Giles Fraser: This move hands the atheists a PR coup

17 October 2007

The Hollywood version of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is to have its anti-clericalism removed, so as not to offend Roman Catholics in the United States. Sure, Pullman takes a few potshots at the Church by imagining a world run by a sinister Magisterium. But the apparently successful campaign to airbrush away Mr Pullman’s attack on the Church proves his point far better than the books themselves.

It suggests an organisation that is paranoid and defensive, unable to take criticism, and obsessed with its own image. Even in terms of image management, it is a clumsy move; for it summons up the idea of a sinister force out to control what we think and are allowed to say — some Magisterium, perhaps?

This is not the first time a book’s anti-clericalism has had to be watered down for a US cinema audience. The film of Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat is another case in point.

Of course, in both cases, what is actually going on is not the exercise of some controlling influence by the Church, or some shady Magisterium: rather, it is all about the bottom line. If more money were to be made by reproducing the anti-church views of the French Third Republic, the inhabitants of Beverly Hills would be chanting “La Marseillaise” with the best of them.

Even so, this sort of publicity does the Church no good whatsoever. The whole atheist media revival is given so much more energy by being represented as counter-cultural, something that this thing called “the Church” does not want people to find out about. Everyone loves a rebel. Everyone hates the Magisterium. So long as the Church allows atheism to depict itself in these terms, it hands campaigning non-believers a huge PR coup.

No, the atheist media revival is a real opportunity for the Church, if only it could see it. Once atheism is brought out into the open, properly taught in schools, and required reading for children, many will find that it is about as counter-cultural as McDonald’s. Atheism is made sexier than it really is by being deemed dangerous and subversive — as if Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion were the sort of book you had to read under the duvet by torchlight. Do me a favour.

Like the party of perpetual opposition, campaigning atheists never have to propose anything other than what they are against. Too often, they ask nothing of their followers, other than that they bask in the glow of intellectual superiority. Let us not allow them the martyrdom of censorship or persecution as well.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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