After Harry Potter, I’d guess that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the second most controversial series of books, at least where the religious right is concerned. And with good reason: the two child protagonists ultimately set out to destroy God. The trilogy is commonly understood to be the anti-Narnia. C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a very clear Christian allegory, with heavy-handed Christian symbols and parallels to sacraments. But where Lewis created an obvious allegory, Pullman gives us something more akin to a philosophical position paper in story form. How good of a job does his trilogy do in tackling the problem of God?
Spoilers for His Dark Materials herein.
His Dark Materials is the story of Lyra and Will, two twelve-year-olds, who are at the center of a prophesy regarding the ultimate fate of the multi-verse. In the first book, Lyra is given an alethiometer, a compass that tells the truth and runs on Dust. Dust is the name given to elementary particles that are attracted to human activity and “settle” in a person when he or she hits puberty. With the alethiometer’s help Lyra sets out to rescue her friend Roger. Roger is killed by Lyra’s father at the eleventh hour
so he can harness the power of Roger’s soul to build a bridge between his world and another. He hopes to find the source of Dust and wants to destroy it, believing that Dust is the source of all human misery and death.
In the second book, we meet Will, a boy given a knife that can create windows into other worlds. Lyra is kidnapped by her mother, an agent of the evil Magisterium. Lyra is prophesied to be the new Eve, destined to be the one who will re-create the great Fall of humanity from grace, like in the story of the Garden of Eden. The Magisterium, an evil Church-like organization, decides killing Lyra will save humanity from falling again into sin. Meanwhile, Lyra’s father gathers an army against the Authority (aka God).
In the final book, Will rescues Lyra from her mother’s clutches. Lyra and Will venture to the Land of the Dead to free the souls there from the Authority’s captivity. Meanwhile, nun-turned-scientist Mary Malone discovers the true nature of Dust—it’s not the source of death and misery, but psychic particles that nourish self-awareness. Lyra’s parents and the Authority’s regent, the angel Metatron, are pulled into an abyss and are destroyed. At the climax of the book, Lyra and Will find the Authority, trapped in a prison by an impostor God. The Authority disintegrates as his prison is opened by the children. Lyra and Will fall in love, but choose to live full lives in their own separate worlds and close all the open windows between worlds to prevent the loss of Dust, thus preserving humanity from another Fall.
Now it’s clear that Pullman has some sort of anti-religion agenda. His two protagonists set out to kill God, only to discover that an evil angel named Metatron has been posing as the real God. The story’s real God, The Authority, is not much more than a very old, very frail being. He happily disintegrates when released from his prison. So Lyra and Will don’t actually kill God—they free God and God dies. Is this the big, omniscient and omnipotent deity we’ve come to know from all the Abrahamic religions? Nope, it’s not. The Authority isn’t actually God either. Rather, it’s the first angel that emerged from the mysterious substance called Dust. God doesn’t exist in the HDM multiverse, but Pullman isn’t just telling us a story about how God doesn’t exist. It’s more sinister than that. Instead of a benevolent and just God, we get an evil, lying, impotent impostor.
The closest thing we get to a true God is Dust, particles that are born when matter tries to learn more about itself. Dust is conscious and influential. At times Lyra remarks that she feels like her alethiometer gets annoyed with her for asking the same question too many times, so we know that Dust has some kind of personality. But the fact that they’re elementary particles means that there’s some sort of scientific explanation for their existence. If we decide that Dust is some kind of placeholder for a real God, we get an example of the Religion is Wrong/Science is Right trope. But Dust doesn’t seem like a convincing deity placeholder to me, what with the revelation that the beings who tried to be God were lying impostors.
Coupled with the evil impostor God(s) we have a big bad Church, a powerful force in Lyra’s world. Notably, this Church’s defining characteristics is that there was once a Pope John Calvin and the authoritative arm of the Church is called the Magisterium. My natural conclusion is that this Church is supposed to be some kind of Calvinistic Catholicism… which makes my theological brain hurt just a little bit. I think what Pullman is trying to do here is combine some of the big characteristics of the two religious movements. The Catholic Church has the very old, very powerful, very large thing going for it, and the hierarchy of clergy offers an author a ready-made bureaucracy. Some of Calvin’s defining characteristics are a heavy emphasis on predestination (as opposed to free will) and a very literal reading of the Bible. Combine the two and you’ve got a big, powerful system spreading blind obedience and submission wherever it goes. It seems to me like a rather clever backstory for a popular atheist Straw Man styling of Christianity.
But why choose Christianity? Pullman’s main characters are prophesied to be characters from the Garden of Eden: Lyra is the new Eve, Will is Adam, Mary Malone is the serpent tempter. Mary helps Lyra and Will fall in love, and they have to decide whether or not to stay together—the ultimate fate of the world hanging in the balance. By choosing to live in their separate worlds, Lyra and Will effectively avoid another Fall. But this isn’t an exclusively Christian story; Judaism and Islam have it in their holy texts as well. So why ignore them? Pullman’s problem must not just be with God, but with the institution of the Church, as well. He sees Christians having the most influence on society, so his heroes work against his pseudo-Christian Church.
However, Pullman never really addresses Christ. Jesus just doesn’t show up in His Dark Materials… at all. One would think that an author mounting an attack on Christianity would have some mention of Christianity’s defining figure. This leads me to believe that Pullman really isn’t interested in attacking Christianity; he’d rather go right to the source. The Church is just a rather convenient tool for his storytelling. Christians may be the worst offenders when it comes to spreading the supposed ignorance that comes with believing in a deity, but the author’s problem is with the deity itself. Because of this, I think Pullman may have benefited from including some Jewish or Islamic characters or references. He creates a world with infinite parallel universes, but as far as religion goes we get a single Church standing in for all of Christianity and a couple of small references to some pagan practices. Including some material drawn from Islamic or Jewish sources would have added more depth to his Garden of Eden prophesy and underscored his point that the problem with religion is God.
But Pullman’s problem doesn’t stop with religion and God: it’s with all things spiritual. In an interview with Patheos, he describes himself as a “committed materialist” revolted by the thought of spirituality:
But in fact my reaction to the word ‘spiritual’ is even a little more strongly felt than that; I even feel a slight revulsion… So the word ‘spiritual’, for me, has overtones that are entirely negative. It seems to me that whenever anyone uses the word, it’s a sign that either they’re deluding themselves, or they’re pulling the wool over the eyes of others. And when I hear it, or see it in print, my reaction is one of immediate scepticism.
Pullman goes on to describe that Dust is his metaphor for things like consciousness, art, wisdom, and creations of the human mind. An element of these is immaterial, but they’re all contingent on matter to exist. This also explains why there is no real God in his story, at least why there’s no evidence of the existence of a true deity in the HDM multiverse. For Pullman, religion is at best a silly mistake, at worst a weapon used to manipulate others. All of his religious characters are evil, and those who aren’t eventually abandon religion. To him, God is a delusion and becomes dangerous when people turn God into a religion. And with the kinds of Gods (or Authorities) and religions Pullman conceives, who wouldn’t want to set out to kill God?