About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The cultural war over Harry Potter

eSkeptic, a publication of Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Society, has recently published an amusing piece on yet another front of the cultural wars: Harry Potter. For once, skeptics and atheists are neither the targets of nor active participants in this particular assault; indeed, we happily sit by the sidelines and enjoy the show.

You see, Harry Potter is obviously promoting magic, at least according to Pope Benedict XVI who – when he was just Cardinal Ratzinger – commented that HP’s books are a “subtle seduction into witchcraft for young souls.” For some Christians, like author Richard Abanes, there is a difference between Harry Potter and, say, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Lest you hastily conclude that the difference is simply that the latter is a not so subtle example of Christian apologetics, Abanes’ actual objection is that the books by J.K. Rowling (the author of HP), “contain elements of real magic.” Ah, real magic, of course, we ought to be afraid of that stuff.

Reverend Bryan Small – a priest in Kennesaw, GA – disagrees with the Pope, and thinks there is nothing wrong with children being exposed to Harry Potter. The real problem, he maintains, is parental guidance. As he puts it “I am 31 years old. I have traveled abroad and I have read extensively, I can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.” Well, maybe, considering that the entire Catholic Church is constructed on a cosmic-scale fantasy. But please, go ahead with the controversy; it’s nice for a change to see different kinds of irrationality battling against each other. Meanwhile, I plan on enjoying the fourth Harry Potter movie soon (the books are too long for my attention span).


  1. I find this issue odd myslef. I don't remember religious types ending up in a tizzy over "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

    And what about con artists like John Edwards and Sylvia Brown. The Bible has just as much negative to say about mediums and psycics as witchcraft.

    How are fictional stories about whitchcraft somehow worse than real people claiming to be real psycics?

    I don't get it.


  2. Well, it never was about logic was it?

    I've read the books up through number 5 and seen most of the movies. I think the movies are probably a little more understandable if you've read the book. They follow the story line very closely but have to leave out a lot. Knowing the background on some of the characters and situations adds a little to it I think.
    The Christians who are opposed to Harry Potter would also have to be opposed to 90% of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and 50% of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Actually, the majority of Christians are probably not opposed to Harry Potter. It's just a couple of rabble-rousers and headline-seekers who are stirring a tempest in a teapot.

  3. Even as a small child I was never very interested in fairy tales, the occult, or other things supernatural. Perhaps that is why, despite being brought up in an ultra fundamentalist religious household, I had serious doubts about religion by the time I was 25 and had completely rejected it by age 35. The ultimate fairy tale had completely lost its fasination. I only regret that it took so long.

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  5. People are too over senstive to what children read and watch, it all comes down to the parentage, if the child was parented well hes obviously not going to...wait a minute, what exactly can Harry Potter do to pervert young minds? Its just a fictional book after all, gotta love those crazy people and censorship

  6. The Harry Potter books are about love. Dumbledore tells Harry that he has a power that Voldemort doesn't have, which is love. I also don't think the magic is portrayed in a very realistic way, so I don't think it's a lure to susceptible minds. Contrast these books with a book on real paganism or Wicca . . . the latter books teach you how to do real magic, with your heart, mind and intention united to create power (99% of the time power for good - I don't think most Wiccans are interested in doing evil). The magic in Harry Potter is cartoon magic, with very little explanation provided as to how it really works. It just "happens" when they raise their wands and say certain words.

  7. doesn't santa work using magic, too?

  8. One remarkable thing about Hogwarts School of wizardry is that it is entirely empirical in approch. There is absolutely no theory. Do this, and that will happen, but no explanations for how it works.

    I just thought that was an interesting thing, from a philosophical point of view.

    BTW, I earlier posted that I couldn't get things posted here all the time. I figured out that when I try it from school, I can't post, but I can from home.

    Guess I'd better do this stuff on my own time, huh?

  9. Harry Potter is an atheist. No wonder the fundamentalists hate and fear him.

    Yes, yes. Harry Potter books and movies contain much about magic and wizardry, challenging Christianity and Judaism's less-than-strangle hold on magical stories (walking on water, and seas parting to "let my people go").

    But the part that goes unnoticed is that Harry and his friends and the wizards and teachers at Hosgarth are GOOD PEOPLE WITHOUT ONCE MENTIONING GOD OR RELIGION AS THE REASON THEY DO GOOD DEEDS.

    Dennis Prager (the Jewish orthodox apologist) who writes in Op-Eds that there is no morality without theism, must squirm in scenes like the one in the latest movie, where Harry saves an extra person he doesn't have to, just because he's a good person, and he never thanks "Ha Shem" or crosses himself, before or after jumping into an hour underwater without an oxygen mask.

    And his wizard instructors praise him for being a good, get this, a good wizard. For helping his fellow men!

    It's not that Harry is openly atheist, it's just that religion doesn't matter to him in thwarting deamons or being a good person.


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