Pete Vere thought reviews for the book The Golden Compass looked good, but he had a “sense that something was wrong here.”
“I went home and looked it up on the Internet and found out, ‘Oh my gosh. This is not good,’” he recalled. “From there I went to the library and borrowed the books, and it wasn’t as bad as they said — it was worse.”
Vere, author of Surprised by Canon Law 2 and other Catholic books, began to pen articles warning about the dangers lurking in The Golden Compass, based on the work of Philip Pullman.
His efforts attracted the attention of friend and fellow author Sandra Miesel, and the two collaborated on Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy (available through Ignatius Press and at atheismforchildren.com).
Vere talked from his home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.
Had you heard of Philip Pullman before Golden Compass?
I had recognized the name but … I had never encountered his works. Occasionally during the debate over Harry Potter I would hear someone say, “Why are we worked up over Harry Potter when there’s Philip Pullman doing this and promoting atheism?”
What was the first book of his that you read, and what was your first impression?
I started at the beginning of the trilogy [His Dark Materials], which is The Golden Compass, and I read them through. By the time I got to the third book I could only read them about one chapter at a time, which is more than a lot for Christians. Given my canon law background, I had been through a lot of ugly things, so I had a stronger stomach than I think a lot of Catholic parents have, and also having been into the occult as a teenager. But this is by far the worst stuff I had ever read in terms of undermining God and faith in young people.
Give me a few examples of ways in which Pullman attacks Christianity.
The plot of the story is that these two 12-year-old kids — I’m simplifying a little bit — set out to overthrow the “Authority.” We have some sense the Authority is God, but it becomes very explicit in the third book.
When asked to identify the Authority, the two angels that are fighting on the side of the protagonists, which are the two 12-year-olds, use most of God’s Scriptural names. I mention this because Pullman’s now doing some backtracking. But it’s very clear that in using the Scriptural names that we know which God Pullman is talking about.
[Secondly], the church in Pullman’s universe has the college of cardinals, has priests, has bishops and at one time had a pope, as well. It uses a bible in which the passages quoted out of it are very similar to our own. And a third thing — there are hundreds of things, I’m just picking three out — is that one of the main characters who is a supporter of Lyra and Will, the two 12-year-olds, is a former Irish nun from our world who abandoned her vocation to pursue science and sexual relationships. I know these things happen in real life, but it’s inappropriate for 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds.
How does Pullman make atheism attractive to children?
The church is an institution that in this world resembles basically Chinese communism in terms of its use of torture and totalitarianism. Similarly, God is very weak. He’s an angel who lied by claiming that he was the creator, and by the end of the book he’s senile, as well, and he just falls apart materially. They don’t even kill him, he just falls apart.
The very idea that God is formed of matter and can just fall apart like any other creature: It undermines the concept of God. And his assistant, Metatron, is very possessive and is a dictator.
So Pullman’s first tactic is to make Christianity look evil or oppressive. Having made it look oppressive, what Pullman then presents is a universe where when people die, their spirits fall apart and they just sort of recycle into the universe.
Is Pullman an atheist?
His earlier comments, interviews and affiliations would suggest that he is. Whether I can say definitively, only Pullman knows what he believes at any particular time.
Is he more anti-religion than atheist?
We can always conclude by previous comments that there’s a disdain for Christianity. There’s a disdain for Christian writers, and the Inklings such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien.
He has made comments to that affect, that he intended this as an anti-Narnia. The way his books function, he’s in many ways taking Lewis’ imagery and inverting it. His first book of His Dark Materials, which is a reference from Milton’s Paradise Lost, begins the same way as Lewis: a young girl hiding in the closet of an academic.
What are some of Pullman’s literary and philosophical sources?
Definitely John Milton. He has borrowed from the Inkling tradition of Lewis, Tolkien. Of Socrates. But it’s to invert and undermine that tradition.
And that’s one of the problems with the books: He borrows from many traditions, but it is often to undermine what is good, what is traditional.
What are some of his moral propositions?
Probably the first one is that the ends justify the means. Characters engage in all sorts of unethical behavior without having to face any serious consequences. For example, Lyra’s father, who at first she believes is her uncle, kills a child at the end of the first book. Apparently this part was omitted from the movie.
He kills a child — Lyra’s best friend, in fact — to open a portal to another world. And Lyra’s upset about this, but ultimately she reconciles herself to it and her father never faces any serious consequences. He’s still portrayed as a heroic figure.
A second moral problem is that you have an ex-nun who’s talking to two 12-year-olds about her sex life and about how that was one of the reasons she left the convent. This is what leads the children to engage in, at the very minimum, some heavy kissing, although there’s some suggestion it may have gone further than that; it’s not explicit in the text.
You also say there is violence in the book. That can be found in Narnia and Lord of the Rings, too. But is there a difference in the violence in Dark Materials?
The violence in Narnia and Lord of the Rings, it’s not described in as much detail. It’s not as gratuitous. They’re done by the evil characters to establish that they’re evil and to forward the plot. When it’s done by the good characters … with a few exceptions it’s done because they’re trying to repel the violence being done to them and to restore peace and order. Pullman’s universe is intrinsically chaotic and disordered.
Tell me a bit about atheismforchildren.com. Who is the intended audience and what will they find on the site?
They’ll find links to interviews … selections from the book … means of ordering the book … reference materials. We’re not calling for people to go out and picket this movie, but rather we’re making parents aware that these books contain a message that is not agreeable … to the Catholic faith.
Parents … have to know how to be able to talk to their children about it, why stories are so powerful. After all, Christ uses their power in the Gospels. Each of his parables is a story.
From what we’ve been told, the movie … has been gutted of a lot of its much more objectionable material. The problem here is parents will see the movie and they might say, “It’s just a movie” or “It’s overblown” and not realize what’s in the book, whereas the children will see the movie and their curiosity will be piqued in the book.
If Pullman was just writing dry academic treatises he would be for the most part ignored. But he’s writing stories that are for the most part directed at children.
Does a boycott do more good for the movie than is intended?
I think it depends how the boycott is carried out. We have to look at it from this perspective: Why should we pay Pullman and Hollywood to undermine our faith, which is the faith we’re trying to share with our children?
Anthony Flott writes from