Catholic School Pastor Thinks Harry Potter's Spells Are Real, Bans the Books

Harry Potter and the Baffling Return of Religious Panic


A Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee, has banned the entire Harry Potter series of books because a pastor at the school believes they contain real spells that actually work in real life.

The Tennessean reported over the weekend that Rev. Dan Reehil, a pastor at the school, sent out an email to parents telling them that the seven books in the series were being removed from the library. In the email, he tells parents, "The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text."

The spells in the Harry Potter books are, of course, a fictional creation of author J.K. Rowling. We know this by virtue of the lack of children today zooming about the atmosphere screaming, "Ascendio!"

The ban announcement quickly went viral, no doubt fed by Reehil's absurd reasoning and the almost nostalgic nature of it. Reehil is hardly the first to call for the banning of Harry Potter books, and he's not the first to pin it to religion-fueled fears of occult references in fictional works. Prior to 2004, when the first books in the series were still fresh, schools faced hundreds of challenges to try to get them banned, according to the American Library Association's (ALA) annual list of "Top Ten Most Challenged Books."

But then the Harry Potter books fell off the list, even as the series was adapted to film and became a pop culture mainstay. You can even "visit" settings from the books and movie adaptations at Universal Studios theme parks in Los Angeles, California, and Orlando, Florida, and buy your own magic wand. You still won't be able to fly, but the wand does other things in the park itself—through clever application of technology, not actual magic.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, says that efforts to ban Harry Potter books still pop up occasionally, particularly in Catholic schools. Because Catholic schools are privately organized and operated, the typical First Amendment legal concerns don't apply. As for students in public schools, a 2003 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas said that it violated the First Amendment rights of students in the Cedarville School District to lock away Harry Potter books and require children to get written permission from parents to read them.

The recent drop in such cases makes the action in Nashville much more noticeable.

"It has become a Modern children's classic and become more widely accepted, but we still see incidents where it's still challenged," Caldwell-Stone explains. And it's not just about the magic and witchcraft. "They think Harry's a terrible role model who teaches kids to defy authority."

In other words, the passage of more than 20 years since the first book was published has made it clear that any religious fears that the Harry Potter books would lead to real world occultism or devil worship are simply unfounded.

These days, books are less likely to be challenged for representing magic or witchcraft and are more likely to be fought because they include LGBT characters, profanity, or violence. Harry Potter is no longer a major concern, making Reehil's abrupt decision even more head-scratching. In addition, book banning requests usually come from parents or library patrons and very rarely from administrators (and almost never from the students themselves), according to data from the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The Tennessean notes that the Catholic Church itself has not taken any sort of position on the Harry Potter books. Reehil seems to be acting on his own. The other Catholic schools in the diocese still have the books in their libraries. Superintendent Rebecca Hammel told the Tennessean that the school hadn't banned any other books for similar reasons. While the church might not have a formal position, Pope Benedict XVI was not a fan of the series back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, according to a letter he sent in 2003. But even back then, some other religious leaders thought it was absurd to think the books presented a danger to young Christian minds.

The reasoning behind the ban is reminiscent of the religious panic over the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game that happened back in the 1980s and 1990s (and still persists in some quarters). While part of the panic was due to dislike among some Christians of anything that embraced even a fictional representation of magic and the supernatural, this fear was also partly a result of misinterpreting what the game actually was.

Not a few critics of Dungeons & Dragons believed that kids (and adults) playing the game were literally attempting to cast the magic spells listed in the manuals in real life. You can see remnants of that idea from this unsigned Christian analysis of the game from 2003:

Magic-users, elves, and clerics use spells, which must be memorized before a game begins after consultation with the proper book of spells. The spell must then be spoken or read aloud in order to have any effect.

As a big Dungeons & Dragons nerd, I can explain how this is mistaken. It is true that the wholly imaginary characters must memorize spells, but the players themselves do not and don't have to consult with a book prior to playing a game. All they're actually doing is picking which spells they want to have prepared from a large list. Wizards and the like have a limited number of spells they can cast per day. This was implemented as a form of game balance to keep the game's magical classes from being too powerful (compared to warriors and thieves and others with no magic skills) that has somehow been misinterpreted as rules that the players themselves must follow.

Similarly, I've seen religious critics of the game misinterpret the fanciful descriptions in the manuals of how the spells are cast with instructions that the players must follow in real life as part of the game. This is the mentality to led to the panic that players were living out these fantasies in real life. I read a panic-fueled analysis of the game back in the 1990s that warned that kids were being ordered to eat live spiders in order to gain the ability to climb walls (like Spider-man) because it was listed in a spell's description. This was not what was actually happening. The imaginary wizards being controlled by the player were eating imaginary spiders (assuming the players even cared all that much about the spell's components). These were fanciful accounts of how the spell is cast—and they were complete fiction.

That panic has faded, probably because decades of Dungeons & Dragons play has not resulted in any portals to Hell opening on Earth, because claims that the game lead to suicide were shown to be nonsense, and because the game is currently enjoying a renaissance. In fact, not a few Christians have become avid gamers themselves and are encouraging others to do the same. (You can play monks!)

The Harry Potter books, too, have become simply a harmless part of our popular culture and shouldn't be inspiring this absurd ban. The ban does, however, serve as a useful reminder that Banned Book Week is coming up later this month from September 22 through 28. While the ALA documents hundreds of challenges every year, Caldwell-Stone notes that actual book bans are infrequent.

"We're heartened by the fact that in the public school and public venues, more frequently than not, even when there are challenges the book, they choose to retain the book, on the grounds that they're a public institution," she says.

NEXT: Colorado Teen Banned From School for Going Shooting With His Mother

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  1. Last I heard Dungeons and Dragons didn’t have the pwer to make anyone gay retroactively. Can the same be said of Rowling and her books???

      1. So my Hermione / Luna Lovegood fan fiction isn’t far fetched?

    1. No, but D&D could make you a virgin retroactively.

  2. A Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee, has banned the entire Harry Potter series of books because a pastor at the school believes they contain real spells that actually work in real life.

    Next you’re going to tell me that the Eucharist spell doesn’t work either!

    1. You can’t prove it doesn’t. You weren’t around 2000 years ago. You don’t know what passed for blood back then.

      1. I’m not 100% sure about that one, but I know for a fact that Moses was a wizard.

  3. This guy’s a little late to the party, isn’t he?

    1. Shackford was panicking because his fellow travelers on the left are coming across as far nuttier than any snake-handling Elmer Gantry.

      You don’t know how hard he had to look, and how ecstatic he was to find this guy. It was killing him that all the crazy was on his side; like Rebecca Makkai, who wants to ban all red ball caps because “Red hats are forever ruined like the swastika is”.

  4. Are we certain a kid just didn’t see the pastor enter his email account password and then decided to have some fun?

  5. “They think Harry’s a terrible role model who teaches kids to defy authority.”

    So he’s a libertarian? And what authority? Delores Umbridge?

    1. That storyline struck me as very libertarian. You not only had the resistance to the Ministry of Magic and Umbridge’s stupid authoritarianism, you also had a commentary on the dangers of spell control (i.e. gun control) with the whole promotion of disarmament instead of a proper defence against the dark arts.

      1. I suppose The Order of the Phoenix passes as a well-regulated militia.

      2. There’s also a beautiful moment, in Deathly Hallows IIRC, where the Minister of Magic comes and tells Harry about his duty to help the Ministry and Harry tells him in no uncertain terms to go fuck himself.

      3. You might like Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. He hates quidditch because the scoring is so illogical, he investigates spell variations very scientifically, and the ending is much much more satisfying. The whole thing hangs together much better too.

    2. that was sort of the point

  6. How does the priest know these “spells” are real?
    Has he tried them out?

    1. Only one. It goes: “Stupidius Invictus!” Unfortunately, he was looking in a mirror when he tried this spell.

    2. I’ve been known to cast a ‘phalangus extendus’ spell every now and then. It works.

      1. While reading “Hairy Pothead and the Bowl of Fire”, I got some ideas and did some things that caused some wicked spells to take hold of my head!

        This here song kinda describes the spell…

        “Panama Red
        New Riders Of The Purple Sage”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xbCymgvkJU

        1. “Important Exportin’ Man” was my favorite song on that album.

  7. This is the mentality to led to the panic that players were living out these fantasies in real life.

    And the godawful Tom Hanks movie, Mazes and Monsters.

    1. You mean the unforgettable Tom Hanks masterpiece Mazes and Monsters?

      And what’s Chris Makepeace, chopped liver??

      1. I think you’re confusing it with the greatest of the Hanks/Ryan rom-coms, Joe Versus the Volcano.

        1. I most certainly am not. Check the cast list, dude.

          Makepeace’s best work since My Bodyguard.

          1. Decent movie, but I preferred him in Meatballs.

            1. Yes – he did peak early, unfortunately.

              Fun fact I didn’t realize until recently: Adam Baldwin, of Firefly fame, was the titular character in My Bodyguard. I sense there’s potential for some wicked Six Degrees strategies there, even though he’s not a “real” Baldwin.

        2. Joe v The Volcano, Dawn of Luggage

        3. “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?”

  8. Alright back to The Hunger Games it is.

    1. If he’d chosen the Twilight series everyone would be forced to acknowledge that he’s a moron with good taste.

  9. Heh, if that were true I would have cursed some people years ago.

  10. A private religious school will not have the Harry Potter books in it’s library.

    Considering the heights of the pedestal upon which neo-Reason places the policies of private companies one wonders why this is a story.

    Ah–wrongthink, of course.

    If you’re guilty of wrongthink, you get no rights–to privacy or anything else. That is the Libertarian Way.

    1. Where in the article does it say they shouldn’t be allowed to ban it? He’s just pointing out the stupidity of the reason.

      What right to privacy is there here? It was reported in the press. This was a known event.

      1. Yup.

        A libertarian world is one in which people are just as free to point out and make fun of others’ stupid decisions, as those people are free to make those stupid decisions.

      2. Where in my response does it say anything about what anyone should or shouldn’t be allowed to do?

        I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy and stupidity on exhibit at Reason.

        1. The last sentence.

          1. So you read this as telling people what they should or should not be allowed to ban–

            “If you’re guilty of wrongthink, you get no rights–to privacy or anything else. That is the Libertarian Way.”

            You’re one of those people who’s always hearing ‘dog whistles’, aren’t you?

    2. NOT ONLY THAT – Reason has told us it IS NOT CENSORSHIP when a private company does it (Google) , yet labels this story under CIENSORSHIP

  11. This priest should be careful; his statements are awfully close to outright heresy under canon law.

  12. Harry Potter is a terrible role model. Not because he defies authority but because he takes no responsibility for his life.

    He doesn’t try very hard in school. He cheats on his homework constantly. He’s a sports star. Despite his foster years, for most of the series he’s a pampered rich kid. He repeatedly lets down his friends who nevertheless continue to rescue him. He’s constantly being bailed out by Dumbledore who shows flagrant favoritism. He ends up joining the equivalent of the police.

    The first book had potential for “nerdy kid overcomes adversity and makes good”. The way he does it, however … No, he’s not a real good role model.

    1. See my comment above about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, fanfic which makes the original look pretty and not very well thought-out.

  13. Brings me back to my Catholic school days, they taught us all the important things like KISS = Knights in Satan’s Service or AC/DC = Anti-Christ/Devils Children.

    Catholics are funny like that. They have people like my great aunt who was a nun and a bio-chemist and then this idiot.

    1. That wasn’t just Catholics. I heard exactly those warnings from a good friend of mine in 6th grade (we didn’t stay friends past 6th grade), and his parents were big Pat Robertson Protestants (their TV never wavered from The 700 Club) who thought of Catholics as devil-worshipers.

      He also wasn’t allowed to play D&D, for all the reasons Scott states.

    2. it was Anti-Christ/Devil’s Church

  14. Oh good, another opportunity for us to feel superior!

    I just luuuuuuuuuv feeling superior.

    1. The best way feel superior is to feel superior to other people’s feelings of superiority.

      1. It’s an ascending ladder of feeling-superior-ness.

        1. Personally, I’m above all that.

        2. It’s turtles all the way down.

  15. FAUSTUS: Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speak.

    MEPHISTOPHILIS: That was the cause, but yet per accidens;
    For, when we hear one rack the name of God,
    Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
    We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul;
    Nor will we come, unless he use such means
    Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d.
    Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
    Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
    And pray devoutly to the prince of hell.

    Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

    1. And Marlowe knew him some things about being “overheard” by the wrong people. . .

  16. Why would Catholics turn to Harry Potter for their literature?

    Let me rephrase that: where are today’s great works of Catholic art and literature? Where are the modern Tolkiens and Palestrinas? Where, for that matter, are the good Catholic-sympathetic movies Hollywood used to have from time to time? Where are the art patrons and princes of the church?

    What do people think of today when they think of Catholic art and literature?

  17. I remember the original panic over the Harry Potter books. Mostly because when my wife and I took our children to the first Harry Potter movie, the Bishop was sitting in the row directly behind us.

    But hey, its a private school and they can ban whatever they want. The question is the action worth a news story or a follow-up column?

  18. How do you know they’re not real, if you haven’t tried them? And just reading the book doesn’t do it, you need to wave a wand too.

  19. I really love harry potter series.l really missed him.
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  21. It’s not strictly censorship if it’s a private religious school that is not compulsory.

  22. Who really relies on school libraries for their reading material anyways?

    1. In Junior High, I used my library all the time. They had some pretty good books in there. (They even had CS Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”, but the books in that series probably went over my head as a young student.)

      I also have fond memories of my High School library. Mostly, I remember it as a nice place to study. I also remember the school librarian complaining about getting an anti-theft thing, when he wanted more books and better computers and copying machines. He demonstrated to another person how easy it was to hold a book and get it past the system.

      I could have used it to steal books, I suppose, but I’m not entirely sure that the library had any books worth stealing….

  23. I haven’t read any Harry Potter books but I doubt if they’re any worse than portions of the Bible. A lot of children have learned to read or read better because of the Potter books. As they grow older, they’ll figure out the difference between fantasy and reality.

  24. Who cares? The books are not banned, buy it yourself if you want it. Or is it required that every library contain every book ever written?

  25. This is from a CATHOLIC school??? I’m surprised. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from some inbred hillbilly public school run by Protestants.

  26. While I find a ban on Harry Potter books to be silly, I have a very hard time taking anything the ALA has to say about banning books seriously, and find the name of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom to be somewhat Orwellian, after they refused to condemn the Castro regime’s crackdown on people keeping books to loan out to others, because people whose collections only consisted of 30 books or so weren’t really librarians.

    That, and I have a hard time getting worked up over “book bans” that involve schools and libraries that decide they shouldn’t carry a given book. It isn’t the responsibility of schools and libraries to make sure that every possible book is available for everyone (indeed, when I came to this realization — that a favorite book can be dropped merely because people stopped checking it out, or because it went out of print, and the library copy fell apart — I have come to realize there’s value in owning books — I cannot trust the Government to maintain a collection of my favorite books for me).

    If a policy doesn’t involve having possession of the book result in confiscation and destruction of that book, or prison time for the person who wrote or owned the book, or even just fines for having the book, I have a *very* hard time considering the policy a “banned book” policy.

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