The main problem with “His Dark Materials,” however, is not the atheism per se but rather its mindless dogmatism. There is no such thing as an open-minded Christian in the series. Take this quote from “The Amber Spyglass”: “I met an angel. . . . She said that all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. She and the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.” To be fair, Mr. Pullman himself noted in a 2000 interview that this one-sided portrayal is “an artistic flaw,” but there it is nonetheless.
The polemic against religion starts quietly enough in the first book, which introduces Mr. Pullman’s truly brilliant gift to fantasy literature, the personal daemon. A daemon is not a demon but more like Socrates’ daimon, a sort of guardian spirit that accompanies a person throughout his life. In “His Dark Materials,” a daemon is an outward manifestation of a person’s soul in animal form. Children’s daemons change to match their mood or suit their purposes (say, from a moth to a wildcat), but they settle into a fixed form at puberty. This change is the crux of the entire series; that is, the series is about growing up.
There couldn’t be a more time-honored general theme for children’s books, but Mr. Pullman seemingly found at least part of the impetus for his work in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Mr. Pullman’s hatred of those books–he says he doesn’t mind some of Lewis’s other works, especially “The Screwtape Letters”–is no secret. “One girl [in the Narnia books] was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys,” he noted in 2002. Actually, Susan was getting interested in “nylons and lipstick,” arguably less important than clothes and boys; nor was she “sent to hell.” Instead she, unlike her three siblings, remained alive on Earth in the last book of the series. While Susan wasn’t “saved,” she certainly wasn’t damned. As Lewis wrote to a child concerned about Susan’s fate, “perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end–in her own way.” Growing up was not the problem.
In “His Dark Materials,” however, the church condemns growing up, particularly sexual awakening. “That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling,” claims a character in “The Amber Spyglass.” In Mr. Pullman’s world, the church by extension condemns the growth, life and freedom of the soul itself. So strongly does this church want to “save” children from autonomy and the resultant possibility of choosing sin, that it literally cuts them away from their daemons, destroying their souls.
Read it all.