How a Book Trilogy About Killing God Helped Restore My Faith
I'd already lost religion when I found His Dark Materials, but the series gave me a new way to believe
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As a child, I had no desire to kill God.
I liked the picture of Him—and in the religion of my childhood, it always was a Him—in my head: an avuncular humanoid drifting among yellow-green clouds, something like Einstein by way of Jim Henson, white-browed and warm and ready to listen. I liked the sensory rituals of religion: the dark wooden walls of the church, the organ’s gleaming pipes rising above the altar, the battered blue hymnals with their pleasantly steadfast Protestant harmonies. I liked the annual Christmas pageant, from the nursery class dressed as sheep to the sorrowful grandeur of a story in which the glory of salvation is birthed somewhere dirty and cold. I liked well enough what trickled into my awareness about Jesus, the stuff about love and kindness, and I liked more the sense of virtue and maturity I could access by pulling the Bible off the shelf.
I liked other things, too. The belief of childhood is promiscuous, the line porous between imagination and faith; the best game, after all, is the one you trick yourself into forgetting you made up. I played in a world populated with deities and demons from a hodgepodge of sources: the sanded-down version of the ancient Greek pantheon to which we introduce children, depicted in a big book with beautiful pencil illustrations; the heroes of Star Wars and Sailor Moon, stories not unlike the Christianity I knew in which love is elevated to the realm of magic; witches, especially as classified by Roald Dahl, whose definition spurred furtive lunchtime discussions about whether we had spotted a hint of blue around the teeth of our wicked gym teacher; and the myriad invisible creatures my friends and I willed ourselves into seeing, from girls trapped in gemstones to stray cats with mismatched eyes, always carefully described as having been not invented but found.
Growing up is not precisely a matter of abandoning this world. Rather, over time you find yourself planted more firmly on one side of the line, viewing the denizens of your personal mythology in relation to reality. You outgrow the habit of peeking under a dew-spattered leaf for traces of last night’s faeries even when no one is looking; your private companions become, perhaps, the characters in your stories. The Force is no longer a cosmic linkage between all living things but a shorthand for the discipline it takes to turn the other cheek. The gradual encroach of what we will one day know as adulthood settles myth into metaphor, and generally we miss the strength of our childhood convictions no more than we miss our baby teeth once lost.
And so it went for me, with one exception: I never suspected that growing up would take from me my belief in God. When it happened, it was a loss I felt like a wound that would not heal.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is a decent capsule summary of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which consists of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. You could also say: an action-packed adventure spanning the multiverse. A pointed critique of institutionalized religion and the legacy of imperial Christianity. A set of children’s novels inspired by Milton and quantum theory. A bittersweet recounting of first love found and lost. A subversive telling of the Fall, as in of man. It’s a story which awes less for its sprawl than for its intricacy, a story which includes armored bears, centuries-old witches, miniature spies who ride giant dragonflies, the ghosts of the underworld, vampiric spirits, and incorporeal angels, among others. But it begins with a child.
Lyra Belacqua lives in a world like and unlike ours. Oxford University exists, but within it is the fictional Jordan College in which she makes her home; there is electricity, though it’s called anbaric current, but no movies. It gradually becomes clear that the heightened global reach of a consolidated and self-protecting church has slowed the progress of science, or, as they know it, experimental theology. When we meet Lyra, she is, like many of children’s literature’s greatest heroes, not where she is supposed to be, having snuck into a forbidden room before a scholarly presentation led by her intimidating uncle. As Lyra waits out the meeting by hiding in a closet, we encounter two of the innovations most central to the books. The first are dæmons, closely linked animal counterparts embodying a piece of every human’s self; everyone has one, the idea goes, but unlike us the people of Lyra’s world can see and speak to theirs. The second is Dust: elementary particles, visible using special kinds of film, which fall from the sky, interacting with nothing but gathering thickly on people.
Dæmons and Dust are linked through one of the series’ major thematic concerns: the moment in which the child self begins to recede to make room for the adult. The dæmons of children change form on any whim, skittering around as mice or flying silently as moths; around the start of puberty, dæmons settle into a final form. It’s also at this time that humans begin to attract Dust, which drops occasionally on children but gravitates towards adults. There are many ways of identifying this dual transformation in real-world terms: it’s the age of novel bodily experiences and nascent rebellion, of exploding emotions and the first stirrings of conscious thought, of sweaty palms and puppy love. It was also, for me, the age at which I suffered my crisis of faith.
Often I tell it like a joke: Six years of Christian school made an atheist of me! It’s a good line, but misleading; it implies something like my mother’s Catholic school experience, tormented by nuns and spending Sundays kneeling and quaking in terror of hellfire and damnation. My school practiced a gentle Episcopalianism in which chapel talks were as likely to celebrate goal-setting or poetry as the particularities of the faith. I was not, in other words, traumatized out of faith.
Nor was I argued out of it, exactly, despite lively debates with my best friend over whether the concept of a male savior was inherently sexist. In fact, to this day I’ve yet to hear an argument against the existence of God I find any more convincing than the arguments in favor. Rather, I think the religious education I received accomplished what it set out to do: it encouraged me to examine seriously my own faith. In fifth grade, we studied the book of Genesis in Religious Knowledge and wrote reports on Greco-Roman gods in Social Studies. I asked myself earnestly the question: what had brought me to my God beyond the same accident of birth that had once led women to become priestesses of Zeus? Peering closely at the deepest parts of me — and I must emphasize that this is not a theological proposition but rather a description of one child’s heart — I found my answer: nothing.
And oh, how I looked. How I prayed and bargained and grasped for ideas which might restore my belief. How I searched for signs and felt in the dark for the same listening warmth I had once taken for granted. My reluctant atheism gave me no sense of superiority or pride in my intellect; to the extent that it separated me from others, it made me feel horribly alone. I had stepped into a world drained of comfort, of hope, of meaning. I stayed up at night rocked with a full-body terror of the approaching void, and wore myself anxious with the existential vertigo that accompanied the dissolution of my apparent moral foundation. What scared me most was the newfound emptiness of the world: without the invisible thread of faith that had once bound existence into something legible, what could reality be beyond an infinitude of atoms senselessly colliding? Where was I to find not only love, morality, and purpose but even a justification for seeking those things?
There’s a genre in which this state of mind recurs with some regularity: conversion narratives. The convert, reaching the end of a road of trials and exhausted by despair, picks up a Bible or meets a preacher or wanders into a sermon; then, having received the gospel, he feels the emptiness in him begin to heal, filling him with such joy that his life is forever changed. Well, I had already read the Bible and heard many sermons. Instead I met Lyra. But the ending holds up: I was never the same.
After years surrounded by a belief system to which I had long since lost access, I took high school as an opportunity to flee for more secular environs. In retrospect the magnitude of the transition stemmed from a host of things I was leaving behind — religion, sure, but also an insular community, plaid skirts, the chafing sense of being considered a known quantity, childhood itself. But at the time I had an easy line to explain my relief to my new friends: Listen, I went to Christian school, okay? It fit with the persona I was trying out: foul-mouthed and free-minded, artistic and ambitious, smugly disdainful and fond of what we in those days called snark. This version of me loved His Dark Materials in the distanced, intellectual way I was trying to love everything. Explaining why I’d named the books my favorites, I leaned into their more overtly unorthodox aspects, announcing they kill God! with a gleeful teenage thrill.
But when I go back to the kid who lay trembling in bed at the thought of what death could mean in a world without God, I know that’s not what she needed then. She needed what we always give to children in the dark: a story. The questions I was struggling with were not questions that could be answered with dispassionate reason. They were questions of purpose and meaning and what it meant to be alive — the same questions myth and metaphor have so often been called on to resolve or to illuminate. Pullman’s text resonated because he took as his material the stuff of myth. And like many myths, it was at heart the story of heroes.
Our first hero is Lyra: an orphan, eleven years old, rude, impatient, charismatic, fiercely loyal, quick to anger and deep in her love, stubborn, bright but incurious, bold, not always kind but basically decent, and prophesied to make a choice on which the fate of several universes will hinge. One of the academics to whose loose care she’s been entrusted calls her “a healthy, thoughtless child,” a phrase I love as a teacher of young children who worries often about the ill effects of premature self-consciousness on my pupils. The other, from our universe, is Will. Will is not a thoughtless child; growing up alone with a mother suffering from untreated mental illness, he’s learned to take care of her when she needs it while living with the constant anxiety that should her situation be found out, someone will come to take her away. He’s lonely but loyal, better than Lyra at thinking ahead but aching for the wholehearted friendship she can offer.
Pullman is not precious or preachy about what it takes to survive, and the tools Lyra and Will bring to the trials before them are the tools you will find in our oldest tales: wits and fists. Lyra, true to the resonances of her name, is a skilled and enthusiastic liar whose gifts for telling tales keep her and others alive in hostile territory. Will Parry, his name suggesting the force of mind to counter a blow, learned in the face of schoolyard ridicule for his mother’s troubles to fight like he means it; one of the first things he does is to kill an intruder in his home, an accident which nonetheless sets the course for the teeth-bared ferocity he brings to the fray. Together the two of them, fabulist and fighter, form a matched set out of Homer: a prepubescent Odysseus and Achilles.
In another trope inherited from myth, each receives a tool to aid them in their travels. Lyra complements her talents by using a golden disc named the alethiometer, from a Greek word sometimes translated as “truth,” which answers honestly any question posed by one who can read its complex symbolic system. Will bears a knife which can cut not only any physical substance but the space between atoms that opens a door between dimensions. Taken as a pair, these fantastical items offer exactly what I was craving so desperately when I found them: a path to a deeper truth, and the sharpness it takes to undo your reality and leave the world you know behind.
The Church of Lyra’s world interprets Dust as physical proof of original sin: evidence that humanity was scarred when the woman in the garden ate from the forbidden tree. Their obsession is that pivotal moment of becoming no longer quite a child, the moment which recapitulates for the individual the consequences of the Fall: knowledge and shame, toil and death. A small but powerful group begins a terrible experiment: they sever children from their dæmons before they have a chance to settle, hoping to free them from the burden of Dust. This operation renders adults unsettlingly placid and incurious; it leaves children hollowed out, dead in a few days’ time.
In the name of protecting children, they remove that which contains their deepest selves. Dæmons are linked to both the desire to receive and the need to give love; Lyra and her dæmon comfort themselves by comforting each other so often that she pities the loneliness of worlds like Will’s, where people can find themselves truly alone. They’re manifestations of identity; a dæmon settles at the moment you begin to know who you are. They’re connected to sexuality, seen most viscerally in the brutal shame and disgust Lyra feels when an agent of the Church breaks the taboo of touching her dæmon. And they’re a way of understanding: it’s Lyra’s dæmon who suggests, after the atrocity of the severed children, that if people will do such terrible things out of hatred for Dust, it must be the case that Dust is good.
It’s against this backdrop that angels, creatures of Dust, instruct a nun-turned-physicist named Mary that she “must play the serpent,” placing her in the crosshairs of a priest sent to assassinate her before she can precipitate another Fall. And it’s in this context that we learn the secret name the witches use for Lyra when they prophesy: Eve.
Years later I would find that David Foster Wallace in his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College had captured the dilemma in which I found myself:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
I could sense but not articulate this: that without some kind of framework I would be subject to a long inner unraveling. And this is what the books gave me: permission to worship.
It’s a funny thing to say about the most famously atheistic work of children’s literature. If you know nothing else about the His Dark Materials series, you may know that Lyra kills God (or allows him to die) and the book celebrates her for it. But the God of the books is in fact revealed to be no God at all but merely a very old angel, who pretended he was the Creator of all things in order gain power. A straightforward attack on religion, as the books are sometimes accused of being, would leave the story there: God as a wicked and false idol needing to be destroyed. But Pullman’s myth is more nuanced than that; when Will and Lyra find him, “the Authority” is an old and feeble creature, imprisoned by a younger and more ambitious angel, shaking with terror in a crystal cell. Their impulse, knowing only that he is old and afraid, is to help him; his death comes not as a violent attack but a gentle dissolution as he follows their kindness into the wind, scattering such that “their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.”
Wonder and relief: this was how the story healed me. Wonder first at its rich texture, from the corridors of Jordan College to the witches of the north, the alethiometer’s prophecies and the dignity of the armored bears, cliff-ghast attacks and abandoned cities by the sea. These imaginings are imperfect; the author Lo Kwa Mei-en has delineated some of the stereotypes that mark the text. People of color are often exoticized, and the homogeneity of the main cast juxtaposes disappointingly with its ambitions: we’re meant to believe the fate of not just one but all universes hinges on the choices of some white people from England? Even so, the vibrancy of the world is its own argument for the beauty of life. When Lyra and Will, following in many mythic footsteps, journey to the land of the dead, they are struck by the colorless stagnation of the ghosts. They decide to free them — a freedom which will dissolve the forms they have, but return them to the fabric of life. Listen to how one ghost convinces her brethren to follow her to this undoing:
Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.
Reading this for the first time, it was like someone had reached into the abyss inside me and gently sutured it closed. And so came relief: that life on its own was enough to love. That poetry, beauty, grace — these things could still give shape to the roiling world. That there were still things worth worshipping, things like courage and truth and kindness and love, and whatever else aided the work of spreading joy and easing pain. In crafting a universe both godless and divine, Pullman freed me to see my own in exactly those terms.
After their journeyings, Will and Lyra come across Mary, who has befriended a settlement of wheel-riding quadrupeds whose existence is threatened by the slow leaching of Dust from their world. Mary tells the story of why she stopped being a nun: she met a man at a conference, and remembered what it was once to have danced with a boy she liked. And when she looked for the belief that would justify abandoning the world of these feelings — I know this well — she found nothing there.
So Mary has played her part: she’s gestured toward the place where knowledge takes root and blooms into the sky. And Lyra plays hers: in a moment alone with Will, she lifts to his mouth a little red fruit, and the two of them fall — into love, into kisses and touching each other’s dæmons, into the joy of knowing themselves and another in this new way. It’s a knowledge powerful enough to bring Dust drifting back to where it belongs, covering them in its shine until they appear “the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.”
This is the trilogy’s most radical idea: that original sin is not a burden but our birthright. That Eve is a holy figure. That the acceptance of labor and death is the price we pay for cherishing knowledge and pleasure. That we should cherish these things, the wild abundance of the world and how beautiful it becomes looked at truly.
Like Eve’s choice, Lyra’s comes with a price: she loses the ability to read the alethiometer. An angel confirms: what once she did by grace, she must now regain, if she wants to, from a lifetime of work. Her reading will be better then, when it comes from “conscious understanding,” but it will be long before she reaches it. The healthy, thoughtless child has become — must choose to become — a deliberate, thoughtful adult. As a kid this made me rage; now it means more to me than almost anything. It’s a lesson I come back to whenever I fall prey to the idea that effort and uncertainty are evidence of injustice rather than proof that I’m alive.
I think I always would have come to love this story best of all: the story that teaches us that the best things in life are worth the effort with which they are entwined, that shows us the pains of growth are better than the false security of fantasy and fear. That tells us nothing real can be as terrible as a life wasted running from the world. I think I always would have come to seek this story again and again, because it’s the story I am always needing to learn. But Lyra told it to me first: how to brace yourself for the lifelong project of finding your way to the truth.
Some books earn their place in your heart by telling you the story you’ve already lived. Others become cherished because, through some happy accident of fortune, they reach you in time to guide you through the next stretch of your path. And sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, you find just the right book at just the right time for it to do both.
The Amber Spyglass was released on October 10, 2000. Three months later, two things happened which ended the childhood to which the book had provided such a sweet coda: I turned thirteen, and George W. Bush became president. Coming of age in the political climate engendered by that administration shaped the development of everything from my political consciousness to my sense of humor. It also deepened my relationship with Pullman’s story, which gained new shades of relevance with every upsetting headline.
When debates raged over non-questions like the personhood of stem cells or the existence of climate change, I thought of experimental theology and the limits denial places on human ingenuity. When I learned about purity balls or the push for sex education that included neither sex nor education, I thought about the Magisterium severing children from their daemons in an attempt to save them from the messiness of the adult world. When I read a description of what one journalist called the faith-based presidency, in which a “writ of infallibility” underscored the mounting death toll overseas, I thought about the assassin priest receiving preemptive absolution to murder Mary in God’s name. And during all those eight long years in which I tried to develop both a nascent feminist consciousness and a sexual self while learning repeatedly the extent to which my body was culturally marked as grotesque, impure, and subject to the governance of other people’s laws, I thought again and again about Lyra and Eve.
It helped, to recognize in these new dangers currents I understood were not unique to the present moment. To have learned first as myth what I was coming to reckon with as politics. It fortified me to have absorbed a story which celebrated pleasure and knowledge and complexity as things worth defending in a world which feared them. And it grounds me now, as despair threatens to swell like the seas, to remember again that we are fighting new battles on ancient ground. It helps still to return to the way this story restored my faith by showing me what my faith could be: not the source of all answers, but a tool for finding them. Something which frees rather than constricts; something flexible, adaptable, deeply of the world instead of always set apart, growing and changing as I grow and change. It helps to remember what I chose to believe in: truth, and love, and that anything is worthwhile which works in some way to heal the world.