|Harry Potter and the Triumph of Atheistic Rationality
||[Oct. 12th, 2008|11:20 pm]
Reason as a candle in the dark
|||||Nest - Woodsmoke||]|
As with most people that call for the banning and burning of books, the self declared "moral majority" (in reality, neither) in the United States and elsewhere are both ignorant of what it is they race to condemn, and oblivious to the fact that their actions both promote the work in question and nullify any criticism that could be made of the works on any grounds other than literary. The religious right's reactions to Harry Potter series are textbook example of this misguided - won't someone think of the children! - panic. Any reader of Ms Rowling's works will find tales of fantasy, adventure and escapism from the toil of daily routine. What they will not find are invocations of satanic powers, ritual animal sacrifice and blasphemy against the holy ghost. But as is the case with most controversial books from Lolita to The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail to The Bell Curve to The God Delusion, the louder the chorus of opposition, the less likely it is those criticising have actually read the work in question. The Bell Curve discusses differences in intelligence, therefore it is wrong because all people are equal; Harry Potter uses the word "witch", therefore it is a celebration of Satanism and a rejection of Christianity. So their hammer of judgement falls without having examined any of the evidence. However the real irony is that there is plenty in the Harry Potter series for Christians to object to, but they see none of it through the haze of their 13th century paranoia about "witchcraft". One of the best things about art and literature is that we can interpret them as we wish. So thusly, I present an argument for Harry Potter as a celebration of the rational and rejection of the superstitious.
One of the interesting and widely commented on aspects of the Harry Potter series is the banality of so much of the magic. Of course in The Philosopher's Stone Harry is amazed at the new world he finds himself a part of, but in the later books, apart from the occasional moment of wonder at some new spell, creature or artifact, for the most part, magic is an accepted fact of the characters' lives. In that way it is much like the technology we ourselves use - we don't think often of how wonderful the microwave, the internet or powered flight is, but to anyone unfamiliar with these things, magical they would seem. In Ms Rowling's world, magic is something that you learn, and can then apply to the world in interesting ways, like how knowledge of physics has lead to the inventions such as the telescope, the internal combustion engine and the internet. There is nothing in Harry Potter that any druid, witchdoctor or shaman would recognise as "magic", there is no personal voyage, no mysticism, no ritual and no reverence of the sacred. Likewise there is no revelation, no requirement to hold any particular faith and no reference to any god or devil - which makes the Harry Potter universe irreligious and antithetical to any new age or traditional belief system.
The education that the main characters receive at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is also instructive. While they lack any instruction in English, Latin geography or the arts, the curriculum they do do study reflects a scientific course of education much more than it does an occult or spiritual one. In fact parallels can be drawn between the magical subjects at Hogwarts and ones familiar to us: Numerology can be considered a substitute for mathematics, Transfiguration for physics, Potions for chemistry and Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures for biology. It is also interesting that the students study astronomy rather than astrology, that latter, one would assume, would fit more easily in at a school of magic, however at Hogwarts the students study the world for how it really is, rather than what any particular dogma wishes it was - the very definition of what science is.
The one exception to this is the field of Divination - a subject derided by Harry, Ron and especially Hermoine, as false and a waste of time, and it's teacher, Sybill Trelawney as an obvious fraud and charlatan. Divination is the only subject at Hogwarts that is drenched in mysticism and the arcane, but these attributes are mocked by the main characters rather than revered. It is telling that out of all the Gryffindors, only Lavender and Pavati are impressed by Trelawney's theatrics and preaching of doom, and they are considered to be gullible ditzes, looked down upon by the very rational three main characters. Of course while the Trelawney plays an essential part of the series' overall story arc, she does not realise it, and her use to Dumbledore has nothing to do with the subject she teaches. Her power of prophecy are a natural ability she is not aware of, so because she is useful, Dumbledore keeps her close but never for a moment thinks the nonsense she drums into the kids is in any way true. This is an excellent metaphor for the occasional good things that come out of religion and other irrational belief systems - good things in themselves don't make other things true. Forgiveness is nice, but doesn't mean the Resurrection took place, crystals are amazing things, but that does not mean they can cure cancer and so on.
While the above can be considered just interpretation, what is not arguable is the godlessness of the books. There is no overt mention of anything to do with religion in any of the Harry Potter books - the characters discuss the mysteries they are trying to solve, not the mystery of the Trinity, and the they make their own decisions in life, they don't spend time on their knees begging for guidance. What pisses off the religious is that Harry Ron and Hermione exemplify the rationalist worldview - that people are responsible for their own actions and it is only the decisions we make that chooses our path in life. They are good people because they choose to be, not because of any religious belief. Even Voldemort, the villain of the piece, does not act the way he does because he is "evil" or any other such simplistic/dualistic reason. "There is no good or evil, there is only power" is his motto, and this is in a lot of ways true - the religious like to believe they are pure good and others are pure evil because their worldview is so constricted; the rest of us realise there is more to life than that. For certain Voldemort is violent, cruel, sadistic and power-hungry, but to say "evil" is a cop out. The fact that a series of books ostensibly aimed at younger readers can convey so much more complexity and a better understanding of the world than any monotheistic religion speaks volumes about the contemptibility and wretchedness of the "great" faiths of this world. Although because the claims they make about the world would put Trelawney to shame, one can understand (if not sympathise with) how threatened the popularity of the Harry Potter series makes the religious feel.