by Steven B. Cowan

It was one of the best movies I have seen in a while.  And it was one of the worst movies I have seen in a while.  Let me explain.  When it comes to purely aesthetic qualities (acting, cinematography, special effects, plot development, etc), The Golden Compass should (and most likely will) win some awards.  Based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the movie tells the story of a girl named Lyra who, according to the Wikipedia article, is “an orphan living in a fantastical parallel universe in which the dogmatic dictatorship of the Magisterium threatens to dominate the world. When Lyra’s friend is kidnapped, she travels to the far North in an attempt to rescue him and rejoin her uncle” (see wiki/The_Golden_Compass_(film)).

Those who have read Pullman’s novels or have followed the press on the film know that Pullman’s stories are militantly atheistic.  Intentionally offering a contrast to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, His Dark Materials portrays God as a bumbling tyrant served by the malevolent Magisterium (an unsubtle stand-in for the Catholic Church and perhaps all organized Christian groups).  The heroes of the story are the “free inquirers”—those dedicated to science and reason, rather than religious dogmatism.

Though the film’s atheism and antagonism toward religion is more subdued than that in the novels, it is present nonetheless.  Right at the beginning of the story, one scientist, Lord Asriel (Lyra’s uncle), seeks funding to explore the possibility of the existence of a substance called “Dust” which supposedly permeates and composes all things.  The Magisterium opposes the investigation of Dust and calls those who believe in it “heretics.”  The Dust seems to be a metaphor for materialism, the view that reality is entirely composed of matter—which entails that spiritual, non-physical things do not exist.  So, right at the beginning we have a clash of fundamental worldviews:  the theistic worldview in which God exists as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and atheistic materialism.  Like the novels, the movie leaves no doubt as to which side reason belong.  The Magisterium is portrayed as stiflers of free inquiry, dogmatic fideists who simply desire to maintain their cultural authority and influence.  The scientific materialists, of course, are the defenders of rationality and tolerance.

So, it was a good movie in one sense.  As an adventure story it was riveting and suspenseful—downright fun, in fact.  The characters were likable and believable.  But, whatever aesthetic qualities the movie has, they are overshadowed by the false worldview being subtly foisted on the unsuspecting children (and adults) who view it, not to mention the egregious stereotype and straw man constructed for religion.

For this reviewer, the most absurdly ironic thing about this movie (and perhaps the books too), is the idea that atheistic materialism is put forth as the savior of free will.  In the film’s last scene, the Witch Serafina warns the aeronaut Lee Scoresby of a great war that is coming, a war in defense of “nothing less than free will.”

This is not simply a remark about the tyrannical ambitions of the Magisterium.  It is an allusion to the idea that God, if he exists, would make human freedom impossible.  What is ironic about this is that the alleged defense of free will is being made in the name of atheistic materialism, a view diametrically opposed to any notion of free will.  If all I am is a collection of atoms whose every motion is dictated by the command of blind physical laws, then how can I be free in any relevant sense?  What’s more, how can there be any real meaning and purpose to life if all there is or ever has been is the physical universe?  Serafina is right. The battle between theism and atheism is a battle over no less than free will—and meaning and human dignity, too.  But, the threat to those things is not theism, but atheism.


Steven B. Cowan is the editor of Areopagus Journal (at the time of publishing September-October 2007)