Dust and Demons

Dust and Demons March 24, 2008

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.

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  • I did a brief review here – good stuff INHO.

  • george dw

    The later books do, however, have an overtly atheist (or perhaps I should say anti-theist) message. If His Dark Materials were The Lord of the Rings, God would have Sauron’s role.

  • I’m not sure that I agree…unless you actually see God as the old weak being portrayed in the latter books, which perhaps Pullman does. You could just as easily take it as symbolic of the corruption of present religion and clearing the way for a newer, truer vision. *shrugs*

  • Donna Freitas, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University, actually thinks Pullman’s trilogy is “is a beautiful story, and a Christian story.”But I haven’t read the books either. The movie barely made sense (and then only if you first read reviews explaining the story) and supposedly some of the “atheistic” themes were downplayed.

  • I didn’t think anyone who hadn’t read the books would be able to follow the movie. (The above comment leads me to think I was at least in part correct!)The books are wonderful. I didn’t get the brouhaha about them being all “atheist” (until you verbalize the characters – god is a dying old man who should be put down, etc.).The writing itself is probably my favorite part of the books – they’re ostensibly children/young adult books, but they’re not dumbed down and treat the reader with so much respect it’s amazing. The plots were decent enough, and I did find that once I started reading I couldn’t stop, but there’s a lot more hype to these books than I think is deserved. But really amazing writing.