Hermione Granger or the Apostle Paul? Take Your Pick

The enduring appeal of magical thinking

Young Harry Potter didn’t know that he was one of the most famous wizards in the world. He found out on his eleventh birthday, when he was rescued from his despicable uncle and aunt by the enormous, gentle Rubeus Hagrid. In the hours that followed, Harry learned from Hagrid there was a school called Hogwarts and that he belonged to the world of wizards. Everyone else in the world—the non-wizards, including his uncle and aunt—were Muggles.

The morning after his rescue, Hagrid mentioned the Ministry of Magic, and Harry wanted to know what the Ministry of Magic did.

“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”


Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”

One of the reasons that J. K. Rowling’s creation has been so phenomenally popular is her artistry in depicting human emotions and behaviors. But also because people are drawn to fantasies about things that don’t happen in ‘real life.’ There could be some really cool results if they did.

Or as Hagrid put it: “Everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.”

The success of religion is based precisely on that.

Christianity’s primary currency is magical thinking. That is, it promotes belief in events and outcomes that defy our certain knowledge of how the world works. Everybody sees it right away in the J. K. Rowling world. She tapped into the rich heritage of human folklore to create her stories. Magical thinking is fun. For example, Professor McGonagall, who teaches transfiguration at Hogwarts, can turn herself into a cat wherever she wants. She can replenish plates with food—it just emerges out of nowhere—as soon as Harry has eaten. And the brainy student Hermione Granger is an expert at spells.

But in the context of religion, which claims to be in the serious business of helping believers survive and get by in the world, magical thinking flies beneath the radar, unrecognized, blocking critical thought. Faith is the much-touted mechanism for passing off magical thinking as a real thing for coping with the world.

“Everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems”

Problem One: Escaping Death

Oculus reparo is the first spell that Hermione Granger utters, to fix Harry Potter’s eyeglasses. This is before they even reached Hogwarts; she’d already been reading the textbooks and had mastered oculus reparo. Magic words worked! But the stakes are much higher, of course, if you’re trying to convince people you can fix death. Religious bureaucrats have been at this game for centuries, and are rarely modest at advocating solutions.

The apostle Paul was no exception. He didn’t have magic textbooks, but hallucinated the risen Christ, so knew for certain what would work. We find one of his most famous spells in Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Harry Potter could see right away that oculus reparo did the trick: his glasses were repaired. How do we know that Paul’s spell works? People don’t have any way to verify his claim, but such is the power of wishful thinking that they don’t care.

A few decades after Paul wrote—probably a half-century or more—another theologian came up with a magic potion to escape death, i.e., something to eat/drink. The evil Potions Professor at Hogwarts, Severus Snape, would have been impressed by these verses from John’s gospel (6:53-57).

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

Why don’t Christians wretch?

These spells and potions can be understood in the context in which Christianity was born. It was one of many mystery cults that flourished in the first century; they had rituals and sacred meals—and they guarded their secrets for attaining eternal life. The shocking text, Mark 4:11-12, words attributed to Jesus no less, probably reflects this thinking:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand, so that they may not turn again and be forgiven."

For a thorough tutorial on Christianity’s early milieu, see especially Richard Carrier’s Elements 11, 12, 13 and 14 (“Elements of the Christian Faith”) in On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 96-124. Pay close attention to the abundant footnotes; a lot has been written about this.

Problem Two: Escaping an Indifferent Cosmos

I suppose that, in proportion to increasing awareness of our place in the Cosmos—incredibly small and isolated—the desire for prayer to be a real thing has increased.

But as is the case with all magical thinking, there is no known mechanism by which prayer could work. How can it possibly be true that the organic matter inside human skulls—as we thrive in the thin biosphere of one small planet—has the capacity, the power, to communicate with gods? Especially a cosmic deity that works on the scale of galaxies? And who, we are now told, resides ‘outside of time and space.’ How do our brainwaves, cast in the form of prayers, get outside our skulls, let alone escape time and space?

Prayer made more sense—but not much more—when gods were assumed to be just a few miles overhead, or hovering around us in a realm of spirits and demons. Prayer is based on impulse, a desire to be connected to, and to manipulate, elemental forces. John C. Wathey made the correct call: “Prayer is the adult manifestation of infantile crying.” (The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing)

It’s very handy that the prayer claim cannot be falsified: how can it be tested? Indeed, there have been tests that show prayer has zero results, but how in the world do you establish control groups? It’s very handy too that apologists fall back on “it’s a spiritual thing”—and the faithful nod approvingly—but there is no hard evidence whatever (data that all theists agree on) that a spiritual realm even exists.

I suppose it’s harmless that people think that they talk to God; but it’s truly dangerous when people claim that God talks to them. Billions of believers have claimed answers from God that are hopelessly contradictory, yet they want to tell the rest of us what God thinks about abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and dozens of other social issues.

The super devout especially know very well that the prayer claim is vulnerable.

One of the hallmarks of those who pray is confidence. Consider these two quotes:

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing will be impossible for you.” Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 17:20)

“When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you.” Jiminy Cricket

Can you tell any difference? Neither can I.

Problem Three: Escaping God’s Failure to Show Up

Religious bureaucrats have always faced a challenge: How do they get people to believe what they’re hawking? Since their congregations are well schooled in magical thinking, what could be better than miracle stories? With all the chaos, evil, and suffering in the world, the Bible miracle stories provide some assurance that God has done neat tricks, e.g., water-into-wine, walking on water, instant cures for leprosy, resurrections, etc. But wait…just as long as people don’t believe the miracle stories of other religions, which would prove other gods. Miracles are risky business.

In Professor McGonagall’s transfiguration class, Hogwarts students saw her change a desk into a pig. If we transplanted that story into scripture, the faithful would take is as a sure sign of God’s amazing power. But even in the Bible there were sorcerers who could match what God could do (Exodus 7:10-12):

“So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded. Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.”

You have to decide: Do miracles prove your God’s power?


Do miracle stories prove that religions draw on common folklore themes the world over? Is any god proved by such stories, since they have been attached—via magical thinking—to so many different gods? It’s no wonder that religious people themselves are skeptical of miracles claimed by other religions they detest. So, whose magical thinking do you trust?

When Mel Gibson put Christian magical thinking on full display in The Passion of the Christ, the results were grim. (Rotten Tomatoes: "The graphic details of Jesus' torture make the movie tough to sit through and obscure whatever message it is trying to convey.") When Warner Brothers transferred Harry Potter’s magic to the screen—with no pretense that it was anything other than fantasy—we saw a kinder take on life: “Harry is a much more humane, in depth, vibrant character than the Jesus of the gospels, infinitely easier to identify with, champion, and even love.” (Derek Murphy, Jesus Potter Harry Christ, 2011)

So, will it be Hermione Granger or the apostle Paul? I’ll take Hermione any day.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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