I finally watched The Golden Compass; I have yet to read the books. The movie simply does not have any sort of atheist message. It does have a message against authority seeking to keep the lid on and prevent investigation of the truth. But the truth that is being opposed is “dust”, something mystical and magical. One could as easily interpret the movie in terms of a “scientific establishment” opposing religion, as vice versa.
The whole story is mythical and magical. And where exactly the dividing line is between “magical atheism” and “theistic naturalism” and “pantheism” is hard to determine, if there is indeed such a line to be drawn in any meaningful sense. But certainly a universe that contains “dust” and “witches” and “daemons” (in the classic Greek rather than Judeo-Christian sense) is clearly not the world that the so-called “new atheists” are telling us we inhabit. It is much more the universe that a different brand of atheists perceive, such as Jennifer Hecht, who recently spoke at Butler University.
A key issue is the extent to which one believes that, even if one doesn’t have all the answers, one has a worldview that is asking all the right questions. Then we must also ask about the place of the magical and the mysterious in a worldview that takes science seriously. Stories of the supernatural seem to be a natural part of childhood. Another key question is what stories we can tell children in the epic, mythic vein, that will not keep them in childish ways of thinking but prepare them well for adulthood.