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Philip Pullman and his atheist fiction

31 March 2010 — 3 Comments

Philip PullmanPhilip Pullman CBE is the acclaimed author of around thirty books, mostly aimed at older children. He is best known for His Dark Materials, a brilliantly written, ambitious trilogy (Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995); The Subtle Knife (1997); The Amber Spyglass (2000)). He has received many awards, including the highly prestigious Astrid Lindgren Award.

His Dark Materials centres on two children, Lyra and Will, from different universes who get caught up in the most ambitious plan ever conceived by a human being. Lyra’s world is governed by a manipulative, totalitarian and ruthless church. One character comments that throughout the church’s history, ‘it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse . . . every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.’[1] But a war is indeed coming. Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, wants to destroy God, replacing his kingdom with the Republic of Heaven. God, known as the Authority, is merely the first angel, who duped other angels into believing that he is the creator. Now he is old and worn out, and eventually he dissolves into thin air with ‘a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief . . . a mystery dissolving into mystery’.[2]

This is all within Pullman’s fiction, of course, rather than our real world. But he repeatedly says similar things in interviews. In one he remarked, ‘the God who dies is the God of the burners of heretics, the hangers of witches, the persecutors of Jews, the officials who recently flogged that poor girl in Nigeria . . . all these people claim to know with absolute certainty that their God wants them to do these things. Well, I take them at their word, and I say in response that that God deserves to die.’[3]

This atheistic stance (which is seldom explicit in his other books) has brought Pullman plenty of criticism. Peter Hitchens (Catholic brother of the outspoken atheist Christopher) described him as, ‘The most dangerous man in Britain’. Pullman took this as a compliment and sent him ‘a warm card of appreciation and thanks’.[4] He was also pleased by the Catholic Herald’s claim that his books are, ‘far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter . . . and a million times more sinister,’[5]

Pullman maintains that he became an atheist for purely intellectual reasons. His grandfather, a Church of England minister, was a major influence on his life. Following the death of his father in an air crash, the young Pullman spent a great deal of time with his grandparents. He never questioned their beliefs until, as a teenager confronted with competing worldviews, he abandoned the idea that Christianity is true.

Although he is frequently outspoken as an atheist, he says:

I’m caught between the words ‘atheistic’ and ‘agnostic’. I’ve got no evidence whatever for believing in a God. But I know that all the things I do know are very small compared with the things that I don’t know. So maybe there is a God out there. All I know is that if there is, he hasn’t shown himself on earth.

Such comments seem to display intellectual humility, and he also maintains that he has no atheist agenda as a writer: ‘I am a story teller. If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon.’[6] This doesn’t ring true for many people, since there are times in The Amber Spyglass in particular when he becomes very preachy. Then there are his much-quoted remarks that ‘my books are about killing God’[7] and, ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief’.[8] We must be careful, however, since inferring others’ motivations is always problematic. Even statements, such as these – which apparently announce motivation – may be misleading, especially when the statements are inconsistent with other statements. Both of these notorious comments come from around the time when The Amber Spyglass, was being promoted internationally. I suspect that he chose, deliberately or subconsciously, to express himself in very provocative ways in order to create a stir and boost sales. Interestingly, he has not subsequently made quite such blunt public statements of his intent.

On the other hand, Pullman has frequently stated that he wants to explore the questions he considers to be the ‘most important of all’: Is there a God? What does it mean to be human? What is our purpose? He comes at those questions from a particular angle, and he clearly has very strong views on the answers. But Pullman is right that such questions are absolutely fundamental.

Pullman’s view of reality

The most problematic aspect of His Dark Materials for many Christians is that God is killed. However, Pullman is only able to do this because of something more fundamental: the way he defines reality. He is a materialist, rejecting belief in the supernatural (frequently insisting that there is ‘no elsewhere’). His Dark Materials is consequently a celebration of physicality. In Pullman’s world, angels (and ghosts) are made of matter like everything else, though insubstantial. They are made of Dust – particles of consciousness that permeate all reality. The Authority (God) is the first of these angels and is therefore a physical being. When Lyra and Will meet him, he is immensely old and decrepit. He is a fraud, an imposter, a delusion whose time, according to Pullman, is long since past.

Once again, Pullman says similar things in the real world. ‘God died a long time ago,’ he exclaims. What he means is, ‘It’s as if God has died. That’s the feeling I have.’[9] The idea of God is redundant: ‘the old assumptions have withered away . . . the idea of God with which I was brought up is now perfectly incredible.’ [10] He claims that ‘the most important subject I know . . . is the death of God and its consequences,’[11] but also insists that:

‘God’ is nothing more than a metaphor: ‘I don’t expect Christians to see God as a metaphor, but that’s what he is. Perhaps it might be clearer to call him a character in fiction, and a very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all – savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection – for David, for example. But he’s not real, any more than Hamlet or Mr Pickwick are real. They are real in the context of their stories, but you won’t find them in the phone book.[12]

He also brings the idea of the ‘Republic of Heaven’ into interviews because it encapsulates both his materialism and his strong sense of morality: ‘I think it’s time we thought about a republic of heaven instead of the kingdom of heaven. The king is dead. That’s to say I believe that the king is dead. I’m an atheist. But we need heaven nonetheless, we need all the things that heaven meant, we need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things that the kingdom of heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver. And, furthermore, we need it in this world where we do exist – not elsewhere, because there ain’t no elsewhere.’[13]

Pullman’s view of morality

Pullman’s vision of a materialist republic of heaven is very moral. He stresses mutual responsibility because, ‘In the republic we’re connected in a moral way to one another, to other human beings. We have responsibilities to them, and they to us. We’re not isolated units of self-interest in a world where there is no such thing as society; we cannot live so.’[14] The moral dimension of His Dark Materials is one of its strengths. In one television interview, Pullman commented, ‘An honest reading of the story would have to admit that the qualities that the stories celebrates and praises are those of love, kindness, tolerance, courage, open-heartedness, and the qualities that the stories condemns are: cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism . . . well, who could quarrel with that?’[15] These values are very consistent with Christian values, but Pullman vehemently rejects the suggestion that they derive from a Judeo-Christian worldview:

You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they’ve got the idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isn’t it your experience that there are plenty of people in the world who don’t believe who are very good, decent people? . . . It comes from ordinary human decency. It comes from accumulated human wisdom – which includes the wisdom of such figures as Jesus Christ. Jesus, like many of the founders of great religions, was a moral genius, and he set out a number of things very clearly in the Gospels which if we all lived by them we’d all do much better. What a pity the Church doesn’t listen to him![16]

Pullman’s panpsychism

Pullman rightly sees morality as intimately related to wisdom. In both his fiction and reality he sees wisdom as something that accumulates independently of any individual beings. In His Dark Materials he expresses this as Dust, the most fundamental reality in the universe: particles of consciousness which multiply within sentient beings and which coalesces into beings like angels. But Dust also exists independently of these beings, and possesses a collective consciousness. It is a brilliant idea which provides the central narrative tension to His Dark Materials and propels the story forward by guiding Lyra through an ‘alethiometer’ (from the Greek word for truth, alethea) and in other ways.

It’s ironic that Pullman’s story features a cosmic, superhuman intelligence that communicates, guides and directs in a remarkably god-like way. It certainly reintroduces some aspects of God back into the picture (though Pullman identifies Dust as being on the side of the rebellion against God). Freitas and King argue, therefore, that Pullman is really telling a profoundly spiritual story.[17] However, Pullman rejects the idea that the word ‘spiritual’ has any meaning. He says:

As for ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, ‘spirituality’ – these are words I never use, because I can see nothing real that seems to correspond with them: they have no meaning. I would never begin to talk of a person’s spiritual life, or refer to someone’s profound spirituality, or anything of that sort, because it doesn’t make sense to me. When other people talk about spirituality I can see nothing in it, in reality, except a sense of vague uplift combined at one end with genuine goodness and modesty, and at the other with self-righteousness and pride. . . . the word ‘spiritual’, for me, has overtones that are entirely negative. It seems to me that whenever anyone uses the word, it’s a sign that either they’re deluding themselves, or they’re pulling the wool over the eyes of others. And when I hear it, or see it in print, my reaction is one of immediate scepticism.[18]

Dust is thus thoroughly physical, not spiritual. It allowed Pullman to deal with religious issues while affirming a materialist view of reality. It is his ‘metaphor for . . . human wisdom, science and art, all the accumulated and transmissible achievements of the human mind.’[19] Once again, in the real world, Pullman expresses some similar ideas. He says:

Those who are committed materialists (as I claim to be myself) have to account for the existence of consciousness . . . There are various ways of explaining consciousness, many of which seem to take the line that it’s an emergent phenomenon that only begins to exist when a sufficient degree of complexity is achieved. Another way of dealing with the question is to assume that consciousness, like mass, is a normal and universal property of matter (this is known as panpsychism), so that human beings, dogs, carrots, stones, and atoms are all conscious, though in different degrees. This is the line I take myself, in the company of poets such as Wordsworth and Blake.[20]

This comes close to suggesting that Dust is more than a metaphor. Invoking the idea of panpsychism as a materialist explanation for the problem of human consciousness seems only to intensify the sense that Pullman is stretching to find a way around the problem of where such things as consciousness come from. Faced with the need to account for attributes of human beings that have traditionally been identified, at least to an extent, with the spiritual, he is forced to reach for the assumption (he acknowledges that it is one) that all consciousness is a universal property of matter, though there is no evidential basis for it. It is a faith-based perspective on reality which introduces additional complexity to understanding reality, yet without gaining very much in terms of explanatory power, especially with respect to the moral imperatives to which Pullman is committed.

The irony remains that Philip Pullman the materialist intuitively reached for models which encapsulate features of the very worldview he denies so strongly. He rejects the kingdom of heaven but says, ‘what I’m looking for is a way of thinking of heaven that restores these senses of rightness and goodness and connectedness and meaning and gives us a place in it. But because there ain’t no elsewhere, that has got to exist in the only place we know about for sure which is this earth, and we’ve got to make our world as good as we possibly can for one another and for our descendants. That’s what I mean by a republic of heaven. And we won’t ever finally get there . . . because of entropy.’[21] My contention is that rightness, goodness, connectedness and meaning are inherently spiritual and require the existence of a God beyond the physical realm. Pullman objects to this idea and yet unwittingly, it seems, stumbles into tying them up with something that is at least reminiscent of God. Perhaps it’s harder to jettison such concepts – such realities – than Philip Pullman realises.

[1] The Subtle Knife p. 52

[2] The Amber Spyglass, p. 432

[3] Philip Pullman: Discussion on Readerville.com (no longer available online)

[4] Deborah Ross, ‘Philip Pullman: Soap and the Serious Writer’, The Independent, 4 February 2002.

[5] This comment was, in fact, taken completely out of context by Pullman. The article by Leonie Caldecott was tongue-in-cheek, and was clearly not in favour of book-burning at all.

[6] Ref

[7] Steve Meacham, ‘The shed where God died’, Sidney Morning Herald, 13 December 2003.

[8] Alona Wartofsky, ‘The Last Word’, The Washington Post, 19 February 2001.

[9] Tony Watkins, ‘Interview with Pullman’, 2004 – http://www.tonywatkins.co.uk/media/literature/interview-with-philip-pullman-from-2004/

[10] Philip Pullman, ‘The Republic of Heaven’ in The Horn Book Magazine, November/December 2001, p.655.

[11] ’The Republic of Heaven’, p. 655

[12] Peter T. Chattaway, ‘Philip Pullman — the extended e-mail interview‘, 28 November 2007, http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/2007/11/philip-pullman-extended-e-mail.html

[13] Charles N. Brown, ‘An Interview with Philip Pullman’, no longer available online but quoted in Tony Watkins, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman, (Damaris, 2004) p. 242–243.

[14] ’The Republic of Heaven’, p. 664

[15] Philip Pullman, The South Bank Show, ITV, 9 March 2003.

[16] Huw Spanner, ‘Heat and Dust’ in Third Way, Vol. 25, No. 2, April 2002, pp. 22–26.

[17] Donna Freitas and Jason King, Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials (Jossey Bass, 2007).

[18] Peter T. Chattaway, ‘Philip Pullman – the extended e-mail interview‘

[19] Peter T. Chattaway, ‘Philip Pullman – the extended e-mail interview‘

[21] Tony Watkins, ‘Interview with Pullman’

Sources:

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  • tonywatkins

    [The original comment on this article has been removed at the request of the person who wrote it. They emailed to say that they no longer wish to be associated with the arguments they made. However, I’m leaving my reply in place as the clarifications I make may be helpful for others.]

    I think you’re misreading me a little in places.

    >>”Because someone has a different opinion to the Christian faith, they are therefore undermining it?”

    That’s not what I’m saying. I quoted Philip Pullman’s own words above when he said, ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis for Christian belief’, but then went on to question whether that is actually his agenda, or whether he was deliberately overstating his case, since it doesn’t quite square with many other comments he’s made about ‘just’ being a storyteller. Having talked to Philip at length, I think he would be quite happy to see Christian faith undermined – he’s often referred to religion in general as a malign force – but I don’t think that’s what he’s about.

    >>”Phillip Pullman is a literary genius, his works are fiction, and are intended to be read as such. Everyone is entitled to their own belief.”

    Absolutely. That’s why my book on Pullman is subtitled ‘A thinking fan’s guide to His Dark Materials’. I think he’s a master storyteller, and I love almost everything he’s written (the one exception being ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’, which is clever but doesn’t feel to me that it shows his customary brilliance), but he and I are coming from very different worldviews, so I wanted to write something which was enthusiastic about his writing but helped people to understand some of the theological and philosophical issues within it. I commend Pullman, within this article as well as in my book, for exploring the biggest and most important questions.

    >>’It sounds more like he is being completely honest, and humble (both Christian values?) Just because he can’t accept faith in something no human has found physical proof for (this is NOT an arguable point) doesn’t mean he is an evil, ‘dangerous’ or a horrible person.”

    Where have I said that he is “evil, dangerous or a horrible person”? I have never, in print or verbally, referred to him in this way, though I do quote Peter Hitchens referring to him as dangerous to illustrate the hostility that some feel towards him. I do not share that hostility in any way, though we disagree about some fundamental issues. My contacts with him have always been very positive, and when I visited Philip in his home I found him and his wife to be charming, hospitable, generous and engaging. 

    >>”Whatever the case, I consider your post to be more ‘dangerous’ than anything Phillip Pullman has ever written or said; it encourages the stifling of anything anti-Christian.”

    Why is it dangerous or stifling? I’m presenting a critique of some of Pullman’s ideas, because we disagree about the nature of reality and some other issues which I think are of fundamental importance, but my intention was to do so respectfully and to stimulate others to think. The nature of the society we live in is that we can debate these issues and we can disagree with each other. We must do so in a way which honours and respects those we disagree with, and I have attempted to do so, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that these issues are of no consequence. Philip Pullman himself values the freedom that we have to disagree with each other.

    >>”Pullman states: “Perhaps it might be clearer to call him (God) a character in fiction, and a 

    very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains 
    of all – savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments
    of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection.”

    This point is hardly deniable, if you ignore Pullman’s own point of view expressed in the beginning (God being fiction).”

    Sorry, I don’t quite understand what you mean here. Could you clarify, please?

    >>”Think of all the wars and atrocities that have been committed over centuries by people (often fueled by religion), of which ‘God’ has seemingly turned a blind eye to, without bothering to intervene.”

    This is a big issue. There clearly have been some terrible wars fought in the name of religion, but human institutions have always been vulnerable to powerful individuals hijacking them to serve their own ends – boosting their power, eliminating opposition, etc. The fact that even the church has at times been corrupted in this way should not be a surprise, but it doesn’t in itself demonstrate that Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, is intrinsically bad. In fact, the worst atrocities are those of the last century and were carried out in the name of Nazi ideology and atheism (the 30 million who are now believed to have died under Stalin for example). As for God turning a blind eye, my conviction is that God gave human beings free will, which means we can choose to do terrible things as well as good ones. If that freedom is genuine, we must live with the consequences of it. The Christian conviction is that God intervened, not to take away our freedom, but to offer us rescue through the death and resurrection of his own son, so that we can be forgiven for the wrong we have done. This is a message of mercy and kindness to the undeserving, and of reconciliation. Every war, religious or otherwise, is a denial of this.

    >>”How can you expect Pullman to include, ‘In my opinion’ in every single sentence in which he talks about God? Surely it is assumed that whatever he says is his own opinion, not absolute truth that is to be accepted by the whole human race.”

    Yes, of course this is right. I am not denying his opinion, but that’s the whole point – there are other opinions, and I have an equal right to express mine.

    >> As for your statement: “My contention is that rightness, goodness, connectedness and meaning are inherently spiritual and require the existence of a God beyond the physical realm.”

    Well, that’s all well and good but why should your opinion or ‘contention’ have any more weight than Pullman’s own beliefs? Religion is a very personal, and at times, contradictory belief that everyone is entitled to embrace as an individual.

    I’m not saying that my opinion should have more weight than Pullman’s. But I do believe that these issues are not merely matters of opinion, but of reality. Either there is a God or there isn’t, whether I believe in him or not. Now it’s true that we cannot indisputably prove or disprove God, since by definition God is greater than the physical universe, but that doesn’t make it mere opinion (on the same level as favourite colour) – we can, and indeed must, talk about where the evidence points. There are three classic tests for whether or not something is true: coherence (do these ideas hang together), correspondence (do these ideas fit with reality) and pragmatism (do these ideas work, do they enable people to flourish?). The question is, which worldview best meets these criteria?

  • tonywatkins

    If you’d like to read my book and see if I really do engage fairly with Pullman, it’s free on iTunes for today (29 April) only. http://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/dark-matter/id489469034?mt=11