Philip Pullman is often tossed around as the most recognized example of atheist themed fiction. Certainly he’s made a name for himself with his explicitly anti-clerical His Dark Materials and presumably his forthcoming Book of Dust. It was with some interest that I checked it out.
So how well does he do in representing atheism? I give mixed results.
While I unreservedly applaud his inventiveness, world building and characters, his work falters in expounding the case against religion, and it’s on that ground that I’ll direct my criticism.
The flaws all branch from one misstep: Pullman never points out the difference between revealed knowledge that must be accepted on faith and the presumed legitimacy of an authority figure, and knowledge that is discovered through experimentation and subject to testing and review.
Nothing of the kind in Pullman’s trilogy, where both sides put their faith in the revealed knowledge and unquestioned, unquestionable guidance of supernatural sources. Whether the Authority in the Magesterium’s case, or the rebel angels who communicate through the eponymous Golden Compass.
Yet in the latter case there is never any question of the oracle being dishonest or even simply mistaken.
I had expected the concluding novel to address just this point, with the characters realizing that neither angelic faction was to be trusted. It certainly seemed to have been set up in the first two books, particularly the reliability of the golden compass was called into question when it informs Lyra that Will is ‘a murderer’, when the reader knows this is patently untrue. Will was attacked in the dark, he fought off another, causing his attacker to fall down the stairs. As he escapes he briefly considers that the fall might have killed this person.
That is not murder, and ‘murderer’ is not an accurate definition of the whole of Will’s being.
But no. apparently we’re to take the golden compass’ revelations at face value. I don’t think so. I won’t be shunted from one self-tormenting obedience to another.
And as a third pitfall, Lord Asriel’s arrogance, hunger for power and thirst for immortality, and his willingness to kill the innocent to get what he wanted, represented the worst traditional depiction of atheism.
However, these possibilities were abandoned in Book Three, and plot holes and inconsistencies clumsily hand-waved away. Pullman really dropped the ball. Almost as much of a disappointment as the final Harry Potter book, where Dumbledore is transfigured into a semi-divine puppet master, the story is simply the characters’ struggle to trust, submit and follow his flawless plan, and the whole thing becomes a copy becomes a cheap Pilgrims Progress knockoff.
There are a few other minor complaints, chiefly that neither the Authority nor his minions is allowed to present their own argument. Indeed they are mostly stereotypes, not real people. Far more horrifying that the stock figure of the religious bigot or frothing fanatic is the believer who sincerely wants to help people, but ‘helping people’ takes on ominous implications when one’s reality is warped by the thought-twisting dogma that sacrifices this existence for another and presupposes an authoritarian cosmos.
In contrast, I cite the Age of Unreason series (Newton’s Canon, Calculus of Angels, Empire of Unreason, and Shadows of God) by Greg Keyes – who also writes under the name J. Gregory Keyes. The themes of revealed and discovered knowledge are front and center in this brilliant alternate fantasy/history, and are illustrated brilliantly by none other than a teenage Ben Franklin.
If you’ve ever wondered what Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton would be like as wizards, definitely pick up these books and watch them do battle with the entities that inspire and manipulate human myths with the goal of keeping humanity in ignorant, fearful, superstitious darkness.
Another story is Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. Therein we meet Vorbis, a theocrat who ‘could humble himself in prayer in a way that made the posturings of power-mad emperors look subservient.’
Central to good atheist fiction is the distrust of revealed knowledge, a recognition of human limitations and fallibility, while affirming that mysteries can be solved and progress can be made through collaboration, working with and checking each other’s discoveries, and a continuing questioning process. Those are the hallmarks of the very best that atheism has to offer.
So now, what’s a good atheist-friendly piece? Not just something that smears religion, but something that challenges religious ideas and illustrated the flawed thinking that can lead decent people to commit atrocity?