Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of books is known for its very explicit anti-religion themes, which can be straightforwardly interpreted as atheist. Watering down this aspect to avoid controversy was one of the reasons the 2007 Hollywood movie adaptation, The Golden Compass, didn’t succeed. Fortunately, the BBC/HBO TV series appears to be on the right track by following the books more closely in this regard, and I couldn’t be more excited. The exploration of religion and spirituality is one of the reasons these books are some of my favorites. I believe it is important for media aimed at young people to explore these ideas and hopefully spark introspection and reflection.
My Religious Background
I was raised Catholic like the majority (81%) of the Mexican population. Since I was a kid I became aware of religion’s role in our life; it was everywhere: in holidays, everyday speech, jewelry, in household paintings and imagery, and even some of our core societal values. As I got older I started questioning my own beliefs and, coupled with my awareness of other religions, let myself contemplate other spiritual options besides my family’s faith.
As a teenager with a queer sexuality, I was severely at odds with Catholicism. The shame and guilt associated with homosexuality was so harmful that distancing myself from the Church was a logical and definite step to move forward in my life. Besides, as a rational thinker, many concepts from the Bible rang hollow to me.
I believed in being good and helping others, but I couldn’t accept the more out there, faith-based ideas like an omnipresent god, sin, or an afterlife in heaven (or hell). Despite having made up my mind though, I respected the taboo of never openly questioning my family’s religion, like it was something so personal that it was outside of the realm of critique. Pondering about existential questions alone would become a mentally exhausting and lonely activity.
Thankfully, when I was around 19, a college professor recommended Pullman’s books to the class. He hyped them so much that I bought them soon after with my first summer job paycheck. Upon starting reading The Golden Compass, I felt this was a different kind of YA fantasy novel, compared to ones like Harry Potter (which I also liked a lot). I was immediately intrigued and fascinated by daemons, the physical manifestation of people’s souls. Lyra’s story was thematically complex and theologically challenging. This was not only a highly entertaining story with endearing characters, but also a bold and ambitious work of fiction about how to find spiritual fulfillment without God or religion. Reading them was a very rewarding and satisfying experience that I wish I had gotten to know sooner.
Killing God (Spoilers)
Pullman’s anti-religious ideas are not subtext, but actual text in the story; Lord Asriel’s determined goal of killing God no matter the consequences is anything but subtle. The Magisterium, a more powerful and oppressive version of the Catholic Church, is the main antagonistic organization. We see a world which has fallen under their strict control, where free-thinking is discouraged for fear of repression. Any idea that challenges the Church is suppressed, in a clear parallel to not only the Catholic Church of the past, but other religions and authoritative regimes as well.
One of the worst characteristics of the Magisterium is their dreadful treatment of children. The Gobblers can be read as a metaphor for the child sexual abuse by the clergy. Severing kids’ daemons leaves them stunted for life or even dead, much like trauma does to real life victims. In The Amber Spyglass the Church purposefully tries to kill Lyra in an effort to stop her from (supposedly) bringing another Fall to humanity. The Magisterium is presented as despicable and corrupt to the core, in a deliberate attempt to show how unrestricted power and zealotry can affect people, especially young ones, living under a theocratic society.
God, referred to as The Authority, does exist in the world of His Dark Materials, but he’s not portrayed in the traditional Christian way. As the very first angel created from Dust, he gained his power by telling the subsequent angels and beings that the universe and all life on it were his doing. But as time passed, his body turned old and frail and his regent Metatron would take his place. Metatron doesn’t let The Authority die, in an effort to not disturb the control and influence they already possess in the multiple worlds.
One of the key symbolic moments of the final battle is when Will, unknowingly but compassionately, releases The Authority from his crystal prison. I interpret this scenario as Pullman saying the traditional God figure, an omnipotent all powerful ancient man, is an outdated concept that must be put to rest. It is meaningful that two children in a quest to understand the nature of life, death, knowledge, and conscience, are the ones that put an end to this old being. God, longing for rest, shows a peaceful and liberating expression as he finally dissolves into the air.
Knowing about the wrongdoings and corruption of the Catholic Church throughout history, there is something extremely satisfying and subversive about it being the main antagonistic force in literature aimed at a young audience. Pullman does not pull any punches, the criticism is not disguised or sugar-coated. Characters like Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, the witches, and Mary Malone (my favorite) all spell out matter-of-fact criticism of Christianity. All this could very easily become preachy, but Pullman’s characters do have their own character arcs and goals, not limited to only spout out “agenda”.
Pullman has expressed that his books are not specifically anti-Catholic, but rather anti-dogma. In the end, the storytelling, in my opinion, succeeds because plot, characters, and world building are masterfully blended with thematic richness. The author encourages the reader to live life to the fullest and share our stories, to seek truth and knowledge but also to take a moment to appreciate the big and small wonders of nature, to value and nurture our emotional connection with others, regardless if they’re ice bears, witches, Texans, or from another world.
His Dark Materials power relies on making accesible deep (and sometimes tough) questions about our own spirituality. There are many ways in which we can find spiritual fulfillment, religion is not the only way. Everyone should be reminded of that, especially young people who sometimes don’t even know they are allowed to think for themselves about these matters.