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July 19, 2005

J. K. Rowling's modern world

Mika LaVaque-Manty: July 19, 2005

[July 22 addendum. By reader request, I include this SPOILER DISCLAIMER: This post reveals nothing about the plot of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but the commentary that follows on L2R Comments does.]

I take a break from summer break to make sure L2R has a seat on the fluffy cultural bandwagon of Harry Potter commentary. (Besides, Don H. is on vacation, and it takes a small village of bloggers to make up for his productivity.)

Lately, it has become commonplace to argue that Max Weber's "secularization thesis" has turned out false. Weber, the early 20th-century German sociologist, suggested that modern world was becoming increasingly secular. The development of science, in particular, had "disenchanted" the world, he said. But in 2005 it does indeed seem things didn't quite go like that: whether the world ever got particularly secular, it would be hard to argue right now that religions and other kinds of spirituality are fast on their way out.

That's why it's interesting -- and intellectually refreshing -- to run into a glaring exception that also manages to be hugely popular. The world J. K. Rowling has created in her Harry Potter books is, in a Weberian sense, truly secular and modern.

Now, of course, there are two important ways in which Rowling's world is very enchanted: it's a world full of magic -- Harry is a budding wizard attending the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, after all -- and it has enchanted millions of readers over the last several years. But there are lots of important ways in which it's secular.

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 bureucracy, there's crime and punishment, sports, arts, media; there's teenage romance and mischieft, 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.

So what? Does this mean that those folks who worried a few years back (maybe still) about Rowling being in league with Satan were right? Or does it mean that Rowling has an atheist agenda, which in some views is just another way of being in league with Satan? No, I would say. I think Rowling's "modernity" matters, but lest I be misunderstood, I'll first spell out what I don't mean.

I don't think Rowling has an atheist or anti-religious agenda. I don't know about her religious views, and I'm not enough of a groupie to care to find out. I don't really think she has any explicit agenda like that, which may well explain her success and also why the books are, at least in my view, increasingly good. I'm not a fan of literature with tendentious agendas, especially when it's aimed at children and young adults (see Jim Oakes's recent related post). That doesn't mean that literature may not take positions on issues: for example, I like Philip Pullman's more explicitly atheist children's books, but I like them in part because Pullman never turns his stuff into a dogmatic screed and, more importantly, never tries to shut down thinking by making things crassly simplistic.

But I don't think Rowling is -- or tries to be -- political in the way Pullman is: I don't read the absense of religion in her books as an attempt to raise questions about religion. What the absence does allow is for readers to think about gnarly moral questions without any easy answers.

I'm not saying religion and morality aren't compatible, although I personally happen to like Immanuel Kant's view on the matter. Kant -- himself probably a non-believer, but also a defender of religious faith and even occasionally of dogma -- thought it thoroughly problematic to base morality on religious faith: action based on the fear of God or on the hope of Heaven could not begin to count as moral action. What I am saying is that since Rowling's characters -- and particularly her protagonist Harry -- can't turn to already-existing answers on moral questions, they have to sort them out themselves. Their world has rules and it has its version of science, i.e., magic. Sure, some of the magic has been categorized as "Dark Arts," meaning it's supposedly in the service of evil, and it can be used to hurt others. But like the more mundane rules which Rowling's teenage characters have teenagers' universally good sense to question, the categorization of things into "Dark Arts" is less obvious than it first seems. On the whole, the category may make sense, but even then you'll need some magic-independent moral argument to say why something is "Dark." Ultimately, magic is like the science Weber wrote about: it's value-free, and it doesn't tell us "What should we do? How should we live?"

(OK, OK: there are also easy answers in the Harry Potter books. Bullies are bad, spoiled bullies particularly, and venality of any kind is likely to make others think ill of you.)

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.

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