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The Magic Hides the Disenchantment

The Harry Potter series is an ode to secular humanism.
The Magic Hides the Disenchantment

I used to be obsessed with Harry Potter, not unlike many other introverted kids growing up in suburbia. The Harry Potter series sparked my interest in taking up the folk witchcraft practices that my family members from Greece would occasionally engage in. But after a religious conversion, I left the spells and Ouija board behind, as well as my Harry Potter books, condemning J.K. Rowling for covertly promoting occult practices.

Some of my deeply pious friends see the Potter franchise differently, claiming it upholds moral virtues in accord with most monotheistic religions and Christianity in particular. But after watching the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts special, I have come to the conclusion that Harry Potter is primarily neither implicitly Christian nor implicitly demonic. Rather, it is an unapologetic ode to the triumph of secular humanism.

The anniversary special was a masterpiece of artifice, pretense, and sentimental moralism. Behind-the-scenes clips from the original films were interspersed with “spontaneous” encounters between the actors happening upon each other in parts of the filming set, where they proceeded to reminisce about the good old days and the legacy of the films. They laughed and cried on cue. Tears rolled when remembering actors who died. Their faces turned grave when talking about the films’ impact on fans, as the screen panned to images of fangirls sobbing behind guardrails as the actors walked by on a red carpet.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, building on the sociological writings of Max Weber, distinguishes between the metaphysical sensibilities of premodern and modern societies. The former, he claimed, is “enchanted”—recognizing that the material world is “charged” with objective spiritual forces, either sacred or demonic—while the latter doesn’t formally acknowledge any objective spiritual entities at work in the material world.

Accordingly, an enchanted universe spawns “porous selves” who are subject to being impacted by these external forces, while the disenchanted one spawns “buffered selves” who are immune to any external forces, and rather impose meaning onto reality through their own rational wills. Corporate power thrives off of buffered selves who think they are attaining liberation by accumulating goods and experiences that satisfy their immediate desires and sense of identity, while really playing into the hands of the powers that be.

Thinking back to Taylor’s dichotomy while watching the special helped me understand why the franchise is so alluring for suburban, middle-class teens: It offers the illusion of enchantment on the surface while being profoundly disenchanted at its core. “It’s as simple as that,” says Robbie Coltrane (who played Hagrid) in an aside. “It’s a story of good vs. evil. And the good must prevail…. We all have a little evil in us, we just have to choose to follow the good in us.”

Rowling herself has said “I wasn’t trying to do what C.S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it’s perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God.” Her simplistic narrative of good versus evil and having to choose the “right side” using willpower alone is closer to Manichaeism and Pelagianism than occultism and diabolism.

The ontologically flat notion of “the Good” in Harry Potter conveniently covers over the complex and nuanced elements of human nature. It doesn’t “call us out of ourselves” or convert us. Hence the appeal for suburban kids whose protective and controlled environment hinders their ability to reckon with the darkness of suffering, the mystery of free will, and the unpredictability of existence. The simplistic narrative in Harry Potter offers an artificial distraction from the artificial nature of their upbringing.

The characters’ use of magic doesn’t tap into any eternal forces (be they benevolent or malevolent) or entities that transcend themselves. Spells are cast purely for pragmatic purposes—getting some kind of job done faster, just like technology—rather than being a means of drawing closer to an external entity or ideal like God, gods, or demons.

The only gods that Rowling’s characters worship are the two gods that all of us living in liberal society worship: being morally “pure” (being a “good, tolerant person”) and being materially satisfied, particularly with forms of entertainment and mediation that distract us from the emptiness of the metanarrative we are fed.

No need to search for some ontological meaning, to implore a force beyond yourself to come to your aid, when you have all the comforts you can wish for. As long as we try to do what’s right, be tolerant of others, and be our authentic selves, all will be right with the world. The magic of “believing in yourself”masks the vapidity of your existence and your unwillingness to face it for what it is.

In an intimate scene with her co-stars, Emma Watson broke character to describe the time after the fourth film that she considered leaving the Potter franchise for good. “It hit me that…if I keep going, my life will be marked by this forever…” She trailed off, giving the impression that she still wonders why she sold her life away and if it was all really worth it, only for Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe to swoop in and remind her that of course it was all worth it.

Watson shook off her existential dread and continued to discuss how amazing her co-actors were for taking up diverse forms of activism. Hermione’s character panders to bored, entitled, suburban girls, the type to go off to college and spout out lines from the standard liberal feminist establishment script, and who will blame gender essentialism for their existential dread. Watson is the archetypal libfem herself, quite like the fictional character she plays: She’s a liberated, career-minded woman who allows her less “profitable” sensibilities to whither so she can climb her way through the matrix of power.

Hermione never fails to scold the boorish and underachieving Ron, who represents the archetypal bourgeois male, divested of the opportunity to put his innate masculine sensibilities to use, which ultimately serve no purpose in a technocratic age like our own. And like her on screen character, Watson dutifully calls out the intolerance of “bigots” like J.K. Rowling for her trans-exclusionary remarks.

The Harry Potter series, according to Helena Bonham Carter (who plays Bellatrix), “makes you feel less alone in the world” as all entertainment in consumer society should do. It aims to console in the spirit of secular humanism, not to unsettle or challenge the viewer’s complacency. Feed the consumer what they want, and keep them coming back for more. The Gothic halls of Hogwarts are a hollow temple dedicated to our age’s secular deities. Every part of the Potter experience is built around gratifying the fans—that is, the consumers. Every part of the franchise, from the official merchandise, to taking a photo at Kings Cross as you pretend to run into platform 9 ¾, to the Harry Potter Universe theme parks that feature animatronic thestrals and nonalcoholic butterbeer, to the self-satisfying moralistic themes that pervade the series, must be and is marketable. The franchise makes its money by convincing consumers they are not as ensnared by disenchantments as they actually are.

Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in N.J. He also is the host of the “Cracks in Postmodernity” blog and podcast.

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