Taho is a kind of watery yogurt made from bean curd. That didn’t sound good to me, but my wife’s eyes went wide when she heard the vendor calling. It’s a favorite with Filipino children, and she’d left Manila when she was eight. The vendor was carrying two big buckets on a yoke across his shoulders, with the bean curd in one bucket and water in the other. He mixed them together in a plastic cup, and we paid him a few cents. The watery curd looked unappetizing, but I had a bite and it tasted better than it looked. This experience was unpleasantly inverted when I visited the slums in Quezon City.

From the outside, the neighborhood looked nice enough. Like so many other places in Metro Manila, there were rows of white, two-storied houses pressed together against narrow streets, but when we walked down an alley and then turned into a dark passageway, I found a different way of living. There were low doorways all through a labyrinth of tunnels. I had to bend my back, and the ground was uneven and covered with puddles of grime. There were places where the shacks gave way to patches of sky, and rain water ran off tin roofs into buckets. Other places were so dark that it took an act of faith to step forward, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that there were children everywhere, many of them without shoes and all of them too thin. I saw a girl washing herself with filthy water that was white like milk, and I was told that more than twenty families use a single latrine. The owners of the slums are also the owners of the taho factory. The vendors live here, and they set out in the morning with the heavy yokes on their shoulders to sell the taho and earn a couple of dollars. They pay almost half of their earnings back to the factory owners for the dubious privilege of living in their slums.

Our guide was a man who volunteers with an evangelical group that provides scholarships for some of the children who would otherwise have been forced to drop out of school. Some of the people in the slum knew him and were eager to talk to us. We came to a doorway filled with light, and a man invited us into a room only a few yards wide, where his entire family lives. There was a counter with old wooden cabinets under it, and on the cabinets were large, printed animals, dancing bears in clothes or something, like old Golden Books characters. It was so out of place that I felt disoriented. Someone pulled up a stool and told me to sit. There was a baby hanging in a blanket slung from the ceiling and a girl who might have been eight lying on the floor in the corner. We’d woken her up. She’d been sleeping on the hard floor with a single, small pillow under her head. She stared at me, and she didn’t smile like all the other kids I’d met in the Philippines. I stared back. Call it the Anne Frank effect. There’s no way to get your mind around the suffering you’re seeing, so you fixate on a single child and identify with her. It’s like when Lewis points out that no single person has to endure all the suffering of humanity, and so he’s spread the problem of pain so thin you can almost swallow it. Her older sister appeared in the doorway, and they were telling me how the organization was paying for her to be in school and how if she did well, they’d send her to college. Classrooms and books seemed so far away from that little room where the whole family sleeps on top of each other.

A couple weeks later we were back in Quezon City visiting a home for abused girls run by Salesian Sisters. In the van on the way, the Sister turned around in the front seat and told us in direct, unflinching terms about the lives these girls are subjected to in the slums. She described the limited sleeping space, the lack of privacy, the conditions that lead to abuse. Juxtapose this with the happy smiles on the faces of the girls in the home. They had us sit down, and the girls lined up and sang a song, complete with hand motions. It was a song asking Jesus why children have to suffer, and their faces were sad while they sang and happy again when they’d finished.

While I was in the Philippines, I happened to be reading the last two books of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I’d approached the series with some ambivalence the month before because, while I knew Pullman was anti-Christian, anti-Lewis, and anti-Tolkien, I’ve always loved fantasy in the Oxford tradition, having been raised on Lewis, Tolkien, and Alice. So when I met Lyra in the first chapters of The Golden Compass, I was immediately drawn to the character and to her world, and by the end of the first book, I was confused, because I wasn’t seeing much of an anti-religious message. The villains in The Golden Compass are unethical, power-hungry scientists, who seem to have stepped out of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Sure, the good witches of the books are sanctimonious culture war feminists and the religious types are neurotic, genuflecting sadists, but what are a few straw men between a good reader and a good story? Unfortunately, both the tone of the books and my perspective shifted in Manila. I knew things were heading downhill when I came to a passage in The Subtle Knife, wherein a witch makes the following speech:

“Sisters,” she began, “let me tell you what is happening, and who it is that we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history—and that’s not long by their lives, but it is many, many of theirs—it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvanger [which involved unethical, scientific research on children]. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the southlands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too—as the people in Bolvanger did—not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: destroy, control, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

So it becomes clear that in Pullman’s world, the Church isn’t just to be held accountable for its own sins, but the sins of all other religions and all a-religions as well. Everything from female genital mutilation to Dr. Mengele are on one side with Christ, while what is “natural” and “good” is on the other side with the witches and the heroes of the books. I’ve noticed that the word “natural” is a kind of magic word for many people. It’s employed as if what is natural is perfectly obvious, objective, self evident, and good, but since what is considered “good” in human society is not directly connected to nature—after all, no one seems to argue that we should behave more like animals—there is no obvious, objective, self evident understanding of what natural means. There is an ongoing debate about what is good, and it’s clear that there is a huge amount of overlap in what Pullman, the witches, and the Church would consider “good” and “natural.” As a Christian, I too would be horrified by the experiments being done on the children in The Golden Compass and—on a much more serious level—I’m horrified by female genital mutilation in north Africa. Does Pullman believe it’s unnatural, evil, and oppressive, when an evangelical NGO goes into the slums and provides the means for educating some of Metro Manila’s poorest children, or does he think it’s wrong of the Salesian Sisters to work every day, sacrificing families of their own, to provide abused girls with a safe home? And if he doesn’t, then why reduce the entire question of morality to such inadequate terms? Why call out the Church, and every religious person on the planet, and then offer up such a thin argument?

The Filipino Christians I met in Quezon City, both Protestant and Catholic, are able to approach the slums with a clear message: What we do in this life matters, because God created us for a purpose. Sins can be forgiven, and there is a better life beyond the grave. In one of their schools, the Salesian Sisters had a banner hanging up that read, “Heaven Is My Destiny.” I might have snickered at such a nakedly sentimental statement, but the teenagers who were standing under the banner and singing were so obviously happy. They had found hope in a very dark place. Belief in another life has given them the strength to succeed in this life, and no one can accuse these nuns of having no thought for the suffering of this world, because they’re working to relieve the suffering around them everyday.

The comfort Pullman offers in his books is depressingly insufficient. His idea, if I understand him correctly, is that people have “souls” that are made of dark matter. These dark matter souls can be separated from a person’s material body and held together in a ghost-like form, but this is unnatural and undesirable. The preferred fate is atomization of both body and soul, so that the atoms can spread out across the universe and serve as material for new life forms. We’ve all heard this Circle of Life idea before, of course, and I’ve never understood the attraction. Why should a zebra be happy to sacrifice his body to lions? Should men killed in wars be happy to sacrifice themselves to the victors? Would cannibalism make their sacrifice more meaningful? Here’s Pullman on the glory of atomization (I’ve assembled this passage from several, slightly paraphrased excerpts from The Amber Spyglass):

We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon. We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams. All the atoms that were us, they’ll have gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. We’ll never vanish. We’ll just be part of everything. That’s exactly what’ll happen to us, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. We’ll drift apart, it’s true, but we’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again. And when the battle’s over, there’ll be all the time in the world to drift along the wind and find the atoms that used to be our friends, and our mothers in the sagelands, and our sweethearts—all our sweethearts.

Shakespeare contemplates atomization with different results.

Hamlet: Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bung-hole? / Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? / Imperious Ceasar, dead and turn’d to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. / O that that earth which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.

And again, with a bit more venom:

King: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?

Hamlet: At supper.

King: At supper? Where?

Hamlet: Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.

King: Alas, alas.

Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

King: What dost thou mean by this?

Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

But Pullman apparently doesn’t get the joke. Consider the following passage from The Amber Spyglass, written without a trace of irony, in which a sentient polar bear devours the corpse of his cowboy friend:

And because the Texan aeronaut was one of the very few humans Iorek had ever esteemed, he accepted the man’s last gift to him. With deft movements of his claws, he ripped aside the dead man’s clothes, opened the body with one slash, and began to feast on the flesh and blood of his old friend. It was his first meal in days, and he was hungry.

So Pullman mixes descriptions of the ecstasy of spiritual atomization, which involves riding on the wind and becoming parts of grass and whatnot, with descriptions of the Circle of Life in action, which involves corpses as meat, and in both cases, he seems to be suggesting that there is some meaning for the decomposed in these transactions. It almost seems too obvious to state, but Philip Pullman gets good reviews, so I will: Even if there is no spiritual dimension and the human mind is made entirely of matter, an individual personality is not contained in individual atoms, but rather in a specific, evolving arrangement of atoms. When that arrangement suddenly decomposes, as in death, unless there is a supernatural force that will recompose the order of those atoms or a spiritual element that will preserve the order in some other dimension, then that individual’s personality—along with their self consciousness—is gone. The individual atoms that composed their bodies are just dust. If those atoms go on to become parts of other beings, be they lions, polar bears, or kings, no vestige of the personality of the deceased will be present in that new being. If our souls are made of dark matter, and dark matter decomposes in the same way, then the result would be the same as well. An atom, by definition, is too fundamental a piece of matter to contain the information necessary for consciousness, and without some continuity of consciousness we are—in every meaningful sense of the word—dead.

I’m sure these books read better in Oxford than in Manila. When you have questions in Oxford, there are books. When you are cold, there are pubs. Nature is as close as the meadows and the river. London, with all its cultural institutions, is a short bus ride away. When you’re at home there, Oxford is the kind of city that leaves you space to wonder what’s down rabbit holes and behind wardrobes. Don’t misunderstand me, whimsy can have deadly serious ends—and the best of it always does—but it requires a delicate balance between what is real and what is imagined. There are different kinds of truth, and the best fantasy writers, like all good artists, intuitively recognize the truth that can be bent and the truth that is sacred. Tolkien and Lewis succeed, because their castles are built with the stones of ancient tradition, which have been worn down by time to leave only the hardest material. In his zeal, Pullman atomizes these stones, and while the experiment might be interesting in a warm Oxford pub (or a warm Starbucks in Washington), in Manila, all I see is a man trying to build castles with dust.

If there is no God, no second life and no redemption, then there is no hope for these slums, because too much has been lost already. Everything is rising entropy, decomposition, atomization, and there’s no way to glorify that here. It would be atoms in the filthy drinking water, atoms in the smog, atoms in the glue, atoms moving in and out of people who are given no space to imagine a better life. And if these people stopped believing in Christ, and they had only atomization to look forward to, and if the Church stopped sending its people with aid, then they’d have even less hope then they have now. And if a baby girl is born in a slum and lives a short life of pain and suffering, before she dies and her body and soul decompose, then from her perspective, her life is not one bit more meaningful because we write odes to her scattered atoms.

If we’re of a particular frame of mind, an ode might make us feel better, but for the people in these slums (and for Hamlet) it would just be a sick joke that in death she is no less fortunate than a queen.