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Harry Potter and the Godless Morality

14 Jul

Today the last Harry Potter movie is being released across the United States. I’m not as excited as I perhaps could be as a Potter fan, but that’s because, as far as I’m concerned, Harry Potter ‘ended’ when the last book was released back in 07.  But the movies have steadily improved as the years have gone by, so I’ll certainly go and see it, though I did not attend the midnight showing due to poverty and a strong need for sleep.

Also a promise to go see it with my Mum, who would not go to a movie theater at midnight downtown even if you paid her. So that’ll have to happen sometime in the next week.

I do love Harry Potter though. I grew up in England, so the books are rather close to my heart as I essentially grew up with Harry over the years. The books not only entertained me, but due to the long gaps between installments (seriously, 3 YEARS between a few of them) I found myself perusing the shelves of my local library and discovering other fantasy authors such as Pullman, Tolkien and Pratchett. Harry Potter helped shape me into the nerd I am today, and I will always love them for that along with the memorable characters, creative world-building and clever wordplay.

Potter isn’t loved by all of course. I admit, it’s not ‘quality literature’ akin to the likes of Austen or Hemingway but I tend to think that such ideas and standards are silly bullshit that get in the way of caring about a good story and good characters. The strongest outcry is of course from extreme religious groups, most of them Christian in America at least. Their reasoning involves the fact that Harry Potter is about witchcraft and evil and other such things, and that it will corrupt the youth of the nation to turn to Satan.

This tells me that these people have never so much as looked up a synopsis of a Harry Potter book, much less read one.

Harry Potter is about a lot of things, and sure, there are witches and wizards involved. But I have another theory about why the religious right is so scared of harry potter, and it’s a theory I’ve had for a long time now, and it’s this:

The world of Harry Potter is a world without God. 

No seriously. Think about it if you’ve read them. Harry Potter and his friends, the ‘good guys’, fight and defeat the forces of darkness, they have adventures, they grow up and change and learn and figure things out with some guidance from wise figures and lessons, but, and this is the big but…

No God. None. Nowhere. Seriously, go hunting, I challenge you to dig up anything in Potter that refers to God except for the occasional character exclaiming “my god” or similar.

As far as we’ve seen, the world of Harry Potter, at least the wizarding world, is almost entirely secular. Perhaps this is due to a more black and white morality at first glance, but when you dig into the meat of these books, that’s not at all the case. Take some of the ‘grey area’ characters who either fluctuate between good and bad or simply sit in uncomfortable places. Like the ‘New Ministry’ of the seventh book. Oh, spoilers, for those of you who are afeared of them. Umbridge is not a good person. She’s power hungry, vindictive and cruel, and creates what is effectively a police state akin to early Nazi Germany. She’s not full-blown Voldemort evil either, not killing babies or puppies or similar, but she’s decidedly not running around saving folk either. Then there’s characters like Snape who might as well have installed a revolving door on his predicted Alignment. Is he good? Is he bad? Can he ever be good because he was once bad? It certainly confused the heck out of me my first readthrough.

My point in this, is that the morality in the Potterverse isn’t subject to a big higher power in the sky, or in the ground, or anywhere. It’s a real universe with real people who are good, evil and everything human in-between (and by human I mean imperfect beings who sometimes act like twits even when their intentions are good). The people are capable of selfishness and ignorance and kindness and bravery, all of it.

And God has nothing to do with it.

Harry Potter and his friends are good because it improves the world, makes it a better place, keeps it safe from evil bastards like Voldemort and his homeys and all the evil dudes who came before him. They save the world because they have the power to do so, not because it’ll get them a better seat in the afterlife, or favor with some divine boogedy boogedy. The evil dudes aren’t being evil because they’re possessed by the devil, it’s because of their own motivations, their lust for power or revenge. People are motivated internally, by themselves, and though they of course try to shift responsibilities to others, it’s nothing like ‘the devil made me do it’ or ‘I”m following God’s divine law’. The wicked are brought to justice by the good, not by religion or deities or divine intervention.

Harry Potter is morality without religion. It encourages personal responsibility for one’s actions and improving the world for the world’s sake, not for some carrot-and-stick morality of ‘this will get you to the good place when you die and if you don’t do it, it’s off to the bad place for you’.

Maybe I’m biased because I’m so against extremist Christianity, which encourages a lack of rational thought, blind devotion and a lack of questioning. It employs a ‘do this or be punished’ method of morality, sort of a ‘good because if I’m not I’m going to be screwed’ idea. And this is propagated in the youth of America because Christianity is ingrained in our culture.

And that’s why I love Harry Potter, and think it’s one of the best books you can give to a young person in the 21st century. It teaches that morality comes from within, not religion or some institution of punishment and reward. Harry Potter teaches free thought, friendship, loyalty, responsibility, love, kindness and justice. Other children’s books do too, but so many of them (Narnia anyone?) have such thick religious implications that they, intentionally or not, encourage a narrowed view of how to be a good, worthwhile person in society.

Religion, faith, spirituality, they work for some people. I love the Narnia books, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t me hating directly on religion. It’s not my cup of tea, and it’s certainly not for everyone, and we learn our morals, our responsibilities to the world around us, through stories, both biblical, fictional and from reality. Harry Potter has given us a story, a world, with an unreligious, godless morality system. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s far from antireligious propaganda or the like. I have no idea about Rowling’s religious affiliation or if she had intention in this moral view.

It just presents an option. An opportunity. A view that demonstrates the possibility of an areligious morality. And seeing as many views as possible can lead us all, young and old, to make better, more informed decisions about our views, religious or otherwise, instead of following one option because it’s the only one we’ve ever seen.

So that’s why the evangelicals get all hot and bothered about Harry Potter and his friends. Because they have no God, and they’re doing amazing, wonderful things for each other and the world. A view that presents an alternative to the deity-centric view of morality that’s so common in the modern world. And whether or not that works for everyone, it’s a different view that could make all the difference in someone’s decisions about their morals, values and motivations.

Happy Harry Potter day everyone. Whatever you love about this book, I hope it’s brought you as much joy – and provocation of thought – as it has to me.