'His Dark Materials': deist, not atheist
I'm on a break from blogging at the moment, so I'll keep this brief.
'The Golden Compass' (based on book 1 of Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy) has just been released in cinemas worldwide, attended by considerable controversy about its alleged "anti-religion" / "pro-atheist" arguments.
As someone who has (unlike, it seems, most commentators on the subject) actually read the books, I thought I'd add my tuppence worth on the subject. While they're far from perfect (I have some issues with the third one), much of the criticism (and some of the praise) has been seriously misguided.
(NOTE: Although I've tried to keep the following free of any major plot details, it does go into the background mythology of the books, which isn't really developed until the second and third).
The most important point to make is that the mythology of the books is deist rather than atheist in nature: God (in the traditional sense) created the universe(s) and then retired for some unknown reason, though I rather suspect it has something to do with the concept of free will.
The target of criticism in the books is not this being, but rather the "Authority", an angel (self-formed) who has set himself up as overlord of the universe(s) through lies and tyranny (sound familiar?). The allies of this being are the power-hungry and the close-minded - who seek to maintain their power through shutting down individual inquiry into the nature of the universe(s).
The fact that so many describe the above as "anti-religious" is quite telling.
The concept of the soul also features heavily in the books - though whether it is material or non-material is questionable. It is, however, quite capable of surviving the death of the physical body, and the characters of the books enjoy an afterlife which (arguably) is quite compatible with Christian notions (the world of the dead = purgatory, oneness with the universe = the traditional idea of heaven?) if a certain amount of poetic license is allowed.
There are, though, two (that I can remember) specific mentions of traditional Christianity that are quite negative: The first is in the recasting of the fall of man in more positive tones - Pullman argues that knowledge of good and evil is an integral part of what makes us human, and that life pre-fall was of a lesser kind. What most Christians will make of this I can't say, though I suspect that there are some (perhaps many) that would agree with it. The second is the description of Christianity as a "mistake" by the character of Mary Malone, a former nun. For me, this is simply the opinion of one person in the books, and given that her Christianity (which denied basic human pleasures, such as love) was of a particular repressive kind, it's arguable that her problem was only with the debased version of religious belief rejected by a large number of believers. Neither, it seems to me, should be particularly troublesome for liberal Christians.
In summary: The books aren't so much anti-religious as they are pro- freedom of thought and freedom of religion.
(They also have talking, armour-plated polar bears. One of which, in the film, is voiced by the great Ian McKellen. How cool is that?)