Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Pied Piper of Atheism

To the charge that he has set out to destroy Christianity, Philip Pullman has this answer. "Nonsense," he will reply. "God died a long time ago."

To celebrate Earth Day, I finished reading The Amber Spyglass, third volume of British author Philip Pullman's magnificent trilogy, His Dark Materials. I was inspired to read this fantasy series, ostensibly written for children, after seeing the film "The Golden Compass," which was made from the first volume, Northern Lights, and after hearing that Pullman's epic yarn was an alternative to C.S. Lewis's Narnia and pursued "an anti-Christian agenda." What I found was an enthralling epic drama that celebrates material reality with the enthusiasm of William Blake's "Every thing that lives is Holy." Rather than an anti-religious tract, Pullman's story attacks totalitarian authority and paralyzing dogma that has been used to control and imprison human freedom. I have been seeking a this-worldly spirituality, one that embraces material reality rather than denigrates it as "fallen" or "sinful." And in Pullman I have discovered a materialist prophet for the end of the age of other-worldly religion.

Prophets are controversial fellows. There are no less than 19 books about His Dark Materials (completed in 2000) listed by and not all are complimentary. Peter Vere and Sandra Miesel recently published Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with the very Catholic Ignatius Press. In an interview on Zenit ("The World Seen From Rome"), Vere said that "Pullman's work isn't simply about using fairy-tale magic to tell a good story. He openly proselytizes for atheism, corrupting the imagery of Lewis and Tolkien to undermine children's faith in God and the Church." The authors believe that it is "not OK for children -- impressionable as they are -- to read stories in which the plot revolves around the supreme blasphemy, namely, that God is a liar and a mortal. It is not appropriate for children to read books in which the heroine is the product of adultery and murder; priests act as professional hit men, torturers and authorize occult experimentation on young children; an ex-nun engages in occult practices and promiscuous behavior, and speaks of it openly with a 12-year-old couple; and the angels who rebel against God are good, while those who fight on God's side are evil. This is wrong." Miesel told the Zenit interviewer that "there's a great deal of cruelty and gore in the books, not just battles but deliberate murder, sadism, mutilation, suicide, euthanasia and even cannibalism. There are also passages of disturbing sensuality and homosexual angels who are 'platonic lovers'."

Now I know all this sounds like just another Hollywood plot, or a Dan Brown book, or maybe even a Mel Gibson film. But the trilogy's first volume won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995, and the third was awarded the Whitbread Prize for best children's book in 2001, and the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2002, the first children's book to receive the latter award. What gives? Is this another fundamentalist tempest in a teapot, or does Pullman have some important things to say about religion to both children and adults?

"There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction," Pullman told an interviewer. They can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book." In "The Republic of Heaven," an essay written in 2001, Pullman compares the otherworldly Kingdom of Heaven, extolled by the Gnostics and allegorized by Lewis and Tolkien, with the everyday Republic of Heaven he finds in some children stories like "Jack and the Beanstalk." There, "the magic grows out of the most common and everyday thing, a handful of beans, and the beanstalk grows right outside the kitchen window, and at the end of the story, Jack comes home." In the Republic of Heaven, which becomes the goal of the rebels against Authority in His Dark Materials, there is a connection between all that lives rather than bondage to sin and redemption from life. Writes Pullman: "The republic of Heaven is also characterized by another quality: it enables us to see this real world, our world, as a place of infinite delight, so intensely beautiful and intoxicating that if we saw it clearly then we would want nothing more, ever. We would know that this earth is our true home, and nowhere else is. In the words of William Blake, one of the founding fathers of the republic of Heaven,
How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?"

Pullman counts Blake and John Milton, author of Paradise Lost upon which his trilogy is modeled, as his primary influences (the title of his work comes from the raw substance that Milton’s “almighty maker” uses to create life). Rather than focus on the Fall, as Milton does, Pullman has written this his story "resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence." The "sin" of Adam and Eve was in fact the beginning of the growth towards self-consciousness and maturity, a necessary evolution. In Pullman's tale, the fallen angels are heroes.

In an online interview with Peter T. Chattaway, Pullman said that for him, "God is a metaphor."
Perhaps it might be clearer to call him a character in fiction, and a very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all - savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection - for David, for example. But he's not real, any more than Hamlet or Mr Pickwick are real. They are real in the context of their stories, but you won't find them in the phone book.
It's wrong , he said, to think that only believers in God are inclined toward virtue. "What about the joy you feel when a good action of yours brings a happy result for someone else? What about the basic empathy we feel even for creatures who aren't human - a rabbit caught in a trap, a little bird inside the house trying to get out through a closed window, a polar bear drowning in a world where the ice is melting? That's not due to religion: it's due to the fact that we're alive and conscious and able to imagine another's suffering."
The plainest and simplest description of the world, for me, and the truest, is that there is no God, but that human beings are capable of great goodness and great wickedness, and we don't need priests or Popes or imams or rabbis to tell us which is which.
In The New Yorker, Laura Miller writes that Pullman's trilogy "may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists. The series offers an extended celebration of the marvels of science: discoveries and theories from the outer reaches of cosmology—about dark matter and the possible existence of multiple universes—are threaded into the story."

Pullman told Miller that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is "fundamentally an infantile work.” He is not interested "in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.” Although the Narnia books "are a real wrestle with real things," and Tolkien's series is “just fancy spun candy," Pullman said that C.S. Lewis filled his books with "crazed, deranged Manichaeism...nauseating drivel." The idea of "keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong.”

Calling himself a religious person, but not a believer, Pullman told James Mustich in an interview for Barnes & Nobel Review, that "religion begins in story," as an "attempt to make sense of what is incomprehensible to us, what is inexplicable, what is awe-inspiring, what is frightening, what moves us to great wonder, and so on. " But when religion acquires political power -- Jesus and St. Paul were quite clear about this, "it decides who shall live and who shall die. It decides how we shall dress, what we shall be allowed to read, whether we shall go to war, and so on. When religion acquires that power, it goes bad very rapidly."

Equally rotten is a disembodied religion. The angels in His Dark Materials are envious of human beings. Will, the Adam of Pullman's story, sees this:
They wish they had bodies. They are envious of us. They wish they could smell the roasting coffee and these things. They can't understand why we, who have the power to feel these things, who have nerves and senses, aren't in a continual state of ecstasy. That we can touch things, that we can hear things and smell things, and taste things.
If there is one thing that he wants his readers to take from the trilogy, the author told Mustich, it is "this emphasis, this continuing and strong emphasis that I put on the value of being alive and having nerves and senses -- of having a physical body."

Margo Jefferson, who titled her review in the New York Times "Harry Potter for Grown-Ups," notes that Pullman is "passionately against any religion that puts its vision of the spirit and the afterlife above human life and the natural world, where our moral and spiritual tests as well as our pleasures are found." His Dark Materials, wrote Michael Chabon in the New York Review of Books, "is explicitly—and materially, and often smashingly—about humanity." The villain of the piece is Jehovah, a dried-up ancient of days who was never more than an angel, perhaps the first to become self-aware.

I have not tried to review His Dark Materials critically here and have made no effort to give a synopsis of the plot and the characters in the trilogy. If you're curious, read the books (and see the movie as a teaser). What interests me is Pullman's view of religion, at least the Judeo-Christian version (his this-worldly emphasis comes closer to Buddhism). There are others who have spoken to me of a way to talk about -- and live -- a new understanding of reality, prophets like Doestoevsky, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil and Thomas Merton. Perhaps I should include the Jesus of the Gospels (that he may only be a character in a story is unimportant).

Not long ago, I examined the recently published books by the new atheists, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Pullman, obviously a kindred soul, says of Dawkins' book, The God Delusion: "He seems to over-simplify, to insist on one single literal meaning for the word 'faith," and he doesn't acknowledge that God is a metaphor," perhaps a useful one. I think Pullman provides an alternative to the atheist nay-sayers by offering up a rich metaphor in his trilogy that shows why the "dark materials," matter and consciousness, are enough. We don't need, and in fact suffer from: God, Heaven and Hell. The world as it is, is holy. As William Blake wrote: "Eternity is in love with the productions of Time."


littlebang said...

It seems Pullman is a 'Descender' in Ken Wilbers terminology. Descenders however, never sense that there is anything 'other' that actually is beyond the 'normal' world of the senses. I'd agree with him entirely on Tolkein. Apparently when Lewis was listening to Tolkein doing a reading from LOTR he threw his hands in the air and said "oh no, not another *#@%ing goblin"

Anonymous said...

Much as ascribing virtue only to believers is dodgy, surely it is equally wrong to link the problems of abuse of power with religion. Just look at the 20c. It's no coincidence that Pullman's critique borrows so heavily from Blake and Milton - theirs was a critique of a episcopal faith. Largely, Pullman's is too, rather than 'the varieties of religious experience'. Plus, something makes me feel that Pullman's sensuous materialism differs somewhat from Blake's infinity.