Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In the Name of God

The Golden Compass is the first book in the controversial His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman. The film adaptation, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, will be coming to theaters this December. Even though nobody has had a chance to screen the movie conservative Christian groups such as the Catholic League have gone on the offensive. Bill Donohue, the Grand Inquisitor of the Catholic League is furious because Pullman is allegedly a “militant atheist” who penned his trilogy to encourage impressionable teens to question their faith. Even if the movie softens its content to deal with more abstract conventions, Donohue maintains that it will draw readers to the books where Pullman’s viscous agenda is unchecked by Hollywood executives.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, disagrees. He read the trilogy and met with Phillip Pullman. Dr. Williams sees the books as a direct challenge to dogmatism. While Pullman formally identifies himself as a humanist, he does not have an axe to grind with religion in general but the power structure within organized religion that utilizes fear to instill a sense of conformity and compliance. That’s actually a pretty common trait among atheists and agnostics.

In 1999, Kevin Smith released a brilliant exploration into his own religious background. Smith, a Catholic, examined his faith with a satirical eye and delved into the roots of spirituality. The result was a hilariously clever but poignant movie entitled Dogma. Before Dogma was even released Bill Donohue and his minions were out in force protesting the release of the film and demanding boycotts. Ultimately Smith’s film was not an indictment of religion so much as it was man’s ability to corrupt it. Kevin Smith rarely pulls punches with his writing, and casting Chris Rock as the voice of reason made it difficult for a lot of people to absorb the message but in the end Dogma lets God off the hook and indicts man for the flaws in religion. Of course most of the people who could keep the vulgar content of the movie in perspective and actually get the point were lost when they saw who Smith cast in the role of God.

The problem with people like Donohue is that they refuse to open their minds. It’s OK for Mel Gibson to rake in millions of dollars by cashing in on Christ but the minute somebody challenges the authority of organized religion they call for boycotts. These people behave like spoiled children, throwing monumental tantrums whenever anything doesn’t go their way. There’s no civility or respect, just pigheaded protests. Donohue sometimes goes beyond acts of civil disobedience filing lawsuits and even employing borderline criminal intimidation tactics to force people to comply with his agenda.

Ironically, Donohue is a perfect example of religion gone bad. He’s a blustering, beet-faced bully who spends so much time preaching from on high he doesn’t see the fact that he is the problem. Donohue is all about money, power and control…which is exactly what Jesus took issue with when he threw the merchants out of the temple.

Donohue doesn’t practice Christianity as defined by Jesus. He embodies the sort of imperialistic dogmatism that stigmatizes organized religion. Donohue’s Catholicism protects pedophiles from the criminal justice system because the Church must appear infallible. Donohue’s Catholicism has a high powered legal team. Donohue’s Catholicism spends more time waging a war on the way people express their holiday wishes rather than simply expressing his. Here’s an idea: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Ring a bell? Jesus approached those who denied him with open arms; Donohue, and his ilk, does it with a clenched fist.

The Golden Compass is not an attack on faith at all, it’s a critique of those who exploit faith for personal gain. For centuries religion has been used to control and oppress people. Its purpose was to consolidate power within the confines of the Church hierarchy. The reason Donohue and the Catholic League take it so personally is because no religious institution has been so corrupt for so long. That’s not an indictment of Catholics, most of whom are wonderful people; the problem is with executive branch of the Church headquartered in Rome. For more than a thousand years the Vatican has positioned itself in front of God. Critics of Catholicism believe that Catholics actually worship the Pope and for a number of years that was the case. This is why old school Catholics, like Donohue, refuse to acknowledge the fallibility in their own religion. If the Vatican is flawed so is the entire religion. It’s hard to find another religion that has been so successful at putting God’s reputed power in the hands of a few men. When it happens on a smaller scale, society calls it a cult.

That’s what makes religion dangerous. When people suspend rationality and put their faith in a dogma created by man rather than spiritual concepts they become slaves to dogmatism. That is the basis of atheism. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with man. The Golden Compass is the latest installment of an exploration into the nature of religion. It’s going to ask questions and challenge conventions. If that makes you uneasy you’re on the wrong spiritual path.

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