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November 02, 2005

The secular world of Harry Potter

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word "god" used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called "intelligent design creationism" (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into their curriculum.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the whole wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP - The name of the 'intelligent designer' revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called 'intelligent design creationist' (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was pretty obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

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Comments

This was a refreshing (and almost entirely unique) review of the Harry Potter series. Most reviews I have read are either from the Christian "it's demonic" viewpoint or written as reactions to that viewpoint. I've never before heard anyone comment on the "secular" nature of the books.

Thanks for adding an extra dimension to what has been a two-dimensional argument.

Posted by Jarred on November 2, 2005 09:52 AM

Very interesting and definitely unique. In fact, when I read this post, it occurred to me that the only thing depicted as out-of-the-ordinary and irrational within their magical world are the Muggle inventions that fascinate Mr. Weasley so much. I doubt the religious folk would get too upset about that, though.

Posted by mgh on November 2, 2005 10:11 AM

Loved the connection between IDC's "deity who must not be named" and Rowling's Lord Voldemort. Clever!

Posted by Liz V on November 2, 2005 10:44 AM

Now that you've read the books (you read book 6 *first*?!), if you're interested in speculation about book 7, Wikipedia has a lot of good ideas. I ended up browsing around there after finishing book 6, and ended up comletely overwhelmed by the amount of material available.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on November 2, 2005 01:31 PM

This sort of secular bent is quite normal for this genre. Even when there are gods involved, often they are not worshipped as much as they are extra-powerful partners or protectors. They usually don't have a Grand Design or knowledge of the future; they may have a better understanding of some things but in general that is the extent.

The good fantasy authors almost always have the rules for magic mapped out in advance, so that the things they describe are consistent. Example: Star Wars and the Force. Magic is almost always something that has to be studied and trained, just like any other talent. And, interestingly, there is usually a cost to using it (physical, like bruises, or in terms of energy expended).

I think this brings realism to their stories. We're not accustomed to people with all-powerful abilities and we probably wouldn't really enjoy reading about them. We want to read about people like us who overcome weaknesses and limitations.

Posted by Shruti on November 2, 2005 02:41 PM

Tom,

Yes, it is a wierd order to read the book.

I read book #2 a few years ago when it came out because of all the hype surrounding the first book. It was good but I had no inclination to read all the books. Then I saw the films and got more attracted to the storyline. Then book #6 came along and it happened to be lying around our house and so I read it. As you know that ends in a cliff-hanger and I have always been a sucker for mysteries. So I got hooked trying to figure out what all the characters motivations were so that I could try and make sense of the ending. So I started reading the rest to fill in the gaps.

Posted by Mano Singham on November 2, 2005 06:30 PM

I noted the secularism of the books as well. One thing that struck me, though, was that people apparently have godparents - Sirius's status as Harry's godfather is quite important. In the books of course there's no religious dimension to this relationship, but unlike Christmas, I don't think the godparent idea has a secular/pagan source. Or perhaps it does and I'm unaware of it!

I thought this was unusual and would be interested to hear your thoughts on why that's apparently the one specifically religious tradition that is involved in the books.

Posted by Amanda on November 4, 2005 02:30 PM

Good catch, Amanda! That had slipped me. Actually, after I had posted this, I read more of book #5 and found a character singing a Hogwarts version of the Christmas carol "God rest ye merry gentlemen" that still retained the word God in the title.

I don't think that Rowling was too obsessed with keeping god out, so casual references might slip in. She probably felt the need to create a surrogate parent for Harry to advance the story and to provide an emotional outlet for Harry's familial needs. Dumbledore is a kind of father figure but cannot fully play that role.

Rowling seems to prefer working with a secular world but she does not seem to be going out of her way to attack religious beliefs. In that way she seems neutral.

Posted by Mano Singham on November 5, 2005 09:59 AM

Must read! Required additional reading. . . http://www.kstreetfriend.blogspot.com

I write the following because Tom Birdsong, Assistant Managing Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Wednesday, November 9, 2005, said, “No one is going to write about your family’s plight.” Thereafter, Mrs. Estelle B. Richman’s staff (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania‘s Secretary of Welfare) became very rude and indifferent to our emergency situation. In fact, Ms. Richman’s chief of staff, Linda Hicks no longer accepted our calls. Christian Bowser actually laughed about our situation. Inez Titus, became even more stubborn with her unlawful position. The Executive Director for Western Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, Tim Cornell (Mrs. Titus’ supervisor) has yet to return any of our calls.

Nonetheless, a man was shot to death in a cinema lobby shootout after watching gangsta rapper 50 cent’s movie “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” prompting the Loews Cineplex at the Waterfront in West Homestead (just east of Pittsburgh) to stop showing the film. I was there with my family (common-law wife and three minor children). That is, although determined eligible, my family has again been denied the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (“LIHEAP”) federal entitlement for the fourth or fifth straight year. Without heat during the cold winter months a theater provides temporary shelter (allowing my family opportunity to give relatives “a break” from our nightly sleep-overs).

What happened at the Waterfront? Shelton Flowers, 30, of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, was shot three times and died later at a local hospital. Flowers had just watched the movie and got into a confrontation with three men in the bathroom. A fight ensued and spilled out into the concessions area, where Flowers was shot. Immediately, Loews Cineplex pulled the movie as a precaution. The R-rated movie is based on Curtis “50-cent” Jackson’s own life which includes drug dealing, time in prison, and getting shot nine times. Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom, Inc., removed billboards for the movie near some inner-city schools after Los Angeles area community leaders complained last month.

Wilkinsburg, just east of Pittsburgh, is a town that was once synonymous with white supremacy. It is a town that had a mere 502 black residents in 1950 when its population hit 31,000, and only 224 more black residents 10 years later. But, over the next few decades, almost like a prophecy, the black population rose to 90 percent. That is, just a little more than 200 years ago Andrew Levi Levy, Sr. named the town “Africa.”

The borough grew from Levy’s land and other plots (such as the curiously named “Pious Purchase,” and others called Rippeyville, McNairsville and Sterrett Township). It was incorporated some 118 years ago and given the name Wilkinsburg after Judge William Wilkins, the Secretary of War under President John Tyler. Nonetheless, many of its current residents still believe Wilkinsburg is no different today than it was in the 1920's when hooded knights of the Ku Klux Klan cavorted. They say whites still control the town with black “puppet” politicians.

While other cities the size of Pittsburgh has seen a steady growth in gun crime, our gun violence trajectory appears to have exploded. Community activists, politicians and crime experts all have brainstorm strategies for stemming violence. The residents here had hoped for a comprehensive plan of action that would have addressed part of the root causes that lead our neighbors to take up guns. But, the answer given is more of the same. The local politicians have taken a page from the George W. Bush handbook (Madison Avenue to sell our reputation).

We have our three rivers, a beautiful skyline, a romantic culture district, a few of the country’s best hospitals, excellent universities, and the like. But, there's never anything mentioned about our blighted downtown business district, the high unemployment rate of black males, increased gun violence, and the growth of conservative republican complacency.

It's no secret any more that economic conditions for blacks in Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities is precarious. Black residents rank low compared to the national average of income, employment, and education. We have chronic problems of gang and drug violence, family breakdowns, soaring incarceration rates for young black males, and abysmally failing public schools. Wilkinsburg residents are, in fact, the best example of the 13 percent of the United States’ (black) population still living chained in by a Bush presidency, with our eyes riveted on the wall of the white media (Madison Avenue) in front of us, where we see nothing but shadows made by powerless leaders hiding behind us.

We could debate endlessly the role of such squeamishness in concealing and exacerbating the problem with race relations in both Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. We could also discuss the minor role played by gangsta rap music. But, what we should consider is how right-wing conservatives, such as Senator Rick Santorum, have convinced so many blacks that shadows from behind (self-indulgent grab for expensive cars, clothes and money of black republican conservatives living in our affluent North Hills neighborhoods) are reality.

Many of the black residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities believe a lot of the Madison Avenue nonsense. They believe things that are just not true. And, the Republicans gets their strength from this.

The bottom line: The root cause of the shooting at the Loews Cineplex is the apparent political cleansing of true democrats from local politics. Gerrymandering and electoral manipulation (just plan “punk ass” democrats) have left the city with zones of endemic poverty, an absence of social services, crumbling infrastructure, and appalling schools. After the radicalized poverty of black America was laid bare in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina almost everyone expected some change from white America. But quickly the Bush administration and the Republican party have lapsed back into policies to further divide America.

In the 1990's white America built prisons to house the disproportionately black inmates it had planned to toss into jail (in the years that followed) to reassure the affluent majority it complacency with race issues. One of every eight black males between 25 and 29 years old is behind bars on any given day according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce incarceration rates. If this rate continues, one of three black males born today will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.

A local daily “conservative right” newspaper, “The Pittsburgh Tribune Review” recently feature an article written by Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University. In the article “Ammunition for Poverty Pimps” Mr. William suggested the Census Bureau’s 2004 current Population Survey found two segments of the black community. One segment suffers only 9.9 percent poverty rate and another suffers 39.5. He surmised that one would be a lunatic if they believed white people practice discrimination. He concluded, among other things, that the only distinction between the two segments was marriage. Adding, “If today’s black family structure were what it was in 1960, the overall black poverty rate would be in or near single digits."

I guess Mr. Williams failed to consider the proof that demonstrates blacks are denied opportunities in forms of employment, education and even human treatment. For example, on October 18, I borrowed a little more than $50 to buy a bus ticket to travel halfway across the state for an oral test given by the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission. I was well dressed in a dark business suit and could have been easily mistaken as a black republican conservative. However, while on the elevator headed for the floor for the testing, a white woman asked me if I was allowed on the floor where the testing was being held. She suggested that because I was black, "I had no business on their elevator." She ordered me off the elevator on a lower floor and said that she would have to call up stairs to let the staff know I was on my way.

Soon thereafter she was advised that I was scheduled for an oral test on the floor I was trying to get to. But, she still refused to compromise. She announced that I wasn't permitted to travel through their office without an escort. Interestingly, it was additionally odd that the State required a monitor to sit in with me during my testing.

Nonetheless, getting back to the LIHEAP issue, the federal entitlement program provides waivers and reduced heating rates to low-income households. It is a federal program that assists those who cannot pay their bills. Eligible households can receive assistance through a direct payment to energy vendors that supply their fuel, or through a crisis component during weather-related emergencies. To be eligible for the program, household income cannot exceed 135 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines: $12,920 for a one-person household; $17,321 for two persons; $21,722 for three persons; $26,123 for four persons; $30,524 for five persons. For larger households, the guidelines increase by $4,401 for each additional person. Homeowners, renters (including those whose rent includes heat), roomers and subsidized housing tenants may be eligible.

I have a good understanding of the program because I was previously employed by Allegheny County as a planner and wrote grant applications for the agency that implements the program. However, in 1989, I was fired in retaliation for organizing a union. The political sub-division said I was terminated for being tardy four times in a four-month period. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC") identified a white female working in the same office as having been tardy 71 times during the same time period and not disciplined. But, the PHRC ruled it was bad management and not discrimination.

Ever since my termination the political-subdivision has found some way to retaliate against my household, i.e., always reaches for any available loophole to frustrate the process and deny my family the federal entitlement. In the past, I have complained to the State, federal government (FBI), courts and media to no avail.

Consider this, when the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan passed through Western Pennsylvania in September 2004, the LIHEAP offered free water heaters and furnaces. Income restrictions were waived allowing the affluent to participate. My family was denied relief because the deed to our house is recorded in our minor son’s name. But, LIHEAP allows renters and other non-homeowners to participate.

The current issue involves Duquense Light Company’s termination of our electric service immediately following the close of last year’s LIHEAP program (March 31, 2005). Although they already had $371 as a security deposit the utility company terminated service and demanded $866.01. And, despite the fact that we didn’t have any electrical service, the next month we received an unexplained bill for almost twice the amount actually due: $1,646.17. Because we are current living on “food stamps” we were forced to go without electric until the start of the 2005-2006 LIHEAP program.

As a “food stamp” participant we received our LIHEAP application early and returned it weeks before the November 7 start. In fact, as we do each year, we contacted Mr. Cornell’s office to advise him of our situation (requested that he process our application to allow the electrical service to be restored on November 7 without a 72-hour wait). Mr. Cornell didn’t respond.

Mrs. Titus, Mr. Cornell's assistant did call on November 7, just before the closing (3:00 p.m.) of her office. She advised our application would be denied - "Duquense Light now demanded $2,600.” To memorialize the outrageous response I requested permission from Mrs. Titus to allow a "three-way" connection with the local media Channel 4). I called Channel 4 because I was given its “gold medal” for outstanding community service in 1989. However, during the three-way conversation Ms. Titus refused to acknowledge her previous position (Duquense Light demand of $2,600). She would only say our family was being denied the federal entitlement. Immediately, I voiced a complaint to Mr. Cornell’s secretary. She suggested that I call Harrisburg (Department of Welfare’s main office). She provided me the number.

Precious Perry answered the Secretary of Welfare’s telephone. She transferred me to Ms. Richman’s chief of staff (Linda Hicks). Mrs. Hicks promised to have Christian Bowser call before five p.m.. But, it never happened. At 9:00 a.m. the next morning (November 8), I called Mr. Cornell’s office and left another message requesting a return call. I also called Mrs. Hicks again and questioned why Mrs. Bowser never called.

This time, Mrs. Hicks promised to have Ms. Bowser call before 11 a.m.. Mrs. Hicks asked us to “call back if Mrs. Bowser failed to call.” It never happened.

I did call Ms. Hicks at 12:00 noon but she rushed me off the phone. She gave me Mrs. Bowser’s telephone number and requested that I call her directly. I called the number but got Mrs. Bowser’s voice mail. I left a message explaining the situation. Mrs. Bowser never called back.

On November 9, 2005, I called Mrs. Hicks again to advise Mrs. Bowser' failure to call. But, Mrs. Hicks quickly rushed me off the phone again. She said that she would no longer address the issue. She said “communicate with Ms. Bowser from that point.”

Thereafter, I called Mrs. Bowser’s and spoke with her secretary. I left another message. Even more frustrated now, I called the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I spoke with Mr. Tom Birdsong. I advised him of our situation and asked if he would investigate the issue in a “confidential” manner. He said that he would forward the information to Larry Walsh. I informed him that in the previous years I have communicated with Mr. Walsh but nothing was done. I even told Mr. Birdsong that I once connected a Post-Gazette columnist, Tony Norman, and allowed him to participated with a three-way telephone call (allowed him opportunity to monitor a call to prove how rude the LIHEAP program staff was acting). Mr. Birdsong said he would have Mr. Walsh call.

At approximately 4:00 p.m., I was finally able to get Mrs. Bowser on the telephone. She laughed at our situation!

After laughing, Mrs. Bowser would only reiterated Mrs. Titus position, “Duquense Light can demand funds that are not owed.” She added, “Mrs. Titus’ position is final.” She said she would have Mrs. Titus send us a rejection letter.

Immediately, I called Mr. Birdsong. But, he became rude. The conversation concluded with Mr. Birdsong saying “No one is going to write about your family’s plight.”

50 cents, during an interview on ABC’s “The View,” said he was saddened by the fatal shooting: “I feel for the victim’s family in this situation.” He added, “But you know, these weren’t kids. This was a 30-year-old man (who) had a dispute with three other guys.”

I’m older than 30. But, what is rage? How come I’m able to control my anger? Would I have controlled my anger if one of my family members was hit by a stray bullet during the shootout?

http://www.kstreetfriend.blogspot.com

Posted by kstreetfriend's baby girl on November 19, 2005 04:11 AM