January 27, 2021

I’m Not Afraid of Atheists (or Their Movie)

181528-56med.jpgUPDATE: Leithart on the movie.

I’m starting to get the message.

It goes like this: The Golden Compass is a movie that promotes atheism to young people. You need to warn students about this movie.

Don’t let me write another word without saying that I have nothing but respect for those who are concerned about young people. I’ve given my life to ministering to them. I don’t want any of them to become atheists. I don’t want any young Christians to lose their faith.

I recognize that some of those telling me to warn young people actually want me to tell them not to see the movie at all or to ever read the Phillip Pullman novels on which they are based. Sorry, but I can’t endorse that approach.

Others simply don’t want young people to be unaware that the movies may be an extension of Pullman’s stated agenda to use his art to promote atheism in the same way C.S. Lewis used Narnia to promote Christianity. That’s appropriate, or at least should be if, after actually being viewed, the movies prove to be such an extension. If they promote atheism in the same way Star Wars promotes dualism I hope Christians won’t waste too much time picketing out front.

I realize that once Dobson, Behr and Christian radio/television get ahold of the atheism connection in The Golden Compass, there will be the usual dust-up reminiscent of The Last Temptation of Christ and The DaVinci Code. But I have to admit, this episode of “Angry Christians Hate Your Movie!” has the potential to irritate me a lot more. Let me explain why.

Last Temptation and DVC were communicating esoteric, off-center views about Jesus that are popular in certain quarters, and which keep various cable channels percolating with third-rate programing. I never felt any of these things amounted to much of a challenge to Christian belief. In my ministry, I’ve met two young people- two, neither Americans- who had any interest in even talking about these conspiracy theory versions of Jesus. That’s not to say that there isn’t more interest than I gauged. I’m just saying that when all is said and done, you have to be fairly inclined against traditional Christian belief anyway- as these young people were- for these films and their accompanying books to get much traction.

Even the best radical Jesus scholars- like Crossan and Ehrman- don’t buy much of what these films were selling. Once you’ve scratched the surface, you have to be tenacious to stick with this kind of revisionism.

Atheism, on the other hand, is another story. Almost every adolescent who was raised within a church or Christian family knows the temptations of atheism. Strong believers testify to going through intense doubts or long seasons of God’s absence. While the apologists do battle with the atheists, I for one have never heard a good atheistic presentation that didn’t revisit thoughts I’d already had and probably will have again.

Another reason to be concerned is that atheists are having a good year, so to speak. The past half decade has seen a collection of best selling books, the arrival of viable atheist celebrities, an assertive and more confident style of atheist debate and an increasing number of “converts” renouncing Christianity and embracing atheism. Some atheists even have a new name for themselves- “Brights”- that separates them from us regular dim bulbs.

It’s for these very reasons, however, that I want my students to see Golden Compass, read Pullman, hear Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens and generally engage atheism. You aren’t going to hide from atheism in the Christian ghetto. Our children can’t be sheltered. We can’t portray all atheists as kooks and weirdos. The “village atheist” isn’t the freak show of a Madeline Murray O’Hare anymore.

I frequently tell my students that I would much prefer they embrace any position honestly than pretend to believe something they don’t really believe at all. Yes, I’d rather have an atheist than a phony Christian. Any day of the week.

I especially want my students to hear the atheist case laid out. This week, my advanced Bible class has been watching the atheistic opening statements in two debates between Christians and atheists. I want my students to hear Frank Zindler’s juvenile genius level contempt for the Bible as he announces stars can’t fall from the sky. (Lewis said that if you aren’t prepared to read a book for grown ups, perhaps you should avoid it completely.) I want them to hear Edward Tabash boldly use the phrase “immoral” when discussing the God he describes as a monster. I want my students to hear atheists say that it’s time for religion to give way to the intelligence and vision of scientists who are going to lead us into the promised land of peace, progress and harmony on planet earth. And I want them to hear all those orgasms over rationality and scary stories about superstition.

You see, I’m firmly in the camp of Chesteron on this one. The more the atheist talks, the more Christianity makes sense to me. When I listen to atheists describe their noble vision of existence in an absurd and meaningless world where their firm and rational grasp on reality can give meaning to all of us who walk the aisle to becoming “Brights,” I’m so grateful for the doctrine of total depravity I could write an entire musical about it.

Atheists are so optimistic about atheism that, frankly, it makes irresistible viewing. “Is he really going to say that religious belief is a mass delusion and a mind virus? Is he actually going to claim that atheists are rational while religious people are weak-minded advocates of faith? YES!! And not the argument from “evolutionary morality.” No way!! Ugh!!! There’s just too much drama. I can barely stand to watch.” I have to listen to Paula White explain that my $70 offering is going to make me $7000 to top some of this stuff.

Lewis put it deftly: Atheism is too simple. If I abandon Christianity, he said, I’ll embrace Buddhism or an eastern religion. Amen. Several times. If there were no meaning, we wouldn’t know there is no meaning.

Atheism has been around for a long time. It’s going be around for a long time to come. It’s going to make more documentaries. It’s going to have more best-sellers. I’m sure it will have its own reality show on MTV. Your kids are going hear from atheist friends, professors and employers. They are going to be a lot less reluctant to portray Christians as a threat to peace and civil society than they were in the past.

You need to get ready for the “new atheism” to become a factor in every facet of our culture. We won’t get ready for that if we protest The Golden Compass or the twenty atheist-friendly Hollywood products that are coming soon to a theater near you.

No, it’s time to love your enemy. (Atheists aren’t the enemy anyway. It’s time we quit falling for every panic monger who wants to tell us that some group wants to “attack the family” or “take away our rights.” It’s not true most of the time, and when it is, Jesus had plenty to say about the blessings of being persecuted.) It’s time to find ways for the light to shine winsomely. It’s time to be a servant for Jesus’ sake. It’s time to give a reason for the hope that is in us. It’s time to turn and face the atheist challenge and not protest, run away or declare war.

Atheism has a powerful appeal when Christians aren’t well taught, honest and engaged. Its message can be potent when you’ve lived like a rabbit instead of a watchman or a witness. Many of the Christians warning us of “Atheists Ahead!” may be afraid their own faith couldn’t survive reading Sam Harris’s book. Atheists make dozens of challenges to Christianity and Christians that are MUCH NEEDED and LONG OVERDUE for consideration in many Christian circles.

If that is the case, then I say buy the atheist nearest you a good dinner, because he/she is doing us all a favor by challenging that house of cards we’re so afraid might get blown over. Remember this: when the atheist finishes making his presentation to my students, they’ve just learned that it makes no difference what they do. It’s all a matter of chemicals hitting the brain anyway, and it goes no deeper. When I finish my presentation, there’s a reason to go to class, to study, to pass, to graduate, to do something with your life and even to continue on with hope if you fail. The atheist says eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. I say remember your creator in the days of your youth, because he will bring all things into judgment.

My talk sounds a lot better when they’ve heard his/hers. Don’t forget that.


  1. But you see, my belief in God does not stem from a logical basis. It stems from an experiential one.

    If I were to reduce my relationship with my U.S. Senator to a logical basis, then of course she doesn’t exist. Most of her policies and practices don’t trickle down to me. Those few that do can be explained away. I don’t deduce her existence logically. Why would I? Should I? …If others tell me she exists, I could choose to believe them or not, and they’ll think me either nuts or overly skeptical if I don’t. And if I ridicule them for believing in any such thing as a Senator, or tried to “enlighten” them by pointing out some logical proofs for the non-existence of my Senator… well, that’s how Christians feel when atheists tear into us.

    No, it’s not rude to point out a lack of evidence. But my beef is with the condescending, ridiculing way in which this lack of evidence is presented. Usually with an attitude of, “You silly theist, you’re still living in the Dark Ages; come join us in the Enlightenment, where we believe in science and progress and moving beyond your ridiculous superstitions and blinking fear of a wrathful god.” As if I don’t believe in science and progress, or as if I believed in superstitions and a wrathful God. If that’s what an atheist thinks God is, I can understand rejecting that idea. Myself, I can’t claim to have God figured out so well.

  2. Antony Flew’s latest book on ‘there is a God’ is an interesting read from the atheist turn theist camp.

  3. Awesome post, Imonk. If Christians start to protest The Golden Compass, it will just produce an IRL equivalent to the Streisand Effect.

  4. weemaryanne says

    K.W.: Very well, you’ve experienced something you call god. That’s nice for you, but meaningless to me. If you were a small child then I might indulge your belief (temporarily), but since you’re not then it would be the height, or rather the depth, of condescension to pretend along with you for even a moment.

    So you see, I do indeed make a distinction between K.W. the person, who is worthy of respect simply by virtue of being human, and K.W.’s professed beliefs, which are unsupported by any evidence or convincing argument and therefore do not merit such respect.

    And just to make myself clear: I do not think that god is wrathful. I do not think that god IS, period.

    Finally, I’m still interested to hear your definition of the quality of grace.

  5. You forget how closely people identify with their beliefs. If beliefs aren’t considered worthy of respect, how much respect can one have for the person that holds them? One can claim to respect me but not my beliefs, but that claim rings a bit hollow when one mocks me through my beliefs. (“If you were a small child I might indulge your belief…” implies theism is only for children and the mentally deficient, as I must be to hold such ideas. You see?)

    The trouble is that the people on this site don’t know me. My claims are only as valid as I am. If you don’t know how valid I am, I can understand a certain degree of skepticism. What I don’t understand is dismissal. Even with those whose posts get completely obnoxious, we must differentiate between the writer and the idea, otherwise we call that an ad hominem logical fallacy. If you knew me, saw my lifestyle, and noticed how my theism was an integral part of it, you might understand it better. But all I am right here is words on a website.

    I don’t understand what is meant by “the quality of grace.” I’m just going off the usual dictionary definition of grace. I’m not in the redefinition business. (Nor am I implying anyone else is.)

  6. weemaryanne says

    K.W.: Okay, that’s a fair point about how people identify with their beliefs; however, it doesn’t necessarily hold. This atheist generally laughs when told that atheism is an untenable position. I don’t feel personally attacked or denigrated. Whether this is mostly a difference in attitude, or whether I’m simply more confident in holding a position with evidence to support it, I can’t tell.

    I DO feel personally affronted when threatened with some form of punishment, either temporal or spiritual, for having the effrontery to disagree with the majority. I get that a lot and I have no patience with it. Yes, I know that’s not the position you’re taking here; I refer to it for the sake of contrast. Sorry for the digression.

    The quality of grace — you accused atheist writers of being graceless. If you’ve heard Daniel Dennett speak (for example), you might wish to revise that opinion. The man is a combination of Everybody’s Favorite Teacher and Everybody’s Favorite Uncle. And in “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins writes to his late friend, “Douglas, I miss you,” and you can actually feel a lump in your throat as he adds exactly why he misses him.

    However you define grace, it must include this, no?

  7. Re: your 5 reasons for not believing in Thor. Allow me to confirm that those 5 reasons are perfectly applicable to my non-belief in Y-VH (see, I even respect your feelings about that name).

    I accept that you believe you’ve had these experiences, but allow me further indulgence:

    1) Have you actually heard a god’s voice in your head, and if so, how do you know his or her identity?

    2) I’ll accept your story for a moment, but how do you know that wasn’t Thor? And to question your story for a moment, how well do you understand the statistics of coincidence?

    3) Again, how do you know that? Maybe it was Y-VH, maybe it was Thor, maybe those prophets were motivated to lie for some reason, or perhaps they were just delusional and/or speaking from logical observations about the world as though they were inspired. I’m not saying any of those things are true, just curious how you know.

    4) I repeat my questions for #2, and add a question about the statistics of spontaneous remission of diseases.

    5) Do you even know the teachings of Thor? If not, certainly it’s practical not to anger the gods, and him in particular… why… you might get hit by lightning! Haven’t you heard his wrath every time a thunderstorm comes through? There are a lot of sinners out there, and almost no one believes in him any more… that’d sure annoy me if I were a god. Why, I might even be motivated to strike down dozens or even hundreds of people a year for their insolence. Of course, if I had any mercy or kindness in me at all I wouldn’t strike down millions a year even if they were all guilty… so the statistics of death by lightning seem perfectly reasonable to me. Or, at least, more reasonable than concluding Y-VH is omnipotent and infinitely merciful.

  8. Two responses (and my apologies, Michael, if I’m using your blog in a way you’d rather I didn’t) —

    weemaryanne: Threatening atheists with hellfire is an all-too-common Christian response, and just as graceless as accusing Christians of stupidity. I’m fully aware that theists can be obnoxious. I believe when they behave that way it’s a sign they believe in God rather than know God. Those of us who know God can’t behave that way for very long without God calling us on our bad behavior.

    I didn’t accuse atheist writers of being graceless; it was actually a blanket statement made about any and every atheist. Probably a bit unfair, since I can’t claim to know for certain that there is no such thing as a kind atheist. I can only believe there is no such thing, and make lots of logical arguments to prove it; and when you try to offer evidence to the contrary I can simply fall back on my original assumption: “Atheists are rude. Period.” But I don’t wish to be closed-minded about it. Possibly you’re right. It’s just that every time I see atheists debate Christians, or debate an atheist myself, their disdain comes out.

    Ray: I don’t mind you spelling out YHVH. I don’t think He minds either. Again, I’m not superstitious. I’ll try to answer your questions briefly.

    (1) Yes. His behavior and statements are consistent with the historic Christian understanding of God; and since I’m not the only one who hears Him, I can compare experiences with other Christians.

    (2) I never took Statistics. I do know that when you get too many coincidences on top of one another, it’s no coincidence. When I or others are given information we shouldn’t know, it’s pretty convincing proof. Besides which, God doesn’t tell me stuff I want to hear; He frequently tells me stuff I don’t want to hear. He’s correcting me, you see. He’s making me behave. Thor was never much interested in morality.

    (3) To be fair, I don’t know whether Thor inspired anyone to write anything; like you, I don’t believe in Thor, and don’t worry about him. If he were real I expect he would have pitched a fit about the Christianization of Scandinavia and fought it harder. My belief in God has to do with God’s actions, and I can’t say I’ve experienced any of Thor’s.

    (4) I don’t believe in spontaneous remission of diseases; I believe in cause and effect. “Spontaneous remission” is another way of saying “I don’t know why this happened.” Maybe an immune system rallied; maybe a cure was effected; maybe the disease mutated into something that couldn’t spread further; I have no idea and neither do the doctors. I think it’s reasonable to believe that if a disease disappears instantly it’s due to some outside agency, and if it wasn’t the doctor or the white blood cells that leaves God. Unless one rejects a belief in God, in which case one is stuck with a blind faith in “spontaneity.”

    (5) Thor actually taught nothing. Thorism is not a philosophical religion, but religious feudalism: “Thor is mighty. Worship Thor or Thor will strike you down,” bundled with stories of Thor’s strength. If you’re familiar with the bible, you’ll note God didn’t smite anyone unless their behavior was destroying others, and much more often than not He forgave. (It looks like there’s a lot of smiting because the 50-, 100-, and 400-year intervals between smitings aren’t so well catalogued. The bible, unfortunately, doesn’t spend a lot of time chronicling when people behaved themselves. Great literature is borne of conflict, you’ll remember.) You’ll also note that God has little to do with the weather (except to stop it, as Jesus did a few times). A lot of the misconceptions about God have to do with mixing pagan views of God with Christian ones, and like I said, I don’t believe in that god either.

  9. Am I a “rabbit or a watchman” : that image is going to stick with me.

    Thanks for an amazing post that spells it all out. I left the Church as a teenager and when I returned in middle age, it was with more devotion and insight than I could ever have found by living with my hands over my ears or eyes.

    I don’t want to lead my children into Christianity with blinkers on, like beasts; I want them to look all around them with open eyes and open hearts and still turn to embrace God. What would that embrace be worth if intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, they were given no choice?

    Thanks, again–

  10. A solid post. We’ve got to be able to listen and engage. Richard Dawkins is one of the folks who first came up with the idea of memetics…ideas that have purchase and act almost as self-replicating organisms. Atheism is just such a meme…but it pales in comparison to faith. If we fairly and gently engage with atheists, we’ll find that the great themes of our Christian faith are substantially more compelling. Shoot, even being Raelian would be preferable to the sad mechanistic meaninglessness of this new strain.

    I’ve made exactly this point in my own bloggery at:

    Thanks for the great thoughts!

  11. I realize that once Dobson, Behr and Christian radio/television get ahold of the atheism connection in The Golden Compass, there will be the usual dust-up reminiscent of The Last Temptation of Christ and The DaVinci Code. — Internet Monk

    It’s already happening. Both YahooGroups I’m on blew up last week over The Golden Compass movie.

    It’s “Get on This Bus or We’ll Run You Over.”

  12. Luce Imaginary says

    rr writes:
    “If I was an atheist, I wouldn’t care a bit about morality.”

    That you are of particularly low character is not an argument for or against anything.

  13. I like the way you think.
    You are the type of person the I would enjoy having a long talk with.
    Although you do have a slight bias on your opinion of atheists in a wide range view.
    Generalizing that all atheists have a condescending nature toward others of religious faith is just like claiming that all people with religious faith practice the same patronization.
    Everyone has a separate way of expressing their faith or lack there of to others.
    Therefore claimi…sorry I began off the original topic and continued.
    On the movie and it’s affects,
    the reason I was turned on to this subject was that as I poked my curious little head into a professors lecture I heard her announce to the class that they should not see the movie. She then clarified saying that instead they should protest it because they kill god in the end.

    This event does not occur until the last of the series and the first book does not have a strong anti-religious tone. Said tone doesn’t begin until the 2nd book and strengthens into the 3rd.

    Protesting only causes more static in the community which leads to news stories, internet stories, and other forms of free publicity for the movie. More people are prone to think “ohhh people detest this movie so much that they would protest it? This sounds interesting, I didn’t plan on it before but I’ll go see it now” than ” I should join them.”

    To augment this further a large portion of the people who plan to protest or simply tell others that it’s vile and wicked have neither read the novels or seen the movie(obviously) so they have nothing to really go on but hear say. Most of this hear say no doubt being exaggerated to make the movie sound like a video of Satan himself rising and brainwashing children. (I over exaggerate as well)I beg everyone to educate themselves in the subject they are pondering before they form an opinion.

    In my personal opinion( not that you should pay any mind to it) These books although they may express the views of the writer are not promoting atheism, they are simply telling a good story. Maybe you are looking too deep, maybe Phillip just likes to write books haha.
    In the end controversy makes a good story just that much better.

    I do not have time for commentary on the rest of this but I wish I did. Thank you for a little brain stimulation and I’m sorry if I repeated anything that was already said I didn’t read the other responses.

  14. Hi i spent a while reading all these posts and now i cant even remember how i got onto this site.
    I would just like to say some of the views on atheists on this site are very closed minded.I am an atheist, i respect religion and its teachings, not just Christianity, but all religions and i accept them all for their positive teachings and their flaws as well. I DO NOT hate god- or the ideal of god because apparently i cant not hate something that i do not believe in- that one took several readings.
    But how dare you accuse atheists of having no reason to speak of what is moral. It is human to be kind, not a fear of god. if god did exist and i knew i was going to hell for not believing in him, i would still be good and kind in this life.
    And yes atheists have been around for a long time, before Christianity, and most probably after it, but we are not out to sully gods name, we just want to live by our own beliefs- yes it is a belief that there is no god. If you have the rite to preach one belief then so does everyone else- no one is a higher judge than another. ‘all equal in the eyes of our lord’ something along those lines.
    Finally the book. this was one of the first books that sparked my interest in reading, so much in fact that i read it again and again on numerous occasions. It also inspired me to read volumes of other books, which in turn lead me to doing my English literature degree at university. all-in-all a very positive effect on myself.
    thank you for your time if you read this post.

  15. >But how dare you accuse atheists of having no reason to speak of what is moral. It is human to be kind, not a fear of god. if god did exist and i knew i was going to hell for not believing in him, i would still be good and kind in this life.

    No one is saying all atheists hate God. Phillip Pullman is hostile to Christianity and CS Lewis. Many Atheists are hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    “How dare you…”?

    Well….saying it is “human to be kind” is a religious statement and a universal moral statement. I’m really glad you believe it, but as an atheist you have no way to say it is a universal or to imply that anyone else should believe it. It can’t be scientifically verified. (In fact, I think it’s more scientifically verifiable that humans are cruel and violent.) You are making a religious and universal statement with no basis except that it appeals to you. I’m glad, and I would welcome you as my neighbor and my kid’s teacher, etc. But you as far as atheism is concerned, you are standing on thin air with that moral absolute of yours. Atheism has no moral absolutes and can’t even defend why you were offended in the first place.

  16. I am offended because of false accusations and generalizations. Are you claiming that people were not kind until Christianity came around? the romans the Greeks the Egyptians the Babylonians the Inca’s? none of these people felt love for their fellow man? How can you take something like being kind and try and turn it into something only religious people have the capability of doing? to me it sounds like you are claiming to be the only people capable of true kindness? which leads me back to my original point of closed-mindedness.

  17. Nicolas: Listen carefully to this distinction please.

    Anyone and everyone can be kind.

    Atheists have no explanation for why it is better to do X than to do Y. I didn’t say they weren’t kind. I said they had no basis to say universal absolutes like “to be kind is to be human.”

    Christians and other theists have a basis on which to make the statement.

    I am NOT NOT NOT saying Christians are kind, or kinder, etc. Often they are not. Be we believe all humans are made in God’s image, and that is a basis for the concept of kindness.

    Atheism has to borrow the concept for it to have any meaning.

  18. It’s amazing to me that so many people discuss Pullman’s trilogy with reference to atheism. The books are far too spiritual to be regarded as simple atheism. They are concerned, for instance, with the nature of sin. What is sin in an atheistic universe?

    Pullman may say he’s a atheist, but whatever his beliefs, you have to look at what he wrote to evaluate its meaning, not at what he says about it.

    Pullman has created an anti-Narnia. In the same way that the Narnia books are constructed around a Christian world-view, Pullman’s anti-Narnia trilogy is constructed quite deliberately around a Satanist world-view.

    An argument for this is presented at http://geocities.com/goldencompasssatanism

  19. i would have to say as a theology student and artist that in spite of pullman’s personal views on religion i have found his books actually some of the most beautiful and engaging stories that deal with theological subjects. in fact i found in his books a beauty that is not present in the “children’s books” by people like lewis that are held up by many as “christian” books…his dark materials deals with the greyness of faith and life in such a challenging way.

    also as a christian, i have to wonder and ask those who feel like faith can be threatened or destroyed by one book or story if they themselves have a very narrow view of God and are actually living out of a functional atheism (he belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.~ definition borrowed from parker palmer)

    it seems to me as a theologian and believer that the God i have encountered in scripture and life is one who acts in unexpected ways and at times through people who we can’t believe God would choose to work through.

    and to the claim that pullman’s work is satanic i personally would be very cautious to make such a statement especially if you haven’t read the stories.

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  22. Why is it that you must complain about a movie that inferences atheism, while movies like Narnia and The Passion of the Christ can be released without any atheist uproar at all. Its called the cinemas, its fiction and people should see this movie and decide that if they want to believe in god they can, but if they don’t they don’t have to. Its freedom of choice and what you call propaganda, I call an enjoyable film that happens to incorporate religious ideas I believe. I’m sure its the same vice versa, but I don’t complain, because I’m used to people hating me and my religion with no reason. You might not be afraid of me and my ideas, but I’m scared to death of your ideas, because when you believe that your ideas are superior to another religion, your no different than a Nazi, and I don’t want Nazi’s running my country.

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