Sandra Miesel sent me the link to a 2002 BBC interview with author Philip Pullman that I'd not read before. Once again, his hubris and lack of—what shall I call it?—perspective are worth noting:
DAVID FROST: And that makes you an atheist as some people say worryingly, Catholic Herald, or just an agnostic?
PHILIP PULLMAN: The question of what term to use is a difficult one, in strict terms I suppose I'm an agnostic because of course the circle of the things I do now is vastly smaller than the things I don't know about out there in the darkness somewhere maybe there is a God. But among all the things I do know in this world I see no evidence of a God whatsoever and everybody who claims to know there is a God seems to use that as an excuse for exercising power over other people and historically as we know from looking at the history in Europe alone that's involved persecution, massacre, slaughter on an industrial scale, it's a shocking prospect.
Everybody?! Really? One could just as easily say—and perhaps say it with far more accuracy—that everybody who claims to know there is no God seems to use that as an excuse for exercising power over other people, etc., etc. Is Pullman more upset that religion is sometimes used to oppress and persecute people, or that people are oppressed, persecuted, and murdered for any reason whatsoever? A 2005 New Yorker piece by Laura Miller indicates it is the former:
Pullman’s initial encounters with religion were largely benign, owing to his beloved grandfather. Although he became a skeptic early on—“for all the usual reasons”—he kept his thoughts to himself. “I didn’t want to upset him,” he said of his grandfather. “I knew I wouldn’t have changed his mind.” And, for Pullman, his grandfather’s most important quality was his “big soul.” He added, “Although I call myself an atheist, I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.” In “His Dark Materials,” Pullman’s criticisms of organized religion come across as anti-authoritarian and anti-ascetic rather than anti-doctrinal. (Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the books, although Pullman has hinted that He might figure in a forthcoming sequel, “The Book of Dust.”) His fundamental objection is to ideological tyranny and the rejection of this world in favor of an idealized afterlife, regardless of creed. As one of the novel’s pagan characters puts it, “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”
Pullman would make far more sense and could be taken more seriously, I think, if he stated that he condemns every ideology or belief system—whether theistic, pantheism, atheistic—that persecutes, oppresses, or kills. But part of the problem (as Miller touches on in her article) is that Pullman apparently thinks authentic atheism will not and cannot produce violence, injustice, genocide, and so forth. He thinks that the religious impulse, combined with organized, structured religion, inevitably leads to unhappy, bloody ends. Such a belief is itself a sort of religious dogma, asserted on the basis of faith, not evidence or argument.
Pullman's comments about being an agnostic/atheist contrast strongly with the remarks of philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew in his new book, There Is
No A God. Flew writes:
I must stress that my discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. It has been an exercise in what is traditionally called natural theology. It has had no connection with any of the revealed religions. Nor do I claim to have had any personal experience of God or any experience that may be called supernatural or miraculous. In short, my discovery of the Divine has been a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.
Pullman says that reason leads him to conclude there is no God. Flew says otherwise. I say they should have a debate on the matter.