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The Golden Compass: A Primer on Atheism

Author: Russ Wise
Date: 11/12/2007 12:01:20 PM


Atheism has always been a “hot topic”. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who wrote The End of Faith, represent the current freethinkers who have made an impact on so many Americans recently.

            For the most part their writing and influence has been confined to an adult audience. However, there are others who desire to influence the minds of our children. C.S. Lewis influenced a generation of young people with The Chronicles of Narnia. Now there is a new Pied Piper making inroads into the minds of children through the writing of fantasy. Unlike Lewis, however, this author seeks to destroy his reader’s belief in a loving God who cares for him and desires a relationship for their mutual benefit.

            The author of The Golden Compass seeks to paint God as a tyrant – not a sovereign Creator. At best he is an oppressive senile deity who evolved over time.1 Philip Pullman is a creative writer and has won numerous awards for his work. These awards have offered him prestige and notoriety among his peers and his work has been recognized by film makers. His book Northern Lights has been made into a movie, renamed The Golden Compass. The film is an attempt to seduce young children and tweens (11-12 year olds) into a dark world of despair and loss of faith in a Holy God.

            Pullman declares himself to be an avowed atheist and offers no apology for his attempt to capture the minds of children who do not have the capacity to correctly discern his message. He is an apologist for Atheism! He says that he does not profess any religion and that he does not think it possible that there is a God.2 Further, in a 2003 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald  he commented, my books are about killing God.3 Actually, in the third book of his trilogy (The Amber Spyglass) Pullman does, in fact, use his heroine Lyra Belacqua to bring about the end of his nefarious god.

Who is Philip Pullman?

            Pullman was born in Norwich, England. During his early years his grandfather served as an Anglican Priest at Drayton in Norfolk. His grandfather had great influence on him in his formative years and Philip viewed him as the sun at the centre of my life.4 Pullman’s father served in the Royal Air Force, and when Philip was six he was posted to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. A year or so later word came that his father had lost his life in the war. Pullman makes this comment in his blog regarding his father’s death: I suppose that my brother and I cried, though I didn't really feel sad. The fact was that we hadn't seen my father for a long time, and apart from the glamour surrounding him, he was a figure who hadn't played much part in our lives. So my brother and I went back out to the sunny wall, where we'd been picking off the moss and throwing it at each other, and carried on.5

            After his father’s death his mother remarried and he then moved from England to Australia and back again. It was during this time in his life that he realized the power of telling a good story and his ability to capture an audience. As a young man he entered Oxford to study English and develop his writing skills. Ultimately he realized that he was more of a story-teller than he was a writer – although he later became quite skillful at both.

            He was once asked why he became an atheist since he had such a wonderful experience as a child with his grandfather. His response was that he simply fell away from God somewhere between his early childhood and now. It seems that Pullman experienced the same phenomenon as many others who have embraced atheism: he was denied (through war) a close relationship with his father and, as a result, he could not trust the affections of a caring and loving Father.

            It seems to this author that perhaps Pullman’s lack of a relationship with his father caused him to become overly critical of the portrayal offered by Lewis. In my view, one could make such an observation without being too far off target.

Chronicles of Fantasy

            Pullman despises C.S. Lewis! He once commented, I loathe the ‘Narnia’ books. I hate them with a deep passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age . . . He has referred to the series as one of the most ugly and poisonous things he has ever read. Pullman makes the following comment regarding the Narnia books, saying they contained "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice" and "not a trace" of Christian charity.6 Pullman continues by saying, "I realised that what he was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in. It is monumentally disparaging of girls and women. It is blatantly racist."7

            Peter Hitchens (no relation to the atheist) makes this observation regarding Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis: Philip Pullman is the man who may succeed in destroying a country that the liberal intelligentsia loathe even more than they despise Britain. That country is Narnia, discovered long ago by millions of English-speaking children, and still beloved by many of them. Narnia is a conservative sort of place . . . 8  – a  place that cannot be consumed by the licentiousness of our day. On the other hand, Pullman’s world is a place that embraces the supernatural and the mystical, and takes place mainly in alternative worlds, most captivatingly of all in an Oxford recognisably the same place while utterly different. But while Narnia is under the care of a benevolent, kindly creator, Pullman’s chaotic universe has no ultimate good authority, controlling and redeeming all. God, or someone claiming to be God, dies meaninglessly in the third volume of his trilogy. There is life after death, but it is a dark, squalid misery from which oblivion is a welcome release.8

Mapping the Future

            The movie has been positioned as a must-see in the pre-holiday season. Its early December (7th) release is engineered to create the most buzz for the newly repackaged trilogy and influence its sales potential among young people during the holiday season. The movie has been sanitized of its “hate God” theme and is being portrayed as another in a long line of fantasy movies that tell a wonderful tale. However, this story is a pernicious tale that will cause a large degree of spiritual disillusionment within the hearts of those who view it and later read the books.

            Although Pullman seems quite confident that God doesn’t exist, he does, however, seem to be less sure of his belief. He comments, I know full well that the total amount of the things I know is a tiny little pinprick of light compared with the vast unlimited darkness that surrounds it – which is all the things I don't know. I don't know more than a tiny fragment of what it's possible to know about this world. As for what goes on outside it in the rest of the universe, it's a vast darkness full of things that I don't know. Now, somewhere in the things that I don't know, there may be a God.
I can see no evidence in that circle of things I do know, in history, or in science or anywhere else, no evidence of the existence of God.
So 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.
But going further than that, I would say that those people who claim that they do know that there is a God have found this claim of theirs the most wonderful excuse for behaving extremely badly.

            It appears that Pullman has yet to fully convince himself that God doesn’t exist. At the very best he is a very confused man, but willing to inflict his agnosticism on the very young among us.

Pullman’s ‘God’

            Pullman once told the Washington Post in an interview that his goal is ‘‘to undermine the basis of Christian belief.’ The history of the Christian Church is, Pullman intones, a ‘record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny.’" 10

One of the greatest concerns in Pullman’s trilogy is his depiction of God. Although he uses many of the same names for God found in the scriptures, such as Yahweh, Adonai, the King, Father, and the Almighty, Pullman does not refer to God as the sovereign creator of the universe. He is merely the first angelic being who took it upon himself to lay claim to the title ‘God’. This is a catastrophic demotion. God, without any rights to call himself this, is unsurprisingly cast as a usurper, a tyrant, a despot. God is not a figure of love or mercy or grace. He is not a God of relationship, as he is absent from human affairs, except in that he opposes any freedom and individual thought because it is a threat to his power. Since he is not our creator, the giver of life, he prefers that humans are benign automatons. Since he is not the rightful judge of the universe, he is a tyrant.11

Although Pullman takes great care to represent God as the God of the Bible he denies the biblical attributes of God as a loving merciful deity and characterizes him as one who evolved to the position of godhood and claimed the title. Moreover, he characterizes God as non-relational and unable to show compassion toward his creation – mankind. Even though Pullman uses biblical descriptions of God – the Ancient of Days, Lord, and Creator – his readers would never recognize his “God” as the One whom Christians worship. Once again we see the subtle (or not so subtle) attempt by the author to undermine the basis of Christian belief. 12

The Critics Speak

            One respondent to an on-line chat room about the movie put it this way. I am not a religious person. I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist, but I’m seriously leaning toward agnosticism. However, this series made me feel not just uncomfortable, but downright unclean because of how it dealt with religion. This is not a series for young children, no matter how precocious they are. Religious issues aside, it’s just too dark.13

            Another critic made these comments regarding Pullman’s trilogy: My daughter read the first two, and I bought her the third before she'd finished the second. When she finished 'The Subtle Knife' (it took her an inordinate amount of time to finish -- it was becoming that unpleasant), she never picked up the third book.

After inquiring about it a few times, her answer was something along the lines of ''it just makes me feel so depressed. I don't even want to know what happens next.'' She's never read it. It's interesting how dismal the tone turns in the second volume.
Were it a stand-alone work (with likely conclusion),'The Golden Compass' would be worth recommending to fans of that genre. The plot direction and quality of the writing isn't really, in fact, that dissimilar from 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe', with little to suggest the insidiousness that begins to pervade the second book. It seemed to have the requisite common themes of child-oriented fantasy. But as it turns out, it's apparently a malevolent practical joke played on the trusting.
One thing is certain, for what little it's worth, had any of Pullman's interviews been available at that time, I'd have NEVER bought the first book.


            It is noteworthy that Pullman openly allows his fellow travelers of fantasy to know of his deep-seated atheism. However, it is unsettling that he attempts to influence the most vulnerable among us – our children. His goal is to persuade these young minds with dark fantasy and unbiblical ideas about God and his nature. Pullman is a deceiver who presents God as the biblical deity, but then employs a bait-and-switch tactic to disillusion his reader.

            His deity is, at best, a mere shadow of the One True God of Christianity. His deity is an imposter whom he uses to destroy his reader’s faith and leave him or her in acute despair and hopelessness. The greatest difficulty the Christian has regarding Pullman’s story-telling is that the reader is left without hope and without a right relationship with a Holy God who loves his creation.

            As Christian parents and grandparents we need to be vigilant and stand for biblical values against the tide of secularism being promoted by atheists as entertainment. Let’s NOT allow its influence to manipulate the hearts and minds of our youth. It is imperative that we become the standard bearer of righteousness against such spiritual degradation.




Pullman is one of England’s most outspoken atheists.

  1. ibid.


  3. ibid.







  10. op. cit.


  12. (Quote on hand.)




Author's Comments:
Proverbs 4:23 tells us to guard our heart. As parents and grandparents it is our responsibility to stand in the gap for our youth until they are capable to rightly discern the Truths of Scripture for themselves.

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