The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) — and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it.
That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy.
--- Philip Pullman on Religion
Sinsorship of such views, expressed in any form, be it a book, a film, or a speech, appears to be spreading faster than the H1N1 virus. The symptoms of sinsorship includes irrational fear of bodily injury, death, and after-life, delusional business and political decisions, and desperate waving of both hands to explain such decisions.
There was a spike in the incidence of this illness immediately in the aftermath of the publication of cartoons in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, critical of Muhammad, a sixth century warrior-trader, who is said to be the founder of the religion of Islam. More recent examples are the Yale University Press' decision to expunge the Danish cartoons from Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen's book, "The Cartoons that Shook the World", the British Government's decision to bar the Dutch politician and fierce critic of Islam, Geert Wilders, from entering the country, and the Indian Government's cynical but lukewarm attempt to defend an arcane law that criminalized homosexuality.
The latest incidence of sinsorship has taken place right here in my own country. The Hollywood producers of the Golden Compass, a moderately successful film based on Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, have apparently decided to shelve its remaining two sequels:
The American actor Sam Elliott says executives at New Line Cinema halted plans for The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, despite the ''incredible'' commercial success of the first in the trilogy, The Golden Compass.
The film, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Eva Green, grossed more than $US360 million ($400 million) worldwide after its Christmas 2007 release. But after a campaign by factions of the church in the US, it took a modest $US85 million there. Bill Donohoe, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, led the attack, calling on parents to boycott the film, saying it would prompt children to buy Pullman's novels, which he described as "atheism for kids".
I am not a big fan of fantasy films, so I am not terribly disappointed that the film version of His Dark Materials will not be completed. It's a pity, though, that children are being deprived of an opportunity to have fun. Few, if any, who have seen the Golden Compass or read His Dark Materials would disagree that it's a lot of fun. The trilogy is after all a collection of tales of adventures of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they travel through a series of parallel universes. What could be more fun than the daemons, dark matter, truth meters, and the ruthless villains of the Magisterium that they encounter, to help children learn to separate fact from fiction and freedom from tyranny? In Pullman's own words,
"At the end of the first novel, after Lyra's seen all these horrible and cruel things done, she thinks about it," Pullman said. "She's been told Dust is bad, but she thinks, 'If the bad people think it's bad, maybe it's good.' It's a huge moral reversal. Because Dust is actually the physical embodiment of the world of thought, of curiosity, of consciousness. And it's better to know more than to know less."
Why anyone would take exception to this call for thought and knowledge is beyond me.
The Catholic Church, however, is currently running scared. Perhaps, because the rising tide of faithlessness among young people is threatening to bankrupt their god business and rob them of their livelihood. The Church knows better than anyone else the value of Joe Camel, and hence the push to ban His Dark Materials from libraries around the world. The trilogy is only second from the top among the most challenged books in the US Banned Books List 2009. The top honor goes to — surprise, surprise — And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, the story of two male penguins raising an orphaned chick, because of its "anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group"!
I will not be surprised, if Pullman's books made it to the top of the list of banned books in China and Iran as well. For, His Dark Materials is not only a critique of religion's attempt to trap young minds in ignorance, but also its relentless use of the instruments of fear and repression. None can better the record of totalitarian regimes in this, be they theocratic or communist. The Magisterium is as much a representative of the Vatican as it is of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China and the Guardian Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The "authority" these dystopian establishments represent could be "religious, political, totalitarian, fundamentalist, communist, what have you" [Pullman, in a discussion with Chris Weitz, the director of the Golden Compass].
Well, none of these Magisteria is going to stop me from reading His Dark Materials to my granddaughter at her bedtime. I hope I can count on help from George's Secret Key to the Universe and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to unravel for her the difference between science and sorcery. I'd rather have Anamika and her sleepover friends go to sleep, listening to a narration of the story of the adorable penguins, Roy, Silo, and Tango, than the horror of Sodom and Gomorrah, won't you?
So, bring it on, Magisteria, let's see what you can do to stop the march of civilization!