I’m trying very hard to imagine what the film version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is going to be like if The Times is to be believed. According to an article today, the film’s director is cutting all references to God and the church from the script, for fear “of a backlash from the Christian Right in the United States.” Instead, the sinister ‘Authority’ (read horrid amalgam of Calvinism and the Catholic Church) of the novel will be taken as representing any old repressive establishment that you might care to oppose yourself – totalitarian, Marxist or what-have-you. This seems to me (and I suspect to most of Pullman’s readers) to be utterly mad – the entire point of the series is that it’s an extended diatribe against organized religion. Pullman is a vociferous member of the Devil’s party, even if his vague humanistic alternative to Christianity (described in the greatly inferior final volume of the series), is decidedly droopy.
It also says some interesting things about the comparative state of debate over religion in the UK and the US. In the UK, the Anglican establishment seemed to be quite delighted with Pullman’s books – that someone took Christianity seriously enough to attack it was cause for celebration. In the US, in contrast, the movie’s financial backers are clearly terrified of a backlash from fundamentalists who are anything but interested in vigorous debate about the merits and defects of organized Christianity. Anti-semitic movies about the Passion are all very well and good, but pull-no-punches atheism and criticism of organized religion apparently are not. Of course, this may just be nerves on the part of the money people (in fairness, Gibson’s magnum opus got squeamish responses from potential backers too), but it is interesting how little public space there is for the expression of atheistic views in the US. I’m neither religious nor a card-carrying atheist myself (I’d describe myself as a mostly-lapsed Catholic), but it seems to me that it doesn’t do any great service to genuine religious debate if a well argued and intellectually coherent perspective on religion is denied any space in popular culture.
Update: slightly revised following comments.