Harry Potter and the agents of Satan

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The Independent Online

Holy week is perhaps an appropriate time to note that God seems to be on a bit of a roll. Bishops throng the airwaves, sounding off about this and that. Questions of ethics and morality - in foreign or family policy, TV programming and the internet - appear on the political agenda with a prominence (in word, if not deed) that would have been unthinkable during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In fiction, a surprisingly accurate way of judging the prevailing intellectual climate, God is all around us - in the wings of Ann Widdecombe's debut The Clematis Tree, as one would expect, but also centre stage in EL Doctorow's City of God and in Michael Arditti's Easter, a tale of campery and crucifixes.

He has been busy converting a wide and weird variety of public figures to the word - Jonathan Aitken through his Rolex watch, Fay Weldon, AA Gill. Frankly those few of us who have yet to see the light, who still err and stray like lost sheep, have begun to feel distinctly unfashionable.

A less welcome aspect of God's immanence is a revival in the great debate about evil and wickedness. The dark forces are traditionally invoked in tabloid accounts of human misbehaviour - "PURE EVIL" being a favoured headline - but now they seem to be all around us.

There was a certain amount of sniggering among sophisticates when the Evangelical Society, the fastest growing Christian movement in the country, recently pronounced that, in spite of rumours to the contrary - Hell, "a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction", was still down there, waiting for some of us. Reassuring liberal voices were heard at that point. Even the Pope was quoted as saying that hell was "not a place nor a punishment imposed externally by God, but a self-exclusion from communion with God".

Unfortunately, it appears that this message has not reached the majority of parents. In an interview onRichard and Judy, a group of seven-year- olds were asked what they thought happened to us after we died. Their answers will have gladdened the hearts of the Evangelical Society: good children would rise up to a land of clouds where anything you wanted would be there at the flick of finger; for naughty children, a burning place full of unending agony and hot, prodding forks awaited deep in the centre of the earth.

According to this creepy form of infantile fundamentalism, the forces of evil in the modern world are now most dangerously at work in children's fiction. There's nothing particularly new here - a children's writer who has dared to include a witch or a wizard in his or her books will know that a startling number of parents, and occasionally even librarians and teachers, regard the deployment of magic in a story as deeply suspect. Presumably the theory is that an eight-year-old reading about about a magical talking rat will one day grow up to be a crazed Satanist, dancing about naked and sacrificing virgins on Dartmoor.

Listen to the words of Mrs Carol Rookwood as she explained why she had decided to ban the Harry Potter books from St Mary's Island Primary School in Chatham: "I think devils, demons and witches are real and pose the same threat as, say, a child molester." Fundamentalists supporting this position have argued that vulnerable children should not be encouraged to believe that they can escape the real world by retreating into the "mystical fantasy" offered by authors such as JK Rowling.

So there you have it. A culture in which celebrity of the most empty kind is glorified, where weekly gambling is promoted by government and media alike, has identified the true threat to our new godliness and source of dangerous fantasy: stories of magic written for children.