‘Harry Potter’ flew off its first bookshelf 20 years ago June 26. Here’s why I think the protagonist is a perfect example of humanism.
Near the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for those of us in the U.S.), Harry has to make a decision: to do what is right, or to do what is easy. It’s not a particularly extraordinary moment for a fantasy novel — the genre is full of good vs. evil struggles — but it is a meaningful moment for a young boy named Harry. What does it mean to do good? How do we manage to do good in the face of massive evil and overwhelming fear? Harry Potter, it seems, wants to know, and so do we.
J.K. Rowling’s seven-novel series wasn’t something I warmed up to right away. When I did finally fall in love with the Harry Potter books, one thing thrilled me more than the magic or the writing or even the characters (though Professor McGonagall is the best — fight me). It seemed to me that Harry Potter himself was a perfect example of humanism.
Children participate in a Harry Potter parade December 11, 2016, in Moscow, Russia. Photo by Anton Belitsky / Kommersant via Getty Images
In Western culture, it’s common to take morality cues straight from religion. One reason often cited for giving children a religious upbringing is so they’ll know the difference between right and wrong, the idea being that they need a religious community to learn that. And it’s one of the concerns religious people often have about secular society: that without religion to guide us, we’ll have no way to define good and evil, no way to know how to behave.
The American Humanist Association (the subhead on their website reads “good without a god”) defines humanism as “…a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” The Council for Secular Humanism takes this a step further, referring to secular humanism as a “comprehensive, nonreligious life stance.” In essence, humanism is about humans. It’s the idea that human beings are enough and that we can figure out how to be good and kind and brave all on our own.
All of which may not seem like it has much to do with a young boy discovering he’s a wizard and going away to magical boarding school with his lovable sidekicks, Hermione and Ron. But just hear me out.
Robbie Coltrane, Daniel Radcliffe and Ian Hart in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001) / Warner Bros.
Far more than being about broomsticks and cauldrons, the Harry Potter series of books (as well as films) is first and foremost about challenging oneself to do the right thing when it isn’t always easy. We see it right away, when our young protagonist is only 11 years old. Notably, when another student is locked into a bathroom with a dangerous troll, Harry (and his friend Ron) don’t have to consult a religious doctrine or text to know it would be wrong to leave her to her fate: “It was the last thing they wanted to do, but what choice did they have? Wheeling around, they sprinted back to the door and turned the key, fumbling in their panic. Harry pulled the door open and they ran inside.”
“But what choice did they have?” They had all the choice in the world. Yet they turned around. Something in Harry’s conscience, in his humanity, made him feel that the other option wasn’t an option at all.
Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (2001) / Warner Bros.
Later in the same book, Harry chooses to risk his life (for the first of many times) to stop Lord Voldemort. Importantly, he takes this risk in disregard of the only morality system placed upon him — the rules of Hogwarts — demonstrating that external rules and morality don’t matter so much as his human spirit and ability to act.
It doesn’t end there, of course. We see examples of goodness and morality in every book in the series. In The Prisoner of Azkaban Harry chooses to rescue an innocent animal from death and an innocent man from a fate worse than death. In The Order of the Phoenix he and his friends find a way to stand up to and resist an unjust educational regime. And of course in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, he does the morally complicated work of hunting down and defeating a dark wizard to prevent him from hurting others.
Harry’s an imperfect character. He can be selfish and overly stubborn and often misses important details (that’s why we have Hermione). Yet by trial and error, he manages to follow his own moral compass and never asks for religious validation.
It would be ridiculous to say these books, set largely in a fictional castle called Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, are without the supernatural. They exist in a world in which magic is very real and directed by human beings. However, although they grapple with birth and death, weddings and funerals, loneliness and temptation, they never mention any deities. Even when the series dances right up to discussions that typically have a religious component — with vague wonderings about the afterlife and mention of souls — still the books refuse to really go there.
David Thewlis and Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ (2007) / Warner Bros.
It isn’t merely that all gods and other deities are notably absent from the Harry Potter series. It’s more than that. Through Harry’s perspective, the reader — who is likely a young person too — learns about morality, compassion and doing the right thing. The books are about teenage wizards defeating a dark lord, sure, but they’re also about standing up for basic human decency. The books advocate a “golden rule” of sorts and the idea that it’s far better to be open-hearted and loving than to seek power. But these ideals are not handed down from on high. Instead, they’re treated as self-evident. Goodness, in the universe of Harry Potter, is a natural conclusion people can come to. There are no saviors, and no threats of hellfire, required.
I was in high school while most of these books were coming out, and I recall the religious (primarily Christian) backlash against them. Many religious leaders spoke out against the books, but their criticisms all tended to focus on the fact that the books include, well, magic. From The Vatican to individual schools and teachers, the stance was always the same: sorcery is evil; therefore, the books would “corrupt children.” I’m not a Christian myself, and I always wondered why Christians would be more threatened by the somewhat hokey spell-casting and not the fact that the heroes so obviously had no use for what they were selling.
J.K. Rowling signs ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ in NYC in 1999. Photo by Jonathan Elderfield via Getty Images
Interestingly, Rowling might not see it this way. She is a Christian herself, and during a 2007 book tour she opened up about the Christian themes she had used in the books. “To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious,” she said. “But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.” But the faith of the author, and the similarity of the story arc to a certain tale of death and resurrection, can’t change what’s in the text. In his world, Harry Potter is a child without a god.
And yet he flourishes.
Against impossible odds, against horrible cruelty, in a world where it would be so easy for him to take another path, Harry Potter is a young person trying to do what’s right. He’s proud and often self-centered. He makes mistakes and leans hard on his friends to get through. But all those things serve to make him more real, and as he grows up he staggers toward an understanding of right and wrong. And that understanding does not come from an ancient text or a learned priest; it comes from his own humanity.