I keep reading that the movie The Golden Compass suppresses the anti-religious message in Phillip Pullman’s books, but the movie has plenty of punch, besides being full of stunning imagery and good acting. I thought it was great (and now I need to read the books).
Free-thinking Lord Asrial is trying to discover the truth about dust, a mysterious substance that travels to other universes. The church, or magisterium, tries to use its authority to suppress his research. It turns out they’re got a scheme to separate children from their daemons, the animals that accompany them everywhere as their souls. That way, the children won’t be affected by the dust, which can make them question authority. Lyra, Lord Asrial’s niece, joins the side of the truth seekers, with the help of an alethiometer, a device that measures the truth. There are children to be saved at the North Pole…
A moviegoer could come away thinking Pullman is for witches and demons and multiple universes, talking polar bears and mysterious dust. The movie’s real theme, though, is truth. Good in the movie is lined up with free inquiry and the unimpeded search for the truth. Evil is the monstrous institution of the magisterium, which battles against the truth- seekers.
But wait, if the movie is pro-truth, why shouldn’t it be construed as pro-God, or even pro-Jesus? (Wasn’t it Jesus who said “I am the way and the truth”?) It will take any moviegoer a moment of honest reflection to admit the power of the movie’s message. All religions claim contact with truth, but they don’t empower members of the religion to be truth-seekers themselves.
I’m not just talking about the obvious cases, like the Roman Catholic church. I think the same is true even in the most liberal religious communities. The movie brilliantly makes children the target of the magisterium–it’s brilliant because children really are the crux of the matter. They don’t yet believe, and will ask challenging questions, if permitted.
This whole business of teaching children “truths” before they’re mature enough to make up their own minds is tricky. We do it all the time. We teach them all sorts of facts before they can verify them as facts. We teach them moral values before they can discuss morality. We teach them political attitudes before they are in any position to understand the pro’s and con’s.
Religion is a special case. For one reason, that’s because children are allowed to ask questions about all the other topics, but discouraged from asking questions about religion. In the middle of a religion class, even at the most liberal church or synagogue, a child cannot raise his or her hand and say “is there really a god”?
Another problem is that many religious ideas, as they are presented to young children, are not even wholly believed by the teachers…at least in a liberal religious setting. The child is taught, as if it were a plain truth, that God created the world in six days, and Noah put the animals on the ark, and Abraham married Sarah, and Moses walked up the mountain, when the grownups are not so literal in their beliefs.
Well, but young children can’t understand the subtleties of a liberal theology. But then why not hold off on teaching them about religion until they’re older? The intention is obviously to “get em while they’re young.” But why is that important? The truth is, I think, that children are taught young in the hopes that the ideas will take firm root. But then doesn’t religious education simply exploit the credulousness of children?
I don’t think any religion can claim to encourage people in the open-minded pursuit of truth. This is an especially uncomfortable fact for those of us who like some things about religion, or even participate in one (as I do).