Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Golden Compass and Religious Criticism

The “New Atheist” movement seems to be over. It has had its 15 minutes of fame, and now everything is back to normal – where the vast majority of the articles that one encounters on atheism are anti-atheist tracts written almost exclusively (in this country) from a Christian perspective.

Currently, the dominant Christian cause in the country is to discourage people from seeing the movie The Golden Compass because the movie will expose children to atheism. It does not matter that the movie itself has been scrubbed of any anti-religious sentiments in order to make it palpable to the general public. Children who see the movie might be encouraged to read the books. The books were written by an “avowed atheist” out on a mission to “kill God”. This makes the books unfit for children. This makes anything that might direct a child’s attention to the books something that this culture must despise and condemn.

Or so the argument goes.

Nowhere in the press do I hear any word of protest to the effect that what society really should be condemning is this hatefest against atheists – this idea that anything that might expose a child to atheism is to be condemned – that Americans have a duty to use their words and private actions to make sure that no company produces any form of entertainment that might make atheism friendly to children.

Because the movie itself has been scrubbed of anti-religious sentiment, it is difficult for atheists to say that people should see the movie. There is nothing really to recommend it, other than the possibility that it might be an entertaining fantasy story.

Yet, if the movie ends up doing poorly at the box office (which seems likely at the moment), this will teach big business an important lesson. It will teach them to never accept any project that even hints at the possibility of making atheism friendly to children. Which, in turn, will help to ensure that future generations will only be exposed to material that makes theism friendly to children.

The strategic implications of this to be interesting. The anti-atheist community has decided to fight on grounds that atheists have no interest to fight them on. This will allow them to declare victory. The result will be to give theism a decisive advantage on the production of entertainment friendly to children for years to come.

And the ‘New Atheists’ are nowhere to be seen.

Keep in mind, the battleground here is not over whether people should or should not see this movie. The battleground is over the attempt to maintain a cultural prohibition on the production of material that might . . . just might . . . lead a child to something friendly to atheism. As long as theist factions can maintain this cultural prohibition, they can maintain a lock on the minds of children. When this cultural prohibition is broken, then it will be possible for people to reach children with an atheist-friendly message. This is essential if one wishes to break effectively battle the institutions that brainwash children into religion.

The ‘new atheists’ have solid grounds for complaint.

First, people of reason have reason to welcome open debate. There, people can express their different views and give the reasons that drove them to the conclusions they now accept. People of faith, on the other hand, have nothing to debate. They hold that they can believe anything they can imagine, and that they need not offer reasons for their beliefs. To replace reasoned debate, they offer bullying and posturing. That is what we see here in their reaction to The Golden Compass – an attempt to win a debate by bullying critics into silent submission. A person of faith doesn’t have any other option.”

This is consistent with one of the major themes of new atheism, before the fad of new atheism faded from the public view. New atheists were keen to point out that, “Where belief is based on faith there is no possibility for debate.” Here we have a clear application of that principle – where those who ground their beliefs on faith see no option but to bully others into silence. And, in fact, they prove themselves to be quite adept at that tactic, given the amount of silence we hear on the part of their opponents.

Second, teaching false beliefs and fantasy values to a child does real-world harm to that child, because it gets in the way of the child realizing real-world value.

I have challenged the claim that some ‘new atheists’ have made that teaching religion to a child amounts to child abuse. I have argued that child abuse requires some sort of malicious intent, or at least a lack of concern for the welfare of the child. In most cases of teaching religion to a child, this requirement has not been met.

However, this does not deny that teaching religion to children harms them. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Desires provide the only reasons for action that exist. People seek the fulfillment of their desires – but they act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. One of the most significant barriers to the fulfillment of desires – for realizing a state that is truly valuable – is false beliefs. Loading a child’s head with false beliefs will end up serving as a significant barrier to that child’s future attempts to realize real-world value.

I have compared the life devoted to religious value to be like a life lived in ‘the Matrix’. Every accomplishment that a person achieves in The Matrix is a lie – it is not real. It is, instead, an illusion handed to the person by an outside force. The person who lives a religious life is also living a lie. Any ‘value’ that she thinks she finds in religion is purely imaginary. Real value requires a connection to the real world. Fantasy value is the only value one can find living in a fantasy world.

Depriving a child of the opportunity to obtain real-world value, diverting the child into wasting his life in the pursuit of fantasy goods in service to a fantasy God, counts as genuine harm. People who teach their children to live a fantasy life often do not intend to harm their children. However, this does not change the fact that a part of denying the ral world involves denying the real-world harms that flow from their actions.

Third, those who are trying to bully the critics of religion into submission are trying to create an culture in which children simply are not presented with an opportunity to discover that there are alternatives to the myths and fantasies certain adults have adopted – because they, as children, did not have the opportunity to consider alternative views. Creating an environment where the critics of religion are bullied into submission simply allows these harms to continue. Somebody who is willing to allow this bullying to go unanswered must be somebody who really does not care about the harms that result.

The effect of success in this arena will be to teach those who produce childhood entertainment that they dare not express any view in a favorable light other than the evangelical Christian view. Children who are raised in a culture where the expression of only one point of view is permitted cannot be blamed for becoming adults who see no other option than the only option they were allowed to encounter as a child. Breaking this chain of myth requires insisting on the right to express views favorable to atheism in ways that are child-friendly, thus allowing the child to make up his or her own mind.

In spite of these three concerns, I have not noticed any comments from the ‘new atheists’ addressing these concerns. In spite of their protest that it is time to quit treating religion with kid gloves, that it is time that religion faced criticism, it seems strange that they would be so silent while theists were at work establishing and reinforcing the cultural norm that it is wrong to criticize religion.


Anonymous said...

The main problem with trying to counter the negetive response to movies like this is the overwhelming numbers of groups dedicated to censoring the media.Not only do we have to worry about serious issues like prayer in schools,we also have to worry about the less immediate, far reaching implications of the censoring of this movie.
We are outnumbered and the only way for us to change anything is to become more active.

Epiphenom said...

Golden Compass (northern lights here in the UK) is not and never has been an atheist book/film. So it would be wrong for atheists to start promoting it - that would simply reinforce the false image that the Catholics are trying to project. Once this film gets mis-labeled as 'atheist', no-one will see it. As far as I can make out, the mainstream press is not taking the bait - it's only the nutters.

Golden Compass is an inspirational film about resisting dogmatism and oppression. So of course it should be of interest to atheists, but also to religious people who value freedom and free choice. That's the point we should be making.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Tom Rees

This blog post is not about "defending the movie".

This blog post is about condemning a culture of, "Once this film gets mis-labeled as 'atheist', no-one will see it."

Joe Otten said...

A very good teenager-level trilogy of novels, I would call them anti-clerical rather than atheist. Pullman is an atheist, yes, but the stories are populated by soul-like animals, angels, witches, priests and god.

Kevin Smith's Dogma was perhaps similarly anti-clerical. How did that do?

Anonymous said...

So, as a New Atheist... how the hell do I take a stand here?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

doug s.

Complain . . . loudly . . . about those who resort to bullying and sophistry to make their voice the only voice that gets heard, and about those who are aware of this evil but seem to content to submit to the demand that they do or say nothing in protest.

Anonymous said...

I've been an atheist most of my life (I'm now 34) and I've never once felt offended or victimized for being such.

Those who do, I believe, suffer from the pervasive "victim mentality" that afflicts other special interest groups.

I live in California, so maybe it's just about my location.

However, my least favorite character trait is ingrattitude, so I'm particularly bothered by whiny people who play victim unless they have some genuine grievence.

Atheism as victim seems childish. I bought into it at one time when I was really reading a lot of atheist/anti-religious books and spending my afternoons posting at Infidels. Now it seems terribly silly.

Mike Perschon said...

Not an atheist myself. Raised Christian, worked as a minister for a few years, currently teaching literature. I just wanted to say that I think it blows that the film got watered down from the books - I believe the value of works like this is that it gives opportunity to test one's beliefs, be they in a God or none at all. We need those sorts of challenges, whoever we are and whatever ideology we espouse. A crisis of faith is a good thing in my mind. Kudos for your stand.

logic11 said...

I take issue with saying that in order for something to be child abuse it has to come from maliciousness of neglect. If I hit a child with the intention of teaching him, I am still hitting the child, and is still abuse. Ignorance of negative consequences doesn't make them go away. Hell, the folks at NAMBLA claim that children are innately sexual and that they are best served by being molested... many of them even believe it. In some ways I believe that religion is much the same.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, I said that abuse requires malicious intent or negligent disregard for the welfare of a child.

Some people claim that beating a child or molesting a child does no harm. However, these are examples of epistemic negligence. They have no reason to believe these, and they are surrounded by evidence that it is not true.

It is not, however, epistemic negligence to adopt a huge portion of the people around you. The belief may still be wrong, but it is not negligence.

If doctors prescribe a medicine for your child that turns out to be harmful, the fact that you did not believe the medicine was harmful, and the belief was no fault of your own, makes you immune from the charge of child abuse.

Please note that in this example you did not form your belief that the medicine was harmless as a result of sound reason. You formed it as a result of listening to a socially accepted authority figure. That is also how many people get their beliefs on religion. So, again, this provides a shield against a charge of negligent disregard for the welfare of the child.