The Golden Compass as an Atheist indoctrination tool? The hypocrisy…

Recently we’ve heard a lot of derogatory remarks about Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Many enraged Catholics have called for a boycott of the movie, saying that it is an Atheist indoctrination tool. This is interesting in many ways. 

While I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, this is what I’ve heard—feel free to correct me, agree with me, or otherwise put in  your two cents. Firstly, the movie really shied away from being too direct in its criticisms. There was apparently allusions and metaphor detectable to the educated viewer, such as referring to the controlling group as the Magisterium—again, correct me if I have not represented this accurately. But overall the movie was sufficiently sparing and indirect with its allusions that Nicole Kidman, a practicing Catholic, was willing to star in it. The book, I hear, was also rather indirect in its allusions to the Catholic Church.

So is The Golden Compass—book and/or movie—an atheist indoctrination tool? Well first off, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to use the term “indoctrination” the same way when we’re talking about atheism versus religion, as long as the atheism we are referring to here is agnostic atheism (i.e., the lack of belief in a God, as opposed to the outright denial of God). Religious indoctrination teaches kids what to believe. Encouraging people to form beliefs based on rational analysis of the evidence is hardly the same thing; if anything, it is an indoctrination vaccination. The only thing being indoctrinated into the pupil is a commitment to having sound rational beliefs about the world, oneself, and one’s ways of thinking.

But even if they were atheist indoctrination tools, who in the hell are Catholics to talk!?!? Sunday school isn’t an indoctrination tool? Bible camp? Engaging the toddler—hell, the infant—in ritual practices years before they have the concept of virgin, let alone virgin birth!? Organized religions are the alpha and omega of indoctrination. This is well beyond the pot calling the kettle black.

25 Responses to “The Golden Compass as an Atheist indoctrination tool? The hypocrisy…”
  1. The Christian apologists use every tool at their disposal to shape public opinion and play the victim card. Free speech is critical in a free society. The mind-prison created by opposing organized religions is the direct cause of bloodshed and the loss of millions of lives. When people break the shackles of religious dogma and embrace universality and compassion for all man, we will evolve.

  2. Colin says:

    Much of what I have read regarding Golden Compass states that Pullman wrote the trilogy (which I haven’t read…yet) specifically as an ‘indocrination tool’. Maybe I am wrong on that one…

    Is that a bad thing? No, not really, he has every right to do so. Is a boycott silly and childish…darn right it is.

    Indoctrination happens all around us. The Church of Buy More Stuff is a crazy successful indoctrinator.

    Our concern should not be with indoctrination itself. It should be with the content and whether we are teaching the truth.

  3. ronbrown says:

    Agreed on all points.

  4. Cory says:

    Why are you offering your opinion on a book and movie that you haven’t read or seen? Doesn’t that smack of prejudgement? Exactly the kind of prejudice that agnostics/atheists are trying to avoid in religion?

    I’m an atheist, and I’ve both read the books and seen the movie. They promote humanistic values and clearly criticize the values of Christianity (not just Catholicism), though the criticisms come out much more clearly in the later two books. In that sense, they are “indoctrination tools”. Of course, in my opinion that is a good thing, because I believe strongly in the ‘doctrine’ they promote. But I’ll respect the right of the Catholics to not want to see it. I wouldn’t go see the Passion of the Christ, and I wouldn’t expect them to see the Golden Compass.

    Getting all huffy about a potential boycott is a bit silly, particularly given all the free publicity the series is getting. Nothing alerts kids to the presence of something new and different than a good old fashioned book/movie banning.

  5. ronbrown says:

    I’m offering my opinion on it being banned because the author was an atheist and was making negative allusions to Catholicism and any such authority.

    I respect the right of Catholics to not want to see it, but I don’t think that 1) they should be getting public funding for their schools as this is completely unsecular and unfair to every group aside from Catholics and to the taxpayers (which is another but related issue), and 2) have the right to further this unsecularism by censoring views that stand in opposition of Catholicism.

    It’s not the boycotts I’m talking about, its book banning—and book banning sponsored by public funds.

    The fact that a lot of Catholics who wouldn’t have thought much of the book and movie will now go see it is actually the silverlining.

  6. Neil says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but I read the first two books a while ago. I think it’s laughable to consider them atheist indoctrination. Skimming the second book (The Subtle Knife) again, I find that it goes down the path of Deepak Chopra style new agey bullshit: “matter and spirit are one”, dark matter is angels (in some unspecified way), this dark matter/shadow matter/angels even intervened in human evolution. Which was disappointing because I remember enjoying the books at the time.

  7. ronbrown says:

    I keeping hearing that the degree to which Golden Compass alludes to what is accused of is very indirect and relatively unsubstantial.

    You’ll be interested to know that the committee that was assembled by the Halton Catholic School Board assembled to review The Golden Compass did NOT ccnclude that it should be banned. Their recommendation was simply to put it in the young adult section of the libraries. That’s it. Even given this recommendation, though, the board elected to ban it altogether. I wonder if by chance the plan was to ban it all the long and the board simply wanted to give the impression of conscientiousness and educated consideration. I’m not saying that this is the case–perhaps many in the local community became very animated during the weeks of the review, for instance. But I would not at all be surprised.

  8. lpkalal says:

    My husband took our daugther and her friends to see it. They only saw it as a typical good vs bad movie. They had no idea the “bad” was the church, and if it was the church, it was the church of the middle ages.

  9. ciarraic says:

    Maybe a Danish newspaper should run anti-Phillip Pullman cartoons and we’ll see how HIS readers like it.

  10. dianarn says:

    I finished reading the third book yesterday and I can really understand why the Catholic Church is trying to ban/boycott them. The books are easy to read, a middle schooler could probably do it and understand the general point. However, it took all of my knowledge up to this point to wholly understand them. They’re deep, really deep. I don’t know who Phillip Pullman is, or if it’s a pen name, but he has to be up alongside C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien, who were both highly involved in secret societies and occult teachings. Whether they were Christian and he’s an atheist, it does not matter. Christianity was used as a front for many movies who had quite a bit of hidden/occult knowledge in them. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the books. 🙂

  11. ronbrown says:

    Ciarraic: I don’t understand your point.

  12. sethclinch says:

    Hey Ronnie.

    I was just fixing up my UFC blog and boom there is your face in the religion section. Good stuff man. I wish I could comment on your topic here but it’s way over my head. The Golden Compass looked like a crap movie.

  13. Jersey says:

    Last I checked atheists never use the word or concept of “indoctrination” (or any other form of the word and/or its synonyms). All atheists and their non-theistic brethren at most is say religious dudes are brainwashed; at the usual, all they ask is for theists (i.e. religious dudes) to use their minds instead of their beliefs when it comes to perception of the world around them.

  14. clothier says:

    Ban the book, the film and atheists. Subliminal allusions are more dangerous to the young reader than outright indoctrination. Of course many of you hippies believe that religion is irrational, but we consider that creation happened by accident hilarious. Democracy is about allowing all people to have a voice. Most of us do not wish this kind of trash to filter into the minds of the youth. The Catholic church is not beyond criticism, but the book goes beyond simply criticizing the church. It questions the reality of the existance of GOD. That is blasphemy; a crime punishable by death. It would be better to put the promoters and all involved on trial, rather than stopping at banning the trash. This is not literature.

  15. ronbrown says:

    Wow. Looks like we’ve got a live one. I’ve gotta say that I’m mildly high right now but I’ll same some things anyway.

    Does someone else want to dress this guy down. I just don’t see the point. Anyone who thinks that “God did it” is a more reasonable answer to all the great philosophical questions than “I don’t know” or referring to highly-tested scientific theories (and yes, I said SCIENTIFIC THEORIES as opposed to random speculation) is obviously beyond the point of rational discourse. Citizens like this person are the realization of one of the risks of democracy. Many political systems have their strengths and their weaknesses; he is an incarnation of a weakness of democracy: some of the citizens might be ignorant, naive incorrigible dogmatists who laugh at rational enterprises and think it reasonable to attribute all answers to a hypothetical God—one of an infinite array of potential Gods for which the evidence is, well, you all know how I feel about the “evidence”… Honestly, please sit down and be honest with yourself for a change. Your God is completely arbitrary. There’ve been thousands over the course of humanity, why do you think that out of all the Gods that people have whole-heartedly believed in, that yours would be the true one? Why do you think that there is necessarily any God? You think a universe by accident is hilarious but think that assuming that your one-of-an-infinitum God’s being outside of time is something perfectly reasonable to believe? You do realize that I could say the exact same stories about a Flying Spaghetti Monster Creator, don’t you? Don’t let the term “accident” make the possibility sound silly. All this term is meant to imply here is that it may well have come about without the direction of a conscious agent.Ultimately no one knows what happened–maybe there was a God maybe there wasn’t (I’m referring to a conscious or personal God, not to any God at all because if you say that then you’re basically just saying “there is some explanation for this”); if there was a God maybe it was your God, but probabilitistically, it seems that the odds of this are extremely small, so small that while still a possibility it might as well not be.

    Man, there’s pretty much no way that I would’ve typed so much if I wasn’t under the influence of something. And of course if this person responds, he’ll very possibly just write off everthing I said because I’m high rather than honestly considering my arguments against his imaginary fairytale God.

    I hope he notices something about me: a complete lack of fear. I can gleefully blasphemy his imaginary God without the slightest bit of concern of burning in a lake of fire. How truly unfortunate it is that he probably does actually lose sleep over fear of such deplorable fiction.

    From what I’ve been learning of Jesus, if Jesus were to be real—whether as the son of God or just as a sage Jewish philosopher—he would be probably be mindblowingly disillusioned by how his ideas have been bastardized.

  16. Andrew says:

    Too hilarious.

    “Democracy is about allowing all people to have a voice. Most of us do not wish this kind of trash to filter into the minds of the youth.”

    I love how this huge contradiction comes one sentence after the other.

    “ban atheists”.. then talk about wanting “all people to have a voice.”

    The issue is simple: the books and movies encourage free inquiry. Religious people (and, of course, their religions) can’t handle that, and lash out as a result. It seems to me that this is all there really is to it.

  17. Baekho says:

    Having read His Dark Materials (the “Golden Compass series”), I can say that it is definitely in favor of humanism. It is to non-religious humanism what the Chronicles of Narnia are to Christianity.

    Note that I said non-religious humanism, not anti-religious humanism. Humanism is not fundamentally incompatible with religion. The “bad guys” in the Golden Compass are the institution of Church. And even at the end, when the “good guys” are fighting against God, it is revealed that “God” is not actually the creator, but a clever and conniving angel who has claimed to be the creator.

    Thus in His Dark Materials the door is left open for God, and the book is primarily not about aggressively denying the existence of God, but about fighting against totalitarianism and dogma.

  18. the forester says:

    The issue is simple: the books and movies encourage free inquiry. Religious people (and, of course, their religions) can’t handle that, and lash out as a result. It seems to me that this is all there really is to it.

    Sorry, Andrew, that’s too simplistic. Here’s a different religious take:

    Good for Pullman to be raising issues and asking critical questions. God isn’t threatened by questions; we believers shouldn’t be, either. I’m going to read Pullman’s trilogy when I get through my current reading list. In our pluralistic society there’s ample room for disagreement — and you never know, nonbelievers have a unique perspective that may help us identify problems we believers need to work on.

    Besides, if we Christians can write allegorical literature for children, those from other walks of faith, or even no faith at all, are equally welcome to do so. Bringing new, complex, or even challenging ideas to life through literature isn’t indoctrination, it’s provoking higher-level thinking.

    I believe the God of the Bible is true, and His mercy should inspire tolerance, patience and humility in all Christians — especially when our faith is challenged. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans chapter 5) Christians have a high calling to live up to. Defending free speech is only a start.

  19. ronbrown says:

    Baekho: Isn’t humanism incompatible with the faith-based aspects of religion though in that humanism emphasizes reason, the here and now, establishing morality through reason and a genuine respect for each person, etc.? This doesn’t mean that humanism is against everything about religion. Humanism can readily get on board with the pursuit for wisdom and personal enrichment, a strong, connected and supportive community, stewardship of the earth, and so on. It’s just wear unreason comes in.

    I’m familiar with religious humanism, where individuals believe in some sort of supernatural being, perhaps in the form of particular theism, or deism. However, they separate this from their thinking about political issues and are generally pretty secular and rational in their pragmatic thinking. Nevertheless, though, having belief in the supernatural, in that it is a departure from the rationalism that is one of the cores of humanism as generally conceived, is a departure from humanism. So there is one dimension of incompatibility. That isn’t to say that there isn’t extensive overlap elsewhere, but if we’re looking at the major tenets of humanism, religious humanism doesn’t seem to be a full category member.

    I’ve commented elsewhere on how I definitely think that secularists need to learn from religion. To learn from their successes in bringing people together to establish communities in which people work together to help each other and the community out and pursue personal and social well-being, growth and wisdom. Perhaps the codification and branding of religions into texts and particular churches, respectively, brought about the rigidification of religions. Writing specific things down made it harder for religious thinking to change with modern thought. Cultural competition among different churches brought about the need for branding—the establishment of the need for each group to establish its own identity for the purposes of, well, marketing. Codification and the need for a stable product image may have played a critical role in making religions more dogmatic. Another thing, I speculate, that may be causing this rigidification is the marginalization of certain segments of the community. Because certain people have very limited opportunity to pursue education, growth and meaning in the broader society, they may move toward religions for a source of community, acceptance, meaning and a framework for growth. Perhaps when people have too little going on in their lives due to such marginalization, when an opportunity like a church comes along they may gravitate toward it—the church could really be their savior, in their eyes. As they engulf themselves in this place of refuge. In this place of warmth, acceptance and meaning, they may come to be polarized in their thinking as they come to interact more and more with people of a narrow set of beliefs (narrow compared to the tapestry of beliefs in the broader culture). They will also come to identify with this group and dissociate from the broader culture in which they may have for some time felt like an outcast from anyway. Their pull toward the church and push away from society could lead to polarization. Another factor could be that because each member of the group is so dependent on the group for their sense of meaning, strength, community, etc., the group may demand a strong commitment from each member, which can often be demonstrated by passionately expressing the doctrinal beliefs and performing rituals. This could lead to a system of conformity. This system can overtime result in greater marginalization and dissociation from the rest of society, and consequently a greater reliance on the community and belief system for strength and meaning. Then add on top of this the extra antagonism created by the general society viewing the fundies as, well, fundies, and them viewing the general society as decadent immoral sinners. The aggregation of factors like these could really result in the adjustment of religion from a means to pursue wisdom, fellowship, community and caring to a divisive narrow-minded irrational dogma. (Side note: many of my ideas presented here have borrowed extensively from Chris Hedges and Pascal Boyer).

    Perhaps many of the concepts in religion are better viewed as metaphor. God not to be viewed as a personal God, but as a catch-all for all that is meaningful and worth living for, for wisdom, for connectedness among people, and for the inherent worth of all of us. To develop one’s faith or relationship with God is not to establish a connection with a personal God, but to cultivate one’s wisdom, develop compassion, work on becoming aware of and able to see through the self-world dissociation and create a greater sense of connectedness to the world and others, so that we can love of neighbours like ourselves. It would be good to learn from religions, from the philosophies and practices of Buddhism and other eastern traditions, from Western philosophy, from scientific rationality, and try to form open-minded communities in which people work together to promote the development of wisdom, compassion, cooperation, and growth, at both the levels of individuals, small groups, communities, and beyond. Is this utopian? Yes. Is it going to be something that can just be thrown together wam-bam-boom? No. It’s a difficult project, and one that would take extensive cooperation. But every bit of progress would be progress. A start would just be to start adopting these sorts of principles oneself and telling people about it. This, essentially, is what I’m doing. And I know others on similar paths. We’ve learned from each other and inspired one another. I imagine that successful methods of promoting growth, happiness, prosociality and a general excitement for life would be relatively contagious.

  20. the forester says:

    Interesting Hedges/Boyer analysis of religious group dynamics. I suspect similar dynamics can be found in every human grouping: sports fans, Mac fans, salespeople, artists, spelling bee contestants … even scientists. Groupthink is possible everywhere.

  21. Baekho says:

    Isn’t humanism incompatible with the faith-based aspects of religion though in that humanism emphasizes reason, the here and now, establishing morality through reason and a genuine respect for each person, etc.?

    I don’t think any of that necessarily conflicts with religion, even “faith-based” aspects. Classical Christianity, for instance, emphasized reason, the establishment of ethical principles through reason, genuine respect for each person, etc. In looking at Christian Humanists like Jacques Maritain, for example, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I think he would have agreed with all of the above points you mention. And here’s the thing, he wouldn’t have kept his Christian faith out of that. He would have supported Humanistic ideals because he supported Christianity, and vice-versa.

    I’m familiar with religious humanism, where individuals believe in some sort of supernatural being, perhaps in the form of particular theism, or deism. However, they separate this from their thinking about political issues and are generally pretty secular and rational in their pragmatic thinking.

    Here I would disagree. While there are certainly humanists who keep their religion and their humanism in watertight compartments, religious humanists like Maritain find that their humanism and their religion mutually support each other. Their religion isn’t an afterthought to their political or philosophical thinking, it is the animating force behind it.

    Nevertheless, though, having belief in the supernatural, in that it is a departure from the rationalism that is one of the cores of humanism as generally conceived, is a departure from humanism.

    Ah, but is belief in the Divine a “departure from rationalism”? It certainly can be, but not necessarily so. Belief doesn’t have to be irrational. There are perfectly rational theists out there, like Dr. William Vallicella, for instance, or Alvin Plantinga. I’d include Maritain as one of them as well. Most Classical Christian philosophers (Augustine, Aquinas, Kirkegaard, etc.) would also fit the bill.

    Now as a non-theist, I disagree with them and other theistic philosophers on a number of issues. But I respect them as having rational positions on those issues—including the issue of God.

    Like you, I tend to view “God” as a metaphor, as a particular kind of language for talking about reality or certain aspects of reality. But then most philosophical theists’ understanding of God is far more sophisticated than the idea of an “old man up in the sky” or some kind of supernatural sugar-daddy.

    Lastly, I agree with you entirely about the dangers of dogma, group-think, and a rigidly ossified hierarchy. I also agree that we as human beings have much to learn from one another, and that we stand only to gain from pooling our intellectual, cultural, and spiritual resources. And ultimately that’s what the Golden Compass and the other books in the series are about: about human potential, and about the realization of human potential. That is the important thing, and there are many people—-religious and non-religious—-who are all for the realization of human potential.

  22. ciarraic says:

    I haven’t had a chance to read all that’s been written here since Ron said he didn’t understand my point but I’d like to clarify my meaning. I hope I’m not simply repeating something that someone else said.

    I was making reference to the Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the prophet of Islam and got a murderous response from radical sects. I was trying to point out that Pullman is an author like Muhamed was but that that is where the similarity ends. Not only is it unlikely that even the most fanatical of Pullman’s readers will riot when he is criticized, but also it is unlikely that his book will have the staying power of the Koran or the Bible.

    They are cultural products of different orders of magnitude. Given that, maybe this is an instance where Christians should turn the other cheek.

    If the mountain will come to the molehill…

  23. ronbrown says:


    I’m not sure if all these types of groups are as likely to develop a culture as all-encompassing and strong as religion. Because religious beliefs connect directly to the biggest questions like the inception of the universe, right and wrong, the objective value of the individual, and connecting with the highest, most powerful and wisest authority, it seems far more likely to develop very strong attachment. However, I do agree that some people can become very committed to other types of communities. For instance, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is felt very passionately among millions of very team-nationalistic fans. Same for UK soccer—in fact, more so, I would imagine.

  24. ronbrown says:


    With regard to rationality with respect to God and the divine, it seems that as God and the divine are viewed in terms of specific stories of fact, they become irrational. I personally am against using these terms when referring to the more metaphoric and humanistic meanings—e.g., to refer to the sources of meaning, purpose, compassion, wisdom, community, prosociality, wonder, etc.—because it creates confusion and an illusion of consensus with regard to the culturally standard idea that God and the divine refers to the subjects of organized religion.

    In this sense, I don’t view God in a metaphorical sense. I am working on cultivating wisdom, greater moment-to-moment awareness, decreased perceived dissociation between myself and the world, and so on, but I don’t view these things in terms of God or religious concepts.

  25. Don'tFeelLikeTellingMyName says:

    How I see it is:

    If Atheists are so high-strung by the thought of a child being taught only one point of view their entire lives, to believe in God, Satan, Heaven, and Hell… and that there is no way to him but through Jesus Christ, then they should be just as high-strung about a child being only taught that there is no God, and that anyone who believes in God is a heretic and an imbecile… but instead they chose to live by double-standard and support a book/movie series that is obviously trying to do just that.

    Honestly… what every potential teacher or parent out there should do instead of fearing that one day their child might believe something different than they do… just push them to actually ask questions. HARD questions. Push them to ask YOU questions too. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make up some nonsense right on the spot and potentially tarnish the child’s thought process forever. Just freaking be honest and give them a simple “I don’t know, but I’m sure someone else does.”

    Honestly… when I’m an adult and have one or more children, I’m probably going to them watch Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, etc. I want him/her/them to be exposed to many different cultures and belief systems so they can actually have a reason to believe in what it is they believe in, and know why. I want them to be smarter than me… I want them to know more about the world, and faith, and intelligent thought, and literature when they get to be the age I am now than I currently do. I’m also going to teach them to want that for their children. If everyone would strive more to want their children to become more of a person than they are, instead of an exact clone… than humanity would actually have something to look forward to.

    But anyway, I digress… this is getting a little off-topic.

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