended as atheist propaganda. While I don’t doubt that Christians can enjoy and learn from them, I also believe that there is a real danger that they can re-inforce and generate the received wisdom about religion that it is intrinsically oppressive, despite aspects of the books and the movie which may act against such an interpretation.

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