Religion in Harry’s World
Religion in the Potterverse. No one knows quite what to think of this subject. Religion is not referred to openly in the books, and it is unknown whether any of the characters hold any kind of faith or what difference of opinion there might be between them on the matter. There is no real reference to God whatsoever in the books, and the whole subject gives the impression of being ignored – for the reason, I think, that it is ever so controversial.
A magical world makes dealing with religion very difficult because it gives religion very little place in it. According to monotheistic religions, such magic as appears in the HP books is either dark and strictly forbidden, or a load of non-religious rubbish (just look at some Christians’ reactions to the books). Therefore, it’s hard to see how Christianity would fit into such a magical world. All we know is that there is a ghost who used to be a friar and that Christmas is celebrated. However, I don’t know how important a role these facts play in the story. It seems to me that they have no real significance to the story and that they were inserted for no bigger a purpose than contributing to the Hogwarts atmosphere.
So, as dismissing Christianity as a load of bull in wizarding eyes would be putting herself in mortal danger, and as placing it in the story would be quite problematic storywise, Rowling chose to cautiously ignore this so-difficult-to-handle subject. But this does not mean that she doesn’t let her personal views shine through the symbolism in the books. Rowling shares her thoughts on many matters with us through the books, and I believe this is no exception.
We all know that death plays a big role in the books. Rowling’s view on death and immortality is very clear, as is excellently observed in Siria Ciraux’s editorial Harry Potter and the Idea of Death. Immortality is presented as an unhealthy desire. This, I believe, is strongly linked to religion. According to an atheist point of view, religion is no more than an invention of ours, created to help us explain the unexplained and diminish our fears of the unknown. And is their anything more frightening and unexplained than death? Religion gives us very helpful answers on the subject of death. It promises us the longed for afterlife.
The wonderful afterlife, promising us endless happiness and immortality, is what we would all have chosen as an alternative to plain death. And yet, humans have a knack to choose precisely that which is worst for them, as Dumbledore put it. Immortality is non-human. One cannot really live without having to die at the end. The religious concept of an afterlife makes life here nothing more than a corridor. But it isn’t. It’s the real thing. And knowing that we are bound to lose it one day makes us cherish it all the more.
Voldemort’s greatest wish is to conquer death. His fear of it is one of his greatest weaknesses. Admittedly, Voldemort and his followers are very much like a religious cult. Voldemort presents himself as a kind of god. His name is unspoken, he is referred to as “Lord” by his followers. He is very non-human, not even entirely mortal. His presence, especially up until the fourth book, is very abstract: he has no substantial body, he can possess people, he contacts Harry through dreams (in the Bible, God often reveals Himself to characters through dreams). Voldemort’s ultimate goal is to conquer death, a bit like the End of Days. And yet all this is perceived as disastrous in the HP books. This doesn’t mean that God in itself is perceived as a negative thing. Dumbledore himself is quite god-like.
However, I think that Voldemort and his views on things represent what Rowling resents about religion.
Voldemort rules his followers by means of fear and punishment. No one can speak against him or voice an opinion of their own beside him. He is a cruel dictator. And like Voldemort, God will also punish terribly the one who speaks against Him. This is not unlike the Catholic Church in medieval times, which used religion and the concept of God to control people’s lives (the very church that was so intolerant towards magic and witchcraft…).
The Ministry of Magic also strongly resembles a medieval church, especially in the fifth book, in which it takes over everything – i.e., education, the press – and censors anything that contradicts it, like The Quibbler. Like the church, it sells the public a much nicer version of the truth and silences anyone who says otherwise. Doesn’t the High Inquisitor remind you of a certain Inquisition that took place many years ago? People believed the Ministry because it made life a lot more comfortable and refused to face the truth.
I also happen to agree with Maline Freden’s excellent theory in The North Tower about the House Elves’ system symbolizing religion. By doing so, it serves as another example for how religion can give its followers very little freedom of speech and thought. The House Elves’ masters are like gods to them. They are blinded by worship to their masters and have no opinion of their own. Setting them free is like banishing them from the Garden of Eden (notice the clothing parallel) and giving them the tools and the freedom to think for themselves and accept reality, for which they are unprepared. It seems mad to want a life of slavery, but the House Elves seem very happy because it sets their world in order. And by no coincidence, I think, is the Garden of Eden a symbol for the afterlife, for immortality. Religion creates for us a world which is easier to handle but does not let us experience life as it is. This is only human – we are constantly running away from what is hard and frightening, yet eventually, we must confront life and our humanity. Which means, as well as many other things, mortality. And this is, I think, what Harry is learning to do as he advances in maturity. Facing the painful truth, facing his fears, facing life, and inevitably, facing death. In the fifth book, he finds this very hard, because of Sirius’ death. Dumbledore explains to him that this is part of being human, and Harry, in confrontation, voices what we all feel: he doesn’t want to be human. And yet at the end, I think he will.
And this is, I think, what Rowling is really trying to say. That as hard as it seems, it’s better to be human than to submit ourselves to a world in which we are slaves. Or as Dumbledore put it: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”