I’m not often a fan of fiction. I recently finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and had a mixed reaction. But I find a lot to like in Pullman’s underlying philosophy. And the more I read of others’ negative reactions to the trilogy, the more I find myself drawn to its central message. Organized religion finds lots not to like about Pullman’s books, and they’re absolutely right. They should be threatened by these books, because they strike right at the heart of everything that’s wrong with much of religious philosophy.
I became very interested in Pullman’s vivid description of what it is like to have one’s daemon “severed”, and in reading more about it I came across this blog.
What I’m about to write is totally unfair; the author of this blog is probably a fine person, a deep thinker, a good parent, and all the rest. But his words about Pullman’s book repulse me in (I suspect) a way exactly opposite the blog author’s intent. Here’s what he wrote:
“In a sense we are all severed children, cut off from God. The Incarnation has made it possible for us to begin to re-establish the connection. The choice is there, for everyone and for all time. The mere knowledge that this is possible, and the faith to embark on the process, is enough to undo many of the effects of the severing; it accounts for the serenity which is one of the things we always sense in someone who seems to be far advanced along the path.
“The truly severed, those who most resemble Pullman’s severed children—lost, empty, half-dead creatures—are those who deny the very possibility of what they need to be whole. Or, in other words, those who believe what Pullman preaches. Because it is a necessity for us to accept the reality of the spirit in order to be whole human beings, Pullman and his fellow atheists are like miners trapped in a cave-in, breathing stale air which will soon be exhausted of oxygen, and in delirium denying that there is or could be such a thing as fresh and wholesome air.”
Speaking as a lost, empty, half-dead creature (who is right now looking at a beautiful blue sky and wondering how anything can be so perfect), all I can say to the author is, “Can you hear yourself? Can you hear the arrogance and presumption?” But that’s not really what I want to write about. What I want to write about is the twisting of concepts that I’ve found in my own limited experience to be so representative of all that religion tries to do.
In His Dark Materials, the idea of the daemon is you. Not some otherworldly spirit, not some generous gift from somewhere else. It is you. Your hopes, dreams, fears, loves, aspirations, the thing that makes you yourself and not someone else. The loss of your daemon is the loss of your identity.
And this is what religion asks.
Religion (my religion, anyway, the religion I grew up with) tells us that what’s good is actually bad. If you love your child more than God, you’re a sinner. God might test you by ordering you to kill that child. Abraham loved God more than Isaac, and was duly rewarded. I (and you, too, and every good and decent person I know, I suspect) would have failed that test, and been punished by God.
Religion tells us that knowledge is bad. Eve chose knowledge, instead of eternal infancy and ignorance, and she and Adam were punished by God. Read Genesis 3:22. God didn’t want their eyes opened. God wanted to keep them ignorant forever.
Religion tells us that doubt is bad. Thomas demanded proof that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus gave him proof, then chided him, praising those who believed without proof.
Religion tells us to submit, to give ourselves to God, to abandon worldly things. The world is sinful, no good, impure. Turn your back on it, and you’ll be rewarded. Later.
Look carefully at this list. Don’t love anything, even your own children, more than God. Don’t seek knowledge. Don’t doubt. Don’t enjoy life.
In other words, be severed.
In His Dark Materials the Church decided to try severing children to save them from Original Sin. In our world, religion does the same thing, metaphorically. Then (and here’s the really clever trick) religion tries to give you this false daemon they call God.
Read carefully the quote above. Notice how the concept of the daemon is so cleverly turned upside-down. You start off severed. Only faith in God can make you whole again. Anyone who tells you different is just, what was it? Oh, yes, “like miners trapped in a cave-in, breathing stale air which will soon be exhausted of oxygen, and in delirium denying that there is or could be such a thing as fresh and wholesome air.”
I deny no such thing. I say the air is fresh and wholesome. Where the author sees a cave-in, I see life: messy, imperfect, beautiful life. We start off whole, we humans. We start off with brains and eyes and ears to take in all that is around us, starstuff contemplating the stars. We start off (hopefully) with parents and community who give us the tools the learn, the freedom to make mistakes, and the support to recover from those mistakes. We start off with choices. Think of the power in that! Is there any greater freedom than the freedom to choose?
Some choose a religious path, or an artistic path. I have chosen a path that helps me see the beauty and wonder of the natural world. All these paths are perfectly valid in their own way, of course. The tragedy I see is in denying the choice itself. Don’t let others choose your path. Don’t let them use fear, intimidation, and empty promises of something better around the corner to fool you into not trusting yourself. Joseph Campbell used to say “follow your bliss.” He could just as well have said, “follow your daemon.”
In our world we can’t see our daemons. But they’re there. We all have them, and we know them well. They’re the voice you hear as you stand in the shower, contemplating your day. They’re the joy you feel on a beautiful blue-sky day. They’re the tears that well up at the end of a Hallmark commercial. They’re the whisper in your head when you hear a ridiculous story, saying “come on!” You know your daemon. Your daemon is YOU!
Don’t let them sever your daemon. You have the power to choose. Use it.