"Every Church Is the Same: Control, Destroy, Obliterate Every Good Feeling": Philip Pullman and the Challenge of Religious Intolerance

By Burke, Richard C. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

"Every Church Is the Same: Control, Destroy, Obliterate Every Good Feeling": Philip Pullman and the Challenge of Religious Intolerance


Burke, Richard C., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


No children's books since C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia have combined popular success and religious advocacy as effectively as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (1995-2000). But quite unlike the Christian-inspired Chronicles, Pullman's fantasy series is unreservedly hostile towards organized religion. How many children's books, after all, kill off God? Or include a statement like this one: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake ..." (Amber Spyglass 441)? And no other religion gets Pullman's approval, either: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.... For all its history [religion] has tried to suppress and control every natural impulse" (Subtle Knife 50).

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass are, as one writer put it, "rip-roaringly unputdownable" (Ross). Over twelve million copies have been sold worldwide (Cieply), and in 2001, The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread Prize for book of the year--a first for a children's book. In these three books, Pullman sets out to replace the great mythic stories of Christianity, rejecting the power and authority of the divine in favor of the intellectual potential and moral responsibility of humans. Natasha Walter finds that Pullman "fulfills an often unassuaged longing in this secular age" through his depiction of "a great battle between good and evil ... where everything is at stake, where you have to take sides" (Walter).

Shirley Hughes calls Pullman a writer of "extraordinary descriptive power" and adds, "simply nothing can match the power of his imagination" (McCrum). As a result, it would take at least a dozen pages to summarize His Dark Materials. Briefly described, the series takes place in multiple overlapping universes (which Pullman explains using quantum theory). The twelve-year-old protagonists are Lyra, from a parallel Oxford, and Will, from our world's Winchester. Humans share existence with other rational creatures, including witches, angels, and panserbjorne, armored bears who work as mercenaries. In some universes, humans have daemons, a sort of external soul in animal form. Every place is plagued by hostility, warfare, aggression, and violent death. The Church is bad, God is much worse, and the central action involves a second war in heaven.

In depicting established religions as inflexible obstacles to freedom, progress, and social harmony, His Dark Materials violates the decorum and sensitivity common in most twentieth-century children's fantasies, which typically disregard religion entirely, or present a pseudo pagan spirituality that encourages tolerance by suggesting that doctrinal distinctions are of no importance. Yet His Dark Materials is as intelligent as it is bold. Pullman rejects religion and traditional notions of God (as he understands them) because he believes them to be antithetical to freedom. For him, the value in being human lies in having a mind and a heart and a spirit that can enjoy and love and give and grow. He thus provokes a crucial question: how successfully can a text value human experience and champion toleration of diversity while savaging religious belief?

The Church in His Dark Materials is a particularly nasty vision of religious fanaticism, an amalgam of Catholicism and Protestantism in which Pope John Calvin once ran the papacy from Geneva (Golden Compass 30). Like churches everywhere, we are told, it has set itself in permanent opposition to individual growth and independence: "Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit" (Subtle Knife 320). (Pullman himself says of the world's religions, "They're all bad. Every single one of them" [Curtis].) David Gooderham has shown convincingly that Pullman's fictional church directly represents Christianity and not just some fantasy parallel (158-60).

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