March 29, 2018


Philip Pullman: siding with Satan (MICHAEL NAZIR-ALI, April 2018, Standpoint)

It is clear that there is a kind of continuity with members of the Inklings: Pullman draws heavily on the tools of their trade to evoke other worlds where there can be a battle of ideas and of values, he also has supernatural, or supernaturally endowed beings, in these worlds who struggle to prevail, and he also seeks to re-enchant our prosaic world with his tales of strange worlds and stranger creatures. Like them, Pullman professes to be influenced by the Bible and by Christian hymns in particular. But here the resemblance ends. 

Pullman uses the paraphernalia of fantasy to send a message radically different from the Inklings. He sees religion as a force for coercion and oppression, and organised religion as a bondage from which the human race must be liberated. Thus the "Magisterium" and "the Church" play the role of the villain in his work and the Christian God is singled out for oblivion. It seems appropriate then to see him, as Cathy Young and Peter Hitchens have done, as a kind of anti-Lewis: using fantasy and even allegory to communicate a message very different from Lewis's. He is generally anti-Inklings, even if he depends on them in his use of fantasy as a method to discuss important issues. He is not only anti-religion but specifically anti-Christian and, we may even say, anti-Christ. [...]

It is simply not enough to oppose authority to freedom. The question today is not so much about freedom from organised religion or cultural mores, but what freedom is for, how it expresses our essential nature and the lawfulness which is embedded in it, even when we neglect or deny it. In any view of moral development which might be seen as adequate, heteronomy leads to autonomy which, in turn, should lead to interdependence, respect for persons and the willingness to sacrifice our individual interests for another person, the family or the Common Good.

All civilisation has been built on the delaying or even the denial of gratification. The Church's teaching, in this respect, is not to be a killjoy but to promote respect for persons rather than their use merely for our own sexual, economic or cultural gratification. In spite of numerous disasters, the "free love" movement seems not to have learnt the value of self-restraint. The removal of all inhibition will not lead to happy communes of the imagination but to hurt individuals, broken families and bewildered children. The delaying of the gratification of primary appetites, on the other hand, can contribute to greater literary, artistic or scientific achievement, even it it is not a sine qua non for these.

In a recent BBC interview Pullman declared that he couldn't believe in God because of the theory of evolution he had learnt at school. This kind of naive scientism ill becomes someone who has been voted the 11th most influential person in British culture. Is he aware, for example, of Fr Teilhard de Chardin, who not only made hugely significant contributions in palaeontology but set his understanding of development in the universe in an explicitly Christian setting? For him, the emergence of complexity and of consciousness alerts us to the special destiny of humans. In agreement with St Paul, he sees Christ as the origin, centre and goal of the cosmic process. 

Similarly, Simon Conway Morris, the palaeobiologist, has called our attention to the phenomenon of convergence in widely different creatures and to the implications of this for the inevitability of the emergence of intelligence. Intelligence itself is a signal of transcendence and reminds humans not to regard themselves as cosmic accidents, but as stewards who will have to account for their stewardship. Robert Asher, also a palaeontologist, declares roundly that the mechanics of biology do not address the "who" or the "why" behind it. We could mention Frank Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, or Denis Alexander of Cambridge, or Paul Davies, who is not a conventional Christian but believes that science provides a surer path to the existence of God than religion, and many others. The point is that atheists, like Pullman, have some obligation to understand what it is they are rejecting, just as believers have a responsibility to understand atheism before engaging in apologetics in response to it. 

While the Inklings invented imaginary worlds like Narnia or Middle Earth, Pullman uses the pseudo-scientific notion of parallel universes. This is a last desperate throw of the dice for those seeking to avoid the conclusion that the remarkable expansion, balance and laws of the universe, to say nothing of the right amount of materials for the emergence of life, the miracle of consciousness and of creatures able to study the universe from which they have emerged, calls for an explanation. Thus, if an infinite number of universes is posited, then the existence of this one is a necessity but an unremarkable one. That there is no evidence of such universes and, in any case, how could we know whether they existed since we are limited in our observation to this universe, seems not to deter the advocates of this view. A properly scientific view would take this universe seriously and attempt to explain its remarkable nature. If mythic worlds are to be created for the sake of the story, let us be clear that is what they are rather than confusing them with pseudo-science.  

Pullman admits that he is superstitious in his daily habits, but perhaps the most egregious example of this is his borrowing from his own fantasy regarding final accountability after death. In his BBC interview he tells us that he is looking to give a truthful and worthwhile account of his life, not to the Almighty but to the "Harpies", after which he will be allowed to atomise back into the universe. There is here an astonishing syncretism of the biblical idea of judgment, Greek myth, Vedantic monism and sheer materialism. It is precisely from such pagan notions that the Bible frees us, with its teaching of a just God and the requirement of justice in us. In spite of the claim to biblical inspiration, there is no such Being in Pullman, but the Harpies abound. 

Posted by at March 29, 2018 4:07 AM