Philip Pullman on censorship and free speech -- pithy and wonderful

Philip Pullman, addressing an audience at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, was asked about whether his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, was offensive. Here's his reply:

"It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That's all I have to say on that subject."

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Thanks, Brian!)


  1. Amen! I agree wholeheartedly with every word Pullman said in that clip.

    However, I’m not sure if what he said really answered the question he was asked. I didn’t interpret the question as: “How dare you write something that I find offensive?! Your book ought to be banned!” Rather, I interpreted the question as asking: “Given the fact that some people are bound to be turned off by the title of your book, why did you choose that particular title?” It seemed to me like an honest inquiry into the thought process behind the writer’s craft rather than a thinly-veiled cry of “j’accuse!”

    1. Rather than turning people off reading the book, with the controversial title, I think Mr Pullman has pulled off a wonderful bit of reverse psychology, in that those who are most outraged by the title are more likely to buy it to be even more offended, and back their right to complain.

      There is nothing easier to deflate than a complaint about something that the complainer has no first hand knowledge of.

    2. Well, Pullman wasn’t actually asked a question; he was told flat-out that he had said an “awful thing.” In that context his response is dead on.

      1. @Praline: You’re right. I just re-listened to the question; and you’re absolutely right. I was mistaken. For some reason I had mis-remembered what the questioner had said. I guess the first time I listened to it, his comment sounded as if it were merely a preface to a question about why that particular title was chosen; and my mind must have filled in the blanks. But, given what the questioner actually said (rather than what I imagined he was about to say next), you are absolutely correct that Pullman’s answer was spot-on appropriate. I should have re-listened to the question before I posted my earlier comment instead of relying on my (obviously addled) memory. Sorry.

        1. sapere_aude, you just admitted you were wrong in an internet forum. You responded to a criticism by checking your data personally, you changed your mind, explained why, and thanked the person responsible for bringing you to a better understanding of what went on.

          That’s like, unheard of! You are clearly an actual human being and not an ideologically pre-programmed robot. What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you realize there is no place for your kind on the Internets?

          Seriously, though – kudos to you, my friend. Forums without people like you are just noise.

      2. Well, Pullman wasn’t actually asked a question; he was told flat-out that he had said an “awful thing.” In that context his response is dead on.

        That’s what I get for reading the written summary instead of watching the actual video. I take back my earlier comment also.

  2. Surely the asker, as a good Christian, would have forgiven Pullman any offence and, additionally, turned the other cheek?

    Got to love it when people cherry pick their religious observances.

  3. @gotshot
    It wasn’t a joke. That was part of the point. He has a right to write something utterly serious and utterly offensive, and other people have the right to make a joke about it, or to get angry about it. They don’t have the right to stop him. That was his point– not that people shouldn’t be offended (even by jokes), but that their offense does not, and should not, overrule his freedom of speech.

  4. That was really well said. It is possibly the best and most succinct description of freedom of speech as it is currently enjoyed throughout most of western society. My hat is off to Mr. Pullman. I sincerely hope that freedom is never taken for granted. It was hard won.

  5. The best part is watching the video with the “transcribe audio” feature turned on: “…but no one has the right to live without being shot.” Sir, I salute your equal devotion to America’s second amendment as well as its first.

  6. I agree with every word of Pullman’s response, but that doesn’t change the fact that he never actually gave a direct answer to the question he was asked.

    “Do you have a right to say this?” is a different question entirely than “did you say this with the intent of offending people?”

  7. Start with His Dark Materials Trilogy. The Golden Compass movie nowhere near did it justice. Amazing, shocking, terrifying and thought provoking series. Love love love it.

  8. Being offensive might seem to some to be a brave move, but the more cynical might suggest it’s becoming a rather blunt marketing ploy — although I doubt Pullman is among them. I think everyone should have the right to be offensive, but I much prefer it when they mean it.

  9. I’m not going to lie, ever since I saw The Empire Strikes Back at an impressionable age, the word “Scoundrel” just sounds like the epitome of sex appeal to me. I’m pretty sure Pullman wasn’t aiming for sexy Jesus, but that’s what he’s got.

    1. Re: scoundrel=>sexy: I am so glad I’m not the only one who had that reaction!

      I heart Pullman’s speech here. Clear, concise, unambiguous, unapologetic. Bravo.

      As to why an athiest would write about the Christian mythos: because he’s soaking in it! Why might any author, believer or non, might find fertile ground in the mythological underpinnings of the society in which she lives?

  10. I rarely get offended. When I do, it’s a welcome surprise, for it makes me think. If you don’t like thinking, I can see that being offended would be uncomfortable.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment but it’s not necessarily a good defence here. Just because no one has the right not to be offended, doesn’t mean that Mr Pullman has the right to offend with impunity and without repercussion.

    If the choice of title is more to do with a cynical marketing ploy (bear with me guys; these things happen) than with artistic intent, then Pullman is guilty of knowingly causing offence for little more than to shift a few more units. Sure he has a right to do this, it’s just not a very nice thing to do.

    Idiots will always look for offence where none was meant. And pansies will always take offence where it’s impossible not to cause any. But bastards aim to offend just for the shock value and the column inches.

    I’m not accusing Pullman of anything, but I do hope his lofty defence is backed up by solid reasoning for choosing such a title, otherwise it’s worthless.

    1. Mt Pullman has the right to be offensive, buta gentleman would think twice before exercising that right.

      1. Nick, there’s a difference between being offensive and creating something that others take offense to. If Mr. Pullman has written a book (or, in this case, a title, because I sincerely doubt that those that are expressing outrage have yet to read this book) that others find offensive that is entirely their problem.

    2. Your comment reflects exactly what I feel about Pullman’s statement. I was having an argument with my boyfriend over the statement because I couldn’t get him to see the contradiction (meant or not) between Pullman’s assertion and the definition of freedom of speech. I’m not good in expressing myself (specially in english) and your comment was right spot-on.
      You saved my evening.

  12. An impassioned defence of free speech from Pullman which really brought the house down and earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. We recorded the fascinating event in full – follow our twitter at /enhancededition to discover when it goes live.

    You can also check out the iPhone app of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, featuring the full text, synced-up audiobook (read by Pullman himself!) and exclusive video content – plus much more – at

  13. Mr Pullman just got my £9.99.

    See publishers, talking sense CAN be profit making…

    Awesome response, hope the questioner felt suitably chastened

  14. The Guardian in the UK has an extract –

    ‘Once, in a town Jesus had not visited before and where his followers were little known, Christ got into conversation with a woman. She was one of the prostitutes Jesus made welcome, but she had not gone in to dinner with the rest of them. When she saw Christ on his own, she said “Would you like to come to my house?”

    Knowing what sort of woman she was, and realising that no one would see them, he agreed.’

  15. I have to say that I fully agree with Mr Pullman. As a (very new) author myself I worry about whether using demons and some Christian references in my own book (The Last Seal) might cause offence in some quarters. But as Pullman says folk can decide what they want to read and what not too. NO one has the right to stop books (barring blatantly racist, or illegal subjects)
    Richard Denning (Author The Last Seal)

  16. As a Christian I hate even the idea of this book, but the man definately deserves admiration for that fantastic reply. The world would be a better place for everyone if people took that sentiment to heart.

  17. hear hear! one of the most articulate and succinct arguments in defence of free speech i’ve heard in a while (ever?). downloading it onto my iphone as we speak!

  18. Pullman is great. On a side note, I went to,the book’s website; while there I was wondering if the .com version was the U.S. publishers site. No, some christian book publisher bought the domain and posted a video for anti-atheist/pro-yay-God books. I assume they are trying to “trick” people who are on the fence about the existence of God into listening to their side of the argument. Subterfuge is apparently a very christian value. Unbelievable, literally.

  19. I’ve checked on Amazon UK and US. “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” is available for purchase and pre-order respectively.

    Therefore, when Mr. Pullman says (correctly) “No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read.” I conclude that four of the five “rights” mentioned are moot.

    If on the other hand Mr. Pullman wishes to be insulated from the (non-physical) responses of those he has offended, I suggest he learn to “suck it up”. He certainly is not the first writer ever to attract hate mail from fundamentalists.

    1. But Mr. Pullman’s response made it clear he had no problem with responses/hate mail from fundamentalists.

      As Salman Rushdie said, when asked if he’d written SATANIC VERSES deliberately: ‘Of course. How can one NOT write a book deliberately?’

    2. @Notary Sojac

      why would he, as you say – “wish to be insulated from the (non-physical) responses of those he has offended”?

      He said himself: “You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book”

      Maybe YOU should “learn to suck it up” – in your own words.

  20. I couldn’t agree more with Pullman in his positive declaration of the importance of free speech and our lack of any right to live without being shocked. However, my impression is that he missed the implicit point of the question that he was asked. The point was not whether Pullman has no right to write such a book, but whether it was appropriate for him to purposefully choose such an offensive title. I don’t object to being offended by the views of Pullman or anyone else, but I think that free speech is best valued, not just by preserving the essential right to offend others by one’s speech, but by the self-imposed restrictions that come from a respect for other people. These restrictions prevent us from taking an unfitting pleasure in antagonizing those who hold other opinions and hold us back from unnecessary provocation. Such respect can produce an atmosphere of truly public and civil discourse, rather than the balkanization of the public square that is so frequently characteristic today. Many of the tensions in the intractable debates that afflict the modern world are exacerbated by such inflammatory language, when less offensive rhetoric might win people over to more reasonable positions.

  21. In the general debate about free speech that seems to be getting angrier and more confused all the time this is wonderfully refreshing because it’s so calm, clear and straightforward. It also has implications for the current arguments about ‘respect’ which could use some of the clarity of Pullman’s thinking. I can respect your right to believe what you want without having to respect the beliefs themselves – especially if I find them repugnant, oppressive or just silly. If you’re interested in joing a debate, I’m hosting an event about ‘Offensive Comedy’ at London’s Southbank Centre on May 19th. See my blog:

  22. Well hold on there. The publisher is a corporation, and with all the excitement over the Hutaree and the end of days, we could construe this as an existentially important moment. This corporation is using it’s resources to unduly influence our opinions about candidate Jesus. It is a clear dirty smear campaign and even The Great Lessig himself would say we need strong laws against the publishing of this book to protect our democracy.

  23. Pullman got my tenner, too.

    Separately, something I posted elsewhere that illustrates an interesting disconnect:

    ..”app” ebooks neatly side-step the contentious DRM/sharing-books issue. Firstly by putting the blame in Apple’s hands for locking down their devices. And secondly, as apps aren’t transferrable and you probably aren’t going to lend the device to someone else, (by the iPhone/iPad’s very nature) people will have to buy their own copy.

    Somehow people seem to see these app-books in a different light, and don’t appear to have quite the same issue as they would with something sold as a book that had similarly restricted rights. Perhaps because of the Apple connection, they have already invested one set of disdain for the general-lock-down, so by the time they get to the app-book it doesn’t occur to them that this format is not only a convenient container for the book’s contents, but also a business decision by the publisher to what ever benefits it brings, including the DRM and non-transferability. Or else the extra content just feels like a fair bargain, who knows..

  24. Pullman will be getting money from me, too. Not that I need much encouraging. I bought His Dark Materials once for myself, and then several times as gifts for others. Happy to know that such a great defender of free speech is out there.

  25. I have nothing against Pullman and yes, he should be writing whatever he wants to write, whether it shocks or offends others or not.

    But I do wonder why a self-confessed atheist spends so much of his time writing fiction set in the christian mythos.

    (I know I’m in the minority, but I really, really liked The Golden Compass, and felt completely let down that the following two books were basically another take on the War in Heaven — and seemed to have nothing at all to do with the first book.)

    1. In the minority for liking the book, or for not liking the religious undertones?

      1. I meant for not liking the whole sequence. But I guess in order to like those second two books, you have to like the idea of the last two thirds of a trilogy suddenly switching to having religious undertones.

        Seriously, the guy can — should — write whatever he wants to. But I do wonder why pretty much everything he writes is about christianity.

  26. Plenty of Christians write about elves and dwarves. Why not atheists writing about Christianity? Also he’s asking questions in his fiction about Christianity that Christians are too reverent (or afraid, probably afraid, actually) to ask, but occur to him.

    1. Well, yes, why not? But also, why?

      He could write about Bhuddism, Islam or Paganism. He could write, indeed, about elves and dwarves. Or he could write stories in which the central mythic truth is that the only meaning to the universe is that which we give it ourselves; which presumably would go down quite well with his audience.

      None of us really control our writing muses. It would simply be interesting to know what drives him to write around the same mythos so much.

      And also, I happen to think he’s an excellent writer and I have no interest in reading that mythos: being neither a christian nor an atheist. Actually, wait: if he was writing atheist fantasy stories I probably would want to read them.

      Just my 10p.

  27. I think he should just step up to the plate and admit he’s an agnostic not an atheist. As for jjasper’s assertion that Christians are “too reverent (or afraid, probably afraid, actually)” I say this… you don’t know very many educated theologians do you friend?

    We ask a LOT of questions. Perhaps some of the unwashed masses are afraid but we don’t all live in trailer parks.

  28. He’s from the Western World so Pullman probably understands the Christian mythology and narrative structure better than other religions. And if he thinks religion has ill effects on society most of his experiences have probably been with Christianity.

    In addition, I’m going to guess that his primary audience are Westerners as well. Even those Western individuals who do not subscribe to the religion would be hard pressed to separate the naratives they relate to from the structure of Christian narratives. It seems to me that Pullman has chosen a very reliable vehicle for his audience.

    Also, to most Western World Christianity is largely thought of as the one true religion. If Pullman wants to make people think then why not put what they hold most dear directly in the path of his ideas.

    IMO, it all seems terribly obvious why he chose Christianity.

  29. Didn’t like the Golden Compass book but this one looks somewhat interesting. For the real Jesus I’d look to the books of Gary Renard or ACIM (or I would be happy if everyone who reveres The Bible would at least look at the Jesus portion of The Urantia Book)

  30. I do wonder why a self-confessed atheist spends so much of his time writing fiction set in the christian mythos.

    First, you don’t need the ‘self-confessed’ thing. It isn’t something that one needs to confess to.
    Second, precisely because it *is* a mythos, and that provides lots of lovely contradictions, silliness, illogicality and pompous crap to play with.

  31. I’m memorizing Mr. Pullman’s awesome response for when I write a book that could make people hate me. Actually, it’s the other way around… I kind of want to write a controversial book just so that I can shut the haters down like he did.

  32. Anon (#19) wrote: “Just because no one has the right not to be offended, doesn’t mean that Mr Pullman has the right to offend with impunity and without repercussion.”

    Your question seems to ignore the exchange: he himself said, “And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book.” That doesn’t mean without impunity and without repercussion.

  33. Well done tim @50.

    May I add that Pullman is just restating the definition of acceptable social discourse, the alternative to which is a threat to individual persons, and that this definition is nothing shocking to anyone for whom God isn’t simply a substitute for rich parents.

  34. In a world of sensible people, it would suffice to say that

    “It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say.”

    …and the rest would be blindingly obvious even to those that hated it and wished it was not so. But there’s also the right to be an insensate and a fool and demand what is not your right, to be made law. So, Phillip Pullman has to waste his breath in telling the world what the sensible approach is regardless of opinion.

  35. There definitely is a fine line between being “offensive” and “constructive criticism”. I definitely don’t agree with people being offensive of other people thoughts, as everyone has the right to their own views; though criticizing someone point of view should be a well accepted norm. As that enables readers to see the other side of the picture, or point out the weakness in the authors thoughts.

  36. Nick@56, what you said offends me, so be a gentleman and shut the fuck up. Don’t agree with me on that? FYI “gentleman” does not equal “believer,” but your post was a nice thinly veiled attempt to apply social pressure to inhibit another’s thoughts. The Pope knows he can count on your silence, no doubt about it. Keep framing the world in terms of your own beliefs and you will be dining alone a lot, even if you can turn water into Agiorgitiko.

  37. Anon #19,

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment but it’s not necessarily a good defence here. Just because no one has the right not to be offended, doesn’t mean that Mr Pullman has the right to offend with impunity and without repercussion.

    What do you mean by “repercussion”?

    Also, he’s fully counting on, and even encouraging, people like you to call him an asshole. It’s your right.

    So, again, what do you mean by “repercussions”?

  38. Jesus was both good and a scoundrel. He was a good man: kind, gentle, generous with his gifts, a beloved teacher to individuals. But, that is not what he was called to as Christ. As Christ, he was called to wake up a society that oppressed people by burdening them with ritual practices that had nothing to do with their relationship with God and restricted people with threats to kick them out of their temple if they questioned anything the leadership said. He called people to a new faith and new holiness based on their living in a new covenant with God, in Christ’s blood. That is being a scoundrel to the locked in, lock-out social structures of the day. I bet this is going to be a great book.

Comments are closed.