The Golden Compass

You’re no doubt aware that there’s a new kids’ action/adventure film coming out called The Golden Compass. This film is already generating controversy because the author is an atheist, and Christian groups are already organizing to boycott this film because of its supposed atheist content.

I’ve already reviewed the book, specifically discussing its atheist content: in a nutshell, it doesn’t really have much atheist content, and I imagine that what little there is will be downplayed for the sake of the Christian audience.

What it does have is an exciting fantasy adventure with a girl as the protagonist. It also has a number of female characters in a variety of roles including the principal villain. And from following the talk about this book (and its trilogy) around the Internet, I know that the story is very popular and beloved by both boys and girls.

I can’t promise you in advance that this is a good film (although it’s based on a good book), but why not counter the boycott by supporting this film? If you have pre-teen or teenage kids (or nieces and nephews or something) who seem interested in the story, it might be a good time to treat them to a trip to the cinema. ;)

Comments

  1. ignotus says

    The golden compass doesn’t have any atheist content, but the other books in the series, especially the amber spyglass, are very explicitly against religious authority. Whether one reads them as being against catholicism, organized religion or theism in general is debatable, but fundie groups do have more to get up in arms about than you’re letting on.

    That said, I love the books to death, and am fervently hoping that the film will at least not taint my happy memories of them.

  2. Cara says

    As a liberal Christian, I have no problem with Pullman putting his religious opinions into his work, but I find his attitude in the media, especially towards other authors, to be distressing. How can it benefit him to vilify Tolkien and Lewis, for example? I find his decision to do so immature and off-putting.

    Given the seemingly unprovoked anger and aggression he displayed in the interviews I saw, even his choice to make his protagonist a girl doesn’t reassure me that the attitudes underlying the books will be something I want to expose myself to.

  3. says

    It almost seems too silly to call a movie with an actual god figure atheist, That seems to be the opposite of atheism. Now do the books have a hostility to religion…that is different.

    And I have to agree that he is hostile towards Tolkien in a way that is odd. There is a difference in not liking a book or writers style and putting it and the author down like he does. I hold a lot of his opinions on religion, but find his automated hostility awkward. But it doesn’t take away from the quality of his work in these three books.

    Definitely I am all the more spurred to see the film with the threatened boycott.

  4. Djiril says

    It almost seems too silly to call a movie with an actual god figure atheist, That seems to be the opposite of atheism.
    Except that the god figure isn’t actually god, he just claims to be.

  5. MaggieCat says

    How can it benefit him to vilify Tolkien and Lewis, for example?

    It just made me more interested in the books/movie- does that count? (I don’t have much of a problem with Tolkien, but I’m still mad at Lewis 16 years after reading ‘The Last Battle’.)

  6. says

    I agree, the books would be far better categorized as “anti-theist” than “atheist”. I discussed the anti-religion elements of the book in detail in my review An Atheist Fantasy? (which isn’t a feminist critique — it’s an ordinary review with a particular emphasis on the religious/atheistic aspects).

    The thing is that the series really does have some interesting and original elements to it and some Christians will enjoy it as a whole even if it doesn’t express their viewpoint exactly. With regards to the ideas of this site, the dominant group (Christians) might be curious as to how someone from a minority group (atheists) might view them. However, if they don’t want to know and they think they’ll probably be offended by this film, they can go right ahead and boycott it.

    Also, it’s true it’s a bit weird of Pullman to be denigrating Tolkien and Lewis. The comments I read to that effect didn’t come off as hostile but rather “my books are better than theirs.” Well, that’s for the readers and history to decide. ;)

    On the other hand, being an author doesn’t mean he stops having an opinion (possibly negative) of works that are similar to his own. And there are a lot of parallels among the three authors that encourage interviews to ask him about them.

  7. says

    I very much enjoyed the first book, “The Golden Compass,” and found the female characters to be really compelling. Lyra, the main character, avoids all types of stereotypes that female characters in children’s literature often exemplify. She isn’t a goodie-goodie or a love interest (although she gets one in later books). I’m very excited about this movie and have been promoting it on my own blog.

    The sad truth of the matter is, though, that atheist or anti-theist issues aside, the second two books in the trilogy are just a big mess. It is clear that Pullman had no plan from page to page where the story was going as he was writing and there are too many holes in the plot to name. Considering how compelling the first book is, the others are a real disappointment. As for the “characters representing Adam and Eve kill God” scandal – it is doesn’t even happen. Some sort of god-ish character dies, but it is really going to be anti-climatic for people expecting to be scandalized. If they make more movies, the script writers are going to have their work cut out for them.

  8. says

    The sad truth of the matter is, though, that atheist or anti-theist issues aside, the second two books in the trilogy are just a big mess. It is clear that Pullman had no plan from page to page where the story was going as he was writing and there are too many holes in the plot to name. Considering how compelling the first book is, the others are a real disappointment.

    I agree the first book is a lot better than the other two. He came up with a lot of imaginative ideas, but should have spent more time planning and plotting to make them work together better.

  9. Djiril says

    I was kind of disappointed in how Lyra’s personality changes after she meets Will. Maybe I’m forgetting some important plot points, (it’s been a while) but it’s like Will is handed all the initiative the minute he shows up. I would have liked to see him and Lyra clash personalities a bit more, instead of her deciding not do anything unless he says so (I think this was presented as a mistake, but still). It gets a bit better in the third book, I think. I should really reread the series sometime.

  10. Laura says

    I’m a Christian, and I quite like the books for their fantastic story and ideas. I plan to go see the movie, because Lyra is awesome and armored bears are even more awesome. The previews got me very excited–it looks like they did a fantastic job.

    But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of very anti-religious stuff in the books. It’s not just enough to say that everyone has a right to believe what they want–in Pullman’s world, “God” is evil, the church is evil, and people who believe in God are sadistic psychopaths, power-hungry villains, or deluded simpletons. THAT’S what’s offensive. That he goes to such great lengths to put down anything that has anything to do with faith in a higher being.

    I don’t know if I’ll see the other two movies, if they make them. I love the character of Will, and some of the ideas in those two books are very original. But I don’t want to support hatred in any form.

    The first one, though, is cool.

  11. says

    I would have liked to see him and Lyra clash personalities a bit more, instead of her deciding not do anything unless he says so (I think this was presented as a mistake, but still).

    That’s a good point.

    But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of very anti-religious stuff in the books. It’s not just enough to say that everyone has a right to believe what they want–in Pullman’s world, “God” is evil, the church is evil, and people who believe in God are sadistic psychopaths, power-hungry villains, or deluded simpletons. THAT’S what’s offensive. That he goes to such great lengths to put down anything that has anything to do with faith in a higher being.

    I talked about this in my review (linked above) and a lot of atheists discussing the book on the Internet have made similar remarks: it’s one think to do a critical portrait of religion, but he could have gone for a little more subtlety and nuance.

    That’s cool that you’re going to go see it anyway, though — a lot of Christians are. The story has fantastic imagery, of the type that would lend itself to the silver screen. And it’s true Lyra and the armored bears are awesome. :D

  12. Courtney Stoker says

    I talked about this in my review (linked above) and a lot of atheists discussing the book on the Internet have made similar remarks: it’s one think to do a critical portrait of religion, but he could have gone for a little more subtlety and nuance.

    Subtlety and nuance don’t get you anywhere with religion. As an atheist, Pullman clearly sees religion as at least ridiculous, and from the novels it’s pretty clear he also sees it as dangerous. That’s not necessarily hate, and it is certainly not something he should ignore or whitewash. I’m a little irritated that the movies are less about religion, but I understand why it was done.

    I think the last two books are easier to read if you’ve read Paradise Lost.

    Also, Lewis is a racist; I love his books, but his descriptions of what are obviously Middle-Eastern people make me bristle every time I read them. I don’t blame Pullman for pointing this out about a man who is made out to be so wonderful by so many Christians.

  13. says

    I think the last two books are easier to read if you’ve read Paradise Lost.

    I’ve read a bunch of people making this remark lately. I wish I’d been aware of the connection before reading them — I’ll be sure to read Paradise Lost before reading these books again.

    Subtlety and nuance don’t get you anywhere with religion. As an atheist, Pullman clearly sees religion as at least ridiculous, and from the novels it’s pretty clear he also sees it as dangerous.

    I’m not sure I really agree that subtlety and nuance don’t get you anywhere with religion. If you portray religious people as all crazy and/or cynical power-mongers, then normal religious people will most likely dismiss everything you have to say about religion, and you won’t make any inroads with them. Not to fall into Pullman’s trap of comparing oneself favorably to similar authors ;) but I feel like this novel gives a decently nuanced portrait of the complex relationship between young people and religion.

    Also, Lewis is a racist; I love his books, but his descriptions of what are obviously Middle-Eastern people make me bristle every time I read them. I don’t blame Pullman for pointing this out about a man who is made out to be so wonderful by so many Christians.

    I haven’t read anything by Lewis, but that’s unfortunate if his works encourage racism, and it’s perfectly reasonable for Pullman to warn against this.

  14. Djiril says

    Also, Lewis is a racist; I love his books, but his descriptions of what are obviously Middle-Eastern people make me bristle every time I read them. I don’t blame Pullman for pointing this out about a man who is made out to be so wonderful by so many Christians.

    Yeah. I think that is why the people making movies of the Narnia books haven’t done “The Horse and His Boy.”
    I remember cracking up at the part where one of the “middle eastern” characters makes a reference to “those barberic, but very sexy, people to the north.” (Obviously not the exact wording.)

  15. MaggieCat says

    I think that is why the people making movies of the Narnia books haven’t done “The Horse and His Boy.”

    Yeah, I find it interesting that they have a tentative release date for “The Last Battle” (2013) but are only ‘retaining the option to make THaHB in the future’. Which makes me sad for several reasons- “The Horse and His Boy” was one of my favorites of the Chronicles (I love the horses enough to grit my way through the depiction of the Calormenes, although I’ll admit that I tend to just skip or skim those parts now).

    And as I’ve said I have many problems with “The Last Battle”, including the idea that the Calormen god Tash is basically evil and ‘all good acts done in his name’ are done for Aslan, and all evil acts done in Aslan’s name are done for Tash. I find it unbelievably disturbing that one culture’s God is basically equated with Satan rather than having Aslan/Tash coexist where there’s a choice and free will- nope, it’s just “this whole culture reveres evil, and anyone over there who does good must have really meant to direct it to our God”, and I’m an atheist. The fact that this evil god just happens to belong to the one non-white culture in the books is just the frosting on the extremely offensive cake.

  16. Courtney Stoker says

    If you portray religious people as all crazy and/or cynical power-mongers, then normal religious people will most likely dismiss everything you have to say about religion, and you won’t make any inroads with them.

    While I understand that, I don’t think “moderate” or “liberal” Christians are really any better than the crazies, because the fundies just have beliefs that all Christians have and take them to their logical extreme, which is unpleasant. But being apologetic and saying, “Oh, you moderate Christians, you’re not as bad as the rest of them” is not helpful or constructive. Sorry, but you are as bad as the rest of them because you also believe things without evidence, which is the real crime of the religious, and the source of all the monstrous things performed in the name of religion. Faith can turn perfectly normal human beings into intolerant bigots and murderers. Most will stay normal human beings, yes, but they are participating in the cause of the others turning, which they should recognize. Faith is dangerous.

    To me, the best way to address moderate Christians and thus have them not ignore you is to directly address them. Pullman’s novels, however, do not address faith or evidence, but the scary thing that religion can become if we allow it authority, so it’s not exactly appropriate for moderate Christians to ignore. The only Christians who won’t see themselves in this picture are those who disagree with the concept of churches and public religion, which are few and far between.

  17. says

    While I haven’t read Pullman, I do generally think… well, at the very least, why should atheism pull more punches than writers like C.S. Lewis? Christians have been very aggressive getting their message across (and silencing others, in some cases), so there’s no reason atheists should hold back.

    But:

    While I understand that, I don’t think “moderate” or “liberal” Christians are really any better than the crazies, because the fundies just have beliefs that all Christians have and take them to their logical extreme, which is unpleasant.

    I’m going to have to disagree with that. Before I say why, I’ll mention I was raised and well-schooled in mainstream American Baptist Christianity, and later became an atheist, so I’ll confine my remarks to a study of Christianity (not to exclude other religions, but just to stick to what I know).

    Jesus taught love the sinner, hate the sin: most fundies have that one backwards (as they seem to sin a whole lot, then castigate others for lesser misdeeds). Jesus said it’s not what you eat or who you associate with that defiles you; it’s what you do and say and live that can defile you. Again, most fundies have that backwards.

    The church I grew up in taught me that the fundies were wrong, wrong, wrong and may well end up being the ruination of Christianity (and I believe this more than ever now), but they still taught me not to hate them. Again, the fundies just wouldn’t get that one.

    So it’s not that they take the core beliefs to the extreme, it’s that they take the core fears of being human and PROJECT those onto the religion of their choice. If religion was gone, they’d just find a way to project it onto a sitcom or a novel or a billboard. What’s wrong with fundies has nothing to do with religion, IMO.

    What’s wrong with fundies is unenlightened self-interst. Same thing that’s wrong with everybody else. ;)

  18. Courtney Stoker says

    Fundamentalists take propositions most Christians have, like “God is perfect” and “The Bible is the Word of God” and take them to their logical extreme. They are almost always justified by the Bible in the things they do. God is wrathful and just plain evil in the Bible, particularly in the OT, and the NT tells us (even Jesus tells us) not to ignore the OT. I think fundamentalists are not actually crazy all the time, because I don’t think they’re all bad people. They’re just logical, and once you accept that the Bible is (at least) the inspired work of God and God is perfect, then you simply can’t ignore the Bible like most moderate Christians do. Your church focused on Jesus’s teachings, but even Jesus’s teachings told us not to ignore old Biblical law. Your reading pathology into all fundamentalists (which is quite a lot and so quite a leap, almost as silly as folks who claim all atheists are pathological) when everything (pretty much) they do and believe come straight from the “good book.” It’s sure easy to focus on the “God Hates Fags” people and write them off as crazy, but they’re right. Biblegod is wrathful, and the U.S. would certainly not be the first place he destroyed because of rampant sin. He may have promised not to flood the world again, but he sure as hell didn’t promise not to do another Sodom and Gomorrah.

    The church you grew up in was wrong. They aren’t following strictly the teachings of the Bible, and, as a result, they refuse to see that their own beliefs are the basis for fundamentalists’ beliefs. That’s the problem with all moderate and liberal Christians. Fundamentalists obviously do not have a good grip on reality, so they want to separate themselves from them. But if your basic beliefs are the logical base from which fundies get their own beliefs, you can’t separate yourself.

  19. says

    Courtney, I’m getting the feeling you’re here for a crusade, not a discussion.

    Fundamentalists take propositions most Christians have, like “God is perfect” and “The Bible is the Word of God” and take them to their logical extreme.

    There is no logical extreme because the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways. Saying God is perfect doesn’t resolve the debate EVEN AMONG FUNDIES as to what every verse in the Bible is actually saying. That’s the fundamental flaw in your logic which you’re not addressing.

    They are almost always justified by the Bible in the things they do.

    Nope, only by THEIR INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE. Which millions of Christians will disagree with in thousands of ways. Hence the ironically large number of denominations of various Christians who can’t get along with each other enough to be in the same church.

    They’re just logical, and once you accept that the Bible is (at least) the inspired work of God and God is perfect, then you simply can’t ignore the Bible like most moderate Christians do.

    Not in the slightest. You seem to think the Bible states one thing clearly, that there is only one translation let alone interpretation. There is no single literal interpretation of the Bible and all your arguments seem to rest on the wildly unfounded and inaccurate assumption that there is. And there is no “logical” reason why someone chooses one interpretation of the Bible over another. Well, from a scholarly standpoint you could make some logical arguments, but I don’t think that’s what believers look for.

    Your reading pathology into all fundamentalists (which is quite a lot and so quite a leap, almost as silly as folks who claim all atheists are pathological) when everything (pretty much) they do and believe come straight from the “good book.”

    Here’s why your next comments will be moderated. I did NOT read pathology into anything. I said fundamentalism is how they cope with “basic human fears”. The rest of us cope with those same fears, only differently.

    Don’t twist my words, or anyone else’s.

    Biblegod is wrathful, and the U.S. would certainly not be the first place he destroyed because of rampant sin. He may have promised not to flood the world again, but he sure as hell didn’t promise not to do another Sodom and Gomorrah.

    That bit is true.

    The church you grew up in was wrong.

    Funny, that’s just what the fundies said, and that’s who you sound like. Only I think its you and they who was wrong. See above for my remarks on why there are so many denominations, all of whom believe only they interpret the Bible correctly.

    They aren’t following strictly the teachings of the Bible, and, as a result, they refuse to see that their own beliefs are the basis for fundamentalists’ beliefs.

    Bullshit. They’re following the teachings according to their interpretation, and they believe the fundies are following an interpretation they pulled out of their ass.

    But if your basic beliefs are the logical base from which fundies get their own beliefs, you can’t separate yourself.

    But they aren’t and that’s what you don’t get.

    AND you’re missing the whole OTHER set of problems inherent in moderate religion by linking it (more than tenuously) to people who bomb abortions and thinking that makes the point for you. Fundies are the same in Christianity, Islam and any other religion I’m aware of. They find ways to interpret their scripture – or their copy of Catcher in the Rye, or the hole in the ozone later, or talk radio’s latest proclamation – to somehow say whatever they want to hear. These people don’t believe in God in the slightest, and they’ll transfer their “faith” to a political party or a charismatic tyrant at a moment’s notice – I’ve seen it happen. They have no faith.

    The problems with moderate religion are a whole other set which I won’t get into because this thread is already pointless enough.

  20. Courtney Stoker says

    I’m not here for a “crusade.” I simply think people who act like atheists’ problems with religion are limited to craziness are wrong. The problem with religion is that believers believe things without evidence. The craziness comes after.

    Sure, moderates may “interpret” verses that flat-out tell you to stone people who work on Sunday however they wish, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take a lot of interpretation to get the message. Fundies twist certain verses to fit their world-view and moderates do the same (particularly with Pauline verses about women). They have the same problem, though, and that’s that they both believe the Bible is the word of God. That’s why I don’t think moderates get off the hook. They give justification for what fundamentalists believe.

    I “sound like” a fundamentalist because I take the Bible at its word. If it says thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, I believe what it means is thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Happily, I also think it’s bullshit. I don’t believe in God, and I think the Bible is simply an outdated collection of beliefs/stories/myths. But if you allow that God exists and wrote a book, you really can’t blame fundamentalists for reading the book and trying to follow its directions.

  21. says

    Thanks for tempering your tone. I understand what you’re saying better now.

    You’re simplifying the Bible in precisely the same way fundamentalists do – latching onto phrases that serve a purpose and ignoring all the other phrases that contradict it. or serve another purpose. If this is the argument you present to moderate Christians, they’re going to ignore you for the same reason they ignore fundamentalists.

    I don’t think it’s belief in things you can’t prove that screws you up – there are a lot of things science can’t prove, or proves then later disproves as we learn more. It’s when people marry their beliefs, invest more in the idea of being right than of learning what’s right that it becomes a problem. If a scientist is obsessed with being right, so much so that she might kill another scientist to make sure she isn’t proven wrong, that’s just as disturbing to me as someone killing people in the name of their god.

  22. SunlessNick says

    I was kind of disappointed in how Lyra’s personality changes after she meets Will. Maybe I’m forgetting some important plot points, (it’s been a while) but it’s like Will is handed all the initiative the minute he shows up. I would have liked to see him and Lyra clash personalities a bit more, instead of her deciding not do anything unless he says so - Djiril

    That doesn’t sound encouraging. I saw the film the day before yesterday (my first experience of the story), and Lyra does not seem like a “wait for the say-so” kind of girl.

  23. Patrick says

    I’m coming to this late, but I do have a few things to add.

    What bugs me about HDM is not that it presents an ultimately atheistic universe (since the Authority is not the creator of the universe). One of my favorite writers is J. Michael Straczinsky, and his best work, Babylon 5, presents an essentially atheistic universe, and he makes no bones about his own atheism.

    What bothers me about HDM, and has prevented me from seeing the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, is Pullman’s ham-fisted “Christianity is bad and evil” message. Attacking someone else’s religion in this way is not okay with me. It does not matter to me that Pullman is an atheist.

    I’ve heard a lot of people claim that HDM is anti-authoriarian, not anti-Christian. I wonder if the actually read the books, since Pullman speaks very clearly and specifically against Christianity as a whole (not just Catholicism or organized religion).

    Now, I am a Christian (specifically, a Quaker of a metatheistic angle). So anyone arguing against authoritarianism in religion has a very receptive audience with me. One of my favorite passages in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose features an eloquent explanation of why an organized religion with secular authority is one of the worst things you can do – for the religion itself, not just in general. And while he does have zealous Christians as villains (including historical Inquistor Bernarndo Gui), he doesn’t proclaim, as Pullman does, that their religion is the basis of their villainy.

    This was pretty rambling, but in a nutshell: I despise HDM, not because it is atheistic, but because it is bigoted and ham-handed. Plus, armored bears don’t do anything for me.

  24. SunlessNick says

    One of my favorite writers is J. Michael Straczinsky, and his best work, Babylon 5, presents an essentially atheistic universe, and he makes no bones about his own atheism. - Patrick

    And yet he frequently manages to write very positive portrayals of religion and religious people. Something I’m not sure Pullman could do (and yes, I mean could, not would).

  25. Gategrrl says

    It helps that he hired some excellent character actors; I think without those actors, his writing seemed much better than it actually was. Most of them were able to “sell” their characters and their dialogue. The exception to that was Delenn’s actress, and the guy who played the first commander.

    But the way religion was threaded into the plot was nice: he dealt with fanaticsm of all sorts, from the religious to the political (with the telepaths) to the fanaticism of the heroes.

  26. Patrick says

    Precisely. JMS is quite capable of writing characters that he respects, even if he disagrees with them. Pullman does not seem capable of that.

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