Atheist Affirmation, Golden Compasses, and #!@* Mass-Forwards

Don’t you hate spurious email forwards, like how Bill Gates is giving away $400 from Macys if we can strike down Madalyn Murry O’Hair’s beyond-the-grave attempt to ban religious broadcasting, and forward it to all our friends? I know I do. But recently the senders have been getting more sophisticated, and doing something that I’ve long suggested that anyone do when faced with email-forwarding temptation: Look it up on

So now Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials novel trilogy is being adapted for the big screen, and because American Christians are borderline illiterate (it seems), now the hubub ensues. The warn-ers are taking us straight to the source. (You’ll have to click the link and read it yourself; Snopes is difficult to copy & paste excerpts from, possibly by design.) In the copy of the email I got, there was a preface:

My friend sent this link to me and I looked the Golden Compass movie up on snopes. Please be aware of the “underpinnings” of this movie before even considering letting your children or yourself see it. The girls & I saw this advertised at the movies recently & thought it looked like an interesting “Narnia” type of movie…I’m afraid a lot of people will be deceived by their advertising. Please read on and keep this in your prayers.

Let me go off for a second, and then be more diplomatic: This week, the cyclone death toll in Bangladesh is at 3500 and will possibly reach 2004-Tsunami levels; Iraqis and Americans continue to kill each other, famine and genocide continue to grip our planet and someone living on your street is probably desperately lonely. But by all means, please keep this evil atheist movie in your prayers–fundamentalist culture-war marching orders trump all else! You’re kinda making Pullman’s points for him…

Wow I’m in a cranky mood this morning. I actually penned something far kinder when I got the email, something I hoped (and maybe still hope) will get counter-mass-forwarded whenever someone gets an email condemning the message and messenger. Here is my original email:

“Ah, well someone on this list is going directly to now to confirm–very commendable! So many spurious mass-emails get sent.

Its a funny thing about this film, and atheists/atheism in general…I don’t think that fear is the best place to come from when responding to them; it should be understanding mixed with compassion. What do I mean? When an atheist talks about how they want to rid the world of ‘god,’ my first inclination is not to think they are slandering the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, nor the God disclosed decisively in Jesus Christ and held (however incompletely) in our hearts–my inclination is to agree with them whole-heartedly!

GASP! Whatever do I mean?? Well, I mean that the god (or gods) that most atheists don’t believe in, I am equally atheistic toward. The god wrapped in nationalist ideology and hate-mongering is a most distasteful deity, and worthy of our mockery. And sadly, this is the only god most people (especially in the West) encounter. This rogue idol god comes wrapped in many guises; Jewish, Muslim, pop-psychological, and mostly Christian–but it is a hollow substitute nonetheless. So when I meet an atheist, I give them a thorough hearing, affirm whatever it is I can affirm with them, and then try, however modestly, to present them with an alternative: the God I am discovering, day by day with my brothers and sisters and in creation.

A couple of postscripts for thought:

1.) I blogged about this some a few months ago: Atheist Worship.

2.) My friend Becky Garrison writes a pretty even-handed response to the current spate of New Atheist authors and advocates (folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al). It’s called New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, and it examines both the faults of the New Atheist thinking and the sins of the Church.

So here’s an encouragement: For every time someone has forwarded the other email around, about ostracizing and avoiding atheist authors, artists, and speakers, forward this one about generating a positive response–only if it speaks to you.

your brother,


I have yet to get any replies–alas.

12 Responses to Atheist Affirmation, Golden Compasses, and #!@* Mass-Forwards

  1. Jason November 20, 2007 at 6:02 pm #

    I’m a big fan of your un-diplomatic reaction. 🙂

  2. Frank November 20, 2007 at 6:11 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    This is probably a strange comment for this post, but Richard Dawkins’ idea of Memetic Evolution is a great edition to Social Change Theory, and goes a long way towards explaining why society operates the way it does. As a matter of fact, it can help us understand why modern Christianity operates from its fear-based/apocalyptic/political paradigm, and even why Christians send these type of emails, with the emails (and category of email – “the warning”) being a type of growing meme themselves! Just because the masses believe something does make it true, it only makes it a dominant meme. (See: Nazi Germany).


  3. Peter K Bell November 20, 2007 at 8:29 pm #

    I don’t know how well-known it is these days that the charge many of the early Christians had to face was that of being “atheists,” that is, followers of any other god or gods that were not on the politically correct list of the day, centering particularly on the person of the representative of those gods: “Caesar is Lord.” Refusal to recite this phrase and offer incense to Caesar resulted in death for many of the early saints.

    We humans are inveterate idol-makers and god-makers, violating the first commandment regularly, habitually: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Keeping this commandment is humanly impossible without a major dose of the grace that empowers us to renounce the innumerable idols that cater to our whims and fancies in order to submit ourselves to the God of righteousness and truth and life–the One who has created us in His image in contrast to the ones we create daily (and sometimes moment-by-moment) in our image. It is an honor to be identified as an atheist in the context of the worship of the popular gods or images of God of our day. This is likely to include the senile god-authority that is being mocked in Pullman’s work.

    This does not, however, leave room for the kind of ungodly ‘liberation’ from righteousness that is being described as the core content of this movie and the trilogy the movie springs from. Atheism has its own objects of worship, and ‘freedom’ from common-sense moral codes is sometimes one of these. I look forward to Becky Garrison’s book for help identifying some of these, especially because Mike calls her book “even-handed,” and that’s a very high recommendation.

    I probably won’t read these books or go see the movie, and I guarantee that I won’t be letting my kids go, because of the objectionable content. But I plan to follow Mike’s advice and pray for Pullman and Nicole Kidman and the rest of them (along with Richard Dawkins and his friends), that the God Who Is will reveal Himself to them in a way that will win their hearts and overcome their objections and cause them to see the wisdom and desirability of submitting their hearts to a Father who is so passionately and personally interested in the welfare of each one of them (us). And may the living God forgive us for our idolatries, and purge them from our hearts.


  4. kevin November 21, 2007 at 12:26 pm #

    Keep preachin’!

    Like you. I’m tired of the thoughtless, fear-based responses to anything enclaved religious people perceive as a threat. Perhaps, instead of flocking away from a movie, we should buy less junk at Christmas and buy things like mosquito nets, well-drilling equipment, HIV medication for sub-Sahara Africans. Greed, it would seem to me, is a bigger threat than any movie.

    Heck, “The Passion of the Christ” is probably more of a “threat” to faith than almost any other movie out there.

    Fear only indicates one’s own insecurity in one’s faith. To paraphrase Paul, All things are pure to the one who is pure.


  5. Carl McColman November 22, 2007 at 3:12 pm #

    Meister Eckhart said, “Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let God go.”
    At the heart of the Abrahamic tradition is the simple taboo: do not worship idols. In what is probably the most fascinating commentary on the Ten Commandments that I have ever read, Out of the House of Slavery: On the Meaning of the Ten Commandments, Brian A. Haggerty notes that the commandments against having idols or false gods are tied in with the great Exodus theme of liberation and deliverance. In fact, he himself translates the first few commandments like this:

    Only God has proven worthy of unreserved faith and unbounded trust.
    You shall not worship transitory gods but shall serve only the living God.
    You shall not enshrine any notion, ideology, or interest as God and allow yourself to be dominated by it.

    What’s even more fascinating his how Haggerty translates the commandment against using the name of the Lord in vain:

    You shall not lay exclusive claim to God’s blessing or call upon God to bless your selfish purposes.

    When seen in the light of this approach to the Decalogue, I see the plot of “The Golden Compass” not so much as chaotic evil as rather an attempt to attack ideologically toxic religion, which after all is simply an “idol.”
    I think that when we people of faith are willing to see that God calls us into a radical freedom that even includes freedom from oppressive and tyrannical forms of religion, then the atheist posturings of a William Pullman or a Richard Dawkins cease to be a threat and instead become opportunities for dialogue. To the extent that the so-called new atheists are attacking idolatrous forms of religion (even when it’s “our” sacred cows), they are actually doing the will of the God they don’t believe in.

  6. zoecarnate November 22, 2007 at 8:30 pm #

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, everyone! You’re all advancing this conversation so well, even as you each come from somewhat different vantage points. If only Christian faith in America as a whole contained this wisdom, we’d have fewer such critiques, for sure.

    I agree with all of you: Thanks for the kudos, Jason. And Frank, Dawkins’ social change theory sounds like it does indeed describe what is happening here–and for the record I think that when Dawkins writes about science, he is quite insightful. (His understanding of Scripture and church history are something else entirely..!)Peter, you raise excellent points about the nature of idolatry in all its many forms, and you highlight something that I didn’t make clear in my original post: By listening emphathetically to the critique of Pullman and others, I’m not mandating some sort of unilateral response to the novels or film in themselves. Discerning people of faith will, no doubt, come to their own conclusions. I probably *will* watch The Golden Compass, though I’ll wait ’till it comes out on DVD. If I had young children of film-watching age I probably wouldn’t take them to see the film, though if they were a little older I likely would, in order to engage with my kid(s) in the kind of discussion that we’re having here…in an age-appropriate way, of course. Kevin, I’m with you about redirecting our resources–my friend Jason Evans has to this end declared tommorrow (and the rest of this holiday season) Make Something Day! And Carl, I love those Haggerty quotes. I’ll have to check that book out.

  7. Darren November 23, 2007 at 4:59 pm #

    Nothing to add to advance the argument, but a thank you for a great post, in agreement with what you’re saying. Oh, Okay then, I had heard that supporters of Pullman were unhappy becasue the anti-religious element had been dummed down in the film.

  8. kevin November 24, 2007 at 3:51 pm #

    Have you seen the South Park “Easter Special”? It is a play on the over-reaction to “The DaVinci Code.” A brilliant take on the way religious authority is perceived by those who reject it. It’s really brilliant.

  9. Gunnar November 24, 2007 at 8:57 pm #

    Dude, I have deep appreciation for the way you are thinking and the way your heart is pondering. The fear based thing…it can sound so noble…but it is not the way, I think, we are not created to have our reaction based actions be based merely from that. Instead, we were born, I believe, to act being moved from the heartbeat of God on issues, with faith in Him. Getting to that point is the art of living life that takes brothers and sisters to make happen!
    Love this blog, man!

  10. Anthony November 26, 2007 at 3:37 pm #

    The domain expired!

  11. P.S. November 29, 2007 at 3:25 am #

    I’m curious what y’all think of this response to the movie and the controversy:

  12. brad December 5, 2007 at 6:38 am #

    “New Atheists”? OMG – there’s “emerging atheists” now? perhaps the inevitable infighting will slow their mission. oops … they’re missional too?

    helpful thoughts, mike – thanks!

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