While I’m thinking about the topic of atheism and “hard secularism,” I thought I would make a few remarks about this Atlantic piece on the making of the movie version of The Golden Compass. I haven’t read the Dark Materials trilogy, nor am I exactly rushing out to pick up a copy of the first book, so I am relying pretty much entirely on the article for the background, but something did strike me about an idea contained in one version of the script. From the article:
The earlier scripts made passing reference to the Fall. In the Stoppard script, Asriel, in a rage about the Authority, mocks the “apple of desire” and the “fig-leaf of shame”; a few scenes later Coulter, the evil Nicole Kidman character, yells at Asriel, “You can’t conquer God!” Weitz told me he’d originally written an opening scene showing Lyra in a college chapel listening to a sermon about the alternative Genesis, “but that movie was not going to get made.” A Weitz script dated December 2004 makes no explicit reference to Genesis. Instead, the theology is mediated entirely through a discussion of Dust, which, according to your taste, is either more highbrow or just more muddled. Asriel tells Lyra that people believe Dust is sin and that it brings on misery. He says he will set out to destroy Dust and essentially reverse the consequences of original sin: “When I do—pain, sin, suffering—death itself will die.”
What this reminds me of more than anything else, aside from gnostic utopian insanity, is the Alliance assassin from Serenity, who seeks the annihilation of sin from what I think is supposed to be the other side of things. For the assassin, eliminating sin was the ultimate goal of the totalitarian Alliance’s desire for control (against which our anarchic, vaguely neo-Confederate Browncoat heroes are resisting), which is the role that “the Magisterium” theoretically ought to be filling in a story that vilifies religious authority, but apparently it is not.
In any case, there does seem to be something to the charge that The Golden Compass is “Hitchens taken to the kids,” though this may do a disservice to the movie, which might at least be entertaining. Even the finished product’s somewhat more muted digs at Christianity are not going to be well-received, at least not by anyone who isn’t already a fan of the anti-clerical jabs of V for Vendetta and the dedicated blasphemy of something like Preacher.
One of the surest ways that you can tell that it’s going to be badly lacking is the frequency with which people defending it in this article keep saying that it’s “highly spiritual.” Talking about something being “spiritual” as a substitute for religion, or as a way of proving that something isn’t anti-religious, is a classic response, since it doesn’t actually have to mean anything and yet seems to provide some cover for the person saying it. We’ve all heard the line: “Oh, I’m not interested in religion, but I consider myself a very spiritual person.” How nice. Even Sam Harris meditates, so I understand, and obviously entire sci-fi franchises are built on or involve hokey mysticism (Star Wars, Stargate) that might well have been derived from The Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, so why can’t an adaptation of an explicitly anti-theist work of fiction also be “spiritual” in some entirely non-commital and thoroughly meaningless way?