08 May 2007

The republic of heaven

If you could put one book in the hands of every atheist on the planet, what would it be?

I recently finished re-reading one of my absolute favourite books of all time: the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was actually my first time reading the book since coming out as an atheist, and it's so much clearer now what Pullman was trying to accomplish. For that, I love it all the more.

You may recognize Pullman's name from the back cover of "The God Delusion," where he writes, "Dawkins gives human sympathies and emotions their proper value, which is one of the things that lends his criticisms of religion such force." If anyone is qualified to comment on human sympathies and emotions, it's Pullman. I'm generally not a weepy sort of guy (I am a soulless atheist, after all), but "His Dark Materials" moves me to tears every time.

I won't bother with a thorough synopsis or review... you can find that elsewhere if you're interested. I encourage you to just read it for yourself. It may be marketed as a children's book, but that's a false characterization. All in all, it's a fantastic piece of writing. Perhaps not perfect, but it rings true to me, anyway. This book is a solid indication that humanists have something to contribute to the culture.

Apart from telling a fantastic tale, Pullman accomplishes a brilliant bit of humanist writing. People tend to focus on the war against God with respect to this, and it's true, Pullman set up an interesting conflict between freethought and religious authority. But just as striking is his treatment of death. Pullman creates a rich, elaborate mythology complete with an afterlife and multiple universes, then breaks it down to enhance by contrast the merits of living a full life followed by oblivion in death. Pullman invokes a supernatural incarnation of a naturalistic worldview. It's an appeal to the imagination; not a literal representation of our beliefs, but one more familiar perhaps to those entrenched in a supernatural worldview.

The response to the trilogy from the religious is fairly interesting. Some embrace the first book, then abandon the latter two when our universe comes into play and the war against God starts heating up. The other sort of reaction I find more interesting, since I fell into that camp when I first read the books. They assert that the god and Church of the books are not their God and church. "A god like Pullman describes should be destroyed," I used to think, "it's a good thing my God isn't like that." I was such a good little apologist. I feel that the error of that reasoning is something that people have to discover for themselves. It worked for me, anyway.

A movie version of the first book in the trilogy, "The Golden Compass," is scheduled for release on Dec 7, 2007. I'll withhold judgment until I see it... they're working with fantastic source material and a couple great actors (Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig), but Hollywood has screwed this sort of thing up in the past, and there were apparently issues with the director. I implore you to read the books beforehand... you owe it to your imagination.

1 comment:

FreeThinker said...

I saw that Philip Pullman quote on "The God Delusion" but never thought about who he was .. now I know, and now I'm intrigued!