Narnia for Atheists?

A few hours ago a friend sent me mail about Philip Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials. One of the novels in this series was recently made into a movie called The Golden Compass. Apparently there is some controversy over this series, which I have not read and only heard about recently, that the books are propaganda for atheism posing as genre literature.

As an atheist, I don’t quite see what the problem is. Isn’t that what C.S. Lewis did with for Christianity with his Narnia series? If His Dark Materials becomes the atheist’s Narnia, fair is fair.

A long parenthetical comment follows:

I must admit I haven’t read the Narnia books either. Look, cut me some slack, okay? I just forced myself to slog through Tolkien’s Middle Earth simply because the movies compelled everyone to tell me to read the damn books. I don’t enjoy books as much if I feel somehow compelled to read them. I always enjoy books better if I come to them voluntarily.

I’m not much of a fantasy reader, especially if it gets elevated to “Grand Classics of Western Literature” status but, neither have I touched Harry Potter. I’m a science fiction nerd. The fantasy genre just doesn’t fire me up like SF does. This is paradoxical since I really liked the steampunk-ish Bas-Lag series of China Miéville and I like some of Lovecraft’s more science fiction-y short stories. And I play role-playing games based on fantasy even though I hardly read any fantasy.

Fantasy and horror genre stories often have profound fears and hatreds of the future and the unknown running through them. The story often centers around attempts to restore or return to a golden age. The old days are often portrayed as better than current, uncertain times. Or there is always some cautionary tale about people meddling with things they shouldn’t, things better left in the dark corners of the universe. Horror stories often have it that people get badly punished for merely being curious. This really bothers me whenever I try to consider them seriously as elevating fiction.

As escapism they don’t satisfy for me since there really isn’t a way, short of changing the laws of physics to allow for magic and the supernatural, for their imagined worlds to exist.

On the other hand, science fiction is often shot through with faster-than-light travel, time travel, travel to other universes and even–shudder–psychic powers. These are things we have no evidence for so, I guess my objections to fantasy and horror don’t really hold any water.

It’s this dichotomy between fantasy and science fiction that is one of the reasons why I liked Pitch Black better than Chronicles of Riddick. The former is more a noir, straight science fiction story with a bio-engineered criminal that, after a Zulu Dawn-like last stand, discovers that he has a conscience. The latter is more like Star Wars or Conan–there is magic and a barbarian defeats an evil empire to become an uneasy king–which is kind of disappointing since they really could have taken Riddick in the same direction that Bester took Gully Foyle or, if necessary, where Dick took Mercerism.

Anyway, let’s return to the main thing I wanted to write about.

Every year various religions all around the world are allowed to indoctrinate children with hardly any criticism. Most of this stuff isn’t even formalized propaganda like Sunday school. Most of it is just spook stories we tell kids to avoid painful subjects like where babies come from or why people die and so on. Hardly anyone bats an eye at actively deceiving children with Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or other god-lite nonsense.

So, to be fair, where is the harm in writing a few stories that give atheism-lite or “science is way, way cool” to the kids?

Besides it could be much worse. It’s not like someone is forcing children to watch Johnny Got His Gun. (If anyone has ever read the book or seen the movie, you’ll know its deeply atheist message that I’m talking about.)

On the other hand, I’m a little leery of picking fights or actively propagandizing anyone about anything.

Dawkins and others–I guess because they’re just so heartily sick and tired of little or no progress on this front or they are fearful of world destroying technology winding up in the hands of fanatics–are now looking to pick fights with religion. I’m still rather undecided about this.

For many years I used to be unashamedly elitist about atheism: it’s not for wanna-bes and joiners and is better for it. I thought, if you need ghost stories to calm your fears over living in a meaningless universe, fine, it’s your life. I was of the opinion that atheists shouldn’t try to actively proselytize anyone because that’s precisely the sort stuff we are against religion for. Think for yourself, damn it, right? Use the scientific method and think for yourself!

Also I know that, philosophically, agnosticism is really the safe position–nobody knows, nobody may never know. But for me improbability is enough to assume nonexistence.

I’ve got a lot of friends whom I care for deeply who believe a lot of silly things. I just accept it just like they accept me and my silly notions.

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4 Responses to Narnia for Atheists?

  1. Mr. Farlops wrote:

    “As an atheist, I don’t quite see what the problem is. Isn’t that what C.S. Lewis did with for Christianity with his Narnia series? If His Dark Materials becomes the atheist’s Narnia, fair is fair.”

    Narnia for atheists? I have got to check this out. As I am sure you know, I am a big Narnia fan. I am also an atheist. Do you see a contradiction here? I sure do.
    Why am I such a Narnia fan? I suppose it is largely because of childhood memories. It also because they were books I discovered on my own. My mother wanted me to read “The Island of the Blue Dolphins”. Both my parents told me they enjoyed “War and Peace” as children. OK, so we did have the entire Narnia series at home and I was told they were good books, but I never got the feeling it was my responsibility to read them or [shudder] appreciate them.
    At the age of about eight, having read Mr. Lewis’s childhood classics, I did indeed WANT to be a Christian. I actually tried to believe. I discovered that was rather oxymoronic. I made several other attempts over the next decade or so, but I just couldn’t do it. Not even to try to keep my first girl friend. For a good examination of why willing one’s self to believe is so difficult, I would recommend C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters”. Obviously Clive did not intend for his works to be taken as a justification of atheism, but perhaps as an atheist until his self-conversion as an adult, Mr. Lewis had an usually keen insight into the mind of atheists.
    Well, I will need to check out “His Dark Materials”. While I do not expect to be as enchanted by that story as I was by Narnia, I would be relieved to read the work of an atheist apologist.

  2. Pace Arko says:

    Well, I don’t see it as contradictory to be an atheist who likes the Narnia series. I think you can enjoy the stories on their own merit as merely stories. There are probably religious people out there who enjoy Pullman’s stories as well without getting into his ideology, ulterior motives or veiled agendas.

    Yeah, I’d read that about the “Screwtape Letters.” And I think I agree–you really can’t just simply decide that you’re a believer or not. Sometimes it may seem like a sudden revelation to some but this is only because they fail to notice a slow semi-conscious change within their minds over months or years.

    Children swing back and forth I think. The first year or two outside the womb children just don’t have the brain hardware to even deal with mental processes like belief. This is not surprising. I mean, the organs responsible for basic coordination aren’t even finished yet.

    Then somewhere around three or four, the suborgans responsible for abstraction begin to slowly form, shaped by experience, so they can start thinking about things that don’t exist in their presence. They start asking questions about the past and the future. They ask questions about things that aren’t present.

    I think as a minor side effect of this process, kids begin to let their new imagination organs run wild. Their filtering and pattern recognition circuits aren’t really tuned yet. So they see things in the dark that aren’t really there. They imagine intelligent causes for events when there are none. And they haven’t yet generalized any processes to prevent self-deception.

    I think in the most basic sense–at its very atavistic root–this is where all religion comes from. We all start as children frightened of dark hallways or frustrated by events beyond our control and into this our imaginations flood.

    So maybe I just contradicted myself. Near the beginning of my rant, I complained about parents who tell their kids lies like Santa Claus, the Stork or the Tooth Fairy. But now I’m thinking that even if parents do their best to dispel these silly notions, kids will just invent them anyway.

    The scientific method is really hard to internalize. It’s very alien to the way we are predisposed to think about things. Even scientists can blow it and make utter fools of themselves–look at Shockley or Sir Fred Hoyle.

  3. “I’ve got a lot of friends whom I care for deeply who believe a lot of silly things. I just accept it just like they accept me and my silly notions.”

    Are you saying Ummanah is silly!!! You will all drown in lakes of fire when he returns!

    As for Narnia, those books are fucking awesome not just for a great story but because Lewis is a great writer who imbued his creations with character and life; add that to ‘the greatest story ever told’ and some fantasy elements and you’ve got a great series of books.

    As for the fears of Atheist movies corupting the souls of our children, well you are quite right, most of our entertainment comes laden with ideology. But that does not mean that we should not be cautious; as you maintain children are very credulous and susceptible to ideas of all sorts from their elders; just look at the Hitler youth or some of these poor bastards in North Korea. and I am NOT PC, so I say on the one hand, fuck the religious righters who condemn all that does not promote their own views– and fuck religious nuts who insist on brainwashing children and particularly with violent extremism as we see in some maddrasehs. But I have to admit I find the smug elitism of Atheists to be abhorrent as well, despite my irreverence (Ummanah insists!) — and indeed as you say there is a great grey zone between Fantasy and SCIFI. Although on the basis of science we assume that certain things are impossible, yet often enough we cannot prove otherwise either. There is no test for the existence of the soul, nor a way to disprove what we call magic, and there is ample evidence that all that we see and observe and believe is illusory anyways… thise weekI have been reading Plato’s allegory of the cave: but the more I think of it the more itsems to me that there are caves within caves within caves each having new and correct levels of perception of ‘Reality’

    … It is strange as Phnom Penh is a decidedly un-intellectual place, that I am moved towards so much consideration of epistemology and ontology. well anyways Ummanah is going to kick all your atheist asses 😉

  4. Pace Arko says:

    O Lord Odin, who sits near and gazes into the red radiance of his fires at his manor in Valhalla, if you and I, over the last 17 years, invented the body of Ummanah and his followers ideology, what does that make us? [Wicked grin!]

    Remember your brief meeting with Douglas Adams? You asked him to sign one of your books. He asked who to make it out to and you told him. He signed your book but this then struck him to ask, “You mean the Norse God?” Perhaps it reminded him of his Dirk Gently plot in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. I cite this because I find that moment in your life unintentionally meaningful considering Adams’ religious feelings.

    Not that it was really meant to mean anything. We humans love to impose patterns and meanings on things were there are none. It was just some famous author, whom you and I both really admired, signing a book for you. That’s all. Actually it’s less than that. It was just two apes engaging in and reacting to some weird social ritual that on the cosmic scale meant nothing at all.

    But it’s interesting how sometimes meaningless events can sometimes flop into a pattern that we can draw or invent meaning from. Perhaps Jung would disagree but, I think that synchronicity is really our attempts to impose meaning on coincidence.

    Anyway, this gets me back to one of my points: Authors of any ideological stripe can produce some damn good reads! Lewis, a Christian, wrote a lot of good stuff, much of which is admired by many atheists–our gentle colleague Ralph being one example. Adams, a radical atheist, wrote a lot of good stuff, much of which is admired by many people with religious beliefs. The stories themselves are what matter.

    I don’t know how many parents have read Adams to their kids at night but it’s weird that there is no news about parents pissed off about any hidden atheist messages in his stuff. So why is Pullman being singled out now? I think it’s just because he’s recent, living author that someone thinks that they can stir up the muck about and get people to pay attention to their own pet causes.

    Your citation of Plato’s Cave reminds me of the conversation between Randy and Enoch in Cryptonomicon. It’s impossible for any student of Western philosophy, amateur or professional, to avoid running into that powerful metaphor. It slices, it dices!

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