Tue
Sep 24 2013 2:00pm
The Religious Controversy Surrounding Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman His Dark Materials It’s easy to scoff at accusations of the promotion of witchcraft in the Harry Potter series, or of pornography in Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. But defending a book on the Banned Books list from charges that the author confirms—well, that’s a horse of a different color! Or is it?

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series was number 8 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000-2009. In 2007, the Catholic League campaigned against The Golden Compass, declaring that it promoted atheism and attacked Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. In a later interview with the Guardian Pullman partially confirmed this, saying “In one way, I hope the wretched organisation will vanish entirely.”

But he’s also made it clear that it’s not God or religion he objects to, rather the way that the structures and ideas are used for ill:

“[I]n my view, belief in God seems to be a very good excuse, on the part of those who claim to believe, for doing many wicked things that they wouldn’t feel justified in doing without such a belief.”

I didn’t encounter His Dark Materials until I was in my 20s, but dove into it with glee—I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow a delight in magical worlds just a hop, skip, and a jump away from our own. Whether Lyra was scrambling around Oxford, trekking across frozen wastes, or plunging into the Land of the Dead, I was right there behind her, pulled along by the story. I could ask for no better companions than Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby, and I doubt I’m alone in having devoted time to considering what shape my daemon would take. There are as many ways to read a book as there are readers, and what I got out it was a sense of adventure, the importance of a personal moral compass, and a lot of fond daydreams. The religious controversy over the books passed me by until I went looking—as there was plenty of talk about religion in my life growing up, I’ve never felt a need to go looking for it in fiction. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

One could argue that while the disdain for organized religion and bureaucracy registers in Pullman’s books as well as in his interviews, it doesn’t prevent them from containing all kinds of mystical elements. There are witches with super powers, embodied souls in the form of daemons, a trip to the underworld. One could further say that they promote a sense of spirituality and a belief in the possibility of things beyond our comprehension. There’s a word for that; some call it faith. This argument, of course, is unlikely to hold weight with anyone who objects to the series. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, and each reader finds something different in a book. Pullman himself said it best, as part of a Q&A:

“Whatever I told you would have little importance compared to what the story itself is telling you. Attend to that, and I don’t matter at all.”

The ultimate point of celebrating Banned Books Week is not to defend challenged books against specific charges, but to celebrate the freedom to read. And the freedom to read includes the freedom to read books that are maybe a little old for us, or over our heads, or take us in a direction we weren’t planning on going. To read books that contain ideas that we might not agree with, and to sharpen our own ideas by comparison. The freedom to find our own way, to have adventures and get a little lost and then find our way back, and be the wiser for it—just like Lyra.

Banned Books Week 2013 is being celebrated from Sept. 22 to the 28; further information on Banned and Frequently Challenged Books is available from the American Library Association.


Jenn Northington is an independent bookseller, the events director for WORD bookstores, and comes from a long line of nerds.

43 comments
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
1. Jonathan Andrew Sheen
His Dark Materials absolutely attacks the Catholic church in particular and organized religion in general, promotes atheism -- or at least its more honest and scientific cousin, for which it is too often mistaken, agnosticism -- and celebrates the loss of innocence, particularly sexual innocence, and the entry into adulthood.

So what?

There are plenty of popular books that promote Christianity -- The Chronicles of Narnia are the most obvious example -- and nobody seeks to ban them. Authors get to promote their religious beliefs, including the belief that religion is a source of terrible evil and darkness in the world.

It's perfectly simple to shut down those who say Pullman should be banned because he attacks religion. "Yes, he does. So what? Go read C.S. Lewis if you prefer."
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
2. lach7
@1
Completely agree.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
3. J Town
Can we just change the name of the week to "Suck it, religion! week"?

Also, you cited one of my least favorite quotes from an author not named Terry Goodkind.

“n my view, belief in God seems to be a very good excuse, on the part of those who claim to believe, for doing many wicked things that they wouldn’t feel justified in doing without such a belief.”

Horrible generalization, especially if you believe that the man chose his words carefully (as an author, you would assume so) and specifically said "on the part of those who believe" when asserting that a belief in God serves as justification for doing wicked things. He didn't say "some who believe" or that it "can lead to wicked things". As stated, it's an absolute assertion that those who believe in God do many wicked things and use that belief as their justification to do so. Absolute garbage. But acceptable to many, because it's anti-religion, not pro.

However, don't ban these books. That lends credence to the idea that someone is afraid of the message in them. By all means, read them. Read the author's thoughts and judge for yourselves. That is the best way to expose such ideas for the intolerant, hateful message that they contain, and to put in stark relief the hypocrisy in inherent in espousing such beliefs.

The knife isn't really that subtle, folks.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
4. J Town
And a pox on unintended italics and typos, just for good measure. :-)
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
5. jrh402s
Plus, The Chronicles of Narnia have been banned too. Sometimes for promoting mischief in children which is surely a sign of a great book.
Patti Taylor
6. sapience14
I wish people, especially Christians, who wished to ban books would read Milton's Areopagitica first, with its wonderful and astonishing defense of freedom of the press and a rejection of banning books: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."

Personally, I found Pullman's atheistic didacticism infuriating, and was peeved out of proportion by blah reinterpretation of Milton's Paradise Lost from an atheist perspective that self-destructed when it transformed Lyra into a Christ figure... but that is no reason at all to ban the book. Milton himself would have objected.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
7. NoahSmith
@3 - I think you're ignoring where he says : "In my view"
Scott Silver
8. hihosilver28
I really didn't enjoy the His Dark Materials trilogy. Not for the beliefs of the author, but because of the awful finale. The series just got unhinged at the end of The Amber Spyglass. And I agree with @sapience14 that Pullman's atheistic didacticism was frustrating.

Absolutely no reason to ban a book, and I would never suggest it.

On that note, is there ever a circumstance when a book should be banned? I honestly can't think of any...ever. Unless we're talking about a Monty Python skit. The joke so funny that it kills you comes to mind. ;-)
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
9. Gerry__Quinn
Wow, a "banned books week" where none of the books are actually banned.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
10. J Town
No, I'm not ignoring it. I simply don't accept that as a mitigating factor. Adding three words to the beginning of that statement doesn't make it any better.
Janice Eisen
11. Inconstant_Reader
Many times, the allegations made against books on this list are untrue or distorted. In this case, as others have said in this thread, these particular charges are completely true. And indeed, the worst parts of the book are where Pullman gets too preachy about his atheism/anti-religiousness.

But the books are still wondrous, and they tell a terrific story about friendship, determination/perseverance, the passion for inquiry, and selflessness. I always cry when Lyra and Will have to part at the end.

P.S. Our cats are named Pan and Kirjava.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
12. J Town
It has been a few years since I read these, but can anyone explain to me exactly why Lyra and Will had to part at the end? I recall that particularly part bugging me quite a bit, because I didn't see the actual need for it. But I could have missed something.
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
@12: Apparently, you can't survive more than 10 years in someone else's universe, so Will had to return home.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
14. treeandleaf
Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury, distinguished theologian, and something of an SFF fan) wrote an interesting reflection on His Dark Materials for the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/mar/10/theatre.religion It's primarily on the theatre adaptation, but he describes his reaction to Pullman's criticism of the Church, finally concluding:
this should not be read as a way of wriggling out of Pullman's
challenges to institutional religion. I end where I started. If the
Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God? What would a
church life look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine
freedom enabling human freedom? A modern French Christian writer
spoke about "purification by atheism" - meaning faith needed to be
reminded regularly of the gods in which it should not believe. I think
Pullman and Wright do this very effectively for the believer.
Sean Tabor
15. wingracer
@8 "On that note, is there ever a circumstance when a book should be banned?
I honestly can't think of any...ever. Unless we're talking about a
Monty Python skit. The joke so funny that it kills you comes to mind.
;-)"

Excellent question. In my opinion, no but there are some things that really push that belief. In celebration of banned books week, I have been looking for and reading some banned books. The first one was
Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. This book was banned because a murder or two was committed by people using the book as a manual. Having read the book, I think that's a pretty dumb thing to do as the info in the book is not all that good but it does stretch the "no censorship" belief.

Same story with The Anarchist Cookbook.

Now I am reading Lolita, a book often cited as promoting pedophilia. I have only just started reading it and don't see it that way but it does raise a question. We don't seem to have any problems with banning child pornagraphy. So is it not true that we do not see anything wrong with banning a book, we just don't don't want anything that isn't too grossly offensive or illegal banned?
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
16. decgem
@9 the point of Banned Books Week isn't really about kcvetching about books that have successfully been banned (which is, indeed, very few, in the grand scheme of things, especially in recent times), but rather to celebrate the very act of opposing censorship and promoting the free expression and consumption of ideas.

So a banned Books Week without Banned Books is the most successful kind of Banned Books Week :-)
Scott Silver
17. hihosilver28
@wingracer
I think the biggest difference between books and child pornography is that the latter has directly caused irreperable harm to someone to create the "art". Books are sprung entirely from the imagination of the author and have harmed no one. The ideas may be offensive, but they are just ideas. Unless the author is using someones body parts to write the book (Necronomicon style), I can't see how the process of writing a book would harm someone. (Obviously releasing information can cause harm (see WikiLeaks), and performing research into illegal subject matter too)
Brian R
19. Mayhem
@15
One major issue with the Anarchist's Cookbook that should see it go out of circulation is that most of its recipes are about as effective as Swedish Lemon Angels, and a good way for the young and foolish not to become old and wise.

On the other hand, I'm a firm believer in the rights of kids to discover how to make and effectively use stink bombs and smoke bombs. Our generation got to have fun ... why shouldn't they?
Nathan Martin
20. lerris
@3
First, you quote the phrase "on the part of those who claim to believe" by Pullman, and make the effort to affirm that you believe he chose his words carefully.

Then you make an argument about what he's saying based on the phrasing "on the part of those who believe."

The words you omitted in the second instance, "claim to," change the meaning of the phrase, and undermine your statement that Pullman has made an absolute assertion regarding believers.

You make a good point, but defeat your own argument by expressing the belief that Pullman chose his words carefully, and then ignoring his word choice.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
21. kimikimi
Here's this year's ALA shortlist if anyone is interested.
http://www.ila.org/BannedBooks/BBW_2012-2013_Shortlist.pdf
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
22. Stargeezer
Personally, I think Pullman is a great storyteller, and I really love parts of HIS DARK MATERIALS. The whole thing falls apart at the end, with characters suddenly reversing course for no reason, it is didactic, and the whole PARADISE LOST thing does completely fail. BUT--its got some great characters, great scenes, and great lines. What it does well, it does really really well. It would be great for a book discussion.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
23. treeandleaf
@15

The thing about child pornography, if you mean photographs or videos, is that, by the very fact that it's been made, it has already caused serious harm to a child. That puts it in a different category to literature, however offensive, to my mind. (No children were actually harmed in the making of "Lolita.")
Sean Tabor
24. wingracer
@23

Yes indeed, but what about simulated (animated, cgi, love dolls, etc.) child pornagraphy? In many places (including the U.S.) that is illegal as well despite no actual children being used or harmed in the making.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
25. Maac
@ 3 - Mind blowing though it is to me to be coming to the defense of Goodkind, I think there's somthing significant being overlooked here:
Horrible generalization, especially if you believe that the man chose his words carefully (as an author, you would assume so) and specifically said "on the part of those who believe" when asserting that a belief in God serves as justification for doing wicked things. He didn't say "some who believe" or that it "can lead to wicked things". As stated, it's an absolute assertion that those who believe in God do many wicked things and use that belief as their justification to do so.
He did not say "those who believe." He said (at least according to your post, which is all I have to go on) "those who *claim* to believe." This to me reads like a clear assertion of hypocrisy -- that is to say, there are pepole who "claim" to believe but actually do not. Which is for most intents and purposes identical to your own phrase "some who believe."


I am, of course, coming at this from my own viewoint and religious background, in which great emphasis was put on the strong distinction between those who claim belief (aka hypocrites, as decried by Christ extensively in Matthew, and akin to Goodkind's exmaple of people who cynically use religion to their own ends) and those who actually believe.

So... and this is completely disorienting to me, seriously -- I do not believe that Goodkind is making the generalization you attribute to him, here.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
26. kimikimi
The difference usually falls to weather something is judged to be obsene and thus not protected by the first amendment (States only, of course). Legally they use the Miller test which goes as follows:
The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

It's the last part that gets things that people judge as obsene away from being banned, because they have something more to offer then just violence or smut for shocks sake.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
27. Maac
D'OH, and you were not talking about Goodkind. My bad, my bad, by very big bad.

I stand by the argument and rescind all the other stuff. I'm not going to edit as I don't want to be revisionist. But while I can't read Goodkind, I *like* Pullman and don't believe he was making such a sweeping generalization -- in fact, I would believe it less about Pullman than Goodkind.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
28. Lisamarie
I'm religious (and spiritual ;) - Catholic specifically ) but I love the Pullman books as stories. For that matter, I greatly enjoyed the Sword of Truth series as well. No, I don't agree with all of their ideas. But they were both entertaining stories, and they made me think. And I was still Catholic at the end of reading both of them ;) My beliefs aren't so flimsy that I can't expose myself to another viewpoint. This is not to say I don't have standards as to what I read...there definitely are things I choose not to partake in. But I definitely enjoyed this series, although I agree with some of the above thoughts on the third book.

Funny thing is, I was given my copies of the first two books in His Dark Materials by my cousin, who used to review children's books for a newspaper and often gave me the copies of the books. This cousin is a Christian of a more fundamentalist flavor and has even expressed dissaproval of things like Harry Potter (a viewpoint which I disagree with but respect her right to hold - if she doesn't want to read or have those things in her home, that is her right.).
Alan Brown
29. AlanBrown
I always think that those who try to ban things they don't believe in are on the wrong track. If someone's faith is not strong enough to withstand a rigorous argument with someone who believes differently, I would suggest that, rather than avoiding arguments, they might want to examine their faith.
Brent Longstaff
30. Brentus
As a religious person, I was not offended by HDM, although I did get bored in the third book and never ended up finishing. As far as I got though, the "Authority" god figure they were against is far more similar to Satan than God in Christianity. And if an atheist hates how religion is used as an excuse for evil, then religious people should feel even more so. I'm not sure why I got bored in book 3, I don't remember much of it, but I loved the first 2 books.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
31. Stargazer
@8, amen to that! :-) The problem with these books is not the argument against organized religion, it's that Pullman bludgeons you over the head with that argument in lieu of telling a good story with a compelling ending. It just utterly falls flat on its face at the end unsatisfyingly.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
32. JohnElliott
@8 On that note, is there ever a circumstance when a book should be banned?

If it infringes someone else's copyright? :-)
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
33. Caleb Woodbridge
I'm a Christian and I really enjoyed His Dark Materials, and Northern Lights is one of my favourite books ever. But I did think that The Amber Spyglass in particular lost the plot and suffered from banging the anti-religion drum rather too heavily.

It's ironic that Pullman has been so vehement in attacking the Narnia books for promoting Christianity, when his beliefs are far more explicit. There is no explicit religion in Narnia - no direct mention of Jesus or God or the Church or Christianity. But the "organised religion" that Pullman attacks is explicitly Christianity, and the villainous Authority is identified as "the Creator, the Lord, Jehovah, Yahweh, El, Adonai" and so on.

Ironically, despite being identified as the Christian God, the Authority bears little resemblance to the God that I as a Christian believe in. The Bible teaches that God is fundamentally and foundationally love. He is Father, Son and Spirit in eternal relationship and fellowship, and creates us not out of needyness for worship but out of overflowing love. God gives us freedom because he doesn't want us simply to obey him, but to know and love him

Pullman also ignores Jesus and his teachings completely in His Dark Materials, plus any good that religion has done in the world. Pullman's portrayal is ham-fistedly anti-religious without nuance or subtletly.

I'm all for authors being free to criticise Christianity and to explore the negative side of religion. But it's just bad writing to be so one-sided and didactic as Pullman is towards the end of his trilogy.

The books are full of pseudo-pantheistic mysticism, which perhaps goes to show that whatever the intellectual appeal of atheism may be in today's culture, it's not at all spiritually or imaginatively satisfying.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
34. Patricia Mathews
Pullman may be an atheist, but as a preacher's kid who has read up on Christianity and other religions, I note a distinct likeness to orthodox theology!

For example: Pullman's mundane world is run by a church that worships The Authority, whom they think is God, but is actually no such thing; he is a fallen angel who has set himself up as one. Isn't thay exactly what Satan is or was? And doesn't C.S. Lewis himself say "Earth is occupied territory?" (Occupied by aforesaid fallen angel and his legions of the damned.) Anti-clerical the message assuredly is, but off the rails theologically, he isn't.

Although the notion as the Lord of The World being a lesser and evil God is also classic Gnosticism, which may be wher Pullman is coming from. It's a fine line there.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
35. Lisamarie
@33 - one of the things that I found quite interesting was that while the books were obviously a diatribe against 'the Church' (which, if I remember correctly, is some alternate history in Lyra's universe where Calvin became Pope) - there was never once a single mention of Jesus or Christ, and possibly not even of grace (that, I don't remember, there might have been some references to grace).

Which, whatever point he was trying to make, is very poignant to ME, and a strong lesson that I need to learn and keep to heart (very similar to some of Pope Francis's recent comments which, while they have been grossly taken out of context by both secular media and hand-wringing more-Catholic-than-the-Pope Catholics, kind of hit on that same message). In fact, I would totally agree that if that's what religion really looked like, it WOULD be a horrible thing! And I can recognize that for some people, that HAS been their experience.
John Adams
36. JohnArkansawyer
Gerry__Quinn @ 9: You don't live anywhere near me, do you?

I do wonder, though: How can we believe that books are so powerful that they can change our lives--they've certainly changed mine, mostly (but not always!) for the better--yet so weak that there isn't one powerful enough to require banning?
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
37. Jineapple
I'm from Germany, so I'm not quite familiar with the Banned Books week. Are those actually banned books, or what exactly does banned mean? And how would a normal fantasy book like His Dark Materials even get close to such a list? I mean I can see how it might offend some insecure Christians but that shouldn't hold any sway in such a major decision as actually banning a book, right?

As for His Dark Materials itself, it's been al ong while since I've read it - in fact I don't really remember much about it. I know that I didn't really like the later parts though, especially when the angels came into play...
Paul Howard
38. DrakBibliophile
Sometimes I wonder if we'll see books actually banned because the *authors* have the wrong beliefs (ie not "Liberal") enough. The attacks on Orson Scott Card are very worrisome.
Scott Silver
39. hihosilver28
@DrakBibliophile
I worry about that too. The vehemence against Card still surprises and worries me. Not that I think his views are correct, but still.

@Jineapple
A banned book is one that has been banned anywhere. Whether that is one library, one school, or one city. So, banned books week is a celebration of those books. I agree with you on the trilogy though. The reason it offended me wasn't because I am a Christian, it was because the majority of the plot of The Amber Spyglass was awful. I still really like The Subtle Knife, though.
Sean Tabor
40. wingracer
@37

Most of the books you see on banned books lists were only banned or challenged by one or a few high school libraries. So even if your high school library removed Harry Potter from its shelves, you could still get it at the county or city public library or a book store. Vey few books have had any sort of full nationwide ban in the US.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
41. sparsile
Ah, yes, the same old tired misrepresentation that if someone is against a book for any reason, they want to ban it. My understanding of "ban" means that it cannot be printed and that it cannot be purchased. Other than illegal items such as snuff films and child pornography, is there any media in recent memory in the US that falls under that category? Just because someone wants to remove a book from a school curriculum or school library, usually due to arguments for age-inappropriateness, does not mean it's banned. When a librarian makes a decision not to purchase a book, does that mean it's banned? And let's be honest, there will be lots of cases where a librarian, school or public, decides not to purchase a book because they don't agree with its content, for whatever reason. Are they being censors? Hard to tell, really, because there's no way to know when that occurs. Are "boycotts" against an author's work considered a ban? How about ridiculing scientists who disagree with the current, trendy, and oh so very lucrative, climate change issue? Isn't that an attempt at censoring? Anyone who looks at the issue within an honest intellectual framework has to come to the conclusion that is's all political and cultural posturing. This annual Banned Books Week is ridiculous.
Shelly wb
42. shellywb
To all those who think books are not being banned anywhere, I recommend the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's website, http://cbldf.org/. If people are getting arrested for buying or carrying books of drawings, then those books are effectively banned. I don't worry about symantecs so much as I do the government trying to strip our freedoms in more insidious ways than an outright ban, which they know would be protested.
Jonathan Andrew Sheen
43. FireMermaid
Here is some info from the American Library Association website on banned books. http://www.ala.org/bbooks/about
We must remember that while banning books is hard to do today with all the technology, it was a lot easier say 100 years ago when there was 1 small library in small towns all over the place. If a book was challenged by a town minister or town big shot it could be in big trouble. This is part of why protecting intellectual freedom is in the ALA's Code of Ethics http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics. Librarians were, and still are, often the last line of defense for intellectual freedom. If you couldn't get something like Huck Finn at your local library and there wasn't a bookstore or you were too poor to purchase it. You would be, in actuality, banned from being able to read it.
Can you tell I am a Librarian?

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