Transformation

Is Harry Potter the atheist's bible?

Google can find you a glib answer to 'the meaning of life' in 0.44 seconds - but where do you go to find real answers if you aren't religious?

Suki Ferguson
3 November 2015
 Youtube/official trailer.

Credit: Harry Potter in Warner Bros' film adaptation. Credit: Youtube/official trailer.

As a person taking action to make the world a better place, do you have faith?

It may seem like an odd question, but many people who are involved in campaigns and activism don’t define as having a religion. I don’t. While some people link their commitment to environmental and social justice to religious belief, many of the ‘millennial’ generation of activists look for meaning elsewhere, through their relationships and their work.

Religions unite people through ritual festivities and private reflection. Both of these speak to our drive for meaning, solace and social bonding. But where do you find these, and how do you hold on to your belief in change, if you are without religion?

I’m experiencing my own crisis of non-faith: agnostic or atheist people need shared life-affirming experiences just as much as religious people do. For activists, these might come through demonstrations, sit-ins, planning meetings and festivals - even house parties. Anywhere where we feel present and purposeful. Where we have a role to play.

But it’s the basic human need for personal, intimate connection where the political organising culture in the UK struggles most. It is difficult to find an alternative practice to prayer, confession or meditation - difficult to find places to confront our own demons, to doubt and to ask questions, whilst knowing that support is there. 

Mindfulness is one increasingly popular practice for non-religious people who seek reflection in their lives, but it’s intrinsically solitary. Some forms of yogic meditation invite space for reflection within a communal context, but go deeper, and once again the question of whether you believe in essential religious principles arises again.

Where can unbelievers find support? Where is our sacred text - a text to read, reread, interpret and learn from? Bear with me.

Harry Potter as a sacred text

We live in an age where Google can find you 'the meaning of life' in 0.44 seconds. The answers that the algorithm throws up are human answers, but their very speediness makes them glib - a quirk of modern life that a Guardian autocomplete series tries to address, answering questions like ‘What if I fail?’ with marginally more personal answers. But where are the sagas, the fables, the episodic stories that give the reader faith in a grand plan that we might well be our own salvation?

Recently a couple of Harvard students set up Harry Potter As A Sacred Text, a reading group that takes the beloved series as a source of humanist contemplation, bringing readers together each month to explore the philosophical themes that unite J.K Rowling’s seven novels. 

The project looks beyond the superficial ‘children’s adventure fantasy’ trappings and gives time to the humanist questions that Rowling proposes, from how you should respond to whatever your heart most desires, to the Horcrux or Hallows? conundrum: should a person should first equip themselves fully in order to fight, or to get on with fighting whilst knowing their own weakness? 

Like others who grew up reading Harry Potter, I first loved the story for its plot twists, magic and humour. It’s only on rereading that Rowling’s examination of self-doubt starts to add up for a reader experiencing the adult conundrum of ever-growing political responsibility, matched by episodes of depression and its attendant feelings of inadequacy. 

Despite flaws in the characterisation and plot, it’s been a surprisingly empowering experience to realise a decade after first reading the world’s most popular piece of fiction that it’s actually a sweeping narrative about lefty political resistance triumphing.

Of course, milage varies, and poetry and fiction of all stripes are potential sources of secular wisdom. Even a series that chimes with millions of readers from around the world is limited by its narrowly British boarding school setting, its inescapably white western milieu. There are other epic tales that stand up to the sacred text mindset -  the openly Christian Chronicles of Narnia, the mythic Lord of the Rings trilogy, perhaps even the Hunger Games or Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. 

The hero/heroine's inner journey. Credit: thewritersjourney.com.

The hero/heroine's inner journey. Credit: thewritersjourney.com.

All are adventure stories written for a young audience, that follow the hero/heroine's journey through adversity into catharsis and freedom, and, in varying degrees, celebrate the bonds of fellowship. All are, needless to say, texts rooted in western and middle class traditions. Are fictional stories, perhaps, a very western middle class way of dealing with the world?

Face to face

In Ava DuVarnay’s Martin Luther King film Selma (2014), there’s a moving scene where the beleaguered (and Reverend) Martin calls gospel singer Mahalia Jackson on the phone late at night for a solo performance of ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord.’ King only needs to say one sentence for Jackson to understand his pain, and for her to give him relief. 

Reading for support is one thing, but getting it straight from another person will always be worth seeking out. If we’re lucky, wisdom can be heard at our own political gatherings, and from within our particular circles of friends and family. But where do we find it during solitary hours of despair? If you, like me, define as an activist without belief in a higher power, how can we create meaningful support for each other?

An non-religious person relies on their relationships for this kind of in-the-moment support, and in fact, one of the simplest yet most difficult lessons that Harry Potter contains is that we are each others’ best advocates, comrades and confidants (though Harry does spend a lot of time seeking Dumbledore’s guidance…). 

But while friends may mean well, cries for help do exert pressure on relationships. Over time, sharing your burden with another person tires them and saps your own sense of self-reliance. Sometimes seeking help elsewhere is the best way to retain respect for each other. 

The advice of wiser guides who are able and inclined to give their expertise freely remains elusive, though. The internet is full of influential people sharing their best thoughts, but face to face understanding holds a special kind of power. This is where religion offers the faithful a fresh sphere, where you stand as an individual in relation to something - or rather, someone - higher. They might be a priest, a pandit, a guru, or a rabbi. For the non-religious, there are counsellors and therapists, but these will never be as accessible to us as an open church or temple is.

Campaigners and activists are good at questioning things, good at dreaming, and good at taking action to change things. We’re also human beings with a natural need for reflection, reassurance and purpose. It’s a truism that we are mostly kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves, and we need to formalise that kindness, and move beyond whipping it out as a reaction to crises.

Together, we need to find a way through the very human process of seeking guidance on how and why we live and fight. It could be through coaching; through mentoring; through what original 1970s hippies would recognise as ‘encounter groups’, or through action learning sets.

Whatever the mode of delivery, we need patience and time, to be there for each other, offering no definitive answers, but sharing different perspectives.

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