The novels of Philip Pullman, which have been condemned as blasphemous by some critics, should form part of pupils' religious education, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a speech made public yesterday.
Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which was partly inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost, should be used by teachers to address the "inadequacy" of some religious education courses, Dr Rowan Williams told a meeting of religious leaders and academics hosted by Tony Blair at Downing Street on Monday.
The books - which are being staged at the National Theatre - relate the adventures of two children on a quest. But they also examine the corrupting force of religion and end with the death of an aged God.
The Catholic Herald has condemned Pullman's work, which reverses Milton's tale of the war in heaven, as "fit for the bonfire".
Rupert Kaye, the chief executive of the Association of Christian Teachers, said Pullman's "blasphemy is shameless". He cited the church's portrayalas a repressive organisation, heaven's depiction as a prison camp, and the inclusion of a pair of gay angels in a long-term relationship as evidence of the author's deliberate attack on the church.
But Dr Williams, the leader of the Anglican Church, said religion ought to be able to deal with criticism. "Should teaching about religion include teaching about its critics? There is every reason for seeing this as a good thing. Clarifying objections is one way of clarifying what is being claimed," he said.
"The immense importance for religious education of serious exposure to the inner tensions of belief has to be granted.
"To see large school parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging," he said in the speech. "I only hope that teachers are equipped to tease out what in Pullman's world is and is not reflective of Christian teaching as Christians understand it."
Pullman, a former teacher, welcomed the Archbishop's comments. He said Dr Williams was "a very wise and intelligent man" as opposed to the "very excitable and infantile people" who have called for his books to be banned or burnt.
"I thought it was a very good speech. There can surely be no objection to any Christian, or Jew, or Muslim hearing an argument or a story from another point of view."
Pullman said that people might assume that as celebrated atheist, he would object to religious education. "But religion is a human phenomenon and it is right that we should learn about it," he said.
"A lot of criticism of my story - often from people who haven't read it - has complained that it upholds evil and calls it good. It just makes me scratch my head at the stupidity of these people.
"There can be no possible doubt about the qualities that the story criticises - cruelty, fanaticism, intolerance, cold-heartedness and unkindness - and the qualities it celebrates: love, courage, imagination and tolerance."
Pullman added: "There is no doubt which side I am on, I am on the side of good. The only difference is that I think that the supernatural justification for this or that has had its time."
The Archbishop also used his speech to reject a recent call by Mr Blair's favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, for atheism to be taught in religious studies lessons. "To speak as though atheism were a belief system alongside varieties of religious belief is simply a category mistake," Dr Williams said.
He recently saw the two plays of Pullman's work and will stage a public discussion with the author on Monday, following a joint television appearance last year. In his speech, Dr Williams compared the novels with Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor parable and Camus's The Plague.
The novels, along with Iris Murdoch's novel The Time Of The Angels, could play a part in teaching older pupils about faith, he said.
Dr Williams criticised some forms of religious education as a superficial introduction to different faiths.
"The inevitable projects on religious festivals, on rites of passage, and on what different religions think about a scattering of moral issues will not on their own deliver much feeling for living with difficulty or of the concrete personal resources of a faith.
"You will learn from a reading of [the poet and mystic] Rumi or John Donne or a few pages of Suzuki [the Japanese writer] things that you are unlikely to learn in other ways; and this applies equally to reading critics of belief in general or specific doctrines - hence my appeal to Dostoevsky and Camus and Pullman."
BLASPHEMY OR TEST OF FAITH?
Balthamos said quietly, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those were the names he gave himself.
"He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves - the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter.
"It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie."
"Angels are more difficult to understand than any human being.
"They're not all one of a kind ... The Authority has been suppressing them since he came into being."
She was genuinely shocked ... "You say that so casually," she said, "as if it were something I should know too, but ... how can it be? The Authority created the worlds, didn't he? He existed before everything. How can he have come into being?" "This is angelic knowledge," said Ogunwe. "It shocked some of us too to learn that the Authority is not the creator. There may have been a creator, or there may not: we don't know."
Extracts from The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, published by Scholastic Children's Books.Reuse content