The main reason for disliking the Harry Potter books is obviously their membership in the Enid Blyton genre. A further reason I could not make it past the first dozen pages of the first Potter book: I have a respect for “Muggles” and cannot empathize with a dualistic universe in which Muggles belong to the dark side. Our unimaginative, Muggle aunt and uncle provided my brother and me with a bit of adult reliability. Our parents found it unthinkable to decide on a holiday destination before we got in the car to make our escape. It would have turned their dream vacation into a nightmare even to consider booking a hotel in advance. Although no one seemed to enjoy it at all, it was a first principle, beyond discussion that the unplanned holiday is the only one worth having. “Why,” we wailed to Aunt and Uncle Muggle, “can’t we book a hotel! Why,” we forlornly demanded, “must we drive around for hours without a map looking for a hotel, and then sleep in the car?” Our Aunt Muggle pursed her lips, and then she said something which seemed to unveil the heart of the matter: “It’s their religion.”
It was a put-down. I discovered in adult life that that “It’s a religion” has replaced “It’s bad form” as a rhetorical disparagement. It’s a commonplace today to describe collective incongruities as religions. The sentimental, anthropomorphizing devotions enjoined upon dog or cat “moms” and “dads” by the vet and pet-training industry is sometimes characterized as a “religion.” The “transgender movement,” which holds that gender is a social construct, that sex is gender, and that some portion of humanity are trapped in a wrongly sexed body, is denoted a sub-sect of the gnostic “religion.” A journalist notes this week in the Spectator that questioning gender-fluidity is now akin to blasphemy.
This broad use of the word “religion” for any kind of collective irrationality was perhaps popularized by Eric Voegelin’s use of the term “political religion” to describe communism, fascism, and National Socialism. These are similar creeds which differed, historically, not so much out of their internal content but out of the different cultures in which they were imposed. From the early 1930s on, Voegelin saw that these phenomena are more alike than different, and that what they have in common is making a “religion” out of politics. In The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Henri de Lubac took the insight still farther, effectively arguing that atheism generates its own set of religions, from Feuerbach’s humanism to Nietzsche’s trans-humanism.
This broad use of the term “religion” is, like my Aunt Muggle’s comment about my bohemian parents, a gibe or put-down. As such, it can never hope to convince anyone inside the so-called “religion” itself. Generations of graduate students in theology are swept off their feet by the Drama of Atheist Humanism; generations of non-Christian students are entirely unpersuaded by it. None of the dog-owners who take their “kids” to tea-parties at the School for Dogs in Lower Manhattan will ever be made to believe that they are participants in a kind of religion. It’s a bit like Rahner’s term “anonymous Christian”: No one to whom this label is assigned is likely to accept it.
Other words are used like this. While the French still use “théologale” to refer to the inner mysteries of the Trinity, Anglo-Saxons deploy the term “theological” exclusively to mean overcomplexificatified idiocy. The same is true of “theology”: The devout Catholic Charles Moore contended this past weekend that Ireland and England could easily sort out the problem of their common border, were it not for interference by “E.U. theology.” The phrase is stronger even than “E.U. dogma.” It conjures up blind adherence to first principles. “Cult” followers differ from members of a “religion” in that a leader enforces their obedience to incontrovertible principle. As a term of art, “cult” has the edge on “religion” in terms of rhetorical denigration. Edgier still is “fetish.” Deployed by nineteenth-century armchair anthropologists to describe the primitive origins of all religiosity, “fetish” got itself tangled up with the S-and-M community, became connected to stilettos, then to footwear, and finally to any commodity, went through a Marxist-Foucaultian phase, and now is simply a term of abuse.
“Religion” is a genteel version of “fetish.” As a broad term, “religion” is perhaps rhetorically indispensable, but it is difficult to back up scientifically. It can look intuitively right to call trans-genderism, bohemians, art-lovers, or the pet-industry “religions,” but it’s not easy to say what they all have in common, other than being a bit batty.
There’s also a narrow use of the term “religion,” which is sometimes insisted upon by the smarter graduate students. The narrow observance insists that back in pre-modern times, “religion” or “religious” simply and entirely meant a member of a religious order. It’s only the several decadences of modernity, secularism, and the privatization of religious belief that led to the usage’s being broadened to designate the faiths of whole bodies of people—Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and so forth. The graduate students are right about the etymology, of course, but it is futile to stand, Canute-like, against a four-hundred-year-old development of the meaning of a word. Outside of the A.A.R., we cannot use the razor-like force of our intellects to repel people from practicing the current usage of the term.
My Aunt Muggle proudly and contemptuously put down her father as “Victorian.” Like the atheists, the Muggles have come down in the world since their Victorian heyday at play amongst the fetish-ists. Today’s Muggles cut through the problems of definition. They know that there are five major world religions, which ought to be made to co-exist. That is the end of it. They cannot say why some phenomena, like the pet industry, are excluded. The most unimaginative person could hardly fail to notice that once one consumer industry is tolerated as a “religion,” all of the rest of them will want to belong, too. But it seems to escape the contemporary Muggle. They know that defining religiosity as membership in a religious order is reactionary, but they cannot say why. It’s not only their lack of magical blood which prevents them from defining religion: They know that the phenomenologists, like van der Leeuw and Otto, with their beautiful definitions of the sacred and holy, were just Christians pretending to be able to think. The Muggles know that religion must not be defined, must become ever more tolerant, ever more reasonable, and exist for the sake of the microscope which inspects it. They want religions to co-exist, and thus presumably, to exist, without wanting to pay the merest lip-service to what makes religions exist: the human soul. The religious sense is not one more of our senses, or a special form of intuition, like Maritain’s “poetic intuition.” The religious sense is the soul itself, in operation. It senses truths, of a kind with which has a certain connaturality. Perhaps Mrs. Rowling and my rather more Manichean father were right about the Muggles after all—though he just called them middle-class trendies.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.