Philip Pullman: ‘human nature demands meaning’

Words of wonder: His Dark Materials sold 17.5m copies in over 40 languages. © Penguin

Is it possible to be spiritual but not religious? Philip Pullman thinks so. After a 17 year wait, yesterday he finally published the prequel to the celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy.

A flood of biblical proportions. A perilous quest. A crew of kindly nuns. All this awaits readers of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, released yesterday.

The book has been keenly anticipated. Booksellers have recorded the highest pre-sales since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The story is set ten years before the start of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In that series, witches and giant bears help Lyra, the hero, battle the evil Magisterium — a fictional version of the Catholic church. In the trilogy’s final book, The Amber Spyglass, God is depicted as a deceitful and decrepit being who dies from his own frailty.

These anti-religious messages caused uproar. Sociologist Bill Donohue, president of a US Catholic campaign group, accused Pullman of “crusading hatred of all religions”. And journalist Peter Hitchens called him “the most dangerous author in Britain”.

In La Belle Sauvage, the church, still the bad guys, hunts down the protagonists Malcolm and Alice, as they strive to reunite a two year-old Lyra with her father.

Despite Pullman’s anti-religious stance, critics note a strong spirituality in his writing. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called La Belle Sauvage “intensely spiritual.”

Pullman himself insists that spiritualism is possible without God. In a lecture published next month he declares that he wants to “reclaim a vision of heaven from the wreck of religion”.

For Pullman, this is achieved through a “passionate love” of the physical world of human beings — not the metaphysical world of God. His books also aim to tackle the same big questions as religion: “Where did we come from? What is life about? What is evil?”

Many others find spirituality outside the church. A study found that 20% of Americans have no religion, yet 37% of this group describe themselves as “spiritual”. This accounts for 7% of all Americans — a bigger group than Jews, Muslims, or Atheists. In recent years a “spiritual but not religious” movement has developed with its own books and humanist ministers.

Can we really be spiritual but not religious?

Losing my religion

“Modern society is more suited to spiritualism,” say some. The laws of Christianity were not written for the modern world. And spiritualism leads us to secular values that really matter. Anyone is capable of meditating on their place in this world and what might lie beyond — not just those who follow religion.

“Spiritualism means nothing without God,” counter others. “Spiritualism” encompasses so many perspectives, feelings, and emotions that it stops being meaningful at all. The only way to access a strong sense of the spiritual is through a belief in God. Only religion provides this.

You Decide

  1. Does there need to be a God for a person to be spiritual?
  2. Do you believe in God?


  1. It is time for speed story writing! You have five minutes to write a mini story. Keep your sentences short, and see where your imagination takes you. If you like, you can share your story with the class. Ready…Set…GO!
  2. Watch the video of Michael Sheen reading from La Belle Sauvage in Become An Expert. What do you think of the story? Are there any descriptions which you find particularly powerful? Which characters seem the most important and why?

Some People Say...

“Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all.”

Philip Pullman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A 2017 study reported that 53% of British people thought of themselves as having no religion. This is the first time that non-religious have outnumbered religious people in British history. Research suggests that non-religious people are younger and mostly male. Whereas 35% of non-religious people are between 18 and 29, only 8% are over 65.
What do we not know?
We do not know what exactly is causing the decline of religion. Various factors suggested include the rise of a globally connected society; the breakdown of the traditional family unit; and the loss of trust in big institutions.

Word Watch

La Belle Sauvage
Published by Penguin Random House. The book is the first volume in a new trilogy called The Book of Dust.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
A two-part stage play written by Jack Thorne, published by Little, Brown and Company. In the USA and Canada the book sold over 2m copies in its first two days of release.
Published next month
Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling will be published in November by David Fickling Books.
Conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2012.
Sven Erlandson is credited with coining the phrase “spiritual but not religious” in his 2000 book: Spiritual but Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America. (Published by Iuniverse Inc.)
Humanist ministers
Also known as “humanist celebrants”. These officials conduct traditional services like weddings and funerals in a non-religious way.

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