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Saturday, December 08, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Famous atheist comments on the Golden Compass

Golden Compass

Hollywood spent a mind-boggling $180 million to bring author Philip Pullman's celebrated anti-religious novel, The Golden Compass, to the silver screen, but essentially stripped the work of its devastating attack on organized religion.

On the eve of the film's release, WIRED asked America's most famous atheist, Dr. Michael Newdow, how he feels about this. Dr. Newdow is a California attorney and physician best known for his efforts to ban schools from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance because of the phrase "under God."

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has commented on the release of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. The final line is, "And remember, his twin goals are to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity." Accordingly, the League "wants Christians to stay away from this movie."

This is obviously different from when the Catholic League supported Mel Gibson's work, The Passion of Christ. The Passion, many would say, had similar twin goals: promoting Christianity and denigrating Judaism. Thus, we see what is not unexpected, especially when religion is at issue: People lend their support when their system of belief is advocated, and wish to do anything but when the advocacy is for the belief systems of others. That is what the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment absolutely protect. Accordingly, let the clamor continue, and let each of us weigh in (or simply listen) with whatever biases we bring to bear.

There is another clause in the First Amendment, however, which is quite different. That one is the establishment clause, which has nothing to do with expression by private actors, be they individuals, organizations or whatever. The establishment clause speaks only to what the government may say. In other words, we don't want the government getting involved in these arguments. As Justice Scalia has written, "The government may not … lend its power to one or the other side in controversies" of such a religious nature.

While the Catholic League maintains its animus towards The Golden Compass, one hopes that it will support this notion of government neutrality. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. It was a Catholic organization, after all, that was the key group behind the 1954 alteration of the Pledge of Allegiance. In that year, the Knights of Columbus lobbied Congress to modify the words "one Nation indivisible" so that "one Nation under God, indivisible" (italics added) is what is now recited in our public schools. They still congratulate themselves over the change.

Interestingly, Catholics in the founding era were very much treated like the atheists of today. Our Founding Fathers literally hated the Catholics. Samuel Adams, for instance, wrote that "much more is to be dreaded from the growth of popery in America, than from the Stamp Act or any other acts destructive of civil rights." John Jay, the nation's first chief justice, attempted to have the right to the free exercise of religion open to all "except the professors of the religion of the Church of Rome." And when the Quebec Act was passed in support of the (Catholic) government in neighboring Canada, the Continental Congress wrote in protest to the people of Britain, complaining that Catholicism was "a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world."

This in not meant to single out Catholics. Protestants, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists and every other religious group is just as capable of being discriminated against, and of discriminating against others. It is just a call to exult in both of the religion clauses in our marvelous Constitution. While we all impart our views to the tapestry of opinion and celebrate not only the freedom of others to disagree, the muzzle that has been placed on government in this one subject area has been (and continues to be) responsible for so much animosity, suffering, cruelty and death.

The Golden Compass, situated in a different universe, is named for what is called an "alethiometer." Referred to as "a GPS device for locating the truth," it essentially reigns supreme in terms of value for that world's inhabitants. In religion, it seems there is only one truth: that we will never all agree. Whatever one's views on atheism or other religious belief, in this universe and on this world, the establishment clause of our First Amendment deserves the esteem of an alethiometer.


The Rev. Dr. Michael Newdow is a minister in the First Atheist Church of True Science and the plaintiff in the case that went to the Supreme Court in 2004, challenging the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. He requests that we disclose that he has yet to see the movie, The Golden Compass, which wasn't released to the public until Dec. 7.