Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Religious Practice in the Potterverse

Almost a year and a half ago, we explored the curious fact that the Harry Potter series doesn’t seem to include anyone who practices a religion. There are plenty of Christian elements in the story, from celebrations of Christmas and Easter to inscriptions on gravestones to christological figures. Rowling seemed to make the conscious decision to not include characters who practice a religion. Considering the other Christian elements, I have to wonder if this was by request of her editors, who had her make other changes (like censoring Ron’s swearing) to make her story more palatable for parents of young children. Regardless, with the advent of Pottermore, we’ve discovered that religious practice is indeed compatible with the Harry Potter universe. 

As it turns out, Pottermore tells us that Minerva McGonagall is the daughter of a talented witch and a Muggle Presbyterian minister. The story of McGonagall’s parents is an example of how the International Statute of Secrecy can tear a couple apart. Her mother dutifully hides her powers from her husband until after giving birth to Minerva, whose own magical ability was impossible to hide. Even though her father felt betrayed, her parents remained married. I don’t think it’s a rather large leap to assume that Minerva (and her two brothers) were raised Presbyterian, regularly attended church services with their father, and studied scripture, as all preacher’s kids of good reputation do. However, it doesn’t seem like McGonagall continued to practice Christianity after she left for Hogwarts. I have to wonder—is practicing a faith compatible with practicing magic?

On a surface level, my answer is an emphatic “yes, obviously!” As anyone who has spent time defending the merits of Harry Potter to fellow religious folk could tell you, the magic of the Potterverse is entirely different from “real” magic. Real magic is a freely chosen practice that pretty much anyone can engage in, and is often similar to a religion itself. Some people who practice real magic do also consider themselves Christian, though most Christians tend to take issue with blending the two. Potter magic is just learning how to control an innate ability that arises from one’s genetics. Learning to control and use one’s magic for good purposes is not just a nice thing to do, it’s a moral imperative. So if magic is separate from religion, then of course a person should be able to practice both simultaneously.

Don't worry honey, just cast a freezing spell when they try to burn you at the stake. Unless they try to hang you.

Don’t worry, honey, just cast a freezing spell when they try to burn you at the stake… unless they try to hang you. Then you’re screwed.

But the cultural tradition of Christianity doesn’t seem all that compatible with that in the wizarding world. Witch burnings and magical persecution by Christians were acutely felt by the wizarding world and eventually resulted in the International Statute of Secrecy. At the Quidditch World Cup, Harry sees a tent for the Salem Witches’ Institute—the Salem Witch Trials are clearly part of the Potterverse alternate history. Given names are just one example of the incompatibility between the wizarding world and Christianity. Many traditional wizarding names either come from Pagan gods (Minerva McGonagall, Quirinus Quirrell) or astrology (Draco Malfoy, Sirius Black, Bellatrix Lestrange). Both of those things are expressly verboten by nearly all Christian denominations. Naming is an event with great cultural significance—all kinds of social rules govern what kinds of names you can give your children. In some cultures, you’re expected to name your children after their grandparents; in other cultures giving your child a name like “Apple” or “Moon Unit” are only acceptable if you’re a celebrity (okay, maybe Moon Unit is never acceptable).

Or if you're Harry and Ginny Potter.  I don't think any of us are getting over "Albus Severus" anytime soon.

Or if you’re Harry and Ginny Potter. I don’t think any of us are getting over “Albus Severus” anytime soon.

How pervasive are these traditions in today’s wizarding world? Wizarding families that are more “tradition-minded” (aka pure blood Nazi types) tend to follow these naming traditions more closely. Morphin Gaunt’s name comes from Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep, and Merope Gaunt shares a name with Oedipus’s foster mother. On the other hand, more “modern-minded” families tend to embrace traditional English names: Arthur and Molly Weasley, Amelia and Susan Bones, James and Harry Potter. Up until modern times, Christian baptism required the adoption of a Christian name in almost all circumstances (now you can get away with pretty much anything that isn’t “Satan Hitler Smith”). Unless a wizard convert wanted to try and argue that he was named Saturnus for the early Christian martyr instead of the Roman god, it’s unlikely that “traditional” names would have survived in Christian wizarding families.

Am I the only one whose morbid curiosity desperately wants to know how you make a horcrux?

Am I the only one whose morbid curiosity desperately wants to know how you make a Horcrux? (image via miakosamuio)

But with magical ability, most of life’s problems don’t need a divine solution. Are you sick? Go find a healer, you’ll probably be happy to partake of her herbs and “devil magic.” Low on funds? Use a charm to expand your food supply until you can find another job, or better yet, charm some rocks to look like coins and fool those silly Muggles. Even the problem of death has magical solutions. The story of the Peverell brothers encourages wizards to greet death like an old friend after their abnormally long lifespans. Or you can try and defeat death all together; if you’re adept at alchemy, try your hand at creating a philosopher’s stone, and if you’re more of the no-holds-barred type, whip up a Horcrux or seven. Magic provides solutions for problems usually solved by religion. So it’s reasonable to think that many wizarding families, especially “traditional” ones, might not even practice any religion for any reason beyond keeping up appearances. Muggles began to experience a post-religion world at the time of the Enlightenment; wizards may have never needed an Enlightenment to get there in the first place.

While the practice of religion isn’t entirely incompatible with the practice of magic in the Potterverse, there are other cultural factors that may have led many wizards away from religious devotion. It’s more than likely that few families actually practice a religion with any seriousness. In a 2004 interview, Rowling mentions that Harry Potter had a christening ceremony. “Christening” is another name for baptism, a time when babies were both initiated into the Christian faith and given a name. That’s how Harry got Sirius Black as a godfather, after all. Was this a true baptism, or something more along the lines of a simple symbolic naming ceremony? It’s hard to tell, and in any case, the ceremony is not something included in the text of the series itself.

st mungoHowever, there are a few canonical instances where wizards do actually practice (Christian) religion in the series. St. Mungo’s, the wizarding hospital, is actually named for a real saint. St. Mungo, also known as St. Kentigern, was a Christian missionary who performed miracles and founded the city of Glasgow. The Fat Friar is the ghost of Hufflepuff House and was a monk in his former life. Pottermore tells us that he was “executed because senior churchmen grew suspicious of his ability to cure the pox merely by poking peasants with a stick, and his ill-advised habit of pulling rabbits out of the communion cup.” Funnily enough, if he hadn’t been so blasé about the Eucharist (“communion cup”), he probably would have been made a saint for his “magical” healing abilities. But the series also tells us that ghosts stay “behind” because they have some kind of attachment to this world. While the Fat Friar probably became a monk after he attended Hogwarts, he wasn’t a very good monk if he was pulling rabbits out of sacred vessels and was more attached to this world than the next.

As a kid I wondered what it would be like if I happened to receive my Hogwarts letter. I was always very interested in my religion, and wondered what happened to Hogwarts students who did want to go to church on Sunday—is there a chapel in Hogsmeade? There was a church in Godric’s Hollow—would wizards attend services there, or was it just for local Muggles? And what about other religions? The Patil twins are at least partially Indian. Could they be Hindu? My point is, including religious characters would have made the story richer and given us deeper insight into the wizarding world. As I’ve discussed before, including characters with a religion is an important part of creating diverse, interesting characters. Religion adds another layer of depth and tells us important things about the character’s motivations. A Lutheran might have a strong “Protestant work ethic,” a Catholic might have a guilt complex, or the author could use religion as an opportunity to subvert typical religious stereotypes. A Muslim witch might have been overjoyed to discover that fashionable wizarding attire complies with Islamic rules for female modesty, but struggle with how to wear her school-mandated pointed hat with her hijab. It would have been fascinating to see the collision of magic and religion. Are there patron saints for wizardry, or special manifestations of the One Supreme Being for Hindu wizards? Do wizards take sides in the Catholic/Protestant clashes in Ireland? It seems that so many people are so worried about offending or alienating others on the basis of religion that we’re missing a great opportunity to exponentially increase the quality of our writing. 

With the news that Rowling is penning the first screenplay in a new series of movies set in the same universe, hopefully religion will be included as another important element in the magical world. Since Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will at least begin in 1920s America, and we know that people were generally more “publicly religious” than they are today. That is, more people went to church on a regular basis, and people talked about religion as a part of every day life. But whether it be in the next movie, or in some other way in which Rowling will expand the Potterverse, including religious wizards and witches would be a great way to add another layer of depth to her world.

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3 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Religious Practice in the Potterverse

  1. Pingback: Magical Mondays: World-Building and Magic in Fanfiction | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

  2. Pingback: Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Christianity and Wicca/Paganism in Pop Culture | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

  3. I think the lack of religion in HP is rather reflective of how secular English culture is, very much “Christmas & Easter Christianity”. And in American culture too- though the U.S. is more religious, you wouldn’t tell from a lot of pop culture. People are too uncomfortable and paranoid about offending people to depict it in sitcoms- weirdly the Simpsons of all things seems to one of the best depictions of religious diversity! However, J.K. Rowling managed to express a lot of Christian and Pagan moral and theological ideas without being heavy-handed- she was following in the footsteps of Tolkien in that way. In the U.S. there tends to be this idea that if something has a Christian Message ™ it has to whack you over the head with it, which is very counter-productive and alienates both Christians and non-Christians alike!

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