CBS ‘Early Show’ Guest: ‘Killing Has Nothing to Do With Atheism’

NewsBusters.org - Media Research CenterOn Wednesday’s CBS "Early Show,"co-host Hannah Storm, who tvnewser.com reports will soon be leaving the show, teased an upcoming segment about the controversy over the atheist-inspired movie, "The Golden Compass": "And Nicole Kidman on why the Church doesn't want your children to see her new movie." Of course, the "Church" has said no such thing, but rather the Catholic League has called for a boycott of the movie.

Later during the segment, Storm talked with Catholic League President, Bill Donohue, as well as Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists. To Storm’s credit, she challenged Johnson by quoting the atheist author of the "Golden Compass" book trilogy, Phillip Pullman:

STORM: Now let's talk about some of the things that Pullman has said. Back in 2003, he was comparing himself to the Harry Potter series, he said "Hey, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor Harry has said. My books are about killing God." Is he promoting atheism? Does he have an agenda here?

ELLEN JOHNSON: Killing has nothing to do with atheism. I think that the movies are about questioning authority, and I think that's a good thing. Questioning the authority of the state, questioning the authority of the Church. I think that if more children were taught to question authority, maybe a lot fewer of them would have been sexually molested by priests. Questioning authority is a good thing.

Later in the segment, Donohue accurately pointed out "It's done wonders in China, hasn't it? And under Stalin it's done a great job there too." It’s not like atheists in China or the Soviet Union ever killed anyone.

While Storm did work to hold Johnson’s feet to the fire during the debate with Donohue, the lead up to that point painted the controversy as nothing more than something manufactured by "religious conservatives."At the beginning of the segment, Storm discussed how "...the blockbuster movie "The Golden Compass," which opens December 5th here in the United States, has been compared to other children's fantasies like the "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter," but the difference is that the book it's based on was written by an atheist, and for some religious conservatives, that's a big problem." First, how can a movie that has not come out yet already be a "blockbuster"? Second, "religious conservatives" are not simply upset that Pullman happens to be an atheist, but that, as Storm later points out, his self-described goal in the story is "killing God."

The segment also featured a report by CBS Correspondent Richard Roth, in which Roth got reaction from the one of the movie's stars, Nicole Kidman, who said of the film’s atheist message, "I don't see it as that, but obviously it's up for interpretation. But I would be surprised if people actually saw the film and felt that." Storm actually addressed the issue in a question to Donohue:

HANNAH STORM: So, there is a sinister group that's portrayed in this movie, it's called the "Magisterium". Does that represent the Catholic Church and is that an issue that you have with the movie?

BILL DONOHUE: It's the definition of the Catholic Church. The Magisterium is the teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pope in communion with the Bishops.

Despite Kidman’s comments, that fact does not leave much to "interpretation." Media Research Center President and NewsBusters Publisher, Brent Bozell, wrote an entire column explaining the obvious references to the Catholic Church throughout the film. 

Roth concluded his report by predicting that "what's clear in all this is that controversy builds curiosity, which hardly ever hurts at the box office."

Fortunately, presenting both sides of the issue later in the segment did provide some measure of balance. The debate between Donohue and Johnson ended with this exchange:

BILL DONOHUE: My goal is to destroy the idea of having a second and third movie based off of his lousy books.

ELLEN JOHNSON: People aren't following the dictates of Catholic Church and theology, and the Catholics are not going to follow dictates of the Catholic League on cinema --

DONOHUE: Well, they're certainly not going to follow your dictates.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:01AM TEASER:

HANNAH STORM: And Nicole Kidman on why the Church doesn't want your children to see her new movie.

7:21AM:

STORM: Coming up in our next half hour, we'll find out if a new blockbuster film about to open in the U.S. is really an attack on religion.

7:31AM:

JULIE CHEN: "The Golden Compass" premiered last night in London, and Hollywood hopes it is this holiday season's big blockbuster. But there are calls to boycott the film when it opens next week in the United States because the author of the book it's based on says he is an atheist. Some conservative Christians claim his book and the movie are really an attack on religion. In just a moment, we'll debate this growing controversy.

7:32AM SEGMENT:

HANNAH STORM: Well, the blockbuster movie "The Golden Compass," which opens December 5th here in the United States has been compared to other children's fantasies like the "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter," but the difference is that the book it's based on was written by an atheist, and for some religious conservatives, that's a big problem. CBS News Correspondent Richard Roth reports.

Unidentified Actor: The Golden Compass.

RICHARD ROTH: With an A-list cast and dazzling special effects, it's a big-budgeted adventure some critics claim could be pointing children in the wrong direction. Based on a book that's been called anti-Catholic, the "The Golden Compass" tells the story of a young girl's battle against a sinister group seeking to rule the world, a mysterious organization steeped in spiritual overtones.

NICOLE KIDMAN: That is the Magisterium, Laura.

ROTH: The controversy now has the studio spinning "The Golden Compass" as a celebration of love and friendship. As the glamorous villain with a soul of ice, Nicole Kidman's rejecting the claim that the movie's message is anti-Church.

NICOLE KIDMAN: I don't see it as that, but obviously it's up for interpretation. But I would be surprised if people actually saw the film and felt that.

ROTH: The Catholic League's called for a boycott. On opening night here for some of the cast, that amounted to a challenge.

SAM ELLIOT: You know what, if they do, tough. They're going to lose out. We're not going to lose out. They're going to lose out.

DANIEL CRAIG: I think the Catholic Church will survive. It's survived much worse things than this.

ROTH: In fact, much of the argument's less about the movie than the book behind it, and author Phillip Pullman, who's not stepping back from a fight.

PHILLIP PULLMAN: Religion is at its best when it is furthest away from power. As soon as it gets its hand on power, religion and power don't mix.

ROTH: What's clear in all this is that controversy builds curiosity, which hardly ever hurts at the box office. Richard ROTH, CBS News, London.

STORM: And joining us now is Bill Donohue. He is president of the Catholic League. And Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. And good morning to both of you. Bill, what's the essence of this boycott? Why are you urging people not to see this movie? It's rated PG-13 and it is being billed as a family film for holiday season.

BILL DONOHUE: Right, well it's a stealth campaign, it's a dishonest way to produce anything. Quite frankly, the movie is unobjectionable because they want to make money. They want to make certain that there's a second and third movie based off the second and third books in the trilogy. This is a book which teaches atheism to kids. Not my opinion, Phillip Pullman himself is very, very open about this. The movie's basically innocuous, but parents may want to say to their kids, you know what, a great Christmas present would be to buy his "Dark Materials" the name of the trilogy of the three books. Now you've introduced your kid to atheism at Christmas time. I don't think most parents want to do that.

STORM: Now let's talk about some of the things that Pullman has said. Back in 2003, he was comparing himself to the "Harry Potter" series, he said, "Hey, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor Harry has said. My books are about killing God." Is he promoting atheism? Does he have an agenda here?

ELLEN JOHNSON: Killing has nothing to do with atheism. I think that the movies are about questioning authority, and I think that's a good thing. Questioning the authority of the state, questioning the authority of the Church. I think that if more children were taught to question authority, maybe a lot fewer of them would have been sexually molested by priests. Questioning authority is a good thing.

DONOHUE: That's very cute Ellen.

JOHNSON: And I hope -- I can only hope that atheism is taught. It's sometimes -- atheism is a good thing, it's a healthy thing, and this idea that it's a bad thing is not true --

DONOHUE: It's done wonders in China, hasn't it? And under Stalin it's done a great job there too.

STORM: Okay, why don't we both stick to the point here, alright, and that's the movie. And let's try to make this an informative segment for parents who are at home trying decide to whether or not to see this. So, there is a sinister group that's portrayed in this movie, it's called the Magisterium. Does that represent the Catholic Church and is that an issue that you have with the movie?

DONOHUE: It's the definition of the Catholic Church. The Magisterium is the teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pope in communion with the Bishops. You know, the spin is too late now. They're trying to say 'oh this could represent any authority.' They're not talking about the Politburo or they're not talking about some abusive school teacher. They're talking about the Catholic Church. Pullman is very clear about it. See we boxed him in on this. We put out a booklet about this. We know exactly what his agenda is, we've unmasked it, and that's why he's angry at us.

STORM: Now the author says, and he said to "The Washington Post" six years ago he was trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. Is that his intent, and does the movie reflect that? Because some are saying all religious intent in the movie is really watered down here.

JOHNSON: Could be. We don't know. We have to see the movie. But I can only hope, there's nothing really fundamentally wrong with that. But even if you would succeed in getting people not to buy the books or see the movie, you can't censor the internet. If you go to www.atheists.org, you can get clear-cut books on atheism.

STORM: Okay, but we're talking about the movie. We're talking about the movie here.

JOHNSON: So what's the point? But why are you focusing on a movie and these books when the whole world has books available on atheism a that kids can get? Which is good thing.

DONOHUE: It's a stealth campaign, it's a dishonest way. They're trying to introduce atheism to kids, and they don't want to come right out and advertise it. I believe in truth in advertising and you don't.

JOHNSON: This is not atheism. Atheism is completely different than this.

DONOHUE: That's what he says it is.

STORM: Let me ask you a question, because this is one of the most expensive movies ever made and the studio has said look if this doesn't do well, we're not going to make movies two, we're not going to make the third movie in which God is killed, in the third movie. Is that your intent?

DONOHUE: Absolutely. My goal is to destroy the idea of having a second and third movie based off of his lousy books.

JOHNSON: People aren't following the dictates of Catholic Church and theology, and the Catholics are not going to follow dictates of the Catholic League on cinema --

DONOHUE: Well, they're certainly not going to follow your dictates.

STORM: Alright. We've got to call it at that. You know what, we need that bell, that boxing bell that we had earlier. Bill Donohue, Ellen Johnson, thank you for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC