I have asked this question on other websites, but I keep getting conflicting answers, so I figured I would ask here.

I'm a Christian. I first read the "His Dark Materials" trilogy when I was in 5th grade, and I loved them. I went to a Catholic school, and every Tuesday we would have reading groups in my class, and my teacher suggested that we read "The Golden Compass" (this was about a month before the film was released).

Obviously, we were hearing about the religious backlash that these books were receiving, but my teacher (who had read them all) said that she loved them and that the books were just fantasy fun. I read all three of the books, and as I did, I could definitely see where the criticism was coming from. The religion-bashing was everywhere, but the elements of the story were so good and so intriguing that I didn't care.

Now, I'm 18 and would love to revisit the series once again. But I am concerned that I won't be able to overlook the constant God-hating/religion-hating that's in the book (especially the third). Is there any way at all that these books could be read objectively? In other words, by separating all religious ties that these books carry and just reading them as fun fantasy books?

EDIT: What I really should be asking is this: what are some ways that one can read this series while effectively disconnecting the message of the book? In other words, can the "God" in His Dark Materials be viewed as a character that solely exists within the universe of the trilogy?

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    Hello Zack, and welcome to the SF & Fantasy Stack. While your question is an interesting question, I'm not sure if it's a good fit for this site, since the answers will probably highly personal and based on opinion, while we like questions with verifiable answers in general. But not having read them (yet), I really can't say. Thank you for your question, and perhaps with some editing, it can be made to fit better. Also, have you taken the tour yet and looked at the help center? – SQB Jan 12 '15 at 21:58
  • @SQB Experience-based answers are legitimate, and I can provide one from the perspective of a devout member of an organised montheistic religion who read the books at about the same age. – BESW Jan 12 '15 at 23:05
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    @ZackNightShade - The edit makes it even more subjective. Could you read it that way, sure. Did others read it that way, hell no. – Valorum Jan 13 '15 at 0:39
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    @ZackNightShade - The issue is that the site is scoped for "practical, answerable questions". Opinion-based questions aren't answerable since one opinion is (often) equally as valid as an opposing opinion. – Valorum Jan 13 '15 at 1:00
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    This isn't a discussion board; it's a question and answer site. Subjective questions which encourage discussion are off-topic. While an "accepted answer" is really for the "most helpful answer", questions should have some sort of way to measure how correct an answer is, and a way to compare it against other answers in regards to "correctness". Discussion fodder goes directly against that. – phantom42 Jan 13 '15 at 1:11

The question of whether you can read it subjectively is a hard one to answer. Pullman has always argued that although he's personally an atheist, he has little objection to the practice of private religion, nor do his books openly criticise the choice to do so.

On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who instantly takes umbrage at the merest suggestion that the established Catholic Church might be a bad thing then I'd suggest you stay away:

Q: What influenced your views on Christianity and were you nervous to publish your “His Dark Materials” trilogy because of the criticism you were going to face?

Pullman: It was simply reading history that influenced my views on Christianity – but reading today’s news made me realise that it wasn’t only Christianity that behaved in a barbarous and appalling fashion. It’s religion in general, or to be absolutely accurate, religion when it gets its hands on the levers of political power. Religion when practised privately and modestly hurts no-one, and many of us can point to individual examples of people we know or have heard about whose good and useful work in the world was inspired by religion. But religion plus politics is always, always dangerous.


When I criticise the Christian church, I know what I”m talking about. If I set about criticising every other religion, I would be behaving like a jackass. However, in general terms, my criticisms of Christianity could be extended to all other religions, thus: it's not so much the content of religion, bizarre and ridiculous as a lot of it is, that is the danger: it's what religion does when it gets hold of political power. THAT'S where the problem lies. As I've always said.


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    I'm downvoting because I can't reconcile Pullman's statements with the actual text of his novels. If you could add some bits about how elements like the origin and fate of the Authority aren't broad criticisms of all religious faith rather than a specific warning about the dangers of religious institutions gaining secular power, that'd make this a much stronger answer. Or maybe there's some sources you can cite from readers of the book? That the author thinks it can be read objectively is useful, but not, I think, sufficient. – BESW Jan 12 '15 at 22:29
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    @BESW I don't see a disconnect? The Authority isn't bad because it's religion/faith/etc, but because of the politics involved in the whole enterprise - because it's a Kingdom complete with powerless figurehead and unscrupulous Regent which has falsely (iirc) convinced the multiverse of its omnipotence and omniscience. Little to do with worship as it exists IRL. – Shisa Jan 13 '15 at 1:06
  • @ZackNightShade Don't forget the parts where it discusses genital mutilation, or where a certain priest with a rifle is about to murder two teens because "they were about to commit mortal sin", and he was effectively "doing them a favor". These are allusions to actual practises of the church, not intellectually dishonest false metaphors designed solely for offence. If you have a hard time coming to terms with the crimes committed by effectively all religious organizations/bodies over the centuries, you will always take offence when people bring attention to it. – Cloud Dec 22 '15 at 15:11
  • I only disagree with one part of your answer: "if you're the sort of person who instantly takes umbrage at the merest suggestion that the established Catholic Church might be a bad thing then I'd suggest you stay away". I think if someone is easily offended by differing opinions on the validity and value of their personal beliefs, that they should read the book. One should challenge his/her beliefs, epistemological values, rationalization/thought process, sense of justice/ethics, on a daily basis. The alternative is indoctrinated faith and compliance with dumbing down humanity. – Cloud Dec 22 '15 at 19:17
  • @Dogbert - My experience has been that religious people don't like to have their faith challenged. – Valorum Dec 22 '15 at 19:23

(TL;DR: Just re-read The Golden Compass. It's the best book and everything's downhill from there.)

As a member of an organised (non-Christian) religion that eschews political involvement, I found the last book in the series to be in poor taste. However, by that time my enjoyment of the series had already been soured.

Learning about other points of view is very valuable. I went to a high school which taught a theology different from my own, and I learned a great deal about my own faith in that time. Unfortunately, His Dark Materials was not helpful in this regard.

The criticisms of religion in The Amber Spyglass are vivid and vitriolic but have more energy than structure. It feels more like ill-formed taunting than a well-constructed argument ("God is dead! But he wasn't really God, you've been worshipping an impostor! Now there's underage sex in the Garden of Eden! Doesn't that make you uncomfortable, religious people?"), which means I could just roll my eyes and try to enjoy the story.

I loved The Golden Compass, but I found The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were not nearly as well-written: even if the series' religious commentary wasn't there, I would have been disappointed by its denouement, which I read when I was 17 or 18. If the writing were better, the anti-religious sentiment would probably be more coherent and I'd actually have enjoyed engaging with it.

My advice is to re-read The Golden Compass. It's pretty brilliant and the religious commentary is mild, subtextual, and well-integrated with the story. Then treat the other two books like a lot of people treat the sequels to The Matrix or the Star Wars prequels: "It's such a shame they were never made, because surely the creator would have continued to make things just as good as the first."

If you do read the other two books--and let's face it, with the ending of The Golden Compass it's hard not to pick up the next book--you will either decide the criticism is not worth your time and ignore it; or you will put the book down as not worth the effort of enduring the criticism; or you will engage with the criticism and use it as a sounding-board for gaining a deeper understanding of your own faith.

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    Hmm. Some of this reads like a bit of a rant. I'm not sure how "flattened characters, a disjointed narrative," fits in with the discussion about religious objectivity. – Valorum Jan 12 '15 at 23:27
  • It's context: I didn't enjoy the end of the series for reasons other than its religious commentary. In the interest of full disclosure based on my recommendation, I think that's important to state (and the chat conversation showed a tendency to dismiss the querent's concerns as a lack of fortitude of character, so I felt like I had to establish that I'm not dismissing the book out of hand just because of its religious content). The bad writing is part and parcel with the poorly-formed criticism: good writing and good criticism would lead me to give a different recommendation. – BESW Jan 12 '15 at 23:29
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    I think we've identified the key problem with trying to answer opinion-based questions, that you get opinion-based answers. It's very hard to separate the personal from the objective. – Valorum Jan 12 '15 at 23:31
  • Opinion-based answers are not bad. We have a whole section on Constructive subjective questions that says experience is valuable as opinions should be backed up. That's what I'm offering: my recommendation based on my opinion formed from my experience. Without accounting for both experience and opinion, my answer would be bad. – BESW Jan 12 '15 at 23:34
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    It leads to the question of whether you were more annoyed about the religious aspects because you didn't like the rest of the book. – Valorum Jan 12 '15 at 23:47

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