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Philip Pullman: Atheists can learn from Jesus without believing he was the son of God

World Humanist Congress speaker and "His Dark Materials" author Philip Pullman talks with RNS about atheism, Humanist funerals, and what atheists can learn from Jesus.

Author Philip Pullman. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Chris Boland/
Author Philip Pullman. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Chris Boland

Author Philip Pullman. Photo by Chris Boland/

The bestselling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, atheist Philip Pullman has received a great deal of attention—and criticism—for the religious references in his work.

For years, a number of Christian organizations have called for boycotts of His Dark Materials and film adaptation The Golden Compass; the UK’s Catholic Herald called the books “truly the stuff of nightmares” and “worthy of the bonfire.”

But Pullman has weathered these controversies and emerged as one of the most acclaimed and successful writers in the world. He has been awarded the Carnegie Medal and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and last year he was named President of the UK’s Society of Authors—a position first held by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

A longtime supporter of the British Humanist Association, Pullman will address the World Humanist Congress this week. In advance of his appearance, we spoke about atheism, religious critics, Humanist funerals, what atheists can learn from Jesus, and why he thinks that kindness is more important than intellectual coherence.

Chris Stedman: Do you consider yourself a Humanist?

Philip Pullman: I don’t like to call myself anything. People have called me a Humanist, but they’ve also called me several other less complimentary names. I need to be able to imagine myself into many different worldviews, and I feel curious about all of them. What does it feel like to be a Theosophist, for example? Naming or classifying or defining anyone is also a form of limiting them and forbidding them to change or grow or move. I like to have a certain fluidity.

At the same time, there are certain values that I’d hope would be mine whether I was a Humanist or not: tolerance, justice, rationality, intellectual curiosity and so on. We sometimes see reason exalted as a great virtue, and so it is, but I’d like to say a word for kindness, which in the end is a greater thing than intellectual coherence.

CS: Why should people get involved in Humanist organizations?

PP: Humanist organizations can show how important questions have been posed and answered by clear thinkers. That’s a great help. So is the provision of Humanist celebration and ceremonial. When my mother-in-law died she had a Humanist funeral, which was beautifully done. And most important of all, in countries where freedom of thought and expression don’t exist, or do exist but are under constant threat, Humanist organizations can provide immensely valuable support.

CS: What will you be talking about at the World Humanist Congress?

PP: Since the only thing I know about is writing, I’ll be talking about everything from the perspective of the writer. And my focus will be on responsibility, the imagination, and freedom. So naturally I’ve called my talk ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’.

CS: What inspired The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ? What can nontheists learn from religious figures?

PP: One part of the inspiration for it came from my realization that in the Epistles of Paul, the writer uses the name ‘Jesus’ thirty times, but ‘Christ’ a hundred and fifty or so. Clearly he felt there was a difference, and the ‘Christ’ part was more important. It’s not impossible to believe that there was a man called Jesus, who preached and had followers and was crucified by the Romans for what were basically political reasons. To go by what we read in the Gospels, he was a man with immense gifts of narrative and imagery, and a moralist of considerable power.

We can learn a lot from him without having to believe he was the son of God. It was the Christ part that always felt unbelievable. I wanted to dramatize the difference I felt there was between the man Jesus and the myth Christ.

CS: You seem to be much more critical of the abuses carried out or excused by religious institutions than you are of belief itself. Why?

PP: That’s exactly right. That is what I believe. I’ve always thought that it matters much more what you do than what you think: doing something good for a bad reason is better than doing something bad for a good one. I can’t get cross with anyone for believing something that sounds crazy: I’m interested to hear about it. But when you say that your belief entitles you to throw people in prison or kill them for believing something different, that’s when it gets dangerous. Religion and political power should have no connection whatever.

CS: What do you think of people who accuse you or your works of being anti-Christian or anti-religious?

PP: One of the things I’m going to say to this Congress is that reading is a profoundly democratic thing. Anyone is entitled to read my books in any way they like. I am not going to argue with them about what the book does or doesn’t mean: in a way, it’s none of my business what they think. My job is to write as clearly as I can in the first place, not to tell readers that they’ve got it all wrong, I didn’t mean that, I meant this.

CS: What do you hope that people will take away from your writing? How are your Humanist values reflected in your work?

PP: I’ve said this before, but it’s a good gag, so I’ll say it again: What I want people to feel most strongly, on finishing one of my books, is the desire to go out at once and buy my next one. As for the second part of your question: I think it’s impossible to do anything long and difficult without your values showing all the way through it.

CS: The New Yorker has described you as “one of England’s most outspoken atheists.” How do you feel about that description? How have friends and loved ones responded to your comments on atheism and religion?

PP: Well, I dislike being labelled, as I’ve said above. But some labels are unavoidable: I am an atheist, and that’s it. As for friends and loved ones, they’ve long since given up expecting anything else from me.

CS: How do you think atheists and theists can better understand one another?

PP: Never mind theists and atheists: I just wish everyone would listen a bit more and talk a bit less.

CS: What are you working on right now?

PP: It’s a long novel that is a sort of successor to ‘His Dark Materials’. I say successor and not sequel, because it’s not a continuation of that story, which is over: it’s another story in the same world.