Golden CompassThe Golden Compass (IMDB) is the film version of the first novel in Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy, His Dark Materials. It’s a family fantasy starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and is set to be released a week from Friday across the United States. But there’s a controversy. Some people don’t want you to see it! Bill Donohue is the president of the Catholic League (a group we’ve heard from before), and he’s among the ringleaders of the conservative Christian movement against the movie, saying that seeing the film may cause children to read the books, which “promote atheism for kids”. How wonderful.

So let’s break this down: What’s the movie about, and does it deserve the boycott the Catholic League is calling for? What are the arguments against it, exactly?

First, let us recognise that not all Christians hate Pullman’s books. In fact Pullman recently sat down with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in a public discussion about religion at the National Theatre in which Williams made it clear that he enjoyed the novels. So if the Archbishop of Canterbury likes the books, what could be so bad about them that Bill Donohue is organising a boycott?

Well, Bill is on a warpath. He’s so serious about his campaign against this movie that he’s published a booklet (available in hardcover for $5) titled “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked”. The booklet says that Pullman, the novels’ author, is an atheist whose agenda is to convert people to atheism. Frightened yet? If you were expecting a more… dramatic controversy…. I’m sorry to have disappointed you. According to CBS News, “[The Golden Compass] tells the story of a young girl’s battle against a mysterious organization steeped in spiritual overtones, which is seeking to rule the world.” This organisation, Donohue believes, represents the Catholic Church.

Donohue believes that he’s exposed the sinister plan of atheists to bring atheism to children:

“It’s [a] stealth campaign, a dishonest way to produce anything. They want to make money. They want to make sure there’s a second and third movie based on the books in the trilogy. This teaches atheism to kids. Phillip Pullman is very open about this. The movie is basically innocuous, but parents may want to say to their kids, ‘You know what? A great Christmas present would be to buy ‘His Dark Trilogy,’ the name of the three books.’ Now you’ve introduced your kids to atheism. I don’t think most parents want to do that.”

Okay – here’s where I get to rant. Why would I have an aversion to my kids being introduced to atheism? I’m a theist, but I certainly don’t want my son (who’ll be 5 years old in January) to live in a Christian bubble of inherited belief, with the aim of quarantining him from exposure to all alternative belief systems. By no such means does maturity derive, and I have more respect for his intelligence. Many religious people are genuinely this insecure and paranoid: they believe that a film with passing anti-religious references could knock their kids off religion entirely. This doesn’t say much for the religion being advocated.

In fact, I’d question the very idea of raising a child to be religious: as Richard Dawkins says, there’s no such thing as a Christian child, only a child raised by Christian parents. I don’t want to raise a Christian son. I want to raise a son who is encouraged to think for himself on such issues. Since he’s never made a considered declaration of belief in any specific entity other than SpongeBob, I’m unable to ascribe a moniker of belief to him unless and until he does. I’m sure Donohue’s kids are perfectly happy with their ingenious father doing the thinking for them, but frankly that’s just not good enough for my child. If that’s a controversial thing to say, so be it, but I’m willing to bet you this: my son will benefit from having had parents who didn’t tell him what to believe or which moral code he must have for himself. He’ll know freedom and tolerance of thought and of deed, and of religious belief. He’ll be equipped, not indoctrinated; furnished with the tools, not supplied with the product.

It may not be that great a product anyway. It seems to me that simple honesty requires us to admit that there’s a lot about religion which is worthy of critique: every Christian who’s ever chosen one denomination over another is familiar with that assessment. If Pullman’s books are critical of both religion in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, maybe their adherents should listen and learn from the criticism, or even engage with it if they disagree. But no, that would be too sensible, too rational. ‘We must have a Boycott!’ That’s the reaction I would expect if this were the 16th Century. It makes religious people look as though they are impotent and unable to defend their beliefs and organisations, rather than confident and able to do so with avidity.

And the same goes for anyone whose worldview is challenged in cinema.  Why should Christians be exempt?  After all, Donohue loves the opportunity to challenge atheism and alternatives to Christianity.  It seems to me that Donohue must have a very low opinion of his fellow human being, since he doesn’t think they’re capable of viewing this film without buying unthinkingly into its underlying premise.  Instead they must avoid it completely.  As Pullman himself responded, “Why don’t we trust readers? Why don’t we trust filmgoers? Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world.”

On this question, Queen’s University English literature professor Shelley King commented, “It depends whether you are more interested in doctrine or in literary excellence. If your choice of reading matter is doctrinally driven, and you are not interested in challenges to received doctrine, then by all means, Pullman is not the man you want kids reading.”

And Pullman doesn’t try to deny the charges. As Wired News reports:

“The primary villains in The Golden Compass are the Magisterium (a renamed Catholic Church) and the Authority (known to you and me as Lord Almighty). As author Pullman once baldly put it, ‘My books are about killing God.’ In other words, not the usual recipe for boffo Christmas box office.”

But – perhaps surprisingly, given the reaction thus far – religion itself is not the most crucial force behind Pullman’s reasoning:

“As far as [Pullman] is concerned, his story is a statement against dogmatic authority of any kind.” “Religious tyranny is one form of tyranny,” Pullman confirms. “It’s tyranny that’s the bad thing. Totalitarian ways of thought are just as bad when they’re inspired by religion as by some other body of doctrine.”

So we come back to a familiar topic: freedom. Didn’t I say that is what I want to teach my son about?

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.