Philip Pullman has publicly declared himself an atheist, which has led to major criticism from Catholic organizations. Although it is not technically a religion, atheism places one of the fundamental aspects of religion on the chopping block – God. According to Atheist Alliance International, “Theism is the belief in a god or gods. The prefix ‘a’ means; ‘without’ or ‘lack of’. Therefore, atheism means ‘without a belief in a god or gods’ or the ‘lack of a belief in a god or gods’.” In modern society, there is often a stigma associated with being an atheist.
Religion began about 50,000 years ago and is referred to as a cultural universal, or something that is consistent across different civilizations. There is evidence in the drawings found on cave walls. We know that the farmers of ancient Mesopotamia prayed to God for a bountiful harvest (Dwane). It is important to consider the reasons why religion developed, as it is the popular opinion.
Religion tends to become a vital source of hope for struggling communities. During, the Middle Ages Black Death ran rampant throughout Europe, but religion was stronger than ever. In fact, it was dangerous to declare yourself an Atheist in public. Philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church Thomas Aquinas said that atheists deserve the death penalty (Cliteur). Currently, there are 13 Islamic countries that exercise the death penalty for atheism.
Atheism dates back to 5 B.C. and was said to encompass other religions that do not have a deity, namely Jainism, Buddhism and Taoism. The term atheism was not coined until the 16th century. It did not become popularized until The Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. Corruption within the church resulted in people abandoning their faith. Nevertheless, the church did eventually make a comeback. Ostracization and ridicule of atheists throughout history likely discouraged people from adopting its beliefs. The Pew Research Center reported the following statement:
“There is a long history of people predicting the demise of religion, but religion has proven more resilient than many people anticipated.”
The popular opinion
The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur states that “The contemporary complaints are that atheists show no “respect” for other people’s religion or do not want to enter into “dialogue” with believers.” However, the author claims this is a false allegation. Modern philosophers A.C. Grayling and Dawkins both assert the claim that the topic of religion should be treated with special caution, more so than other personal choices including political status or lifestyle. In her interview, Dr. Patricia Ard stated the following:
“I believe a lot of the censorship of TGC happened because of Pullman’s brave public statement that he is an atheist. I think many are very threatened by that. The more people that say that, the more others might start to believe that. And of course atheism is a threat to many organized religions. And we should not conflate the artist with the art. There are many “versions’ of the Magisterium throughout fiction and film; why is Pullman’s creation attacked?”
Since mainstream society is and has always been religious, Atheists are looked down upon as a minority. People often associate religion with morality (“Atheism”). Some people believe that atheists are more likely to perform immoral behaviors. For example, the mass murders of the 1920 Soviet Union government were facilitated by atheist regimes. This could be rooted in the fact that atheists do not believe in a life after death or a higher power, so there is no reason for a moral existence and no repercussions for their actions.
Our thoughts about atheism and censorship
Ideally, people with opposing beliefs should try to accept each other. Philip Pullman is not only an atheist, but an adamant opposer of the Catholic Church. Not all atheists are against organized religion. In some ways, Pullman fits into the stereotypical description of atheists by religious individuals. His anti-Catholic comments sparked the censorship of The Golden Compass at Halton Catholic School District. Adults desire to shelter children from texts that might encourage them to lose their belief in God. Perhaps adults should allow students the space to grow and form their own thoughts about God. While some may indeed find atheism appealing, others will stand by the religion that they grew up practicing. There is nothing wrong with either path. Censoring texts is not the answer to solving an argument about religion. Even worse, it makes the division between groups grow larger. In her interview, Dr. Patricia Ard stated the following:
“Let them explore their curiosities by reading. Just because Pullman is an atheist, does not mean his readers will become atheists! I know we as a society are afraid of the word atheist. I’m a spiritual atheist. It’s still taboo to say you’re an atheist–as Philip Pullman has bravely done.”
“Atheism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#Criticism_of_religion.
Cliteur, Paul. “Atheism as an Unpopular Position.” Church and State, 9 Oct. 2018, churchandstate.org.uk/2016/12/atheism-as-an-unpopular-position/.
Dwane, Garvan. Religion – When, Why and How Did It Begin?, garvandwane.com/religion/religion1.html.
Marekich. “Atheism Symbol.” Wikipedia , 28 Sept. 2012, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atheismsymbol_endorsed_by_AAI.svg
“What is Atheism?” American Atheists, https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/.
“What is Atheism?” Atheist Alliance International, https://www.atheistalliance.org/about-atheism/what-is-atheism/.