When thought is the enemy.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Friday, November 23, 2007 6:51 PM

Yesterday afternoon when we were about to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, my grandmother said, "Oh, did you hear about that new movie that's coming out that's atheist?" I could barely contain myself from making a snide Harry Potter comparison (“Oh, and Harry Potter had magic!”). I think I did more to hurt my grandmother’s feelings, as she was truly only trying to bring up a concern that she had heard in her church circles. But I had already heard it at school. There, we laughed about it. Here, I got serious glances. Perhaps my flippancy scared my grandmother, but I can’t help but feeling like no good could come of any conversation we could have about it.

The chain emails and religious media are focusing on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a children’s book trilogy written between 1995 and 2007. The Golden Compass supports atheism, they say. Well, I’ll let you read a couple of them. Quoted from Snopes.com (contains some spoilers):

[Collected via e-mail, October 2007]

There will be a new Children's movie out in December called THE GOLDEN COMPASS. It is written by Phillip Pullman, a proud athiest who belongs to secular humanist societies. He hates C. S. Lewis's Chronical's of Narnia and has written a trilogy to show the other side. The movie has been dumbed down to fool kids and their parents in the hope that they will buy his trilogy where in the end the children kill God and everyone can do as they please. Nicole Kidman stars in the movie so it will probably be advertised a lot. This is just a friendly warning that you sure won't hear on the regular TV.

[Collected via e-mail, October 2007]

I don't just generally dismiss a movie or book just because someone 'says' it's meant to be something else...but this is worth knowing if you plan to see it (or plan to take your kids).

"Hi! I just wanted to inform you what I just learned about a movie that is coming out December 7, during the Christmas season, which is entitled THE GOLDEN COMPASS. It stars Nicole Kidman and it is directed toward children. What is disturbing to me is that this movie is based on the first of a trilogy of books for children called HIS DARK MATERIALS written by Philip Pullman of England.

He's an atheist and his objective is to bash Christianity and promote atheism. I heard that he has made remarks that he wants to kill God in the minds of children, and that's what his books are all about. He despises C.S. Lewis and Narnia, etc. An article written about him said "this is the most dangerous author in Britain" and that Pullman would be the writer "the atheists would be praying for, if atheists prayed." Pullman said he doesn't think it is possible that there is a God and he has great difficulty understanding the words "spiritual" and "spirituality." What I thought was important to communicate is what part of the agenda is for making this picture. This movie is a watered down version of the first book, which is the least offensive of the three books. The second book of the trilogy is THE SUBTLE KNIFE and the third book is THE AMBER SPYGLASS. Each book gets worse and worse regarding Pullman's hatred of God. In the trilogy, a young girl becomes enmeshed in an epic struggle against a nefarious Church known as the Magisterium. Another character, an ex-nun, describes Christianity as "a very powerful and convincing mistake." As I understand it, in the last book, a boy and girl are depicted representing Adam and Eve and they kill God, who at times is called YAHWEH (which is definitely not Allah). Since the movie would seem mild if you viewed it, that's been done on purpose.

They are hoping that unsuspecting parents will take their children to See the movie, that they will enjoy the movie and then the children will want the books for Christmas. That's the hook. Pullman says he wants the children to read the books and decide against God and the kingdom of heaven.

If you decide that you do not want to support something like this, I suggest that you boycott the movie and the books. I googled a synopsis of THE GOLDEN COMPASS. As I skimmed it, I couldn't believe that in a children's book part of the story is about castration and female circumcision.

And so on and so forth.

Okay. I understand the kneejerk to this. “Let’s band together and boycott this picture for our children, because we are discerning parents who care for our children’s mental health (or souls, depending on how bold people are willing to be).” But there is a lot more to these concerns than simply being mad at Philip Pullman for writing “atheist” books.

I read His Dark Materials when I was in high school, and it was a crucial time for me to read them. I was just old enough to catch the themes in the book (while children are perceptive, I doubt they’ll be able to grasp all of the themes the book employs), and it was at a time when I was fighting with the world and with my religion. I didn’t know how to reconcile the two, because I felt I was losing perspective and the meaning of being Christian. Therefore, I read Pullman’s series at a time when it would mean the most to me. I was enthralled in its pages, and actually cried at its saddest moments. It meant more than anything I’d ever read, and affected me more as well.

Does His Dark Materials promote atheism? I’m hardpressed to make an argument that says it doesn’t, no matter what Philip Pullman or any of his fans have said on the subject. In fact, Pullman has said that he’s not promoting atheism in the books:

As for the atheism, it doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I’m not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they’re kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded inquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.

While Pullman establishes that kindness, democracy, and open-minded inquiry are good, the books lean toward making cruelty, tyranny, and shutting the freedom of thought and expression synonymous with religion. I am saying this as a lover of the books and believer in Pullman’s message as he states it in the quote above. I think Pullman’s message is quite clear, but that’s not all there is to these books.

Pullman’s books made me think. I was steeped in religion. I had perfect attendance at church for thirteen years. I lived in a very small community with churches galore, including three or four Baptist churches, a Presbyterian church, a non-denominational or two, and one Methodist church where I attended. I had constantly been trying to grasp why God didn’t speak to me like other kids my age. I read Pullman’s books and began to see that the world may be different than I had been taught.

Now, that may be exactly what Christians are railing against. They don’t want their kids to see the world in different ways because they believe the way they’ve taught is the only way. They don’t translate this to any other religious belief but their own (whether they are, Muslim, Jewish, other Christians, or card-carrying members of the “heathen horde”), and totally leave out that the founder of Christianity was known for questioning what he was taught when it enabled ignorance and harm. But moving on from this, there is still more at the root of this hullabaloo.

There are a lot of people in the world today who are scared by the idea of children asking questions, so they teach them not to. If they have questions, the answers are in the holy texts. If they don’t know how to read the texts or don’t know how to interpret them, then they are to have it interpreted for them. If they don’t accept the interpretation, then someone needs to explain why they should. The war on Philip Pullman and his books is not about Christianity vs. Atheism. There are a lot of arguments there, and these books are just indicative, a symptom, of the larger conversation. No, this war is about Thought vs. Insulation.

A parent’s first duty is to protect his or her child. There is no greater charge that a parent can have. But one has to wonder if shielding and insulating the child is truly protecting her. It is keeping her from experiencing the unexpected hardship of defending one’s beliefs with rational arguments. It is keeping her from understanding that the world is a curious place, not an evil one with an agenda from Satan. It keeps her from feeling the triumph of struggling with oneself over belief or non-belief – and winning.

Instead of these things, children are taught not to ask the questions and to keep them bottled inside. They are taught to be wary of their parents and the answers (even punishments) that they might receive. So they bottle up the questions and sit on them for years. Now there are quite a few people who make it to adulthood scarred but alive from these experiences as children. They are just as obsessive with protecting their children as their parents were, without paying any mind to the struggles that they had to go through.

But then there are those who bottle them up and have someone or something come along at just the right moment and uncork them. It could be anything from a sentence to a piece of art to a series of experiences, but it’s all it takes to totally leave theism behind and never look back.

If you are still wondering if you should take your kids to see the movie, I’d suggest doing so. Then discuss with them. Give them the books. Tell them the arguments. Don’t pretend that they don’t have the brains to cope with the message. Don’t act like children need to constantly have a guiding hand not only in their physical lives but their thinking lives as well. They needed to be treated intelligently, because they will know when they are being simultaneously coddled, dodged, and avoided.

Believe it or not, I’m speaking from experience. After I read His Dark Materials, I felt too distant from my parents to be able to ask them the questions I needed to. It didn’t help that when I did eventually ask, no one could give me a good answer. Because of this, I began questioning everything, not just the messages I had picked up on in the book. I found it hard to believe in anything because I was so incredibly skeptical of everything I’d been taught.

This type of situation can be avoided – not by burning the books and boycotting the movie, but allowing these things to run their course with careful discussion and a sharing atmosphere. As a result, a child raised in a theistic worldview will be able to approach the arguments and challenges to their religion and spirituality throughout their entire lives. If it’s not handled this way, it can be potentially disastrous. But that’s how it is with everything, not just a few books.

Obviously, this is my opinion. But I’m speaking from an experienced position. If someone chooses to wage war on thought, how can they honestly win? Thought and thinking should be welcomed, not shunned, so that children’s minds may be free to experience the world instead of being caged in a box of ignorance. Theism and thought, religion and philosophy, reason and belief -- they can all go together and make us all grow. To encourage these wondrous gifts that we’ve been given as humans into disuse is miserable, distressing, heart-wrenching.

Children should share in the world, not be taken from it. It is theirs to experience as well. Only responsible adults and parents can give them the facilities to appreciate the world and all of its wonder and mystery. Keeping them from seeing a movie or reading a book or asking a question is impulsive and suppressive, and can only do harm.

4 Response to "When thought is the enemy."

Aushie Says:

Very nice, Babi. I like how you tackled the real issue instead of the religious arguments that hide what's really going on, especially when these books mean so much to you.

Justin Ray Says:

I wanted to read His Dark Materials before the movie came out, but I have spend the better part of this year trudging through Tad Williams's Otherland Trilogy. Those books are freaking huge!

I think that the people who oppose such literature would find themselves better suited by *not* mass publicizing them through their protesting. How many people just want to read something that much more when they find out the religious right hates it? :)

Anonymous Says:

I just saw the preview for this movie the other day,and thought that I shoudl look into reading the books. They made some big thing about them taking the Lord of the Rings and making movies, and then also making this current movie, so I assumed that it was a book first, lol I'll have to try and find a copy to read and see how your thoughts compare.

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