Religion In Harry Potter Revisited
August 15, 2011
by Ari Armstrong
While some Christians criticize the Harry Potter novels for allegedly promoting the occult (or even Satanism), other Christians find deep religious themes in the novels, and indeed regard them as fundamentally Christian works. My view is that the first group gets everything wrong (the novels do not promote the occult), while the second group dramatically overstates the Christian themes of the novels.
I describe my basic views of the religious themes of the novels in my book, Values of Harry Potter, first published in 2008 and revised this year. However, as my views there emerge over several chapters of work, I though it would be useful to write a self-contained article focusing on the religious themes. And so I wrote "Religion in Harry Potter" for the July 13, 2011, edition of eSkeptic.
Several of the comments that readers left beneath that article surprised me. While some comments wondered what possible use there could be in analyzing the themes of fantasy stories, others sided with those who see the novels as fundamentally religious works. Those comments inspired me to look more deeply into both sets of criticisms.
I revisited the themes of my July article and presented my new findings for an August 1 talk in Denver hosted by Mile High Skeptics. This article closely follows that talk.
While I did not capture good video from the complete talk, I did record a brief version of it for internet release:
Real and Imagined Literary Themes
First I want to address the (rather odd) notion that the Potter stories are just fun works of fantasy for children, devoid of any important literary themes or ideas. Consider some of the comments left by readers beneath my eSkeptic article.
Glenorchy McBride replies to my article, "Who cares? [The stories] are good yarns—no one believes in magic but it certainly makes fun stories. ... They were created to give a good feeling and some understanding about people—learning without experiencing personally. ..."
A fellow named David adds
... 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. ... So, should people care? Absolutely not! ...
And Sunwyn Ravenwood writes, "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."
These comments suggest that it is pointless to try to find deep meaning in the Potter novels. Obviously I profoundly disagree.
However, I was so taken by the description of Asimov's article that I contacted the Denver Library, and a representative mailed me a copy. In the piece, dated May 4, 1968, Asimov describes his experiences watching the cartoons of his day: Birdman, Space Ghost, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. He writes in jest:
I was confused at first as to which characters were good guys and which were bad guys. When one of the youngsters said, "Here comes the good guy," I quickly asked, "How can you tell?" He answered, "He's got blond hair." ...
While Asimov has some fun making the point, it is a serious one: some critics imagine literary themes that simply are not there. Thus, we should be careful in analyzing the Potter novels (or any other literary work) to discover the themes and ideas actually at play in the works, not stuff the works into our preconceptions.
Obviously great literature does offer rich themes and ideas, and learning about them deepens our appreciation for the works.
Some works of literature obviously carry religious themes. Consider, as examples, the overtly religious themes of John Milton's Paradise Lost, or the Left Behind novels popular a few years ago. Nobody doubts that the lion in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series represents Jesus.
More broadly, great works of literature offer a wide array of important themes. The title of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice indicates the ideas the novel seriously considers. Romeo and Juliet considers romantic love and the barriers to achieving it. Moby Dick concerns the overpowering passion for revenge. Ayn Rand's novels offer themes of individualism, the independent creator, and the central importance of reason. The Lord of the Rings deals with power and the corruption of the soul. Carl Sagan's Contact, a novel about meeting aliens, prominently features the clash between reason and faith. Clearly, then, it would be a mistake to dismiss the entire project of literary criticism. Stories can teach us a great deal.
Aristotle summarizes the importance of literature in his Poetics (Oxford's revised Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Barnes, volume 2, pages 2322-2323):
[T]he poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. ... Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.
The next question, then, is whether the Potter novels count as serious literature with important themes, or whether they become the literary equivalent of the Twilight series, basically teenage soap-operas with magic rather than fangs.
As should be obvious to anyone who has read the Potter novels, they are amazingly rich stories based on well-developed themes. These themes include love of others as part of a value-centered life, including love between friends, lovers, and mentors and students. Through Snape and Merope we explore the pain of unrequited love. The Ministry of Magic illustrates the corruption of power. Harry Potter and his allies display the courage to fight tyranny. Dobby the house elf, enslaved for most of his life, reveals the evils of prejudice, while Hermione shows the importance of independent thinking. The contrasting stories of Harry and Voldemort reveal the significance of free will and the fundamentality of choice in setting one's course. Both Dumbledore and Snape make important mistakes in their youths, then repent and live good lives. Rich psychological themes arise in the ghoulish dementors and the shape-shifting boggarts. While Voldemort displays a pathological fear of death, the heroes must learn to deal with death in a way consistent with their core values. The novels also explore the nature of evil, including the ways that evil feeds off the good and ultimately destroys itself in the presence of love.
Those who do not take the Potter novels seriously as literature reveal their lack of familiarity with them.
Universal Themes, Not Uniquely Christian Ones
The next question, then, is whether the Potter novels contain religious themes. My answer is that yes, they do. However, much of the allegedly Christian symbolism that some see in the novels amounts to little. Moreover, even the novels' real Christian themes explain little about the motivation and actions of the heroes.
I have rebutted the allegations of occultism adequately elsewhere. See my article for eSkeptic (and my follow-up post on the views of Joseph Ratzinger.) The key point is that these are novels we're talking about, works of fiction. They are not intended to be taken as literally true or as technical manuals for real life. Moreover, within that fantasy setting people born Muggles never can develop the ability to do magic. Notably, every actual reader of Rowling's novels is a Muggle. Finally, the double-standard in evaluating the magic in C. S. Lewis's work versus Rowling's work is bizarre. So let us move on to the more substantive issues regarding the Christian elements of the novels.
Are the novels fundamentally Christian works? Many reviewers think so.
Consider a couple of the comments left beneath my eSkeptic article. "Adrian" writes, "[I]t'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." "Jean" adds, "I think Ari is trying too hard to dismiss the religiousity of the novels... [such as t]he themes of self-sacrifice, the power of love and friendship..."
The Reverend Danielle Tumminio actually taught a Yale course called "Harry Potter and Christian Theology." She wrote a book based on her experiences titled God and Harry Potter at Yale. She summarizes some of her views in an article for the Huffington Post:
Consider... whether there's a God-figure in the series. ... Looking for God beyond human form opens the possibility that something more abstract might fit the bill, something like love. Many of my students come to the conclusion that love is the closest approximation to God in Harry Potter, in part because God is defined as love in Christian tradition (1 John 4:16).
Tumminio also considers forgiveness, redemption, "how much we embrace diversity," and the nature of evil as constituting theological matters.
But are the thematic elements so far on our list actually fundamentally Christian or theological in nature? Taking sacrifice out of the discussion for now (as I'll address it later), it becomes evident that the themes in question are universal in nature, not uniquely or particularly Christian.
The evil of bigotry, the importance of love and friendship, the problems of death and suffering, and the phenomena of forgiveness and repentance constitute universal themes, present in all societies. While Christianity develops particular ideas about repentance as tied with Jesus's death, the general issue of doing wrong and then correcting one's course appears everywhere.
Consider an analogy. It is irrefutably true that all Christians eat salt. And it turns out that Harry Potter also eats salt. But does that make the Potter novels fundamentally Christian in nature? Obviously not; we recognize many sorts of salt eaters who may not share other similarities.
One of Tumminio's comments on a radio program essentially grants my point:
I think [Rowling is] playing around with themes that Christians think deeply about, and I think part of why the books are accessible to so many people is that they play with questions that are deeply meaningful to us. So I think evil is probably the best example. This question of why evil exists is a question that's not just a huge question in Christian discourse, but it's a huge question for anybody who has struggled in life.
Nobody doubts that the problem of evil arises in Christian thinking, but it arises universally in all cultures. Evil, and the other elements considered so far, appear in the Christian tradition, but that does not make them fundamentally Christian or religious concerns.
Christian Mythology and Symbolism
Various reviewers see specifically Christian elements in the novels. However, often these Christian elements do not actually exist, or they lack thematic consequence.
Consider the oddly titled book Jesus Potter Harry Christ, a work I first discovered through another eSkeptic article. On page 4, author Derek Murphy writes the following:
"[R]ecent years have witnessed a revolution in Christian responses to Harry, with many groups, writers and religious leaders praising Rowling's young sorcerer as ultimately Christian and a clear metaphor for Jesus Christ. A few of the similarities that have been raised include the following:
Some of those claims aren't even true. Harry's mother was magical, as was his father. Harry did not descend "into the underworld," though he descended into a variety of caverns.
The other claims are true but trivial. The prophecy could have equally applied to Neville Longbottom, as Dumbledore explains, and that has no parallel in Christian theology. Besides, many traditions other than Christianity feature prophetic births. Human history runs no short supply of evil rulers, stories of magic, animal symbols, or glorious final battles. As for the "seven seals," if there had been six or eight that hardly would have significantly altered the basic progression of the story.
(I briefly review a similarly weak section of another work, The Lord of the Hallows, elsewhere.)
John Granger searches for Christian themes in the Potter novels in his book, How Harry Cast His Spell. But Granger too reads quite a lot into the stories.
Consider Granger's "eight symbols of Christ" in the Potter books (page 107). (Be sure not to confuse John Granger with Hermione!) According to Granger, the Philosopher's Stone represents immortality (and therefore Christ); the red lion, Aslan; Gryffindor, the "two natures of Christ"; the phoenix, "immortal life"; the stag, "regeneration of antlers = resurrection"; the centaur, "perfect man in control of passions" and "Christ riding donkey into Jerusalem"; the hippogriff, again the "two natures of Christ."
Seeing Jesus riding a donkey in the centaurs of the Potter novels illustrates how far Granger stretches to find Christian themes. (We might also recall that, in the novels, many of the centaurs become easily enraged.)
Moreover, all of these symbols and myths find broad cultural usage. The lion has represented many noble figures as well as various gods, including the Hindu Yali, the Egyptian Sekhmet and Maahes, and the Babylonian Nergal.
Or consider Granger's recounting of the ending of Chamber of Secrets. To recall the main events, Harry descends into a cavern to rescue his friend (and future wife) Ginny Weasley from (a form of) Voldemort and his monstrous snake. The phoenix delivers the Sorting Hat, Harry places it on his head and thinks "help me," and the hat drops a sword on Harry's head. Harry uses the sword to slay the basilisk or snake, but the basilisk strikes a fang into Harry's arm, delivering deadly poison. Then the phoenix heals Harry's wound by crying on it.
To Granger, the elements of the story represent the following (page 142):
* Harry is Everyman
I do not doubt that certain symbols within Christianity helped inspire Rowling. But consider also the non-Christian elements. The sorting hat finds no obvious Christian parallel. As Voldemort explains, Ginny fell under his total control "because she opened her heart and spilled all her secrets to an invisible stranger" (see Chamber page 309); again that finds no obvious Christian match. (We might go back to Eve talking with the snake, but in that case Eve remains in control of her faculties.)
Rowling surely drew upon the Satan myths in creating Voldemort, but the match is not a close one. The snake is another widely used symbol. Slytherin house, represented by the snake, is not entirely bad; a major hero of the novels comes from that house. Christianity offers no comparable subtlety. Rowling also drew on the history of Hitler in creating Voldemort, particularly for his racist infatuation with "blood purity." So clearly Rowling draws on a variety of sources.
Importantly, Voldemort is fundamentally motivated by a pathological fear of death, a fear behind the Horcruxes. Satan experiences nothing like that; he is created as an immortal angel. So the differences between Voldemort and Satan are at least as remarkable as the similarities.
As the snake finds broad cultural reference, so does the phoenix. Originally the bird seems to have been associated with the Egyptian sun god Ra. Herodotus wrote of this phoenix centuries before the birth of Christ. Ovid also mentions the phoenix in Metamorphosis: "There is one bird which reproduces and renews itself: the Assyrians gave this bird his name—the Phoenix."
Interestingly, the Christian church Father Clement explicitly picked up the phoenix myth from outside cultures:
Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection... Let us consider that wonderful sign which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix.
Even if Rowling incorporated the phoenix into her works because of the Christian tradition, in so doing she drew on much broader cultural traditions.
But analysis of the scene's symbolism largely misses the point. The major theme of the story is that Harry shows great courage in rescuing a friend kidnapped by a vicious being. Secondarily, the story shows Harry receiving some assistance and tools from his beloved mentor and his magical school. Rowling could have altered many of the details while keeping the drama, flow, tension, and basic meaning of the story intact.
As a final example from John Granger, consider his treatment of Harry pulling the sword from the pond. Granger grants an "Arthurian element" to this story (page 219), but mainly he finds Christian parallels (pages 220-221):
[T]he spiritual meaning and specifically Christian content of the chapter... is a retelling of Christ's baptism in the Jordan River, with Ron's enlightenment experiences illustrating what this means for the Christian believer. ... Harry's immersion and Ron's enlightenment... show what baptism means in a Christian's life, while closely paralleling the Gospel accounts.
Again, Granger leaps to find Christian likenesses but downplays or completely ignores the non-Christian elements. Like John the Baptist, Ron returns from the wilderness. But Ron hears the voice of Hermione, his romantic interest. John shares no such motivation.
In Rowling's story, a doe guides Harry. Later we find out that Snape invoked the doe—the image of Harry's mother—as his Patronus. While this invokes the "Lady of the Lake" from King Arthur legends, it carries no clear Christian meaning.
Consider some of the other important differences between Harry's pond and Jesus's baptism. Harry enters the pond alone, the Horcrux tries to strangle him, and then Ron dives in for the rescue. Harry enters the pond for a particular purpose: to retrieve the sword. And the pond does not represent the beginning of Harry's journey as the baptism marks the beginning of Jesus's ministry.
In general, Granger ignores many elements from the Potter novels that do not fit easily into Christian mythology. Granger seizes upon the stag, but Sirius Black turns into a dog (tied to the Grim in the story). Neither the luck potion, the unforgivable curses, nor the elder wand find obvious Christian parallels. Dementors clearly represent depression, not the demons specific to Christianity. Classical Christianity offers none of the political themes so central to the Potter stories. Nor does the Horcrux fit nicely into Christian tradition; while Christianity features demonic possession, the Horcrux enables somebody to place a piece of his soul in an external object.
One can interpret the symbols of the Potter stories (or any work) in two fundamentally different ways.
According to John Granger (page 108), "We connect with [the Harry Potter stories] because they point toward the Truth Myth [i.e., of the New Testament Jesus] that lifts us above our mundane ego concerns." For Granger, the reason the novels resonate with readers is that they point toward Jesus. The problem with Granger's presumption is that he tends to read Christian elements into the novels where they don't actually exist, or where they carry little thematic importance.
Joseph Campbell summarizes the alternative view of symbolism (see his Hero with a Thousand Faces, pages 3-4): "Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished... For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they... are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source."
Consider the larger picture. Though Rowling draws on a rich tradition of symbol and myth, readers love the stories because Rowling imbues the symbols with contextual meaning. We love Fawkes not just because it is a phoenix, but because it becomes a character in the stories. We respond to the stag because it invokes Harry's father. To focus on the external meaning of the symbolism largely misses the point.
The Real Religious Themes In Harry Potter
Rowling has discussed her religious views in interviews, so we should not be surprised to see these ideas spilling over into her novels.
In an interview with Volkskrant Rowling said she believes in Christianity and attends a Protestant church.
Rowling told the Telegraph:
To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious... They are very British books, so on a very practical note, Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones... But I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones [of his parents]... they sum up, they almost epitomise, the whole series. ... The truth is that... my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It's something I struggle with a lot. On any given moment if you asked me if I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes - that I do believe in life after death. But it's something I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that's very obvious within the books.
The two quotes she references are these: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Deathly Hallows page 325), and "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (Deathly Hallows page 328).
Hermione explicitly expresses her belief in an immortal soul. She says Ron, "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." At the grave of Harry's parents, Hermione says "defeating death" in the positive sense means "living after death." She magically creates "a wreath of Christmas roses" to place on the grave (Deathly Hallows pages 104, 328-329).
Obviously, then, the idea of immortality plays an important role in the stories. But how thematically central is that idea? In my book, I argue that the belief in an immortal soul does not fundamentally drive the actions of the heroes. Consider three pivotal quotes from the novels.
Near the climax of the first book (Sorcerer's Stone page 270), Harry explains to his friends why he must stop Voldemort from getting the Philosopher's Stone. (He wrongly thinks Snape works for Voldemort.)
If Snape gets hold of the Stone, Voldemort's coming back! Haven't you heard what it was like when he was trying to take over? There won't be any Hogwarts to get expelled from! He'll flatten it, or turn it into a school for Dark Arts! ... D'you think he'll leave you and your families alone...? If I get caught before I get to the Stone, well, I'll have to go back to the Dursleys and wait for Voldemort to find me there, its only dying a bit later than I would have, because I'm never going over to the Dark Side! I'm going through the trapdoor tonight and nothing you two say is going to stop me! Voldemort killed my parents, remember?
Here Harry explains his basic motivations. He wants to keep himself safe, preserve his future and his liberty, and protect his friends and loved ones. Nothing about this depends upon a belief in an immortal soul.
Later, Sirius Black says "there are things worth dying for" (Order of the Phoenix page 477). This means that life is only worth living if we defend our most cherished values.
Finally, after Remus Lupin dies, an image of the man tells Harry: "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" (Deathly Hallows page 700). Like Harry, Lupin fought for his cherished values in his earthly life, not for some Heavenly reward.
Not only does a belief in an immortal soul fail to motivate the heroes, but it blends easily with the fantasy setting. The students see ghosts and talk with them, but readers recognize these incorporeal spirits as part of the fantasy backdrop.
The other major religious element in the novels is that of (apparently) sacrificial love, particularly through the examples of Lily, Dumbledore, and Harry. But do these stories parallel that of Jesus dying on the cross? Not really.
Lily risks her life for her most-valued son, not for humanity as a whole. Moreover, she would vastly prefer to kill Voldemort and live with her son, except she cannot accomplish that.
Dumbledore gives his life to protect his student Draco and the school that he loves. He also needs to protect Snape's undercover identity. And Dumbledore is close to death anyway. So what options does he actually have? He could surrender his life, protecting all his cherished values in the process, or suffer a few more agonizing weeks and watch Voldemort destroy everything he loves.
Harry faces a comparable choice. He can protect all his loved ones by (he thinks) going to his death, or he can watch Voldemort continue to destroy or subjugate his entire world. Given Harry's values, he really didn't have a choice.
If we consider the notion of blood atonement, there is nothing in the Potter novels like Jesus substituting his life for traditional blood sacrifices. It's not as though Harry's friends need Harry to die in order to be forgiven their sins.
All of the cases from the Potter novels are more notable for their differences from the Christian passion, rather than for their similarities to it.
In sum, we definitely can find religious elements in the Harry Potter novels. However, these are limited in scope and not deeply thematic; that is, they do not fundamentally motivate the heroes or drive the story.
The real reason so many people around the world love the novels is that they vividly portray courageous and self-determined heroes fighting for the values that make life worth living.
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