Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Thu, 27 Dec 2007

The Golden Compass and Meta-Atheists

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Wednesday condemned the film "The Golden Compass," which some have called anti-Christian, saying it promotes a cold and hopeless world without God.

I'm an atheist, but not a meta-atheist. I don't believe in God, yet I still believe in belief in God. In case that's unclear, or has too much implied political-ethical-rhetorical baggage to comprehend directly, maybe an analogy will help. I don't believe in Santa, but I believe in believing in Santa. I'm an a-Santa-ist, but not a meta-aSanta-ist. I don't expect a chubby elf will slide down my wood stove flu to leave me a plasma TV this Christmas, but I would never go around telling anybody, especially little kids, that there is no Santa, that their belief in Santa is false. Doing so would be against my beliefs. I believe in believing in Santa so strongly that I hang up stockings and leave out cookies and milk. I might even waffle and evade committing myself, seeming to be a Santa agnostic, should some 7 year old interrogate me on the point of Santa's existence. But if I was pinned down and asked the direct question, "Is there literally a Santa, yes or no?" I would be lying about my beliefs unless I said no.

Since I'm not a meta-atheist, I often attend religious services with my family and friends. In fact, I'm a fairly devout Catholic atheist, the product of 12 years Catholic education. The phrase "under God" in the pledge is fine with me.

Recently, I was reading through the bulletin at my church when I noticed a section warning parents about the evils of the New Line Cinema film The Golden Compass. According to our Sister Mary, the film itself was fairly harmless, but it could have the undesirable effect of encouraging children to read the much more problematic series of books on which it is based: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy published in the late 1990's.

This trilogy is sometimes compared with other fantasy series like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. According to Sister Mary, the His Dark Materials books bash religion, promotes atheism, and therefore parents should be alerted.

Indeed, I was glad Sister Mary brought this to my attention. As an atheist, obviously, I like things that promote atheism, and I wouldn't mind promoting atheism in my own kids. Maybe "Santa" should deliver the series as Christmas gifts. I hadn't seen much good atheism-promoting kid-stuff recently and I had been worried the genre was a lost art. On the other hand, I didn't want my kids exposed to too much meta-atheism. Often meta-atheism and atheism are confused by religious people. Maybe Sister Mary, a religious person, was using the term imprecisely. I became curious.

So off I went to the local Borders to see if they had any sets of these godless books. No luck; there was a long waiting list but a new delivery was coming in on Monday, Christmas Eve. Seems that atheists (or at least people that like this kind of supposedly-atheism-promoting literature) are more common than I suspected.

Fortunately, when I casually mentioned the series (and Sister Mary's accusations) over the dinner table, my kids informed me that they had read the books long ago. There was a set of the books on the living room bookshelf if I wanted to read them.

"Yeah, Dad, they're OK I guess," my daughter said. "Not quite as good as Harry Potter, though."

"But do they promote atheism?" I asked.

"Dunno. Maybe. It is about killing God, but it really isn't that big a deal. God's this old, tired guy anyway and it's only a small part of the story."

Good thing I asked them, I thought. It would have been silly for Santa to bring a gift the kids already had.

Never the less, my curiosity was aroused. These seemed just the sort of books to pass the time during the tedium of the holidays. I found dog eared copies of the books where my kids had left them, and I also managed to check out a book-on-CD version from my local library so I could listen to the books in the car as I did my Christmas shopping.

Now I've read them. Here's what I found.

First of all, I'm not going to bother with reviewing the books in the general sense. As with any popular series, a plethora of reviews exist. If you want a comprehensive review, read some. Suffice it to say that this is an adventure book intended for kids of all ages. You'll find all the usual elements of the genre: sympathetic (albeit conceited and solipsistic) adolescent protagonists on a desperate quest, MacGuffin's galore, talking animals, clear depictions of good and evil, flying without wings, fairy dust and magic, etc....

Wait a minute. Fairy dust? Magic? Selective disregard for experience and reason? The word for stuff like this is mysticism, and the His Dark Materials trilogy is full of supernatural mystical elements. A related disposition to my meta-atheism is my joy in the supernatural. I don't, myself, believe in ghosts, but I must've watched Ghost Busters 50 times. I've read and enjoyed Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe. I've used the I Ching and the Magic 8 Ball to make life decisions.

Maybe the theists among you reading this can't understand how thoughts of the supernatural could tickle a staunch atheist like me, but I assure you, I do get a cold shiver watching Blair Witch Project. If it was a dark and stormy night, and I knew some pale dude with long canines was about to knock threateningly at my door, I'd be inclined to grab nervously for my crucifix. I'd also rub garlic on my Winchester "Super X" cartridges before loading them into my Mossberg pump. After all, "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side."

In any case, there is no doubt that Pullman's books incorporate a serious depiction of the supernatural. One big reason for that is that magic sells. Mystical fantasy depicted naked is a child's pornography. Kids are good at intentional suspension of disbelief. As in Peter Pan, they do believe in fairies, they do. If you just open your mind and believe, anything is possible. Particularly, it's possible to avoid going to school, studying, doing your chores, paying your debts, feeling bad about the people that are killed to keep you happy, and all sorts of inconvenient truths.

In the first book, Lyra (so uneducated that she can barely speak English good) must merely open her mind and believe in order to use the Golden Compass and thereby harness all the conscious energy of the world to find her true path in life. Maybe with the Aliethiometer Lyra could conjugate 'to get', but she tends to use it exclusively for plot-disentangling purposes. In the second book Will needs the same mental standby mode in order to execute the program of the Subtle Knife that allows him (and Pullman) to escape any responsibility as he cuts his way toward his goals. And in the last book, the reader is asked to shift his brain into neutral for a while, lest the gears of the plot grind too loudly.

Obviously, this supernatural business is a big part of religious belief, and we see supernatural elements on nearly every page of His Dark Materials. If I was a meta-atheist, I would find these mystical aspects of the books disturbing. I might even suggest keeping them away from my meta-atheist kids. But since I'm in favor of believing in believing, and encourage my kids to enjoy all sorts of supernatural beliefs (as long as they get A's in science), Pullman's books don't bother the atheist in me any more than any other book containing supernatural elements: Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Paradise Lost, The Bible. In fact, I'm not sure you can write a good story without supernatural elements. Suspending disbelief is essential to fiction; while the reader has their cognitive clutch pushed in, random gear changing is allowed.

Surely a theist would want their kids exposed to the idea that the supernatural, not to mention dense mythology, has a prominent place in the world. To take a specific example, I'd suppose that theists would welcome the explicit trinity of beings Pullman defines: the body, the daemon, and the spirit. These are roughly analogous to Western religious conceptions of the heart and the mind, and the soul, or the Catholic conceptions of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Religious people, especially Catholics, should be into this corporeal polyism, big time.

They seem not to be. The US-based Catholic League says that Pullman's clear purpose is "to bash Christianity". Oddly, the books do not mention Jesus or have an allegorical Jesus, therefore I'm not sure why they think it's specifically Christianity that's being attacked. I may have missed something, but all the biblical references I saw were Old Testament. I guess the Magesterium that Pullman bashes has aspects could remind one the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, with Pullmanian innovations like "preemptive penance" reminding us of the central complaint of the Protestant Reformation. Was Martin Luther promoting Atheism when he wrote the Ninety-Five Thesis? The Catholic League may be saying "to bash Christianity" rather than "to bash Catholicism" so they don't have to acknowledge all the nasty stuff Pullman alludes to in the history of organized religion.

In any case, I don't see much pro-atheist stuff in these books. The usual knee-jerk rhetoric from the religious right is to accuse something of promoting atheism, or, horror of horrors, moral relativism. I don't see moral relativism either. Not a bit. The characters all seem to have an objective sense of right and wrong; in a word, they have a conscious, and they generally follow it. God of the theists is objectively good too. So there shouldn't be a problem. It should be obvious to anyone (even to a theist adult) which of Pullman's characters are naughty and which are nice, and objectively why they are so judged. Even the evil Mrs. Coulter, who pulls an eleventh hour change of heart, doesn't try to explain-away or relativize her sins with any moral equivalences. The reader doesn't ever quite see her in a sympathetic light, either, despite the fact that she conveniently dotes over her daughter in one contrived scene.

Rhetoric aside, since the Pullman books are pro-belief, aren't pro-atheist, and don't espouse any kind of moral relativism, theists must be objecting to some other aspect of these books.

Maybe it's that business about killing God?

The final book in this series tells of the righteous overthrow of God, who is a decayed figurehead lending "authority" to the works of an evil tyrant, assisted by the church, which is little more than an instrument of oppression. Yeah, I guess that might have pissed off the Vatican a little.

There's more. Lots more. Several of the characters go off on rants against the church. One of the most infamously quoted is the ex-nun Mary, "the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." She goes on about how the church tries to "suppress and control every natural impulse". Another character, the witch, Ruta Skadi, has a tirade on genital mutilation, "And when it can't control them, it cuts them out". Along with many explicit attacks on organized religion, there are metaphorical depictions in a negative light. On circumcision theme, for example, The Golden Compass describes a practice developed by the "experimental theologists" for cutting away a child's daemon before puberty. You can read the books if you want to know exactly what a daemon is, but there's no question about what Pullman is saying.

Bottom line, Pullman is as subtle as a knife to the throat with respect to his criticism of organized religion. If that's the accusation, he's guilty as charged. It's not even close. But it should be noted carefully that he's not criticizing belief-in-belief itself, and his books definitely are not pro-atheist beyond the assertion that anyone, not just theists, has access to objective notions of right and wrong.

I do understand the Church's gored-ox attitude, but they should take heart that the really important notions they rely on, faith, mysticism, and mythology, are celebrated in these books.

Nobody really likes being painted as the "bad guy" in a kids book, but all the authority figures in the life of children have to take a turn in that role. Parents, teachers, policemen, dog catchers – we all get laughed at or portrayed in an evil light. Priests especially. Remember Richelieu in The Three Musketeers? And yes, even the hairy thunderer or or cosmic muffin – God himself – needs to have a sense of humor about his harmless fictional depictions. This sense of humor about negative depiction is even more important, and should be mixed with humility, when the criticism is justified. It is a historical fact that organized religious groups by policy, and by specific action, have, at times, been objectively evil.

In my opinion, therefore, Pullman's books are harmless stuff. I'm happy that my kids read them, even if the talking animal is not an allegorical Christ figure. The books gave us a lot of interesting dinner table conversations. I know my kids been able to sort the books out. I hope the Vatican and Christian groups go find something more sensible to bitch about (like objective evil in the real world). They might be able to take a lesson from the Jews. I don't see nearly as much acromony condemning Pullman coming from the Jewish community. Then again, the Jews may have a different perspective on the bad press associated with killing God.