Aug 1, 2008

Making Atheism Enchanting

3 Min Read

The old atheists maintained that belief in God is not true. The new atheists maintain that belief in God is not good. The atheists’ problem, though, is that however much they attack belief in God, their own worldview lacks all appeal. They get hung up on the last remaining absolute: Atheism is not beautiful. It is so depressing .

If there is no God and this physical realm is all there is, life is pretty much pointless. A person might believe such a bleak worldview, but no one is going to like it. The old atheists, to their great credit, usually faced up to the implications of their disbelief. Walter Berns, writing in The Weekly Standard (February 4, 2008), sums up the worldview of Albert Camus, as expressed in his novel The Stranger :

Meursault, its hero (actually, its antihero), is a murderer, but a different kind of murderer. What is different about him is that he murdered for no reason — he did it because the sun got in his eyes, à cause du solei — and because he neither loves nor hates, and unlike the other people who inhabit his world, does not pretend to love or hate. …As he said, the universe “is benignly indifferent” to how he lives. It is a bleak picture, and Camus was criticized for painting it, but as he wrote in reply, “there is no other life possible for a man deprived of God, and all men are [now] in that position.

But although Camus may have aniticipated the mindless, non-reflective godlessness of our culture, his world-view has little to commend it. By his own admission, throwing out God also throws out meaning, joy, and everything that makes life worth living.

Enter Philip Pullman, the British author of children’s stories. Out of his hatred for C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” Pullman resolved to write a fantasy series that would do for atheism what Lewis’ fantasy series did for Christianity. Thus was born the trilogy “His Dark Materials.”

The first volume, The Golden Compass , was recently made into a movie, which, despite its elaborate and expensive special effects, bombed at the box office, illustrating what he is up against. But the trilogy is enormously popular, especially among teenagers and young adults, having sold some fifteen million copies.

The story has to do with multiple worlds, marvelous adventures, and an epic conflict between good and evil. Except that, in line with the new atheism, God is the evil one and Satan is the good guy.

Pullman, as in the old Gnostic texts, portrays God the creator as a cruel, tyrannical “Authority”; Satan is the liberator; and Adam and Eve were right to eat the forbidden fruit. In Pullman’s fantasy, the church, headed by Pope John Calvin, is all about black-robed clerics sneaking around establishing inquisitions and spoiling everyone’s fun.

The books, though, are imaginatively stimulating. The fantasy is exciting, well-written, and pleasurable. And, as with other fantasies, the story is idealistic and even inspiring.

Here, in a quote from the second volume of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife , is how Pullman portrays the virtue of Satan’s rebellion and of the cosmic struggle against the Authority:

There are two great powers…and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

The prose evokes a stirring heroism — again, like traditional fantasies — but the enemy of knowledge, wisdom, and decency in this anti-Narnia is God and His evil minions in the church!

The central image of the Pullman books is the “dark materials,” a term taken from Milton, whose Paradise Lost the author turns upside down. This “dust” is the stuff of love and consciousness. In fact, it turns out that everything is made out of this dust, which is the essence of both spiritual and physical existence. This is true even of the Authority, who turns out to be just another physical being, an old, senile relic who dissolves back into dust once he is dragged into the light.

This is nothing more than classic materialism, of course, which insists that matter is all there is, so that everything that exists is made out of particular tiny bits of matter called atoms. Pullman glorifies and mystifies this “dust.” How wonderful it is to have evolved into so many wonderful things! And when we die, we go back to dust. As Pullman puts it in the last volume, The Amber Spyglass , when people die “all the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you.”

Pullman mystifies materialism and turns atheism into an actual religion. In doing so, however, he does what the old atheists have always falsely accused believers of doing: indulging in irrational wish-fulfillment and constructing an escapist fantasy.