Windsor Humanist Society

November 27, 2007

Spinning The Golden Compass: Blaming Religious Choices On A Book

Filed under: Uncategorized — moderator @ 12:12 pm

If I were to ask my university-aged kids if they believe in God, I would be likely to get two different and somewhat equivocal answers. One (sort of) does. One (probably) doesn’t.

Both were raised in the same Jewish home, participated in the same religious holidays and rituals, and discussed these matters with the same parents, who culturally identify with their faith but are not overtly religious.

My son independently decided at 14 that religion is “a distraction for the masses” and has remained aloof from it ever since. His younger sister has stayed connected.

Both kids, when they were impressionable young adolescents, adored Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards from the filmPhilip Pullman’s book, The Golden Compass, has been made into a feature film with Dakota Blue Richards playing Lyra.

Should I credit that book with in any way fashioning my child’s decision not to believe?

That would be ludicrous.

You will have read by now that The Golden Compass, soon to be a major motion picture with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and its two sequels – a fantasy trilogy – were recently pulled off the library shelves of the Halton Catholic District School Board. The board plans a “review” of the books after receiving a complaint that the author is an avowed atheist. Never mind that Mr. Pullman has been denying the existence of God for years.

The decision gave rise to the usual lament of censorship, and a heated media debate, and the school board in question began its inevitable march back to sanity, saying it would only look at the books and not the author in determining their suitability.

(I would lay money that those books will eventually be put back on the shelves because the school board will deem it politically prudent to do so. As one parent I know said in outrage, these are our tax dollars supporting book-banning.)

Apart from the censorship issue and the question of why the fear of religious contamination is so strong these days, the incident brings up a compelling question: Where do children get their religious beliefs? And when do they make their own independent decisions about what to believe?

My feeling is that they first learn of them in the home, but that if they’re lucky, that is only the beginning of a deeply personal process of questioning and affirming that will continue for the rest of their lives.

Rachael Turkienicz, a professor of religious studies at York University, agrees: “Children are making decisions constantly about what they believe as they go along,” she says. “What they are really trying to do is make a connection and find a place for themselves in the world, which is what adults do too, of course.”

Prof. Turkienicz also poignantly points out another great influence on a child’s religious beliefs: “Life. A crisis. Those moments when the earth shakes beneath a child’s feet.”

And of course each life event – a marriage, a birth – can give rise to a re-evaluation of what someone believes.

But like most educators, Prof. Turkienicz doubts that any book could turn a child to or from religion. Instead, The Golden Compass, which is so intellectually demanding that any parent should be thrilled their child could get through it, should ideally provide a basis for discussion, raising such questions as: “What does this book say about religion? What do you think the author was trying to do?”

But no. It’s a fearful world out there, a world that is literally torn apart by religious wars, and sometimes the first instinct is to protect a child (and oneself) by shutting down sources of information. Which of course is impossible to do anyway in today’s interconnected world.

I checked with a Toronto parent who also has two children who differ on the existence of God and asked her how she had reared her now-teenaged girls when it comes to religion. “I always said to them, ‘You need to ask a lot of different people about what they believe, troll for different opinions, decide for yourselves,’ “ says Ilana Waldston.

Of course you have to be prepared to accept the inevitable result of all this exploration – a child with an independent religious point of view. How refreshing, how exciting.

As Ken Setterington, the Children’s and Youth Advocate for the Toronto Public Library said: “At a time when there is a huge issue of literacy, it is sad that a magnificent book that challenges readers to think should find itself pulled from shelves. Let’s respect children’s ability to question what they read.”

Here’s another notion that makes the question of where children get their religious beliefs so complex: A recent Harvard study revealed kids were more likely to take scientific teachings from parents and teachers at face value than they were religious teaching.

In other words, when it came to things they couldn’t see, like germs or God, “children seem to be more confident in the information they get about invisible scientific objects than about things in the spiritual realm,” said one report on the study.

Perhaps it’s ingrained within us, part of the human condition, to ask ourselves the great spiritual and religious questions. Maybe it starts early. In which case the most wonderful thing we can do for our children is to make sure they have beautifully written works of art that shake their beliefs to the core.
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…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Jim Mac, after a November 27, 2007 article by Judith Timson in The Globe And Mail

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