PullmanI’ve been reading an article intended for the March 2008 print edition of Reason magazine, in which Cathy Young examines Philip Pullman’s ideology in His Dark Materials, the trilogy from which the first installment, The Golden Compass, was adapted for film last year (to some controversy).

Pullman is an interesting character, forming the third figure of what we could call the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the atheist godhead, of which Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are the first two.

First, the article by Cathy Young is a fascinating look at Pullman, and is well worth a read. At the time of the Golden Compass controversy, I wrote a piece which concluded with this sentence:

“[Above all else,] Pullman’s story is about the fight for freedom from tyranny. I would think that all right-thinking Christians could concur with that goal, and would lose nothing by sharing it with their children.”

Today I come back to this conclusion, somewhat. The UK Christian magazine Third Way interviewed Pullman and had this frank exchange in which I believe Pullman inadvertently forms the basis of an argument in favour of libertarianism:

Pullman: [A] consequence of any belief in a single god … is that it is a very good excuse for people to behave very badly.

Third Way: Is it not fair to say that a great deal of bad behaviour in the last century was the work of regimes that were atheistic, if not scientistic? Wasn’t Nazism, for example, based on a twisted reading of Darwinism?

P: Yes, but they functioned psychologically in exactly the same way. They had a sacred book that provided an explanation of history which so far transcended every other explanation as to be unquestionable. There were the great prophets – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung – men so far above the human race that they might as well be exalted as gods. They were treated in just the same way as the Pope. Every word they said, every thing they touched, was holy; their bodies had to be preserved and filed past in reverential silence. The fact that they proclaimed that there was no God didn’t make any difference: it was a religion, and they acted in the way any totalitarian religious system would.

TW: Well, perhaps. But you insist that the problem with monotheism is that it leads people to behave in an oppressive way. From the evidence of the last century one could say that atheism, too, leads people to behave in that way. And no Christian authority has ever killed anything like the tens of millions Stalin killed.

P: No, but give them the chance! If they had had…

TW: Even proportionately. Also, there is, I think, good evidence that the Inquisition burnt far fewer people than the secular French state did.

P: Well, that was very comforting as the flames were licking round your toes. I think [and here’s the money quote] the religions are special cases of the general human tendency to exalt one doctrine above all others – whatever it is, whether it’s Marxism, Islam or whatever it is, there is a depressing human tendency to say, ‘We have the truth and we’re going to kill you because you don’t believe in it.’”

Whether or not Pullman is right about religion, what struck me from the perspective of a theist and a libertarian is that there are very few ideologies that exist without the kind of dogmatism Pullman seems to chastise in His Dark Materials.

Except libertarianism.

Isn’t libertarianism one of the few movements in human history not based upon a philosophy of some kind of oppression (as Pullman alleges of the church), but instead of freedom from such oppression?

It seems to me that if Pullman’s work is about freedom from the kind of tyranny his trilogy describes, then libertarianism is one of the few movements capable of concurring in any meaningful sense with his message and the conquest of his characters. It isn’t atheism, since that is simply lack of belief in a deity. It isn’t socialism, since it enslaves financially and in a plethora of other ways. It isn’t conservatism, which oppresses morally. Whether he intends it or not (I think not), libertarians could easily agree with Pullman’s assertion that there is a “general human tendency” to oppress others because of an espousal of some universal truth.

Libertarianism alone stands against that.