Godless Harry Potter July 14, 2007

Godless Harry Potter

Time magazine has a short article this week that describes just how “radical” the Harry Potter books are when compared to similar series in the fantasy genre:

In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien fused his ardent Catholicism with a deep, nostalgic love for the unspoiled English landscape. C.S. Lewis was a devout Anglican whose Chronicles of Narnia forms an extended argument for Christian faith. Now look at [J.K.] Rowling’s books. What’s missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God.

It’s true there is no prayer or religion in Harry Potter. Even though the whole book is full of things people should consider supernatural (ghosts, curses, Horcruxes, etc), those elements are not fictitious in their world. Everyone can observe them firsthand.

To say God is dead in the series is wrong. If something never lived in the first place, how can it die…?

The beauty of the scientific way of thinking is evident in the book. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, one of the main plot points revolves around Dumbledore having a particular theory– one which he will not even elaborate on until Harry provides him with the evidence he needs to confirm his speculation. There’s no taking anything on faith. Harry is expected to question, and unless he does, he won’t discover the answers.

Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.

That’s a stretch if I ever heard one… just because she doesn’t refer to religion in her books doesn’t imply she’s ideologically similar to Hitchens (who has said he’s not just an atheist, he’s an anti-theist).

What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.

Next weekend, by the way, I’ll be taking a self imposed hiatus from the rest of the world.

I’ll be gone from Saturday morning (when Book 7 arrives) until I finish the whole thing.

In other words, I should be back by Saturday night.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, Catholic, C.S. Lewis, Anglican, Chronicles of Narnia, Christian, J.K. Rowling, Gd, Horcrux, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore, Christopher Hitchens[/tags]

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  • Hm. That almost (almost) makes me want to take another shot at the HP books. (Frankly, I just haven’t been able to get into them in the past).

    It’ll be interesting to see what kind of publicity will accompany the film version of “The Golden Compass” slated for release this December.

  • AV

    I take it as a sign of the overwhelming religiosity of American society that Time magazine considers it noteworthy that Harry Potter doesn’t reference/allude to Gawud and Jeebus.

  • Maria

    arghh I am so tired of hearing this crap about Harry Potter-even my liberal christian friends buy it. Okay everyone, here it goes: JK ROWLING IS PRESBYTYRAIN. that’s right, she’s a xtian herself! (you can google that) Just like Tolkien and CS Lewis! So this is stupid! Nevermind that in both the movies and the books the kids mention xmas and easter many times. I’m so tired of these idiots saying this nonsense. sheesh, even the Vatican said it didn’t have a problem with Harry Potter……..and besides who cares? it’s a work of f-i-c-t-i-o-n people…….and Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books had witches and wizards all over and I didn’t hear any bitching about them……

    just curious- why is Christopher Hitchens who claims to be an anti-theist, coming to an atheist conference in September? Or is it for all non-theists?

  • I’m a slow reader, the last book I read took me over a year to finish…I can’t imagine getting through chapter 1 in a day.

  • The Potter books are like quite a lot of modern books and films — they’re secular. There might be religion, but it’s kept kind of private and out of sight. Consider the man who officiates at the funeral at the end of book 6 — he could be a minister, but J. K. Rowling quite carefully doesn’t say, thereby leaving the reader free to imagine whatever seems most comfortable.

    By contrast, Philip Pullman is a real atheist writer, tackling religion head on. The ‘His Dark Materials’ series even has God in it — rather impotent, old and decrepit, and on the side of the enemy. Potter is just a more visible target, I guess.

  • Gadren

    I remember at the end of the fifth book (I think), when Harry is speaking with the ghost Nearly-Headless Nick about whether his dead godfather Sirius Black would come back as a ghost or what it’s like after death, Nick tells him that he has no knowledge of the other side, having chosen to stay a ghost out of fear. I don’t know if I’m using the term right, but HP takes a somewhat agnostic view here, with the properties of the afterlife (whatever it is) inherently unknowable by the living. I enjoy the HP series somewhat, and would probably be put off if it weren’t secular. I don’t like Narnia… it insults my intelligence to read it and sense the writer saying “Aslan is Jesus, because I am incapable of writing anything but allegory since my conversion and subsequent apologetic obsession. Oh and did I mention Aslan is Jesus?”

  • Karen

    Who the hell is Lev Grossman, and how come he gets to declare HP “radical” simply by comparison to two other fantasy series? Yes, there is literature outside of Lewis and Tolkien, Lev! Has he never read fairy tales, or the myriad other works of fantasy and science fiction that don’t reference god and religion?

    That’s a totally ridiculous criticism, and a needless snark in the lede. How many authors publish under pseudonyms? He makes it sound like a crime. If I were a cynic, I’d say Grossman’s hoping to cash in by capitalizing on someone else’s creative effort he couldn’t even begin to appreciate, let alone equal.

  • HP is only radical because it is popular. Nobody thinks the Wheel of Time series is radical because it’s only read by those to whom the genre appeals. Quite frankly, the thought of watching some of the anti-Potter fundies read the Wheel of Time makes me cackle with glee.

    That said, the fundies are right in one respect, in that the underlying philosophy of Harry Potter is completely antithetical to their fundamentalism.

    What is the single most important theme of the books? That you are what you decide to be.

    One might suggest that this isn’t contradictory to fundamentalism because after all the fundies must decide to be fundies, but as practiced in the books it is clearly different as pointed out in the post, it’s about an individual making decisions rather than abrogating that responsibility. It’s that notion that simple humans–children even–can make moral decisions that strikes at the heart of fundamentalism.

  • I’m glad someone else noticed that there is more than a hint of an afterlife in book five, there are ghosts of dead people in all of them, after all. I’ll wait until Rowling makes clear any implications of a deity or lack of one. She’s the only person who can explain herself, the only one who can give a definitive answer to any question about the fiction she’s invented. As to real life implications of any of it, I can agree with her on the power of love but other than that it’s make believe. Maria’s news about Rowling’s religion is interesting and as a casual reader of Potter (got roped into reading all six books to my two nieces) I wasn’t aware of it. I do rather like her and as a leftist have always suspected she was one of us.

    Christopher Hitches, if someone is taking moral advice from him then they’re already lost in the darkness. Iraq, cluster bombs,… the guy is a moral cesspool.

  • Patti Miller

    Try reconciling Grossman’s view with the one expressed by this Mugglenet writer…

    Evil atheist….or beneficent Christian?

    You decide!!

    (and , BTW, K is for Kathleen.)

  • Patti Miller, I’d figured out that Dumbledores “gleam of triumph” would have to figure in the denouement but didn’t have a clue about the cloak as a crucial clue. Interesting article, though I’d be surprised if HP turns out to be a Christ figure, though I’ve been wrong before. I figured Mark Evans had to be one of his long lost relations, see how much I know about it?

  • Patti Miller


    Theories abound!! One says that Neville will be the one who kills Voldy; another says that McGonagall is a Death Eater….so much to twist our minds around!

    I see a lot of politics in the books, (Rowling was a secretary for Amnesty International), but she’s certainly less religiously didactic than, say, CS Lewis…

  • miller

    I view the HP books as being largely neutral. I was in part convinced by this article (which as it happens, is written by the same Time author???). Some quotes:

    Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn’t even read all of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There’s something about Lewis’ sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves.

    I never think in terms of What am I going to teach them?

    His previous article was much more convincing because it was based on a Rowling interview. This one seems to be based on previous statements taken out of context.

    What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love.

    I buy that Rowling might have said that Harry’s power comes from love, but I don’t buy that it was a response to the question “What does Harry have instead of God?”

    Also, I don’t think anyone in HP will pull a Jesus and resurrect. The very idea goes against the series, which repeatedly says there is no return from death.

  • God isn’t exactly present as a character in Lord of the Rings, either.

    In fact, there are reasons to think that the Harry Potter books have been intended all along to be a Christian allegory:


    It’s possible that they will turn out to be a failed allegory, but Rowling’s own words indicate that she has had Christian themes and messages in mind from the very beginning.

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