Ryan McCarl

is a master's student in international relations at the University of Chicago and a free-lance writer

I was thrilled to learn that The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, was going to be released as a movie on Friday. I read the trilogy first in middle school and again in high school, and it was my favorite story for a long time. It is filled with imagination and erudition, and it is a significant cut above the vast majority of works aimed at young adults.

But the story's greatest strength - its infusion with ideas - is as much a threat to pundits and "protect-the-children" types as it is a joy to readers. Pullman is an atheist, and the books reflect his negative view of organized religion. Some religious advocacy groups are, accordingly, up in arms over the release of the movie.

I have already received my first mass e-mail warning me about the dangers of The Golden Compass and advising me to keep my kids inside, with doors locked. The movie will, I am told, "kill God in the minds of children"; its objective is to "bash Christianity and promote atheism" and "sell atheism to kids."

But Pullman's real quarrel is less with belief itself than with the intolerance that organized belief systems sometimes foster, an intolerance demonstrated every time some busybody condemns a book without having actually read it.

There are a lot of sophisticated theological and philosophical ideas woven into the "His Dark Materials" narrative. The story speaks as positively about religious concepts such as soul, spiritual existence and love as it speaks negatively about intolerance and bigotry. It opens a window in the reader's mind and invites him or her to investigate all of these ideas further.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that "His Dark Materials" will threaten some readers' identities and beliefs. To listen to and take seriously alternative viewpoints is to make oneself vulnerable; it raises the possibility that our certainty is not as justified as we had thought.

Complaints about Pullman's books and calls for a boycott of the movie are based on several seriously flawed assumptions: that parents should shelter teenagers from views that don't seem in accord with those of the parent; that young adults cannot or should not think critically and engage in dialogue about serious ideas; and that imaginative fiction threatens religious belief.

In fact, great stories are the stuff of which religious belief is made. Literature shapes and expands our imagination, and imagination is critically important to our ability to believe.

In religious practice, for example, we are asked to internalize symbols, such as the cross, seeing them not as mere shapes or designs but as signs that point toward the infinite. We are asked to believe in unseen forces that never register on scientific instruments. We are asked to imagine ourselves as part of a human community larger than ourselves and our families, and we are asked to imagine our lives not as isolated, meaningless evolutionary aberrations but as part of a grander narrative of creation.

Belief is not for the unimaginative. If it were, perhaps religious wisdom would be passed down through history in some more concrete form than the symbols, stories, myths and parables we have inherited.

Parents who want their children to grow up with faith should take them to the fiction section of the local library or bookstore and give them free rein to explore. It is in literature that they will find the most convincing evidence for eternal things, and it is through exposure to literature that they will develop the imagination that belief requires.

Ryan McCarl is a master's student in international relations at the University of Chicago and a free-lance writer. His blog is ryanmccarl.blogspot.com.