Skeptic » eSkeptic » July 13, 2011

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About this week’s feature article

In light of the final installment of the übersuccessful Harry Potter series hitting theaters in two days, we present Ari Armstrong‘s examination of religion in J. K. Rowling’s novels.

Ari Armstrong is the author of Values of Harry Potter: Lesson for Muggles, Expanded Edition (Ember Publishing, 2011). He writes the Free Colorado blog and coauthors a column for Grand Junction Free Press.

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Religion in Harry Potter
Do J. K. Rowling’s novels
promote religion or undermine it?

by Ari Armstrong

Given the runaway popularity of J. K. Rowling’s novels and the related films, readers of the works, parents of readers, and those interested in cultural trends may wonder about the religious themes of the stories. Do the novels promote sorcery, as some conservative Christians allege? Do they instead endorse Christian notions of immortality, recapitulate the story of Christ’s sacrificial love, and promote religious faith? Or is it a mistake to read any religious theme into these fantasy stories?

Widely reported criticisms allege that Rowling’s novels undermine Christianity and promote occultism. A representative of Focus on the Family acknowledged that the novels offer “valuable lessons about love and courage and the ultimate victory of good over evil”; however, “the positive messages are packaged in a medium—witchcraft—that is directly denounced in scripture.”1 Other Protestant critics have been even less forgiving; a woman in the documentary film Jesus Camp said, “Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death.”2 While some Catholic leaders have praised the novels’ moral themes, others have castigated the books. Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said the books threaten to “corrupt the Christian faith,” while another Catholic commentator said the novels promote the occult and Gnostic-like (heretical) “secret knowledge.”3

Rowling called the claims that her works promote witchcraft or the occult absurd.4 Attorney and political writer Dave Kopel likens Rowling to C. S. Lewis, an author revered by many Christians even though his fantasy novels also contain magic.5

Rowling’s novels, while brimming with magic, clearly separate the fantasy world from the real one. The ability to do magic is akin to a genetic trait; some people are born with it, some are not. Those born without magic, called Muggles, can never cast spells or employ a wand. In these stories, magical and nonmagical worlds coexist, but they remain separated by a wizard segregation law.6 More important, Rowling distinguishes the magic of her wizard world from a deeper sort of “magic” available to us all. Consider the comments of Harry’s mentor Dumbledore about the villain Voldemort, an expert in dark magic: “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. …That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”7 It is a truth that apparently eludes some of Rowling’s critics, too.

Far from undermining Christianity, Rowling’s novels promote important Christian themes, starting with immortality. In a 2007 interview Rowling said she believes in Christianity and attends a Protestant church.8 While she struggles with the idea of immortality, she said, “I do believe in life after death.”9

The heroes of Rowling’s novels explicitly endorse a belief in immortality. For example, Hermione, Harry’s bookish friend, explains to another friend, “Look, if I picked up a sword right now…and ran you through with it, I wouldn’t damage your soul at all. …Whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched.” She also says that “defeating death” in the positive sense means “living after death,” as opposed to attempting earthly immortality as Voldemort does. Significantly, she says this at the grave of Harry’s parents on Christmas Eve, and she magically creates “a wreath of Christmas roses” to place on the grave.10

A belief in the immortal soul is not unique to Christianity—Plato also maintained such a belief—but it does presume supernaturalism. Thus, while the endorsement of immortality in Rowling’s novels does not by itself make the novels distinctly Christian, it does promote a religious belief compatible with Christianity.

We may ask, though, how central a role does immortality play in the themes of the novels? Do the characters’ actions hinge on that belief? No doubt one of Voldemort’s major motivations is his pathological fear of death. Because of this fear he seeks total control over others, going so far as to murder people to create magical objects to protect himself. By contrast, the heroes are not strongly motivated by their belief in immortality. Instead, they fight to preserve their lives, the lives and safety of their loved ones, and their ability to live and work in peace, free from tyrannical oppression.

The heroes put themselves in harm’s way, not because a belief in an immortal soul alleviates their fear of death, but to protect their most cherished values. Harry’s godfather says the heroes fight Voldemort because “there are things worth dying for.”11 And the image of one of Harry’s mentors appears to Harry after being killed in that fight. He says, “I am sorry…I will never know [my son]…but he will know why I died and I hope he will understand. I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life.”12 So, while the novels clearly show a pathological fear of death can foster corruption, they do not demonstrate that virtue or heroism depend on a belief in immortality.

While Rowling believes immortality transcends her fantasy world, within the novels that religious belief remains entangled with the fantasy. In the stories, Hermione, often the skeptic, sees direct evidence of incorporeal souls. Ghosts regularly float through their school and converse with the students. A ghost even tells Harry that, while he chose to “remain behind,” usually spirits “will have…gone on.”13 In real life readers cannot commune with the dead, and they may reasonably conclude that immortality and incorporeal souls remain pure fantasy, along with the magic wands and spells.

In addition to the theme of immortality, the novels present the religious ideal of sacrificial love. The climax of the novels, with its complex backstory, seems to epitomize that theme. When Harry is an infant, Voldemort murders Harry’s parents and tries to murder Harry. The love of Harry’s mother Lily protects him from Voldemort’s magic, leaving Voldemort seriously weakened. However, through this clash Voldemort loses a piece of his soul—and it attaches itself to Harry, giving him a scar on his forehead. (This again invokes the idea of an incorporeal soul.) In the final book, Voldemort again tries to kill Harry, and again he fails because of the residual protection of Lily’s love. However, Harry believes he faces death in confronting Voldemort, and he intends to give his own life in order to destroy Voldemort and save his friends and allies. Moreover, after Harry suffers Voldemort’s curse he appears dead for a time and enters a sort of purgatory. Surely this bears some comparison to Christ’s sacrificial act, but how close of a comparison?

To John Granger, a Christian apologist for Rowling’s work, Harry’s apparently sacrificial act “points to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.” Harry “has died to the evil within him, and freed from this very real burden, he can (to risk using Christian language) be ‘born again.’” Granger continues, “Harry survives, but only because of the bond of blood he has with the person whose sacrificial death long ago saved him from the Dark Lord. The Christian echo here rings out….” Granger worries about drawing too close of a comparison; “Harry is no saint—and no Jesus, either.” But “his choices must be the same as Christ’s.”14

I do not doubt that Rowling intended a comparison to Christ’s death in the acts of both Lily and Harry. (Dumbledore’s death invites the same comparison.) Yet, in their motivations and in the context of their choices, Rowling’s heroes differ substantially from Jesus. God sent Jesus to die for everyone, however depraved, based on the idea that blood sacrifice atones for sin. Lily, on the other hand, tries to save her most cherished value—her son—from a particular aggressor. She has no wish to die, and certainly not for her enemies. Harry’s alternative to facing Voldemort is not to remain in some blissful Heaven, but to watch Voldemort continue to destroy the world he loves, systematically murder his friends and allies, and relentlessly seek to kill him—or, worse, to accept the yoke of Voldemort’s brutal dictatorship. As I argue in my book Values of Harry Potter, even in risking their lives Rowling’s heroes “struggle to defend the values that give their own lives meaning.”15

Rowling’s heroes typically do not sacrificially “turn the other cheek,” as Jesus advises; instead, when Harry’s surrogate mother Molly Weasley sees an enemy attacking one of her children, she counterattacks with a lethal curse, screaming, “Not my daughter, you bitch!”16 Indeed, I have argued that the actions of the heroes come closer to the moral ideals of rational self-interest as presented by Aristotle and Ayn Rand than they do to Christianity or its secular offshoots that exalt self-sacrifice.17

If Rowling’s themes of immortality and sacrificial love only ambiguously and half-heartedly endorse Christian ideals, what about her treatment of free will and faith?

Rowling’s heroes endorse free will; for example, Dumbledore says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”18 The concept of free will underpins the development of several of Rowling’s major characters, including Harry, Voldemort, and Dumbledore. Does this view of free will tie in with novels’ supernaturalism and incorporeal souls? Is free will itself a sort of magic resulting from our spiritual ghosts interacting with our material bodies?

Various scientists and atheists suggest that free will is an illusion.19 But other scientists and atheists regard free will as introspectively demonstrable and see basic self-determination as the foundation of morality as well as rational thought.20 Likewise, some Christians believe in free will, others do not. The concept as developed in Rowling’s novels could fit a variety of different theoretical underpinnings, both religious and secular. Therefore, while some might presume a treatment of free will must imply a religious background, in general and in the case of Rowling’s novels it does not.

Does Rowling endorse faith over reason? For the most part Rowling’s heroes display fiercely independent and critical thinking. For example, when the Minister of Magic asks Harry to play along with the Ministry’s propaganda campaign, Harry tells the Minister he wants no part of the plan.21 In Divination class, Hermione finally gets fed up with the teacher’s arbitrary pronouncements, mocks the teacher, and storms out of the class, never to return.22 True, in the final book Harry decides “simply to trust” Dumbledore’s advice; “[h]e had no desire to doubt again.”23 John Granger sees such lines as constituting “an argument for the choice of religious belief.”24

I see Granger’s conclusion as strained. Harry chooses to trust the advice of an actual person with demonstrated reliability and concern for Harry’s regard. In the face of difficult decisions, Harry chooses to trust Dumbledore so that he can devote his energies to fighting Voldemort. As any leader in a war or emergency realizes, sometimes it is better to make a decisive choice based on limited information than to sit around bewailing the uncertainty. Harry’s trust in Dumbledore, whom he personally knew for several years, differs fundamentally from religious faith in a supernatural being or ancient religious text, accepted apart from physical evidence.

What, then, is the reader ultimately to make of the religious themes of the novels? Rowling does promote the Christian ideas of immortality and Christ-like love, but her efforts in these matters seem half-hearted and conflicted. (Rowling’s novels do not support a religious conception of free will or faith.) While some readers interpret the novels as fundamentally religious works, the events of the stories suggest the religious elements appear as vestigial features of a Christian faith that plays little role in the motivation of the heroes. While some Christians mistake the significance of the magic of the novels, wrongly linking it to occultism, others overstate the importance of the religious elements.

Ultimately the novels’ nonreligious themes drive the stories, showing great heroes fighting for their values, struggling against oppression and bigotry, and seeking self-reflective virtue. Rowling weaves these themes into vivid coming-of-age stories with lifelike and compelling characters. This is why the novels have attracted a tremendous worldwide following, regardless of readers’ cultural or religious background.END

References
  1. Kurtz, H. 1999. “Harry Potter Expelled from School.” Rocky Mountain News, November 6, p. 6A. (Wikipedia proved helpful in tracking down this citation as well as those of notes 3, 4, and 8.)
  2. Armstrong, A. 2011. Values of Harry Potter (expanded ed.). Denver: Ember Publishing. p. 10. (For additional information about the documentary, see http://www.jesuscampthemovie.com/.)
  3. Phan, T. 2008. “Vatican Slams Harry Potter as ‘Wrong Kind of Hero.’” Christian Today, January 16 (accessed July 3, 2011).
  4. CNN, 1999. “Success of Harry Potter Bowls Author Over.” CNN Entertainment, October 21 (accessed July 3, 2011).
  5. Kopel, D. 2003. “Deconstructing Rowling.” National Review Online, June 20, (accessed July 3, 2011).
  6. See Armstrong, A. pp. 115–19.
  7. Rowling, J. K. 2007. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press. pp. 709–710.
  8. de Rek, W. 2007. “J. K. Rowling.” Volkskrant, November 17 (accessed July 3, 2011).
  9. Petre, J. 2007. “J. K. Rowling: ‘Christianity Inspired Harry Potter.’Telegraph, October 20 (accessed July 3, 2011).
  10. Rowling, J. K. 2007. pp. 104, 328–29.
  11. Rowling, J. K. 2003. p. 477.
  12. Rowling, J. K. 2007. p. 700.
  13. Rowling, J. K. 2003. p. 861.
  14. Granger, J. 2008. How Harry Cast His Spell. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House. pp. 233, 240–41.
  15. Armstrong, A. p. 77.
  16. Rowling, J. K. 2007. p. 736 (emphasis removed).
  17. Armstrong, A. pp. 24–27, 71–85.
  18. Rowling, J. K. 1999. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press. p. 333.
  19. E.g., Harris, S. 2011. “Free Will (And Why You Still Don’t Have It).” Sam Harris, May 31 (accessed July 3, 2011).
  20. E.g., Rand, A. 1979. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. New York: Meridian. p. 110.
  21. Rowling, J. K. 2005. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press. pp. 345–47.
  22. Rowling, J. K. 1999. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press. p. 298.
  23. Rowling, J. K. 2007. p. 563.
  24. Granger, J. pp. 206–207.
33 Comments »

33 Comments

  1. Glenorchy McBride says:

    Who cares? they are good yarns – no one believes in magic but it certainly makes fun stories. We are the story making species – and we have created millions of great stories. They were created to give a good feeling and some understanding about people – learning without experiencing personally. Christianity is built on stories – some great and some silly. But who cares? Even the Christians and Jews don’t want them purged.

  2. Percy Sludge says:

    I didn’t even bother to read the above Harry Poitter nonsense.
    Is this how people behaved after Dodgson published “Alice in Wonderland”?
    Or after…umm, Rand published “The Fountainhead”?

    Lissen, Shermer- wake up! WTF is this Harry Potter nonsense?
    Is this what skeptics have to fight these days?
    So now, we have to tackle this billionaire J R Rowlings and stop her from spinning more kiddie tales?
    Get a grip! Another storyteller has just passed us by, on the way to the bank.

    • Lcp1138 says:

      Percy Sludge said “Another storyteller has just passed us by, on the way to the bank.”

      And worth every dollar I spent to read the books and see the movies Percy. Would that I could wipe the experience from my memory and pay it all over again.

      As far as Potter exuding some religious notions between it’s covers. We could only hope for writing so magnificent or characters and stories so moving as what Rowling has created in that sad little comic book known as the Bible.

  3. Ari Armstrong says:

    Glenorchy wonders “who cares” about the religious themes of the Harry Potter novels. Well, entire books have been written on the subject, a figure no less prominent than the Pope has commented on the matter, and a Google search for “Harry Potter”+religion yields 115 million results. So obviously a lot of people care. The real question is should anybody care. The answer is obviously yes. Novels are not merely fun stories that make us feel good. Rather, literature embodies the deepest human values and aspirations. Great literature moves people, sometimes radically changes the direction of their lives, and often inspires them to innumerable causes ranging from abolition and other social reforms to space exploration to personal transformation. So the themes of novels read by tens of millions of people should matter to us. Moreover, as readers, understanding the themes of great works of literature helps us better appreciate those works. Of course, if the themes of the Potter novels do not matter to a particular individual, then the solution seems simple enough. -Ari

  4. Dennis says:

    Most of the things mentioned are not distinctly Christian. Being willing to sacrifice your life for those you love does not inevitable mirror Jesus’ death on the cross. These human values existed in culture and society before Christianity and they exist now apart of Christianity. Christians either vociferously criticize or ruthlessly harmonize depending on their proclivity. If you like Harry Potter you will harmonize to make it okay to read and laudable, if you don’t you’ll vociferously critique how the ideas are similar but fundamentally different from the Bible and therefore even more harmful.

  5. Evan Simmons, Sr. says:

    I grew up in an era (1950’S) with a strict Catholic education, and there was stern instruction about what one was allowed to read to the point of paranoia, but creating a keen curiosity about what was banned.
    I saw one Harry Potter and one or two Dan Brown movies and took them for what they are, fiction.
    Concern is driven by an antiquated fear and, as a result, a desire to control what people see and read, which is a rather arrogant and offensive position.
    These days I read anything I want, including the New York Times.

  6. william wallace says:

    I think it all depends on whether a person still believes in witchcraft as a literally true thing. If so, then there are demons and devils which take over a person’s mind and body and need to be expelled.

    This, of course is a primitive identification process and does not need the attention of scientifically minded people. It is just more evidence of the power of supersition in humanity.

  7. Ari Armstrong says:

    I appreciate the (relevant) comments and welcome the opportunity to add a couple additional details.

    Dennis correctly notes, “Most of the things mentioned are not distinctly Christian.” That’s true of all the basic elements I discuss and of many religious concepts. But it’s worth asking whether Rowling includes these elements because of her Christianity, and whether they have a Christian twist in the books. The sacrificial-love element does have a Christian twist, and I think the immortality element does as well (here I think the key is the Horcrux, which I discuss elsewhere).

    Aristotle discusses the pre-Christian equivalent of the person who “sacrifices his own interest,” as I discuss in my book, and he describes a virtuous type of “a lover of self.” The basic problem with the popular idea of “sacrificial love” is that it includes radically different sorts of motivations; as I argue, Lily’s act is fundamentally different from that of Jesus.

  8. Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

    Harry Potter is , simply, pulp fantasy fiction wrtten in a very smart
    style .

    The complexity of Rowling’s Fantasy world makes it work as a page-turner an Sequel generator.
    I think it is a dim cultural equivalent of OZ or ALICE or
    Lovecraft for the more adventurous.

    It is Bizarre for the author here to draw any intent form the author
    about the merits of “Reality” vs. The stuff that Skeptics oppose in principle.

    HOWEVER, I think The Pope and other advocates os Christianity have reason to be concerned.
    The general conversion of large segments of Euro-American Society to “MAgickal Thinking” is reason for dread and trembling among Skeptics and Christians ( all styles) as well.

    rj pease

    • George Capehart says:

      Funny, I’d always thought of religion (the Abrahamic family, anyway) as being an archetype of magical thinking . . .

      • Dr.Sidethink Hp.D says:

        Religion is obviously an archtype of magical thinking.

        the Reason that the Fundies are concerned is that their belief is tha “God’s Word” trumps historical notions.

        I.e. Don’t practice “superstition” meaning non-biblical Magick.
        Catholic Canon Law has strong prohibitions against “superstition” and Magick ,the zinger being that the body of dogma surrounding the Incarnation is not only biblical but directed by the truth of the Magisterium. thus defineth other Magickal Thinking as prohibited.

        For a fundie, the magic in stuff like Noah’s ark and Moses Plagues is true because it’s in the Bible. But they insist that Catholics are “Superstitious” because of disagreement in Approved Biblical Style
        and ,of course, the chain of Authority).

        Harry Potter is regarded as promoting non-biblical Magick, thus leading those of faith away from the Bible.

        When to comes down to it, the opposition to Potter comes from an affront to “Biblical truth”, encouraging disbelief
        With Skeptics the ridicule of Macigkal thinking challenges the need for proof instead of just raw belief.
        rjp

        • Bad Boy Scientist says:

          So the reason that Magickal Thinkers should fear fiction dealing with Magickal thinking is that it may reveal the Magickal nature of their belief system

          BTW: I am surprised that The Harry Potter series is taken so seriously by scholars when it is so inconsistent and poorly thought out. Everything from the silliness of Quidditch (which, if it were a real game would evolve into everyone being a seeker since catching the snitch is the best way to win). Plot devices and cutsie-ism are crudely thrust into the storyline – without compatibility with the Rowling ‘universe’ and some of these thing make no sense to me. Magic appears to be limitless and yet Hogwarts requires an army of House Elves. Also, consider the ‘prophesy’: “neither can live while the other survives.” It’s either so metaphorical as to be meaningless or it’s just wrong. Voldemort survived for years while Harry Potter lived. WTF?

          But the thing which really gets stuck in my craw about the Harry Potter series is this: starting with Harry’s first year in Hogwarts it is discovered that Voldemort still survives and is trying to make a comeback – although he is very weak and relatively easily defeated. So, with all the people who readily join the Order of the Phoenix why weren’t there enough to go after Voldemort and end the whole thing in Book One?

          • Dr Sidethink says:

            Bad Boy Scientist says:
            July 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm

            “So the reason that Magickal Thinkers should fear fiction dealing with Magickal thinking is that it may reveal the Magickal nature of their belief system.”

            RJ Pease sez

            Not entirely.
            They DEFINE their “belief system as “Revealed” and therefore exempt from criticisms of Magick.

            Most Magickal thinkers say that THEIR stuff is
            “TROOTH” ™, not Magick, but that similar stuff is hogwash

            Their fear of Potter is that it fosters a belief in Magick, instead of their TROOTH and that kidz might begin to DOUBT the authority of teachers who insist that “THEIRSTUFF” is GOOD
            Science is GOOD
            “THEIRSTIFF IS SCIENCE”

            Is this getting boring????

            In short
            “Yeah , Magick really Sucks but don’t call MY stuff Magick”

            Marvin Gardner commented in “Fads and Fallacies” that
            they liked his disdain of pseudoscience but very ofthe asked him why he picked on stuff like Orgone .
            I.E. They believe that their brand of madness is the “TROOTH” because of sundry reasons like
            “It’s in the Bible”
            “Research shows”
            “Vas YOU dere, Schollie<<"
            Personal conversion or direct experience
            Authority of Pope,, Joseph Smith, Baghavad-gita, Local hillblly parson etc

            In short
            "Yeah , Magick really Sucks but don't call my stuff Magick"

            RJP

            rjp

  9. jim douthit says:

    Ari–

    Thanks for clarifying the moral themes in Harry Potter stories. I’ve never read any of them, but have been curious as to what has made them so popular. I’m glad the heroic, self-interested motives are dominant.

    Keep up the clear-thinking and the clear writing. jd

  10. Henry says:

    The Harry Potter mythology and Christian mythology both draw from the same well; of course there are similarities! It’s a hero’s journey.

    • Jason Colavito says:

      True. But some of the mythic themes presented in this review are a bit outdated. According to the material presented in this review, the Potter-Jesus connection seems to draw primarily on old, outdated Victorian myth theories that no one really holds today. Apparently the author has used the exact same examples and evidence as the old studies like Joseph McCabe’s “The Myth of the Resurrection” (1925). The “Solar Hero” fallacy was recognized as wrong a century ago, and the astrological origins of Christianity haven’t been seen outside of “alternative” history since the 1920s. If one wants to explore Christianity and myth, it would seem useful to take a more skeptical view and work with more modern views and evidence about ancient history.

  11. Missy says:

    I thought this article was very interesting. I know about some of the controversy that came from these books but seeing it written out with critical thinking was great. What it comes down to for me is that too many groups take things too seriously. They are fantasy books that are very well written. I think sometimes trying to dig into what is behind the books leads to looking for things that are not there. I wish more people could just take things as they are, entertainment.

    • Mario says:

      I remember back when the first book and film was out, there was like a hysteria among US parents regarding how dangerous Harry Potter is, the show 20/20 in it’s “Give me a break” section covered it, at first they interviewed parents, church clerics and all of them painted a very dark image of this satanic little boy, then there were book burning meetings recordings, after that the show interviewed children and all of them just laugh at the idea of Harry Potter being real or having actual powers, they all said that even though they know that, they keep reading it because it was fun to imagine or pretend to have his powers and many kind of identify themselves whit Harry.

      Just like Neil de Grasse have said, the problem is not our children they are doing fine, cause they are not the ones that read horoscopes before going through their days and specially they are not the ones who vote.

  12. Patti says:

    I find it interesting that the closest thing to a deity on the HP novels is Albus Dumbledore… one who manipulates his followers to do what he believes to be the ‘greater good’ while giving them little information and even less choice in the matter. He doesn’t ask Sirius if he would like to spend 10 years in Azkaban, the wizard jail, because Dumbledore wants him out of the way. He doesn’t ask Harry or those who love him whether it is good to sentence the child to “ten dark, difficult years” as an abused child, or later, if Harry would mind being used as a weapon marked for death. Most telling, he uses Snape very callously as a tool to get Harry ready to be sacrificed.

    Rowling’s concept of deity is not very much like the Christian theologian would present it, but it is much like the Bible presents it.

  13. William Cutler says:

    The discussion is thought-provoking and I agree generally with Armstrong’s assessment of the Harry Potter series as morally and, perhaps, religiously uplifting. However I find his stated understanding of immortality and the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and ressurection to be rather rudimentary. For another, deeper view, read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.”

    For myself, whenever I run across something in religion that stretches my credulity, I insert an “It is as if” ahead of it. The point is not whether some event of phenomenon did or did not happen. The point is, if things were that way, what would it mean ethically, morally and spiritually. That lesson is still there, even if the story pointing to it is myth or fantasy.

    Bill Cutler

  14. Adrian says:

    I agree with Ari that the novels promote Christian themes (or religious themes with “a Christian twist”), but I disagree with his conclusion that the religious aspects of these themes are vestigial and play little role in the heroes’ motivations. In fact, I think his conclusions rest on a handful of false assumptions about Christianity, such as the following:
    1. Immortality is the Christian’s motivation for living a virtuous life
    2. Jesus’ life and death must be strictly and solely interpreted as an atonement
    3. Faith is “belief without evidence” (and therefore antithetical to reason)

    An introductory course or scholarly book on Christian history or philosophical theology will easily address the misconceptions behind each of these arguments (much like an introductory book or course on evolution or the philosophy of science makes intelligent design arguments effortlessly refutable).

    Once you no longer cling to these assumptions it’s quite obvious that Christian themes of love, death, suffering, sacrifice, forgiveness, and trust are deeply integrated into the characters and plot of the novels.

    Adrian

  15. David says:

    @Ari
    A few Google search (as of 07/14/2011)
    Climate Change: 130,000,000
    Harry potter : 102,000,000 results
    Harry Potter religion : 87,400,000 results
    Kate Middleton : 82,000,000 result
    Flat earth : 12,600,000 results
    Skeptics : 12,500,000 results

    So, if using google search is an indication of what people care about, we should be talking way more about climate change and roughly equally about Kate Middleton. And we should probably forget about being skeptical since it is as important as believing the earth is flat. The point is I wonder where the justification of google hit numbers as a measure of what people care about comes from. But even if we assume that it is actually a good measure, as pointed out, the real question is whether people should care.

    And that’s an interesting question. I don’t recall reading in the news that any Start Trek fan (even the most hard core ones) would actually believe we can travel faster than light, or that teleportation is possible. And I don’t recall people being worried that such novels or TV series would promote pseudo-science. It probably triggered people’s interest in science instead. I also don’t remember any kid reading comics believing that our world is filled with powerful mutants, or believing that they can wear a red underwear and a cap and fly over buildings. Harry Potter and those other books are sold in the “Fiction” department of book stores. And that’s just what it is “a fiction”. The problem having people worrying about the content of those books is that it gives the books a potential credibility that they would otherwise not have due to their fictitious nature. No one reading the bible (or any scripture) would actually believe these are the words of god until actually told so. (Or should I say brainwashed into believing so). So, any emphasis on Harry Potter’s religious or anti-religious compatibility, or emphasis on its connection to our world would only contribute to give legitimacy to these thesis that most reader would otherwise not care about. I don’t think we would be having the same conversation if the emphasis about Harry Potter’s critics was on how clever the imaginary world is, or how much of a tale it is. As a parallel, I don’t recall seeing the same type of worries about Lord of the Ring. There was magic and moral issues (greed, power, trust, etc..) too. “Lord of the ring” also gets 91,900,000 results on google, yet “Lord of the ring” + “religion” only yield to 16,700,000 results. Why is that? My guess is that the Lord of the Ring world “looks” obviously more fictitious than the one from Harry Potter and hence one would have a much harder time arguing about its implications in our real world.
    So, should people care? Absolutely not! People should emphasis the fact that Harry Potter is a fantastic tale rather than giving it credibility by caring about the wrong thing, i.e. that it might be real and affects us.

  16. Joshua L. says:

    This is a great analysis of a huge cultural force. Needles to say, interesting read.

  17. Ari Armstrong says:

    I’ll take a final stab at responding to some of the comments.

    1. Some people here seem to be making the opposite error of the fundamentalist Christians. While the fundamentalists mistake the magic of the fantasy novels for reality, some of the comments here seem to totally dismiss the very-human themes of all great literature. Yes, the Potter novels, like all works of fiction, offer made-up stories from the author’s imagination. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in literature that bears on real life! Quite the contrary! Do you wish to deny that the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Herman Melville or Fyodor Dostoevsky tell us something interesting about the reality of the human condition? The key is to distinguish between the made-up fiction and the underlying themes that bear on real life.

    2. The overriding theme of the New Testament is that, through Christ’s death on the cross, we can seek God’s forgiveness for our sins and achieve immortality in Heaven. My argument is that neither immortality nor Christ-like love play much of a role in motivating the characters of the Harry Potter novels. As for the New Testament’s treatment of faith and reason, the first few chapters of I Corinthians (for example) make clear that God’s wisdom is revealed only through his power and spirit, not human reason. That sort of faith plays no noticeable role in the Potter novels.

    3. Themes of love, death, etc. are not uniquely Christian but rather universal, so their appearance in the Potter novels does not indicate that the stories are Christian in nature.

  18. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Come now, let us reason together: to say that the New Testament treatment of faith and reason can be adequately addressed by a single passage is … well, proof texting.

    (BTW: I’m aware that my quoted passage is from Isiah – and Old Testament book).

  19. Sunwyn Ravenwood says:

    About 40 years ago Isaac Asimov wrote a very funny tongue-in-cheek article for TV Guide about how Saturday morning cartoons were brainwashing our kids into becoming Zoroastrianists. Well, I guess Harry Potter is too. It just makes for such darn good books (and movies). The basic premise is that the universe is a battlefield between the powers of Good and Evil. It works for comic books, for Star Wars, for Harry Potter, and it also works for all the religions which took the idea from Zoroastrianism, along with the idea of One God, angels, a savior/messiah, virgin birth, resurrection, and the last judgement. Judaism took some from their Persian rulers in Babylon, the Christians picked up more from Hellenistic philosophy and Islam got them from the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabeans. So yes, these ideas turn up everywhere. Authors are shameless. And I deeply regret to say that the best HP book was the first one and that they got less interesting the longer they grew. The last one was pretty bad, and the first half movie wasn’t very good either. I hope the second half is better.

  20. officerripley says:

    I confess I don’t understand all the interest, either for or against, in fantasy since it’s so deadly boooorrrrring! Or should be to anyone above the age of about 12 or so; for pat’s sake, doesn’t anybody grow out of *anything* anymore? (It’s okay if it’s zombie stuff, though. :D )

    • Dr Sidethink says:

      Hey Officer Rippley
      “ya psychologically distoibed !!”

      ”’The Side Side Story”
      by Leonard Birdthink

  21. Jim Clark says:

    Hi

    I would have thought that most Skeptics would realize that the question about what Harry Potter promotes (religion or otherwise) is an empirical one, and not a question that can be settled by any amount of arm-chair philosophizing, analogies, whatever.

    Jim

  22. Jean says:

    I think Ari is trying too hard to dismiss the religiousity of the novels. Are they explicitly Christian? No, obviously not. Neither is “The Lord of the Rings” by Tolkien, who was very religious and said his book was informed by his Catholicism. Here’s the exact quote: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

    I think it’s a similar case with Rowling, though she’s not as devout a Christian as Tolkien was. The themes of self-sacrifice, the power of love and friendship — these contrast markedly with Ari’s goddess Rand, who believed that any person who valued human relationships — friends and family — over their creative work was immoral. Mostly what I see is Ari’s attempt (common among Objectivists) to re-write and re-interpret the characters motivations in order to make them palatable to their doctrine.

  23. Ari Armstrong says:

    I think it’s a little humorous that, on one side, I’m lambasted for allegedly reading too much religion into the Potter novels, and on the other side for reading in too little. Of course I maintain that I find just the right amount of religion — the amount that actually exists in the novels. I include some choice quotes in the essay above, and exhaustive quotes in my book, to prove my claims.

    The main problem with Jean’s case is that there is is nothing uniquely Christian or religious about love or friendship. The fact that most Christians love and have friends does not make love and friendship basically about Christianity, any more than the fact that most Christians drink milk makes milk-drinking essentially Christian. Love and friendship are universal among all peoples, before and after the advent of Christianity.

    As for self-sacrifice, as I’ve noted, there is a conceptual problem with the term, in that it inappropriately mashes together many types of fundamentally different actions and motivations. Self-sacrifice is not necessarily religious; Aristotle wrote about it in a secular context (as I review in my book). Today, though, thinking about self-sacrifice tends to lean strongly Christian, and there is a particularly Christian form of self-sacrifice that I think Rowling was trying to invoke. However, Christ-like self-sacrifice doesn’t actually apply to a significant degree to the motivations of the Potter heroes in the context of the stories. (I offer extensive textual evidence backing up my claims; perhaps Jean can offer some evidence backing up hers.)

    As for Jean’s claim that Rand is my “goddess,” that’s just a smear and therefore unworthy of further reply.

    (As an aside, Jean distorts the meaning of Rand’s views. Consider, for instance, John Galt’s passionate love for Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged; near the end of the novel Galt threatens to kill himself rather than let his enemies harm Dagny.)

    Incidentally, I’d like to thank Sunwyn Ravenwood for pointing me to the Asimov essay in TV Guide (May 4, 1968). It’s a delightfully funny essay. However, though Asimov is making fun of those who read too much into fiction, in the case of the Potter novels, the religious elements I describe *really are in there*, as the text clearly reveals. You cannot get more explicit than Hermione’s discussions about the immortality of the soul.

  24. Jean says:

    Ah, Ari – I would have thought you could do better.

    “there is is nothing uniquely Christian or religious about love or friendship”

    No, of course there isn’t. Many religions, in addition to Christianity, hold these as primary values. But it’s not true of Objectivism: in the hierarchy of values of Objectivism, love and friendship don’t hold the same value as one’s own ambitions. From a 1964 Playboy interview with Rand:

    “If they place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man’s life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite; whereas, if he places his work first, there is no conflict between his work and his enjoyment of human relationships. ”

    Harry Potter places his love of family ties and the greater good — meaning he acknowledges a “common good”, or “society”, something Rand denies — as more important than his own life or aspirations or even his own life.

    Like Tolkien, a devout Catholic, Rowling has infused her stories with Christian symbolism, though not to the extent that Tolkien did (a Catholic reading Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings’ finds all kinds of Catholic symbolism which would be completely lost on the secular reader).

    Here’s a few Christian themes from Rowling:

    *A birth foretold by prophesy (something atheist Objectivists would scoff at).

    *Sacrificial love is referred to by Professor Dumbledore as an “ancient magic” that Voldemort knows but is terrified of.

    * Threatened as an infant by evil forces – goes into hiding as an infant.

    *Supernatural power exists that holds sway over animals, time, and matter.

    * The dead are not non-existent: they are with Harry and give him support and comfort. There is an afterlife, something no Objectivist would admit.

    *Griffindor (a good house) is symbolized by a lion; evil is symbolized with a snake.

    *Went willingly to his death.

    *Came back to life.

    *Defeats the forces of evil in a final, glorious battle — but after great sacrifice.

    You write: “As for Jean’s claim that Rand is my “goddess,” that’s just a smear and therefore unworthy of further reply.” But it is more than a smear, my dear Ari. Man is a religious animal, and so atheists simply worship other gods (causes, themselves, etc.) than do theists. It is hilarious to go to an Objectivist forum and see the religious sentiments expressed: Rand is held as infallible as the Pope; her writings are held as sacred as the Old and New Testament; and her characters in her novels are referred to as if they were actually real. There is more delusion to be found on an Objectivist forum than in any Mass.

    ” As an aside, Jean distorts the meaning of Rand’s views. Consider, for instance, John Galt’s passionate love for Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged; near the end of the novel Galt threatens to kill himself rather than let his enemies harm Dagny.”

    Hey, Ari, it’s just a story. I’m sure Rand has some non-altruistic explanation for her fictional characters, but what I’ve found is that Objectivists simply bend the definitions of words to suit them. So, if a Christian makes sacrifices for his or hers loved ones, or provides for the poor, it’s that awful altruism. If a fictional character in a Rand novel makes sacrifices, oh — it’s not altruism but an expression of values,! Why can’t she grant that Christians value friends, family, and help for the poor as an equal expression of values?

  25. Alex says:

    I always thought the most “religious” theme of the Harry Potter series was how incredibly young many of the characters married and had kids.

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