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.