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Austin Cline

The Secular World of Harry Potter

By August 2, 2005

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One curious aspect of the Harry Potter novels which I had never thought about before is just how secular they are. The wizarding world contains no clear references to religion and, in its own way, is rather scientific in how it operates. What little is shown of the Muggle world has no religion, either.

Mika LaVaque-Manty writes:

Consider: Religion plays no role in the books. There are no churches, no other religious institutions, nobody prays or meditates, and even funerals are non-religious affairs. This is a striking contrast to all the other familiar trappings we find in the books: there’s commerce and bureaucracy, there’s crime and punishment, sports, arts, media; there’s teenage romance and mischief, there’s drinking and partying, petty jealousies and worldwide crises.

Further, the magic in the books have their, well, rational logic. You have to study them, like science, and while Rowling mainly spares us the details (for which I’m eternally grateful, though I’m sure there are some fans busy trying to cook up Polyjuice Potion), there are natural laws of sort underlying them. They aren’t our natural laws, but they are like our natural laws: thoroughly causal. The one apparently non-causal area of magic -- “Divination” -- is more or less explicitly pooh-poohed by any self-respecting wizard. Or, more precisely, divination is not dismissed, but smart folks understand its efficacy makes sense sociologically: it can work only if people believe it works.

The thoroughgoing secular nature of the world of Harry Potter doesn’t indicate that the books are anti-religious, but it does mean that religion isn’t necessary to convey the moral and social themes in the books. Even more interesting would be if the books are religious or Christian allegories because it would suggest that such themes also don’t need religion to be conveyed.

Some readers may find that very absence of spiritual solace and religious moral dicta in Rowling’s world bewildering and so exactly the source of exciting unease adventure and horror fiction rely on. “Whew,” they say on finishing a Harry Potter book, “Thank God [sic] I’ve got this source of support poor Harry doesn’t.” That’d be just fine. But I like the Harry Potter books exactly because they are -- in addition to the fun and adventure and summer escapism -- deeply moral books without easy answers to some the toughest moral problems people confront. In that way, they remind us that however much Weber’s secularization thesis may have been wrong on the sociological particulars, the philosophical problem of modernity is that it’s often bewilderlingly hard to figure out what we should do and how we should live and that, on the whole, it’d be good to get practice in answering those questions by oneself.

I wonder how many of the criticisms of the Harry Potter novels are based on just this: the absence of religious solace? The idea that people are left to themselves and must rely on their own skills and their friends in order to solve difficult problems, rather than praying to God in order to help them? I’ve not seen any criticisms that make these points overtly, but perhaps people are reacting subconsciously to it.

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