Pullman on Censorship and Religion

By Mark Trodden | September 29, 2008 7:36 pm

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy constitutes one of the finest reading experiences for children I’ve ever seen. I read them as an adult, on the advice of a literary colleague, and fell under their spell immediately. They are fantasy books, for sure, but with a strong rational and anti-authority philosophy. And although I don’t think of them as purely anti-religious, if your religion is one with an authoritarian streak then …

In a brief article in The Guardian, Pullman takes on those who would seek to ban his books from library shelves. He points to the futility of such bans, the inevitable increased readership of banned works, and the utterly moronic reasons that some give for requesting bans. But he saves his real vitriol for religion. Pullman’s basic take on religion

My basic objection to religion is not that it isn’t true; I like plenty of things that aren’t true. It’s that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

isn’t precisely the same as my own, since I do disagree with religion because it is false. I also like plenty of things that aren’t true – the works of David Foster Wallace are a timely example – but the things I like that aren’t true don’t claim to be true. But I certainly also agree with the things that drive Pullman nuts

In fact, when it comes to banning books, religion is the worst reason of the lot. Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed. The rank stench of oppression wafts from every authoritarian church, chapel, temple, mosque, or synagogue – from every place of worship where the priests have the power to meddle in the social and intellectual lives of their flocks, from every presidential palace or prime ministerial office where civil leaders have to pander to religious ones.

Well put!

  • chemicalscum

    I too read the the Pullman His Dark Materials Trilogy as an adult and also fell under its spell. On the one hand it is a modern version of Milton’s Paradise Lost, while on the other it is a work about the end of childhood and becoming an adult. Pullman’s interest as a non-scientist in modern physics and cosmology also adds themes to the trilogy. Altogether a fascinating and wondrous work.

    In it’s many worlds the trilogy starts in one where the split from our own (which is one location in the second volume) is that Calvin was victorious in the Catholic church and became the last Pope to be followed by a bureaucratic collective leadership called the Magisterium. This results in a world with the worst of Calvinist and Catholic authoritarianism combined. This alone is enough to upset a wide range of Christians. Not to mention Lord Asrael as Lucifer triumphant over an impotent God figure. Yes lots of fun and a great read, I highly recommend it

  • tacitus

    I agree with the sentiments, but to loosen religion’s hold on power in America then it’s going to take a large leftward swing in the political sentiments of the American people to get it done — at least in cultural terms, anyway.

    Given the Republican base’s near orgasmic intoxication with Sarah Palin when she was selected by John McCain as his VP nominee, there is a long long way to go.

  • John Merryman

    Why doesn’t anyone(with some visibility) develop this in the context of Complexity Theory? The relationship of top down structure and how it is form to the function of bottom up process. That seems to me where the real logical weakness of authoritarian absolutes lay. The absolute is basis, not apex, so even if you believe in a spiritual source, or absolute, it wouldn’t be some top down Platonic Ideal from which “Man” has fallen and seeks to return, but comes from the other direction altogether. It would be the raw essence of consciousness/biology from which life rises (and to which it falls when it missteps). That undercuts the whole monotheistic religious authoritarianism.

    There may be those of the strong atheist bent who may think this allows religion some small foot in the door, but they need to get out in the real world and consider that top down authoritarian religions currently have far more than a foot in the door already. More like a foot on much of the worlds neck and hundreds of years of enlightenment philosophy doesn’t seem to have had much effect in changing this, so maybe a practical change in strategy might be worth considering. In a world where those at the top seem to use every opportunity to seize ever more control, there is a real need to upend the old ways and start new. When the program is corrupted, push the reset button.

  • Michael T.

    I think it needs to be made clear that “religion” as discussed specifically refers to those that are Abrahamic in origin. I do no recall any book banning by the Taoist or Dharmic religions.

  • Ellipsis

    Michael T. — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Calcutta_Quran_Petition , amongst a long list of counterexamples to your statement

  • John Merryman


    The political advantage monotheistic religions have over dualist religions is that while the dualist is examining all sides, the monotheist is punching him in the nose. That tactical linearity is very effective in the short and medium term, even if on the strategic level it eventually leads one into a brick wall of built up reaction.

  • http://www.tblog.ca Teddy

    Compass as literature? Puuleese! There’s not an original thought within the series. Boring, rehashed, bland tripe. The only redeeming function is that the books stick it to the man.

    Not much else. And not much elevated beyond comics.

  • Petr

    Please, please, please DON’T try and get all righteous about the Pullman novels. They are, in fact, junk… and I’m not referring to the ideas, such as they are, but to the too simplistic writing and trite overlay of continuous and continuous and continuous exposition used to move those ideas along. It’s bad writing for any level of reader.

    I can’t understand why people are so enamored of the books… I get why people might be enamored of the ideas, but they are so poorly presented and, frankly, barely coherently so…

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • mike

    Most people I’ve talked to really enjoyed “The Golden Compass” (for what it is – a kid’s book), but only the people who really drink the religion haterade seem to like the 2nd and 3rd.

  • Paul M.

    I only read the first Compass book, but found it almost unreadable, not for it’s subtext, but because the text was so disjointed and poorly written. Every chapter someone (or someTHNG) seemed to swoop in and change the plot utterly, for no other reason than because the author couldn’t think of anything organic and motivated to happen next. The worst was the Texan balloon pilot (a caricature to begin with) who shows up to save the day in a completely nonsensical way.

    As for the rejection of religion because of it’s authoritarian bent, I think most ant-religionists would be chagrined to find that the faithful are in complete agreement! The Church is not the Pope and the Magisterium! True religions are inherently anti-authoritarian. What you’re complaining about is the institutionalization of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But many (probably MOST) faithful people would argue that these institutions have little to do with their faith. The worst thing that happened to the Church was Constantine’s edict making Christianity a sanctioned religion – once it became allied with worldly power, it became susceptible to the same abuse of power that infects ALL human organizations, from scientific ones to political ones to social ones. In this, religion is no more or less guilty than the English Empire, or the American Empire or any other empire. But please be thoughtful enough to try and discern the distinction between faith and institutionalized religions – they are NOT identical!

  • Luke

    I haven’t read any of Pullman’s books. Considering what he wrote in the Guardian, it’s quite possible that he is aware that he’s not a talented novelist. He may have figured out that he can generate a lot of publicity by writing books that offend Christian Americans and thus sell a lot of books.

    I’m reminded of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which came out 20 years ago. I remember that there was a great deal of controversy when it came out, with protests at theaters and other assorted ranting and raving. Then I went to see the movie and it was pretty boring (except for David Bowie’s role a Pontius Pilate, which was cool). Those church groups should just ignore this sort of thing. If it’s mediocre, it will disappear pretty quickly.

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Michael T @4:
    …I do no recall any book banning by the Taoist or Dharmic religions.

    There have been a number of cases of books (and movies) attacked by conservative Hindu groups in India. There’s a summary of sorts in this Indian newspaper editorial.

    The Wikipedia article on censorship in Thailand notes that the current Thai constitution apparently allows censorship for the purpose of, among other things, preventing “insults to Buddhism.”

  • Tom

    Tough critics!
    I read the book, and enjoyed it. I could have tried to read in whatever social commentary Pullman was attempting, but instead just enjoyed the novels. Some in the series were better than others, as is almost inevitably the case.
    Personally – if you take offense with these books, you are too easily offended. They are FICTION. No more, no less.
    So do I think Pullman is one or our pre-eminant authors? No. Can he spin a good yarn. Yup.
    I guess what I object to when it comes to attempts at censorship, is the idea that thinking outside the box is dangerous. To me, the danger is to limit people to box thinking.

  • Michael T.

    Ellipsis, thanks for the find, however, it does not contradict my statement which I indeed stand loosely by until proven otherwise. Your Wiki example was an attempt by some to ban the Quran by other Muslims not those of Dharmic faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Try again.

  • Otis

    Censors, censorship? Complete nonsense.

    The American Library Association reports that books have been “challenged” and Philip Pullman imagines that “religious” censors are “destroying intellectual freedom.” This is atheists tilting at windmills.

  • http://www.mpe.mpg.de/~erwin/ Peter Erwin

    Michael T. @ 15:
    Your Wiki example was an attempt by some to ban the Quran by other Muslims not those of Dharmic faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Try again.

    The Wikipedia article that Ellipsis pointed to describes attempts in the 1980s by Hindus in West Bengal (a majority-Hindu state in India) to have the Qu’ran banned.

  • http://ReRamsden Ray

    A friend had a bumper sticker which read “The last time they mixed religion and politics, people got burned at the stake.”
    The scary thing is that if you pointed this out to the religious right, they would shrug and say, “So what?” And they would gladly supply the matches.

  • Otis

    In contrast to Philip Pullman’s silly imagined censorship, the Guardian reports on an actual case of religious censorship. The director of education of the Royal society was fired over his remarks about acknowledging the creationists ideas of many students. His point was to respect the world views that students bring into the classroom and to avoid “in your face” atheism that turns off many students from embracing science.

    That was too much, he had to go. Just suggesting that views contrary to orthodox biological evolution ought to be treated with respect got him fired. Science Mag reports that even Richard Dawkins called the episode a witch-hunt.

    But here is perhaps the real truth: Science Mag reports, “Several fellows of the Royal Society stated publicly that it wasn’t appropriate for Reiss to hold such an influential position given his religious affiliation.” This statement implies he was forced out because he was a member of the Anglican church and a Christian.

    There are no first amendment protections in the UK. What happened to Michael Riess would be against the law in the US. A person in the US cannot be fired or excluded because of his/her religious affiliation, especially by a government agency like the Royal Society. Likewise, the direct funding of religious schools by government in the UK, as indicated in the news articles, would be illegal in the US.

    I suspect that the root of Philip Pullman’s angst is that he has no sense of first amendment protections, which ultimately prevail in the US. The root problem is that the British system of government has a glaring defect.

  • Michael T.


    I read through the references by both you and Ellipsis. They were both very interesting but there are subtleties that should not escape notice.

    In your reference from The Hindu, one cannot deny that there was in fact significant influence of Islamic adherents leading to the banning of various media. The author of the article even cites “angry Muslim elements” insisting on the banning of the import of the Satanic Verses. Further, both the Maharashtra region and government historically lean towards Islamic sympathies. On the failed banning of the Quran, it appears the effort stemmed from a single persons objections rather than a coherent policy by the Hindu establishment. The Thailand reference was noteworthy in that “censorship” is allowable under proscribed instances such as national security (sounds familiar to those of us in the US), insults to Buddhism as was noted and criticism of the royal family. The last part for me was most interesting in that I see Abrahamic religions as fundamentally political in nature and the Thai government employing lese majeste laws not unlike taking the name of the lord in vain.

    Honestly, I am not persuaded by these references in terms of an institutional propensity to censor speech by the Dharmic or Taoists traditions as they are anathemas to the very core of both spiritual doctrines. Christianity on the other hand, has a long and sordid history of banning books especially in the US. Bottom line is Abrahamic religions are just far less comfortable with unfettered speech IMHO and censorship seems inherent to its nature.

    Thanks again for provoking further exploration, very cool.

  • Otis

    Here is another dose of reality from an article in the Washington Post.

    Books are being banned from high school libraries because they give a contrary view of homosexuality and, among other reasons, “the books would make gay students feel inferior.”

    Left-wing politically correct ideology is the biggest threat to the free exchange of ideas.

  • chemicalscum

    Pullman’s work operates at a number of levels

    1. As a work of magical fantasy fiction for children

    2. As a reworking of the themes of Milton’s Paradise lost.

    3. As an anti-Narnia. An attempt to write children’s fantasy fiction that is the opposite of CS Lewis’s Christian propaganda

    4. To use themes from modern physics and cosmology in a work of children’s fiction.

    I read the Golden Compass/Northern Lights when the controversy first appeared after the announcement of the intention to make the movie. I intended to read the first volume only, in order to find what the fuss was all about. I do not typically read children’s fiction given my advancing years and I unexpectedly found that I was so taken by it and became so immersed in it that I had to read the entire trilogy from end to end. Yes primarily I enjoyed it as a great read an the chance to enter a magical alternate world. However the other aspect of reading it at the many levels it was written provides an additional interest and incentive for the adult reader.

    As for the quality of the writing I find it clearly superior to that of CS Lewis, I have been told that it is superior to that of JK Rowling but not having been inspired to read the Harry Potter books I wouldn’t know. However for someone to find the books unreadable they must either lack literacy or or possess the power of human empathy.

    On some points raised in the threads.

    Yes it is an attack on authoritarian forms of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. If you are non-authoritarian Christian or theist don’t complain about it, the books are not attacking you.

    Pullman may not not be a talented novelist in the writing of adult fiction but in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy he has shown that he can write great children’s fantasy fiction on an intellectual level that extends its appeal to adult audiences as well.

    Trying to keep his works out of school libraries is censorship. I would not try to keep the Narnia books out of school libraries because I consider them works of Christian propaganda as that would be censorship.

    Yes the hounding Michael Riess was indeed a witch hunt – blame Nobel prizewinner Harry Kroto for that one. I imagine Pullman would get along very well with Riess just as he does with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    Finally, While you do have the second amendment in the US, the hounding of supporters of evolution in the Texas State Education Department shows it is of little help there. As the US descends into its own unique form of theocratic fascism, it is time to defend your freedom while you can. You might even be able to reverse the tide.

  • Paul N. Butler

    The true basic problem is that man by nature has a desire to control and rule over others, generally for his own gain and generally at the expense of the ones he controls. This comes partly from the fact that man always desires to have more than he can get from his own labor. If he can make others work for him either as slaves or in such a way that he controls the others ability to produce so that in order to be able to have a chance to produce what they need they must give him a portion of what they produce, he can have more for himself. This desire to control others for one’s own benefit is what is behind such things as most book banning. In reality it is not a matter of religion that is the problem. If you follow the history of atheist societies such as those in Communist China, or Russia (was U.S.S.R.) etc. you will see the same tactics used by them to control their people.

    This is what is behind such things as the black/white, male/female and many other issues where one group of people misuses another. The usual tactic is to find some trait that you have that you can rally others with the same trait around and build in peoples minds the deception that the ones with that trait are in some way better (maybe more evolved etc.) than those without it (of course, you may also deceive yourself into believing it). The power gained in this way is then used both as a method to control others to get what you want and also as a means of rationalizing that the mistreatment is not wrong and is acceptable because you are better than them in some way or they are bad in some way.

    What I find interesting is that people in this world, for the most part, do not understand the basic problem, but instead are so easily caught up in the propaganda and take one side or the other and don’t see that they are being used by the ones who control that side of the argument. As an example, in the white/black issue, the whites in the beginning misused the blacks for their gain, but those whites at the top of the group also got whites that were lower in the hierarchy to support them and give them some of their production. Eventually the blacks also got smart enough to gather together in a similar way. They first used the power generated to get free from the whites as much as possible and to attempt to get their own ability to control and to keep their own production (this has not been completed as of yet, but is getting close). Then they also set up their own hierarchy where the leading group takes from the lower levels. At this time, it seems that both the white and black hierarchies desire to keep the issue alive so that they can keep their sources of gain in tact. Any reasonable person should realize that skin color has very little to do with one man’s inherent abilities compared to another man’s abilities, but most people tend to be willing to easily give up their ability to reason and follow a herd mentality even if they lose some of their production as a result. As an example, I could set up a similar rational for my gain by saying that all people with hazel eyes are more highly evolved than all others because we have all the colors while the others only have one color. It would make just as much sense. In fact if you look in Africa where most of the people are black, people still do the same thing to each other. They just replace skin color with tribal groups.

    I also find it interesting that the Christian religion seems to be the favorite group to be against by so many scientists. I believe that it is because of the conflicts with some of the people in the various religious hierarchies about such things as creation science etc. I say that because if you look at the Christian New Testament, you find that it is one of the least controlling religions of all of them. You do not need to work your way to salvation like in most other religions. As a matter of fact it is not possible to do so. All that is necessary is that you believe that God exists and that he sent his only begotten son (Jesus Christ) into the world to die on the cross for you to be the sacrifice for your sins (so they can be forgiven) and to accept him as your Lord and savior. There are, of course, commandments such as to not kill or steal, and to love one another etc., but most reasonable people would accept these as necessary or at least desirable in any society for it to prosper and for the people in it to have good and peaceable lives. The problem is that people look at the propaganda put out by the ruling hierarchies that are often run by people that are not really following the commandments of the religion, but are just trying to use the discord to get gain for themselves.

    This is also the case in the scientific establishment ruling hierarchy, which has attempted to define science in such a way that the concept of the possible existence of God is considered to not be a valid topic to be investigated scientifically. This is an irrational stance to take considering that science has not been able to determine such things as the initial cause of the universe, how the first living creature came about, and whether God exists or not. If the purpose of science is to find and know the truth of all things, the rational approach would be to look at the world and see if there are indications that it was made by an intelligent God (ordered structure etc.) or if it shows the kind of random structures that would be expected by natural chance formation. One could also look to see if there are any signs that an intelligent God may have purposely built into the world things to tell us about him, his purpose for creating the world, and our purpose in the creation. All other possibilities should also be considered, of course. All the evidence should be gathered and unless there is proof that God either does or does not exist, all the evidence should be published and each person should be allow to make his own decision as to his belief or disbelief in God. Today what I see is a propaganda machine set up in the scientific hierarchy that purposely only looks at one side of the issue and attempts to deny access to the other. Scientifically un-provable atheist creations stories such as multiverses are allowed access and considered as valid scientific subjects while the possibility that an intelligent God created the world is denied access and belittled. The end result is that the religious hierarchy understandably gets angry and retaliates with arguments such as intelligent design (which is not without merit although it is often scientifically misapplied) and the scientific hierarchy responds by saying that it is not scientific. Both hierarchies make their gains from their followers while science suffers because of the one sided approach.

    In a way it would be good if people did truly have an anti-authority philosophy and would actually look into all possibilities and honestly search for the truth in all things for themselves, but just like in the books that are mentioned above, the anti-authority philosophy is usually aimed at getting people to deny one authority and then get them to follow another one that is no better, without really thinking for themselves and so to be trapped again just in a different lie.

  • John Merryman


    To truly think outside the box, you have to fully understand the box in the first place, which tends to result in your efforts simply creating a larger box. Much like living organisms grow shells to protect and define themselves, but must shed them to grow larger and form another shell and the process starts over again. So the most effective time for real change is after the old shell is shed and before the new one starts to harden again. It seems we are approaching that point for many foundational political and economic reasons. What will be interesting is how it informs and transforms our basic philosophic and conceptual assumptions.

  • Paul N. Butler


    You have a good point. In our case the true box is the universe and even beyond the universe to what caused it to come into existence. The trick is to not build your own little box (or let someone else build one for you) that separates you from the true box and distorts your observation of it. In a sense as you gain information about the universe etc. you will be building somewhat of a box based on your observations, but you must always be ready to continually change it to incorporate any new data observed and any useful new concepts of the overall structure that is built up by the data.

    First you must separate yourself from the ways of the world, which is not easy because some of those ways are based on structures that are built into us. This takes discipline. You must also overcome the box builder’s schemes to control you and get you to believe their propaganda. In science today, as an example, if a scientist believes in God and openly expresses it, he will likely lose his job or at least his credibility with other scientists that don’t believe (which are many) while those that do believe will be helpless to come to his aid, and his chances to get grant money etc. will likely go away. The same kind of control mechanism is generally in place in religious groups so that if you believe that the group is not acting in conformance with the scriptures and you openly let it be known, you will either be cast out by them or be marginalized. In order to live and continue to be independent, you must either find a way to be financially independent so you can escape them completely or you must outwardly conform to them, but inwardly maintain your separation from them. The first option is the best, but given the difficulty of attaining it, most people are stuck with the second option. The box builders generally don’t mind if you take the second option because they still get the portion of your production that they desire and you are not interfering with their control scam so they still gain the same amount as if you believed their propaganda. They would prefer that you believe them, but they know that they can’t force you to believe them or even know truly what you do believe so they are content as long as you don’t make waves.

    Most living creatures grow, but most do not build shells. It can be more dangerous to not have the shell for defense, but in the long run it is best to be one that doesn’t build a shell, but instead continually interacts with the world with the intent of understanding its true nature. In the long run this will allow you to understand and avoid the dangers and to grow to a much higher level than you could ever achieve as a drone of the builders. The only builder that would truly deserve our attention and loyalty is the one that made us and the rest of the universe. The rest are all pretenders. This can be easily seen in that the true builder had to take a part of himself and expend his own labor to make us and this world while the others only want to take from us and get us to expend our labor for their benefit. The difference should be apparent to anyone.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Paul – I disagree with most of what you have to say in so many ways that I won’t be entering into a lengthy discussion. But one thing certainly needs challenging, because potential young scientists may be reading this and I don’t want them to get the wrong idea from what you write. You say

    In science today, as an example, if a scientist believes in God and openly expresses it, he will likely lose his job or at least his credibility with other scientists that don’t believe (which are many) while those that do believe will be helpless to come to his aid, and his chances to get grant money etc. will likely go away.

    This is completely false. Scientists don’t judge scientific work, or its grantworthiness on the basis of the scientist’s personal beliefs. I know quite a number of scientists who are believers – to the best of my knowledge, none of them ever face threats to their jobs. In fact, some get awarded the Templeton prize.

  • Paul N. Butler


    I think that the key words in your reply are “personal beliefs”. For the scientist who believes in God, it is perfectly reasonable to use science to search for signs of the existence of God or to learn more about him by studying his works in the creation (universe). He may also consider it ok to use science to understand his role in God’s works etc. If such a scientist were to incorporate such concepts into his published works, however, I believe he would encounter great resistance at the very least in getting his works to be accepted in any peer review that would be considered valid in the scientific community. Without peer acceptance he would not be able to publish his works in the required acceptable venues to get his tenure, to keep getting grant money etc. If such a scientist were in a very high profile position, his employer very well might consider him an embarrassment that could cause the employer to lose gift and grant money, etc. and his position would then be in jeopardy also. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe you can show me scientific papers (that suggest the possible existence of God, etc.) that have passed scientific review recently and are accepted as valid important scientific work in the scientific community.

    A scientist that did not believe in God could, of course, publish any work that implied or even flatly stated that belief and it would not likely cause any problems with peer review or otherwise. He could even propose concepts that suggest that God did not exist (such as a multiverse that always existed that are by definition outside of any possible range of scientific observation and testing) as scientific work and it would likely be accepted as such.

    You are right though that as long as a scientist that believed in God kept his beliefs to himself or personal (according to the second option in my previous post) and made any papers that he published neutral by leaving out any references about God, he would probably not have such problems. This could be a problem, though, if his discovery suggested that the universe was intelligently created. He might also get away with talking about his beliefs openly if he always mentioned that they were only his personal beliefs and he did not attempt to support them with any scientific evidence. It could be dangerous for him, however, if the wrong person (an unbeliever with power in the scientific hierarchy) heard about it and was offended, especially if his argument was very compelling and might convince others to believe in God.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that this is a problem that is limited to the scientific community or that it only applies to the belief or disbelief in God. It is a problem that is pervasive throughout human society and can manifest itself in any area where those who posses power over others choose to use that power to promote themselves at the expense of others and the truth. In the past in the scientific community during the dark ages it was the hierarchy of the church that held the power over what was allowed to be considered acceptable science and used that power to promote its own agenda and as a result scientific advancement was sometimes hindered. At the present time the atheist community holds a similar position and uses it to promote its own agenda and again scientific advancement is sometimes hindered. Science only progresses at its maximum rate when all avenues of inquiry are freely open to investigation. It only appears to be a greater problem in science because of the pervasive belief that scientists truly desire to know the full truth of how the world works and that they always keep their minds open to all possibilities in that pursuit. In reality this is not always the case and even those that do always search for truth with an open mind are limited by what the existing power structure will allow them to do.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Butler: I Don’t think that atheist community holds much power over the scientific community. Further, I don’t see any attempt to impose atheistic beliefs (nonbeliefs) in the scientific community or in science education. There is no ideological imposition similar to what which existed in the Soviet Union with material dialetics.

    In presenting research results it is the case that a scientist can rarely invoke a divine or supernatural agent for the cause or ordering of some process. The problem of course is that supernatural agencies are not within the domain of scientific observation. It might be argued that the causitive results of such an agency are observable, such as the claimed results of a special creation or the claims of intercessory prayer, but supernatural agencies are not detectable. As such a scientist is outside their proper bounds if they make some statement. “Clearly this shows that God is a prime mover … .”

    What I would generally call non-theism has become an aspect of many scientist’s world views. This is because supernatural agencies have a consistent history of turning up absent. There is a wide range of presumed roles for a God in the past, where God or his angels pushed planets around, or the distinct origin of species and as the first cause for universe. In the last case there is a growing set of reasons to think the “first cause” for the universe was some form of quantum fluctuation, which is a first cause that is uncaused so to speak.

    A scientist can still uphold a belief in God, but to be intellectually honest this belief is usually more of a metaphysical ideation and not about some super-giant being which acts upon the world.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Paul N. Butler


    You are right in your assessment that in the United States you do not see the type of ideological imposition by the use force, imprisonment, and death that is more common in atheistic totalitarian societies such as the Soviet Union and Communist China. In capitalistic societies such as ours it is generally much more subtle and harder for the average person to see if he is not directly involved in attempting to do something that is contrary to what those in power desire to allow to be done. Actions are generally first based on the use of capital (money). Money can be made available or withheld in various ways such as grants or good job positions, etc. In most cases the system is set up so that no one outside of the power structure is actually told that the scientist did not get the grant, position, or his paper to pass peer review, etc. because of his attempts to include references to the possible existence of God in his work. There may be some off the record comments made to the scientist to that effect so that he will know the situation with the idea presented that if he would only remove such references things would be different, but officially some other reason would be given for his not receiving that which he desired and in many cases might need to continue his research or to make a living. In most cases the initial refusal would not be extremely negative, but would be more of a warning. If he continued to make comments in his work that would suggest that the results indicated the possible existence of God, however, or if his arguments were very persuasive, the next step would usually be to start some sort of negative smear tactic against him and his work in order to marginalize him. This would be aimed at either getting him to leave the profession altogether or if that failed, it would be aimed at getting others to think of him as some kind of nut case that should not be listened to.

    A good example of that type of smear tactic is the one that has been aimed at the intelligent design movement to make people believe that it has no scientific basis and to keep it out of the educational system. Although the publicized examples of intelligent design concepts and investigations have generally been aimed into areas that at present cannot be proven scientifically either way (such as at evolution) because of man’s current lack of understanding of many of the details of life processes, the ability to go to other worlds and determine whether an observation is the result of a natural process or was caused by an intelligent being will become a very important branch of science in the future. It is a valid scientific pursuit to analyze the results of natural random chance occurrences and also analyze the results of the actions of intelligent beings and then to look at the structure of the universe and the structure of living creatures and see whether they better match the type of results seen from the random events or those produced by the intelligent beings.

    You are right that (short of God appearing to everyone or man somehow gaining the ability to create another universe just like ours without God and doing so to prove it) it is not likely that science can absolutely either prove or disprove the existence of God. Science has, however, been used in an attempt to ascribe the likelihood that it is one way or the other as you referred to in your quantum fluctuation comment. The problem is that so far most such endeavors have been aimed more toward the side of attempting to disprove the existence of God than taking the middle ground and honestly looking for the truth. When that is done the world shows definite signs of having been created by an intelligent being all of which cannot be fully appreciated by man in this world at this time because of lack of knowledge in some areas. The point is that it is not just that special works of God that cannot be scientifically studied are an indication of the existence of God (although they could be), but the whole structure of the universe including all of the ordered and consistent laws by which it runs tend to indicate that it was not the result of undirected random processes, but the work of an intelligent being.

    You are right that many claims have been made in the past about God’s direct actions in the world that have since been ascribed to the action of some natural laws such as gravity etc. (of course, who or what made the law of gravity is still open for debate.) The problem with a quantum fluctuation being the first cause is that by its nature a quantum fluctuation requires the preexistence of other information and structural systems. There must first be some structure that limits the fluctuation to a minimum quantum level or a multiple of it rather than all analog possibilities. In order for a fluctuation to occur there must be something to fluctuate which must be large enough to allow for motion to exist since that is what a fluctuation is. This generally would infer the existence of at least some type of dimensional system or structure with at least two identifiable points and possibly an entity within the dimensional system to carry the fluctuation. All the information bound up in these and perhaps other things must be stored somewhere in the system and preexist the fluctuation to allow it to happen.
    The fact that the world is made in such a way that its internal mechanisms operate in accordance with a complex set of laws without God’s direct intervention at all times does not preclude the existence of God. As an example, men make cars to use to transport them from one place to another. At man’s current state of technology the driver must interact with the mechanisms of the car to get it to go where he wants it to go. Man is always looking for ways to make the car do more for him so he has to do less direct operation of the car by the inclusion of new systems such as cruise control. If man is able in the future to build a car that allows him to just get into the car and speak the desired destination and the car’s built in systems take the car to that destination by the interactions of the built in systems operating according to the laws of operation that man has built into the car, the car will still have been built by man even though it doesn’t need man’s continual intervention to operate. As a matter of fact the less intervention that is required by the creator to get his creation to perform its purpose the greater the intelligence of the creator in general. In general then if you come across a system that performs very complex functions according to a very complex set of interacting built in laws, it is an indication that it was built by an intelligent being and the more complex the structure and its associated laws are, the less likely it would form from natural random actions. As more is discovered about the true depth of the complexity of the world, at some point the true metaphysical ideation becomes more a part of the life of an unbeliever.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Paul – you’re really not making much sense. You’ve suggested suppression of ideas within academia, defended the intelligent design movement, and displayed and a very flawed understanding of quantum mechanics (that would be fine if you weren’t using this to try to defend other things). Please see


  • CarlN

    Paul, it seems that you (and many others here) seems to believe gods existence or non-existence cannot be proven. In fact it is possible to prove that god does not exist. God is just a result of wishful thinking.

    First we need to realize that nothing eternal can exist. This can be seen in various ways. Something eternal is something that has not started to exist. Just like some fictional “thing” like Donald Duck. Further, if we still believe in something eternal, either as an eternal physical reality or a god, we will left with something that not even in principle can be explained. This eternal “thing” has some properties like physical laws or goodness (or badness for an evil god) that it has never obtained.
    We are forced to believe in something unexplainable. Only irrational people are willing to believe in something that cannot be explained, even in principle

    And of course we cannot accept the circular logic of using something that exists to explain why something exists. There are other arguments as well..

    If we reject irrationality we are forced to conclude that what exist must have been created from nothing.

    Creation from nothing is on the other hand perfectly logical. “When” there is nothing there are no conservation laws, there are no hinders, there are no conditions to be fulfilled for creation from nothing to happen. We also note that there exits no need for causation of creation from nothing “when” nothing exists. Logic says that creation from nothing proceeds without causation. Proof:There cannot exist a need for causation since we assume there is nothing at all in the first place. Likewise, there cannot be conservation laws etc.

    Logic also tells us that only logical, self-consistent “things” can be created from nothing. Anything that is in conflict with itself cannot be created. Thus we find that we live in a mathematical universe, with mathematical laws making sure that one empirical observation is not in conflict with an other one.

    And we see that the Big Bang is indeed the creation of our universe from nothing.

    You could of course argue about a god being created from nothing, and that “he” later on created the universe, but you will have trouble with Occams razor.

  • Interested

    Dear Paul,

    The article by George V. Coyne, S.J. – Destiny of Life and Religious Attitudes, 2005, in Life as We Know It, ed. J. Seckbach (Dordrecht: Springer Science 2005) [ 15 pages] cuts into the scientific & theological & philosophical debate/issues of God/chance/design. George Coyne sj has not given me the internet link and I have not been able on cursory search to find it. If you wish to get the article, please email him at
    gcoyne@as.arizona.edu http://clavius.as.arizona.edu/vo/R1024/GCoyne2.html
    or you can email me at wildgeese38@gmail.com

    While not being a scientist nor a Christian, but with a philosophical bend, I find his article, a real gem. I consider his work to be at the cutting edge & frontier of Christian thinking in science [of astrophysics & cosmology ] that seems to get lesser than the proper attention among Christians, that it so richly deserves.
    Amen. Love.

  • Paul N. Butler


    Thank you for participating in my information tunneling experiment. Normally I would not let you know what I was doing because others might read about it on your site and it could, therefore, affect future test results, but as you are the last element of the test and because you have shown the capability of a wider phase variance than is normal, I thought you might be able to understand and I hope not be offended. Information tunneling is an offshoot of path flow structuring. Whereas path flow structuring is used to generate paths for recurrent information to flow in so that a given set of input information automatically flows through the path to generate a specific output information set without having to be processed each time, information tunneling (or at least one aspect of it) is involved with the ability to depart from the direction of the path or tunnel of information to generate offshoots or even to completely depart from the existing flow direction when the input information indicates that the path will lead to a dead end or a none productive result. This could be either no result at all or too many results with no indication of which one (if any) is the true answer that generates the desired output data set.

    Man’s mind uses structured paths to make permanent or semi-permanent connections between often used connected input and output data sets. That is why you can automatically come up with the answer of two if you are asked what one plus one is. When you first began to learn that association, however, it was not that easy until the path was established. The problem is that the deeper that you go into the tunnel by adding more and more complex input data structures and connect them to more and more complex output structures in more complex ways, you can easily lose track of the forest for the trees. You begin to ignore input data that does not fit the desired structure even if it is telling you that you are going the wrong way. You may even consider it a nuisance distraction and attempt to avoid or even eliminate the data that you don’t want because it does not fit into the pattern that you are looking for as you focus more and more narrowly down the path that you are proceeding down. This can be dangerous because you can spend long hours proceeding down a path that is not productive while completely ignoring or even attempting to cover up or destroy the data that is telling you which path will be productive. This is what John Merryman was intuitively describing as the box or shell that you live in that sometimes needs to be shed in order for you to grow larger (in his post above on Oct. 4th, 2008). This is also what I was referring to when I mentioned that you should not build your own little box or let someone else do it for you that separates you from and distorts your observation of the true box (the universe), in my answer to John.

    This problem is not limited to individuals, but applies to whole societies that channel individuals into established paths by rewarding those that follow those paths and punishing those that go a different way. The problem is amplified by the fact that those that are more intelligent than normal (and might be more likely to determine that the path they are in is a bad one) tend to use their abilities to rise to the top of the path hierarchy and so gain the greatest reward from staying in the established path and expanding it. This makes it harder for them to leave it than it might be for others because they have to give up so much reward and may exchange it for punishment instead if they find that the current path is unproductive. There is also an ego problem in that it is hard for most to admit they have been wrong. This is one of the main causes of the problems scientists can experience if they come up with a new concept that is very far from the established accepted viewpoints of the path leaders especially if the new concept says that the path that people have been going down for years is wrong or will lead to a dead end. Of course, if the established path is a good one everything works great.

    My current experiment is directed at determining the amount of dispersion or phase shift from the path center (path variance) that is encountered under different conditions and allowed by different subject types. I start with information that is generally aligned with the established path or at least does not greatly contain the key path disruptive data that has been established. In your case this was determined to be your disbelief in God and any data about quantum mechanics etc. that would be contrary to the level of understanding that you have attained about it. The next step is to gradually increase the information variance or phase angle to the established path until a response is received. This is usually the you are in error, but things could be different if you return back to the established path communication that I mentioned in my post on Oct. 5th, 2008 or in some extreme cases involving unstable subjects it could be immediate cut off with no response of the reason.

    You answered earlier than expected, but that was traced to an information element that turned out to be a dispersion factor for you that had not been predicted. Your answer was, however, relatively mild and controlled, which showed a relatively high intelligence and a good internal control capability. Your later response (with warning message) was also mild and controlled and expressed the expected disruptive data subjects (after correction for the suppression of ideas in academia data). All in all you tolerated a great enough variation from your path centers that I thought that you might appreciate the experiment. I hope I am not wrong. I can’t at this time share all my results, but as a consolation prize I will share one result that I found to be very interesting. I had expected that those who had been rejected by the science hierarchy and then started their own sites to get their message out would be more open to others who had experienced the same type of rejection and allow them to express their ideas on their sites. This turned out to not be true. As a matter of fact, they tended to be more restricted and dogmatic than sites run by those closer to the path center. This will likely cause me to change my method of information transfer to such people. It appears that the hurt they experienced due to the rejection by the path leaders is channeled into anger aimed not only at those leaders or the accepted path in general, but also toward anyone that expresses a different idea than theirs. This means that to reach such a person one would have to start very close to their path center and move extremely slowly in the desired direction to get them on the correct path to avoid complete rejection from them. As a teacher I thought this might be useful to you. Of course, you may have already known that, but I thought I would supply it to you in case it might be of some help to you in the future for putting up with me and my work on your site.

    Now I will try to answer the points in your message. (I always feel compelled to answer these even though I know that an answer is sometimes not really desired). I don’t suggest suppression of ideas within academia. Quite the contrary, I suggest that there be complete freedom of expression of ideas in academia as long as each person is respected and not attacked or denigrated by name calling etc. It is evident that this does not really occur, however, in the system as it is and you should now understand some of the reasons why.

    I do not defend the intelligent design movement as it is now constructed because it has not yet performed the required work to make it worthy of such support. It will do so in the future, however (it may not be the same people that are involved in the movement now). This is because as man begins to consider going to other worlds, it will be necessary to be able to determine if an observed phenomena is caused by the base background structure of the universe (natural cause) or is the result of the action of living beings and if it is caused by living beings, it will be important to asses the relative intelligence of such beings. This will require an exhaustive study of all natural actions, an exhaustive study of all actions of known living beings, and the comparison of the two data bases to determine the actions that are limited to only one or the other. The application of this information to the ultimate question of the origin of the universe will only be a natural extension of the lesser applications. This will lead to the discovery of such things as that the universe is constructed in the form of an extremely complex hierarchical written language structure that starts out as an abstract language structure at the lower hierarchical levels and translates through the levels into a literal language structure at the top. This type of structure only occurs one other place in the universe and that is in living creatures. In both cases it appears to have been written in from outside because neither system is capable of producing further such structures in their natural processes. Living creatures can copy their structure, but cannot generate new different ones themselves. In this world there is one other exception, which is that in very recent times man has made rudimentary attempts to generate such structures such as the two dimensional light only entities in video games. This establishes this type of structure as a trait only of intelligent beings. Many other such things will be discovered. As an example, when man has been given a better understanding of the dimensional structure of the universe, it will become apparent to anyone who reads the scriptures (old and new testament) that this pattern was recorded in the scriptures over two thousand years ago. So at that time, I would defend the intelligent design branch of science, but then it won’t be necessary.

    Quantum mechanics is a study of effects rather than the cause. The effects are generated by the universe’s dimensional and entity structures and their interactions. Advanced concepts in this area are currently not for dissemination. I could give some beginning level concepts and you could make out of them what you can, but I am afraid that if I did, it might be interpreted as my private pet theory and I wouldn’t want to offend you any further, so I won’t provide anything further information in this area unless you ask.

    Again, I hope that I haven’t offended you or others in my endeavor to learn more about you. In an open medium such as the internet it is, of course, not possible to say much of anything of substance without possibly offending some because the path structures of the large number of people that may read the information are very likely to diverge to the point that all cannot be fully accommodated within their acceptance range.

    A couple of other people have made comments to me on your site, but I will not make any further entries unless I hear from you that it is ok. I will just briefly say:

    CarIN; Contrary to what some who respond on this site might believe, you do make some very good points, but there are some problems also.

    Interested; I haven’t yet looked into the article that you mentioned so I can not comment on it at this time, but thank you for the information. It is always best to check out all possibilities that you can.

  • Interested

    Paul, I presented that article to you, for these reasons-

    (a) the Christian approach to science, cosmology, beginning of life, evolution differ depending on which branch of Christianity and which denomination, and which end of the spectrum within each. For instance, among Catholics, it is permissible to accept the literal 7 days creation as it is permissible to accept the modern cosmology, with Genesis as mythical truth than literal truth, a different genre of truth. Within the progressive in Catholicism, there are steps forward with the papal encyclicals on evolution, and it appears that faith of the common, halts such progress, to keep faith. The current pontiff has from a theological perspective focused more on design than scientific chance. The article, addresses the tension and issues/ debate between the science-priests and the theologian-priests. Without going into the % of Catholics in US and globally, it is apparent that these are issues that will become more concrete in years and decades to come. The opportunity of the Catholic Church supporting full time priests in science without pastoral duties has given them a march over Christians clergy of other branches, like Evangelicals. An example is the ability of the Catholic Church to support 2 astronomical observatories where many scientists there are priests. Funding and time off pastoral duties, are advantages that other branches of Christianity, lack and thus this may affect the quality of their theological engagement with science. While ID is attractive, I take it on faith, on the several writings of Coyne sj that it is not science. I do not have the skill set to determine if ID is science/not.

    (b) The chasm between the Christians and science, has to converge at some point in future, and I think, Coyne sj approach offers a suitable convergence that keeps each discipline intact and yet offers the enrichment of multi disciplinary approach to life and meaning of life.

    (c ) The tension between the current Catholic Church’s Magisterium and the scientific views of Coyne sj, reflects the concern of keeping the faith of the flock while enriching their lifes with scientific education, and the article endeavours to instill faith and maintain scientific discipline.

    (d) Anyone who wants to zero into the Christian approach to science and God, could benefit from reading the article.

    I come from a non theistic religion (Buddhism) as opposed to a theistic religion (Christianity) but I have grasped some of the issues above that concern Christians here. Few are of Coyne sj’s caliber and I feel sorry that his writings are not more widely read and understood for the vision he offers this country as well as Christians at large, of the convergence of religion and science. His advanced age also indicates he has limited time left to offer this country and the Church his intellectual acumen and faith. Amen.

  • Pingback: links for 2008-10-06 « earth is my favourite planet()

  • CarlN

    Paul, Problems? Well, remember you haven’t heard it all yet. I think can prove there are no problems. Bring ’em on.

  • http://ropata.wordpress.com ropata


    Yes it is an attack on authoritarian forms of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. If you are non-authoritarian Christian or theist don’t complain about it, the books are not attacking you.

    As a non-authoritarian Christian I agree with some of Pullman’s sentiments. Authoritarianism and thought control are pitfalls into which organized religion often stumbles. Martin Luther and the Reformers protested loudly against it. The recent debacles of neocon reconstructionism in US foreign policy, the emotionally damaging Shepherding movement, and other anti-intellectual / anti-science attitudes percolating through Evangelical subculture are examples of the church going astray from the mission of Christ outlined in Luke 4 and Matt 25.

    In saying that, it must be observed that the major drivers of censorship and oppression tend to be secular governments gripped by totalitarian urges, and religion is usually a pawn in their power games. Yet Pullman still places his faith a secular über-State.

  • Dov Henis

    When Is God-Science Discussable Scientifically

    Re “God and Evolution Can Co-Exist, Scientist Insists”

    – Is there/what is, in the quoted article, a definition of the article’s “god” ?

    – Specifically, is the article’s “god” defined as a human artifact, or not ?

    If “god” is defined/understood to be a human artifact – regardless of reasons, purposes, implications, consequences – the subject “god-science” is scientifically discussable.

    If “god” is not defined/understood to be a human artifact, its concept is a human virtual reality artifact experienced only through sensory stimuli, and “god-science” is not scientifically discussable. Furthermore, in this case preoccupation with this subject within a scientific frameworks contributes to corrosion and corruption of science and scientism by manifesting or implying acceptance of virtual reality as reality.

    “Evolutionary Biology Of Culture And Religion”

    Dov Henis

    (A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)

    Life’s Manifest

  • BDS

    Paul, I agree with every point you have made and hope that your experiment will go well. Mark, you make a great devil’s-advocate and this entire article is an excellent debate between two very intelligent men.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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