Philip Pullman on the futility and evil of banning books

Just in time for Banned Books Week, here's Philip "Golden Compass" Pullman on why book bans -- especially religiously inspired book bans -- are so futile and wrong:
Because they never learn. The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone. Why don't the censors realise this?...

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...

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.

The censor's dark materials (via Futurismic)


  1. From the article:

    “The box office suffered, but the book sales went up – a long way up, to my gratification.”

    O RLY? I thought the movie tanked at the box office because the critics found it wanting.

    Here’s a summary of the article, save you the click…

    “Blah, blah, blah, The Golden Compass, blah, blah, blah box office, blah, blah, blah, religion is evil.”

    Bitter much, Mr Pullman?

  2. So Al, you’re telling us not to read an article about banning books?

    I think you’ve done a wonderful job of showing just how wrong-headed censorship can be.

  3. I just do not understand the urge to censor, especially in a country with free speech. If you don’t like the content of a book, you can openly criticize it.

    If an anti-religion stance were as ridiculous as some of these censors think it is, then they should be able to point out all its flaws and make most people realize it was ridiculous by using logic. Censoring something is just admitting that it’s powerful and that you can’t refute it with actual arguments.

    Also, could someone explain to me how the book about the gay penguins was listed as “anti-ethnic” and “sexist”? I’ve never read it, but I have a hard time believing penguins can be “anti-ethnic.”

  4. From the article:

    “Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom.”

    He says nothing about religion being evil, Pullman is just saying that it shouldn’t have any formal power in society:

    “But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed.”

  5. #5:

    “I hate the Jews SO MUCH!” said Godwin the Penguin to his tuxedoesqued lover.

    “I agree!” he replied, “Let’s slap around some inferior women — that is to say, ANY woman — and then have carnal relations…. OF A SODOMIC NATURE!”

  6. I remember reading an analysis of censorship complaints that noted an unexpectedly large number of challenges to library books that cited “sexism” as one of the books’ objectionable features. The researcher concluded that this was not necessarily because outraged feminists were trying to remove books with misogynist stereotypes; rather, it appeared that a large number of book challengers were choosing “sexism” from a list because they thought it meant sexual content.

  7. Trevel, that made me literally laugh out loud. Actually it was more like a snort or a guffaw. But still.

    Zippyspincycle, you’ve just lowered my faith in humanity a little bit more. How stupid can people possibly be?! I suppose that “sexism” label makes a bit more sense to me now, though. Conservatives have never been too concerned about sexism before (minus Sarah Palin), and the outraged feminist blogs on which I spend the majority of my online time are rather anti-censorship.

  8. @ZIPPYSPINCYCLE: Sexy, what’s wrong with sexy?

    If I could do a British accent through type that would be funnier. I guess there’s a thin line between clever and stupid.

  9. I tend to be rather uncomfortable with the heavily anti-religion perspective many times because it becomes such a staunch belief in itself. In short, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is either a.) a bigot or b.) a retard… sounds like some of the religion that is being criticized to me.

    The real meat in the article is simply “Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom.” The power of religion is very useful for the application of helping people in their day to day lives… look at the examples of charity and open-handed support that can be found. The difficulty, as pointed out by our forefathers, is simply that religion and politics make poor bedfellows.

  10. Waaal, I loved His Dark Materials, the movie was OK, I agree about power corrupting an’ all, but I will make my usual objection to religion being unfairly singled out as the epitome of such evils… really, the worst kind of human social structure is cat fanciers. First, they form clubs, and then they publish magazines, and the next thing you know they´ve taken over the grange. You think probably the people destroying nations and economies are bad, or maybe the CEOs of big corporations with jets, but cat fanciers have FUR LINED jets. ItÅ› insidious, and itÅ› entering your neighborhood like a big penetrating violating thing, because only cat fancy makes doing evil feel quite so good.


  11. Wait, that article was about banning books? I must have missed that…

    The Catholic League is completely awful. I hate that Donohue acts like some sort of mouthpiece for Catholics as a Catholic myself, though I don’t think he caused the movie to fail. But is Pullman really saying that religion or religious groups shouldn’t exert power? Can he define religion or power in a way that doesn’t make that statement even more repressive than the evils he wants to eliminate? After all, the And Tango Makes Three book exerts power on its readers in an attempt to make a case for non-traditional families, an issue that is not exclusively religious but certainly involves many religious systems. The book, then, did have something close to a “religious viewpoint.” How is Pullman’s own article not exerting the power of his own religious viewpoint? What is the difference between religion and ideology, if as Pullman says that his criticism has nothing to do with the supernatural or the general truth of religion? I know he wants to make the book criticisms look ridiculous because it’s just about animals – except the book isn’t. Neither is Animal Farm. Do communists have no right to critique it, then, or tell other communists they should avoid it? What about articles that needlessly insult the entire American public? Should I tell my countrymen to ignore Pullman’s article? Does that count as censorship, or is that reserved for public institutions?

    It’s probably beside the point that most contemporary American “book bannings” and “book censorings” are not by religious leaders – they’re almost always by concerned parents, even if the parents are often religious. I’d wager that the penguin book was attacked by such, rather than any rabbi or priest or mullah. Does he then want to eliminate individual criticism? Or just criticism from religious people? Nor is any argument made for whether books can be limited with regard to age appropriateness or for the rights of parents with regard to their children. Most challenged books in contemporary America, including the penguin book, fall in to that line. Most “banned books,” for that matter, have something controversial to say, and attempted bannings stimulate discussion about those topics.

    Pullman’s article does a disservice to banned books week. Instead of celebrating a banned book or books, he ironically finds it ridiculous that the challenged penguin book (and banned in exactly one school district) has anything to say – yet the most challenged books are so generally because they are most challenging and have a lot to say. Instead of delving into any complex issues or critiques, he gives the usual (though no less true for it) saw that banning is futile and often makes books more popular. If that’s really so, shouldn’t he be calling for more bans? Wasn’t the ban great for his own book? Don’t artists these days sometimes intentionally stir up controversy or celebrate their own censoring as more proof of how edgy they are (take a look at the new poster for Zack and Miri Make a Porno, for example)? If censorship is really so terrible, why do its critics generally seem to think it’s not, just that it makes ya look stupid? I’m against censorship myself, but his thesis seems to contradict itself.

    And instead of actually, really talking about banned books, he spends the whole time giving his usual lines about religion. I’ve read great articles and discussions by him – I wish this was one of them.

  12. Are far as religion goes, I’m agin it.

    In the long run, attempts to control people or their thoughts have been futile except when involving religion. The people in power know censorship or any other type of control is futile, but they are not in it for the long run.

    Censorship serves many short term goals, not the least of which is shielding children from opposing thoughts until their beliefs have been embedded and the child continues to believe, on their own, in the face of overwhelming, contradicting evidence.

    Religious indoctrination begins at such an early age, an educated adult can believe the world is 6,000 years old, angels surround them, and we all live forever and ever.

    Our ability to believe without evidence, makes hope possible. The problem is this important and necessary ability has been exploited by religion, leaving our world irreparably divided.

  13. Roach, I’m not sure it really makes sense to compare that penguin book and Animal Farm. The penguin book is about what some penguins in a zoo actually did in real life. The authors are just trying to teach a lesson based on that event. And though the issue of gay rights is a complex and challenging one, the book itself is not intellectually challenging and does not have a lot to say. It is a children’s book with a simple moral: non-traditional families are okay.

    I mean, some male penguins really did raise a penguin chick. That happened. The penguins weren’t taking a religious stances because, as Pullman pointed out, penguins can’t do that. They are penguins. Wanting to censor penguin behavior so that it doesn’t corrupt children is ridiculous. Obviously not all religious people would have the urge to censor that, but “religious viewpoint” is one of the explicit reasons the book has been challenged. And until someone convinces me that it’s actually anti-ethnic and sexist, I will assume that those are implicit “religious viewpoint” challenges as well.

    I’d also add that criticism and censorship are not the same thing. Telling someone not to read a book because it is objectionable is not the same thing as making it unavailable to see. Christians are free to critique books about kinda-gay penguins, but they are not free to remove those books from the library.

  14. Censorship is not a black and white issue. Texts, speech, are not simply either censored or uncensored. Every author creates in an environment where what they feel they are able to say is always, necessarily, influenced and adaptable by all sorts of pressures.

    Would I write a novel glorifying and promoting (for example) the acts of a child abuser? Even if I could find a publisher, and no laws prevented me, there are social pressures that influence my own feelings about what is acceptable and what is taboo. These things are as much a form of censorship as a formal institution red-stamping a work. Self-censorhip is an interesting and overlooked entity.

    “Censorship=bad” is a simplistic view to take and “censorship=sometimes bad, sometimes good” is not much better. Critically analysing how and why there are social influences upon what we can say and what we want to say needs to go far beyond this.

  15. I thought the purpose of banning books was to affirm the power and identity of your particular group, and affirm your own power within that group. I never thought it had anything to do with stopping people from reading the book.

    Personally I enjoyed the Golden Compass movie… found myself musing about how a fight between Aslan and an armoured bear would go.

  16. Though I suppose the same could be said of the motives of Pullman and Doctorow in shaking their fingers at book-banners like this… not a comfortable conclusion for me, because I’d be cheering for the bear ;-)

  17. This is essentially two different topics– censorship in general and censorship of particular viewpoints.

    Let’s put it this way– if the KKK wrote a children’s book purporting the superiority of whitey, would you object to it being in your local elementary school library? Particularly if it proved popular with students, who tended to adopt supremacist ideologies after reading it?
    Is the objection, in short, to the imposition of religion or to censorship in general?

  18. Roach @14: That’s quite a confusion of meaning you have there, between criticism and censorship. They aren’t the same thing; one isn’t even an extreme form of the other, however you frame your argument.

    If I criticise a book, it’s still available for you to read and form your own opinion (including an opinion of my opinion). If I ban it, not only can you not read it, but you might even be denied any knowledge that the book exists, if the banning is done properly. And if you have an opinion about my opinion, keep it to yourself, else I decide to ban you.

  19. I personally believe that children’s books should be kept out of public libraries if it’s content is meant to teach anything for or against any religion. Teaching religion should be left to the child’s parents. I also don’t believe intelligent design should be taught in schools (different topic I suppose). My children went to a Christian school and many books that I had read as a child were left out of it’s library – so I bought them for them myself. Thank goodness both my kids love to read just as their mom and I do.

    I was raised in a Christian atmosphere and have gone to church all of my life and I’ve read pretty much every type of literature written, and I don’t think anything has effected my feelings about religion more than my love of Science (and it’s many branches). I’m sure everyone wants their child to have a good understanding about Science. But it seems the more you learn about how the universe works, the more you think there might be a little more to life, the universe and everything -than what the Bible teaches. That’s one of the biggest struggles I’ve had while sitting through a Sunday class and the preacher is trying to teach some point from a book that has been rewritten how many times? -off topic again I guess – but my point is – A parent has to realize that unless their children are raised in a completely sheltered manner – they will be exposed to things that will definitely be against what you want your children to believe. Some books and some aspects of life are just so wonderful – that to deny your children it’s experience is simply a shame. I’m not saying all books should be acceptable, but I don’t think a book about a penguin’s alleged alternate lifestyle is going to change your child’s values any more than their science, history, or classic literature books.

  20. The rigid distinction between political and religious matters is not a particularly old or fundamental one. Organized religion started out as a state-sponsored phenomenon in the earliest human city-states of the Fertile Crescent, and the mutual support and association – or complete conflation – of temporal and spiritual authority has continued, off and on, ever since.

    Western theosophy – moral theory, abstract theology, religious aesthetics, personal spirituality, etc. – is an outgrowth of institutional religion, not the other way around.

    Religion evolved from pre-civilization spirituality and witchcraft to be an instrument of political power and social conformity. Trying to separate politics from a system that formed under the pressures of the dawn of class hierarchy and socioeconomic organization is worse than futile.

  21. 21 – Nelson.C – I wasn’t intending to say that censorship is the same as criticism, sorry. Since Pullman begin his article (and I began my paragraph) with the Catholic League telling people not to see his movie – which was in no way banned, obviously. The problem began with Pullman linking the two, and I unfortunately continued the confusion. It does seem that Pullman sets up a spurious link between religious criticism and religious banning in his article, as religious leaders speaking from the pulpit against certain ideas or works are also criticizing rather than banning. And like I said in my post, very few books nowadays are really banned – most are merely challenged, boycotted or criticized.

    #16 – Lauren O. – In a certain sense, it’s true that these are merely actions some animals took. However, these actions were then put in a book by two authors with a viewpoint, doubtless carefully chosen words were written by those authors in the book, hopefully particular photos were chosen, and then it was packaged for children. After all, why write a book about two male penguins raising a baby if not to make a point? The zookeeper in the book even says that the penguins “Must be in love.” Again, I think it does a disservice to the authors to act as though they were “simply reporting facts” and not attempting to make a point or to teach children anything.

  22. Just had to share that the Guardian article referred to produces: “This article has been removed as our copyright has expired.”

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