[The Mail on Sunday, 27 January 2002, p.63]

In the week that a children’s writer who claims God is dead and the Church is wicked wins a prestigious literary prize…

This is the most dangerous author in Britain.

Philip Pullman is being hailed as the new C. S. Lewis after being awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year prize for his latest novel aimed at children: The Amber Spyglass. The judges described it as visionary, but PETER HITCHENS reveals that the author appears to have his own sinister agenda…

The atheists have driven God out of the classroom and off the TV and the radio, and done a pretty good job of expelling him from the churches as well. But one stubborn and important pocket of Christianity survives, in the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis. Now here comes an opportunity to dethrone him and supplant his books with others which proclaim the death of God to the young.

If you are wondering why the children's author Philip Pullman has collected a major prize and why such a huge fuss is being made of him, now you know. He is the anti-Lewis, the one the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed.

Children instinctively like Lewis's enthralling stories and often do not even notice their religious message, though it frequently goes deep into their minds and emerges later. How infuriating this is for liberal but literate parents, the sort of people who work for the BBC and want all the advantages of a Christian culture without the tiresome bother of having to worship a God they think they are too smart to believe in. Spotting this trend, Lewis's publishers last year toyed with producing 'sequels' without any Christian references, but retreated under a barrage of thunderbolts from Lewis supporters.

Until now, liberal, atheist parents have had to buy the Narnia books, reading them out loud to their young between clenched teeth, hoping the messages of faith, forgiveness, grace and resurrection do not get through. Now at last they have an alternative and an antidote, the supposedly brilliant Pullman, who - according to the reviewers - is a new Lewis and a new Chekhov rolled into one.

Of his three famous children's books, the first two, Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, are captivating and clever, but the third, which took the Whitbread prize, is a disappointing clunker with some gruesome and needlessly nasty scenes. This is probably because The Amber Spyglass - in which God dies - is too loaded down with propaganda to leave enough room for the story. None of the trilogy is a patch on any of the Narnia chronicles. You can't help wondering if the praise and the prizes, handed out by reliable, liberal establishment sorts such as Channel 4 News's Jon Snow, are because of Pullman's views as much as his writing. For Pullman has said: 'I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling-away.'

He knows perfectly well what he is doing. He openly and rightly believes storytelling can be a form of moral propaganda: 'All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions... We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time and silence. "Thou shalt not" is soon forgotten.'

Pullman has said many times that he thinks God is dead. Since he cannot know if this is true, it raises the question of whether he also hopes that God is dead.

He told an Oxford literary conference in August 2000: 'We're used to the Kingdom of Heaven; but you can tell from the genera thrust of the book that I'm of the devil's party, like Milton. And I think it's time we thought about a republic of Heaven instead of the Kingdom of Heaven. The King is dead. That's to say I believe the King is dead. I'm an atheist. But we need Heaven nonetheless, we need all the things that Heaven meant, we need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things the Kingdom of Heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver.'

None of this makes sense. If there is no God, then who makes the rules of the supernatural world which Pullman creates, in which people have visible souls called daemons; magic knives cut holes between the worlds and spectres devour life? How is it that the dead live on in a ghastly underworld of unending misery and torment, yet there is no Heaven?

In his worlds, the Church is wicked, cruel and child-hating; priests are sinister, murderous or drunk. Political correctness creeps in leadenly. There is a brave African king and a pair of apparently homosexual angels. The one religious character who turns out to be benevolent is that liberal favourite, an ex-nun who has renounced her vows and lost her faith. Even so, she sets out on a perilous journey when ordered to do so by angels, who speak to her through a computer.

Pullman, like Lewis, lives in Oxford, though a long way from the outlying suburb where the creator of Namia once dwelt and is now buried. A good thing, probably. The sound of Lewis chuckling from his grave at the idea of angels speaking to a renegade nun through a computer might get on Pullman's nerves.

peter.hitchens@mailonsunday.co.uk