Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Are the Harry Potter Books Morally Objectionable?
A Guest Post By Joseph S.

Some Christians find the Harry Potter books morally objectionable because they treat witchcraft sympathetically, and supposedly encourage young people to explore the occult.

Some critics go on to claim the books are morally objectionable because they have a bad message, that evil is rewarded and good thwarted, etc., but those critics appear to me not to have read the books, because they're just plain wrong about that.

I'm willing to discuss the issue of whether the books have a bad message, but what I'm more interested in is the claim that the books are objectionable simply because they treat witchcraft sympathetically.

There is a strong anti-witchcraft tradition in Christianity, but I think the word "witchcraft" is being used to denote two different things, and the critics don't appreciate the distinction.

The traditional Christian view is that witchcraft involves trafficking with demons, evil spirits, and that is obviously sinful. Anti-witchcraft hysteria was highest in the late middle ages, after modern science had begun, and this is not surprising as it may seem. Once the explanatory power of science was appreciated, and the universe came to be seen as a lawful place, violations of those scientific "laws" (which were really just observed regularities) could only arise through supernatural agency -- heavenly miracle, or evil spirit. With the decline of the alchemists, the attitude was that "magic doesn't work", and if it did work, that must be evidence of use of demons.

In the Harry Potter books, magic is natural, and it follows its own laws and restrictions, and does not involve the agency of supernatural beings. It is like a technology -- morally neutral. The critics contrast the Potter series with C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, and Tolkien's Lord of The Rings, but in all three fictional worlds there are good and bad magicians, and good and bad magic.

There is a whole area of culture which can be denoted "the occult", which I won't attempt to define here. But granting that it is an unhealthy area, and that young people should not be encouraged to explore it, I don't see that the Harry Potter books do encourage this. The "magic" in the books is morally neutral, publicly taught, and forbidden to underage or insufficiently trained wizards. The only parts that resemble "the occult" are explicitly condemned as "Dark Arts" and practitioners, if caught, are punished.

I'm sure some Christian critics of the Harry Potter books are genuinely concerned that young people will "play at" magic and then get somehow sucked in to an unhealthy obsession with evil things. But really, "magic doesn't work". (If it does work in the sense that they were afraid of in 1692, the deal-with-the-devil kind of magic rather than the alchemical kind, there's no hint of that in the Potter books.)

The Potter books are fantasy, and in my opinion they are most excellent examples of that genre.

In the comments, I'd especially like to hear from people who think the Potter books are morally objectionable but recommend the Narnia books. One rule: Anyone who has not read at least one of the books in the Harry Potter series may comment, but should disclose that.

[Note that the above views are those of guest blogger Joseph S. I myself gave up on Potter about halfway through the first chapter of Book One. Narnia rules — Dawn]