The Golden Compass - Is It Really Atheistic, and Should That Affect You Watching the Movie?
Well, with The Golden Compass movie being released this week, I figured I'd make a little entry for it. I've already posted my review of the books (in short, I liked them, but didn't think they were great), so I won't cover that here. Instead, I'll cover a bit of the hoopla surrounding these books being atheistic, and a bit of the silly rationale I've seen from people trying to claim otherwise.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD - DON'T READ THIS IF YOU WANT DON'T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE STORY
To be blunt, yes, the books are based on an atheistic worldview. I don't think this gives away too much of the plot, since it's revealed about midway through the second book, but in this story, God is not the creator of the universe, but instead the first conscious being to have developed. He's neither omnipotent nor omniscient. He's basically tricked much of the universe into thinking that he was the creator.
Now, I've seen in some reviews of the book, and in some blog comments, people who claim that the books aren't atheistic, because they're about a war on this character claiming to be God, but who wasn't really the Creator. I think those people are missing something - the character in this book that claims to be God, is (in the book) the same character that Christians worship. In other words, the books show a world where Yahweh is not a god. Now, I guess that strictly speaking, these books don't deny the possibility of some type of a god/gods, but there aren't any gods in these books, in the sense that most people would define a god, and the only character claiming to be a god, isn't.
But, just because the books are based on an atheistic worldview, does it mean that they promote atheism? If we accept what Pullman himself said in an interview, no.
As for the atheism, it doesn't matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I'm not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they're kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.
There's another way to look at it - the books are fantasy. I'm pretty sure that even Pullman doesn't believe in the universe he created, so it seems a bit silly to claim that he's trying to promote it. It would be like trying to claim that J.K. Rowling was promoting magic in her Harry Potter books (I realize a few people did claim this, but there are also still people who think the earth is flat - some people are just a few cards shy of a full deck). Pullman's universe is just a way to get people thinking about one of the main themes of the books, questioning authority and orthodoxy. What better way is there to illustrate that than to question the ultimate authority?
One other topic I wanted to touch on was the hypocrisy of the people denouncing The Golden Compass for indoctrinating children, but who had no problem with The Chronicles of Narnia. What's the difference? Perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to sling around the term, hypocrite - maybe some of those people do recognize Narnia as indoctrinating children into a Christian worldview, and wouldn't have any problems with people of other religions (or no religion) not letting their children read those books or see the movies based on them.
So, to get to the important question, should you let the atheistic worldview of The Golden Compass influence your decision to watch the movie, or to allow your children to watch the movie? Well, I guess if you're the type of person who avoided Clash of the Titans, because it promoted ancient Greek religion, and you didn't let your children watch it because you were afraid they might start worshipping Zeus, well then, The Golden Compass probably isn't for you. But, if you can enjoy it for what it is, and assuming that the movie adaptation turns out okay (and so far, according to IMDB, it appears to be doing pretty well), then it's probably a movie worth seeing.
Note: Wording in closing paragraph has been slightly modified from original posting, but nothing that changes the overall meaning.