British author Phillip Pullman has publicly denied allegations that his work, including The Golden Compass which is being adapted onto the big screen, is anti-Catholic and promotes atheism.
The movie, slated for a Dec. 7 release, is based on the first book from Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, in which a young girl's quest to uncover the reason behind her friend's disappearance concludes with the killing of a character named God – who turns out to be a phony.
Christian groups such as the Catholic League have criticized the movie and charged the intentional removal of anti-religious themes as a ploy to encourage kids to read Pullman's pro-atheism books.
The Catholic watchdog has even published a brochure, entitled "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked," as part of a PR campaign aimed to expose atheist elements of the series.
In his appearance on the "Today" show Thursday, Pullman implicitly denied that his work is selling "atheism for kids" when "Today" host Al Roker brought up the accusations made by the Catholic League.
"Well, you know, I always mistrust people who tell us how we should understand something. They know better than we do what the book means or what this means and how we should read it and whether we should read it or not," said Pullman.
"I don't think that's democratic," he continued. "I prefer to trust the reader. I prefer to trust what I call the democracy of reading – when everybody has the right to form their own opinion and read what they like and come to their own conclusion about it. So I trust the reader."
But Pullman's answer did little to convince Catholic League president Bill Donohue who said he was appalled that the author would continue his charade instead of directly answering to the accusations.
"The last thing Pullman trusts is the people," Donohue said in a statement Thursday. "That is why he tries to sneak his atheism in back-door to kids. If he had any courage, he'd defend his work, but instead he continues to do what he does best – practice deceit."
Donahue also doubted Pullman's claims that the he just intends readers to get a "good experience of a good story," pointing to a comment made several years ago by the writer.
"I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief," said Pullman in an article by The Washington Post, adding that C.S. Lewis, the Christian author of Chronicles of Narnia, would describe his books as the "Devil's work."
The Catholic League president said that he didn't believe the organization's booklet was "undemocratic" but was "happy to have ripped the mask off his face."
"We at the Catholic League never had to run from our work," added Donahue. "How pitiful it is to see a grown man slip kids his poisonous pill and then pretend he trusts the reader."
Pullman, a self-described atheist, gave a more direct answer to concerns surrounding the anti-Church and anti-religion themes in his book while responding to a question sent in by a reader in Al's Book Club.
Asked whether there is "an underlying message for atheism" in his book, Pullman maintained that he was only "telling a story."
"As for the atheism, it doesn't matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I'm not promoting anything of that sort," he said in an article on the "Today" show's website.
"My point is that religion is at its best – it does most good – when it is farthest away from political power, and that when it gets hold of the power to [for example] send armies to war or to condemn people to death, or to rule every aspect of our lives, it rapidly goes bad," said Pullman in response to a similar question.
Even though the British author has taken a more palatable approach in marketing his books as the movie date draws near, comments made in past interviews have been more indicative of his position.
In an interview with Third Way, a Christian newspaper in United Kingdom, Pullman said of the third book in his trilogy: "Of course, I don't say, 'There is no God.'
"I say: 'There is a God, and here he is dying' – and this is what I was particularly pleased with, as a result of an act of charity. And he goes 'with a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.'"
When his books were released in Australia in 2003, Pullman told The Sydney Morning Herald that his "books are about killing God."
Fans of Pullman's work have praised his books for its clever fantasy writing but some have expressed disappointment that the anti-Church themes clearly evident in the books have been watered down or "castrated" from the movie.
Actress Nicole Kidman, reportedly a Christian, who stars along James Bond actor Daniel Craig in the film, has defended the movie as not "anti-Catholic."
Conservative Christian groups overall have been critical of the movie and books. Evangelical group Focus on the Family is expected to release a statement about the film early this week.