The Harry Potter books have been the subject of much religious debate after fundamentalist Christians warned parents against the books, deeming them pro-witchcraft and consequently anti-Christian. Some Muslims, on the other hand, have banned the books for the entirely opposite reason, claiming they are poorly concealed Christian propaganda. Surprisingly however, the debate has always centred around Rowling’s “hidden intentions” with “proof” in the form of subtle symbolism. The discussions have rarely if ever touched upon the actual treatment of religion in the books; that is, the religious beliefs and traditions of the wizarding world.
When reading the books, it has often struck me how it seems as if JKR is avoiding the subject of religion altogether. Despite being in life-threatening situations more often than most, no one ever prays or even mentions God; despite being teenagers, the strongest swear word we ever hear them utter is “Merlin’s beard”; and despite the political climate, neither side of the war uses religious arguments in its rally for moral support. Does this mean that the wizarding world is simply non-religious? By looking at the names, holidays and superstitions in the wizarding world, this essay attempts to answer the question of whether or not the characters in the books are religious, and if so, what religion they subscribe to.
On reading the Harry Potter books the first thing that made me aware of the tendency to avoid religion was the surprising lack of common Christian names such as John, Mary and Paul. Now, this may simply be a result of J. K. Rowling’s creativity. On the other hand, with the notable exceptions of Peter Pettigrew, James Potter, Remus John Lupin, Tom Riddle, Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas, Angelina Johnson and Parvati Patil, the names with obvious religious origin are really surprisingly few and far between. Add to this that a number of these exceptions are Muggle-born (for example, Tom Riddle—named after his Muggle father) and presumably named to give us a clue about their ethnic origins (for example, Seamus, Parvati), there really are only James Potter, Remus John Lupin and Peter Pettigrew left who lack an explanation for their religious names. Why is this?
Of course, names such as Albus Dumbledore give us a hint about the difference between Muggle and wizarding naming traditions. But what exactly is the wizarding naming tradition? Apparently the different families have different traditions, or themes. For example the Weasley clan borrows names from the Arthurian legends, the Blacks from stars, the Malfoys from classical politics (interestingly the name Draco falls into both the Black and Malfoy categories). The only common theme for wizarding names seem to be that they have more or less classical Greek/Roman origins. I might have mentioned Minerva McGonagall in the list of religiously-themed names above, but named after a Roman goddess, her name is perfectly in tune with conservative wizarding traditions.
Does this indicate that the wizarding community still subscribes to the beliefs and traditions of ancient Rome? Most likely the answer is no, and the names are simply part of an old tradition rather than present faith, or JKR would have included in her books mention of Saturnalia and other Greek and Roman feasts and holidays. Instead we learn that wizards celebrate Hallowe’en and that Harry Potter’s friends return to their homes for Christmas holidays and the Weasleys give each other hideous jumpers and other Christmas presents. However, not once does anyone mention the reasons for the celebration or suggest going to church. (We do not even know whether wizards go to church at all, and hopefully the setting and ceremony of Bill’s and Fleur’s wedding in the last book will give us some answers.) We do not hear of any wizards singing Christmas carols, [*] and Mrs. Weasley seems to think Celestina Warbeck’s A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love does the job (HBP16). In short, it seems as if the Christmas tradition is just an excuse for a holiday, and I am inclined to believe it has been adopted from the Muggles. With a large number of students from Muggle families attending Hogwarts, it is easy to work out why it would be convenient for the school to place the holidays late in December. The Weasleys, curious as they are about anything Muggle, would naturally embrace this opportunity to knit more jumpers. However, we do not know what other pure blood families do for Christmas. We do know that Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle did not go home for Christmas holidays in their second year, which may indicate that their otherwise tradition-oriented families did not see Christmas celebrations with their children as particularly important.
If Christian holidays are not part of the genuine wizarding tradition—what is? Many fan fiction writers have wizards celebrating pagan holidays such as Samhain and Beltane, but there is no mention of these in the canon. In fact, the only holiday that seems to be celebrated by the whole wizarding community is Hallowe’en. This is believed by Muggles to be a Christian holiday, but it might of course be that they (we?) were wrong. As I’ve understood it, Hallowe’en in the wizarding world is a happy celebration of magic and a uniting of ghosts and living as well as an excuse to eat massive amounts of pumpkin pasties and watch dancing skeletons (PS10). If there are any religious beliefs behind, these are rather hard to spot.
If the religious traditions of the wizarding world are somewhat scarce this does not mean that wizards and witches are completely rational. The superstitions are abundant, the most obvious being the fear of uttering the name “Voldemort,” and the various substitutes for his name “You-Know-Who” and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” This fear is reminiscent of old folk superstitions. There may, of course, be something more to this than misguided fear—after all, we are dealing with magic. However, if we are to believe Dumbledore, the matter is simple: “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself” (PS17) Another example is the belief that Thestrals are unlucky which Hagrid claims is “jus’ superstition” (OP21). The pureblood prejudice towards Muggle-borns is also largely insubstantial. Add to that Trelawney’s irrational belief in her Inner Eye, and the power of tea leaves and we have a whole set of superstitions to work on. This, one may argue, has very little to do with religion as systems of belief and a social order. But if nothing else, these notions do show us that wizards and witches, like Muggles, have the inclination to believe in supernatural forces that guide their fortune or misfortune even when none is proven. From that, the step to organized religion is not a very big one. The hero-worshipping of Harry Potter (and Gilderoy Lockhart for that matter) and the appeal of extreme ideologies may be filling the gaps in people’s minds that would normally be occupied by religion. Voldemort appeals precisely to people’s tendency to crave causal agents and authority figures.
In sum, there does not seem to be any prevalent religious tradition in the wizarding world. Judging from wizarding naming tradition and holidays, people’s beliefs are a jumble of different traditions from Muggle and wizarding culture, as well as folk superstition. The fact that nearly everything in the books is seen from Harry Potter’s point of view severely limits our perspective, and it may well be that wizards celebrate feasts we do not know of, or that Merlin is regarded by most wizards as an omnipotent supernatural presence as well as a historical/mythical character. However, if we assume that Harry Potter would know about it if it were the case, the magical world is not religious. On the other hand, wizard’s mind seems to work largely like that of a Muggle. The many superstitions wizards hold may be an indication that witches and wizards are just as irrational and “religious-minded” as Muggles. The lack of religion might thus work to the wizarding world’s disadvantage, in that people will tend to seek truth, ultimate causes, and authority figures elsewhere.
*Editor’s Note: In honor of the Yule Ball, the suits of armor at Hogwarts were all bewitched to sing Christmas carols, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” being mentioned specifically (GF22).
Also, Sirius Black sang “God Rest Ye, Merry Hippogriffs” (OP22) over Christmas in number twelve, Grimmauld Place.
The essay observes that "if nothing else, . . . wizards and witches, like Muggles, have the inclination to believe in supernatural forces that guide their fortune or misfortune even when none is proven." But note that Felix Felicis and mackled malaclaw, for example, are proven instances of magic, or supernatural forces, that do in fact guide fortune or misfortune.