Science fiction that takes religion seriously

Yes, I’m talking about Dune, but don’t worry. No spoilers here for the brilliant film adaptation now out in theaters (see it in IMAX) and streaming on HBO Max. The movie treats religion as little more than background or set-dressing, one of my few quibbles with it.

No, what I’m talking about is the way author Frank Herbert weaved religion into the fabric of the universe he created in his masterpiece of science fiction, first published between 1963 and 1965 in serial form. In fact, the central protagonist of the novel is very obviously a savior, a prophesied messiah figure, though, in the words of one writer, one imbued with a “blighted messiahship.”

To be clear, Herbert is in no way proselytizing. This is not a “religious” novel. Rather, he accomplishes two considerably different feats.

First, He presents an utterly fascinating glimpse of the end results of millennia’s worth of the social evolution of religious thought and theology. In a fascinating discussion of religion in Dune, Chris Bateman wrote at his blog:

Dune doesn’t merely include religion as part of its background, it is central to it. Herbert doesn’t imagine a future world bereft of religion, but one that shows religious traditions as having been transformed over millennia. …

Herbert himself was raised as a Catholic, but became a Zen Buddhist in adulthood, and in envisioning the transitions of religion in a post-Earth society, Herbert imagines the doctrinal effect of a synthesis between Buddhist and Abrahamic faiths. A fastidious note taker, details of the setting for Dune had been worked out in much greater detail than ever appears in the narrative, and it is possible – just from examining clues in the text – to unravel some of the religious changes Herbert imagines. Although he does not suggest a single unifying faith, religion in the 102nd century has one major holy book, known as the Orange Catholic Bible, which contains books from the Talmud, the Old and New Testaments, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, and the Vedas, as well as Zen koans and Taoist analects. …

Herbert imagines a future history that has been influenced by many different schools, including Mahayana Christianity (a fusion of the numinous, worship-focussed religions Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism) and Zensunni Catholicism (a fusion of Zen Buddism, Sunni Islam and the Catholic church). Other Buddislamic sects are mentioned, including Zensufism – a merging of Zen Buddhism and Sufism, the Islamic mystical religion (these two religions are not hard to interrelate, as each deals with quite similar themes but from wildly different perspectives). 

To my mind, this by itself makes Herbert’s works noteworthy. It is rare to find a work of science fiction that bothers to contemplate such matters, let alone turn them into the backbone of the story’s grand narrative. If anyone knows of another example, please let me know.

The second accomplishment, however, is just as interesting and probably more important. Herbert makes religion central to his story in order to deliver a damning commentary on the merging of religion and politics and the leveraging and manipulation of faith to acquire and maintain political power. There are true believers in the Dune universe, but there are also those who both spread and then take advantage of those beliefs to advance their own agendas.

Beth Elderkin, writing at Gizmodo, explains:

Of course, the biggest question of all might be: What is religion in Dune? That depends on who you ask. For some, like the Fremen, it’s a way of life. But for the people in power, it’s a political tool. Many of the folks in the upper echelon of Dune’s world—like the Spacing Guild, which controls all interstellar travel–are agnostic. Even the Bene Gesserit doesn’t consider itself to be a religious group, but its members fuel belief in others to serve their own ends. That’s because Frank Herbert’s series was designed to examine the intersection of religion and politics, partially inspired by growing up in Catholicism. 

In the novel, Herbert relays a Bene Gesserit proverb which captures what can only be the author’s own perspective on the risks of bringing religion and politics too closely together:

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.

It is the dangers inherent in this interface between religion and politics, Bateman writes, that Herbert wants to warn us of. And it is a lesson well worth paying attention to.

This week in terrorism history: Nov. 1-6

The Rev. Michael Bray, Army of God (Copyright Jenny Warburg)

The Global Terrorist Database records the first terrorist attack against an American abortion clinic, abortion provider, or other abortion-related target as coming at the beginning of November, 1977. By the end of 2018, there had been a total of 256 such attacks.

For this today’s look back at the week in US terrorism history, I’m departing from the pattern I’ve adopted this year in which I report on attacks occurring during a single randomly chosen week between 1970 and 2000. Instead, I’m going to focus anti-abortion terrorism.

And it turns out the first week of November has historically been an active time for attacks on abortion-related targets. I’ll provide details on seven such incidents below. But before I do, I want to make a couple of points here.

As I’ve mentioned before, I bring this regular feature of the blog back whenever I teach my course on terrorism and political violence. This week’s look back fits especially well with both the purposes of the course, and specifically what I’m going to be talking about in the classroom tonight.

Generally when I teach my terrorism class I have two overarching objectives:

  • I want to challenge my students’ preconceived ideas about who terrorists are and why terrorism occurs.
  • I want my students to understand that terrorism is a tactic that may be employed in pursuit of social or political goals that they themselves support or for causes they sympathize with.

Focusing on the violent anti-abortion movement serves both of these objectives. First, by making it crystal clear that not all religiously motivated terrorists are Muslims. Just as Islamist terrorists draw on their own idiosyncratic interpretation of holy scripture and teachings, and have clerics who offer religious justification for their violence, so to do Christian anti-abortion terrorists. Second, by demonstrating to staunchly anti-abortion students that there are those who are willing to kill in the name of a “pro-life” agenda that they themselves support.

The Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization, is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. This group, according to the GTD, carried out 26 attacks between 1982 and 1998, including assassinations of abortion providers, and bombings and arson attacks against clinics and health centers. Two of its leading figures were ordained ministers. Paul Hill, a Presbyterian minister, was executed in 2003 for the assassinations of an abortion provider and a clinic escort. Michael Bray, a Lutheran minister, was convicted in 1985 in connection with a series of bombings of abortion facilities in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The current spokesman for the Army of God, Donald Spitz, is an ordained evangelical minister. He maintains the organization’s website.

Now on to this week’s look back.

  • Nov. 1, 1977 — Cincinnati, Ohio: Anti-abortion extremists set fire to the Cincinnati Planned Parenthood clinic housed at Christ Church. No one was injured in the attack.
  • Nov. 3, 1984 — Washington, D.C.: Three members of the Christian anti-abortion terrorist group the Army of God, including the Rev. Michael Bray mentioned above, bomb the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. There were no casualties. Four months earlier, the same three perpetrators bombed the offices of the National Abortion Federation, down the street from the ACLU office.
  • Nov. 2, 1990 — Fort Wayne, IN: Anti-abortion extremists firebomb the Fort Wayne Women’s Health Organization, an abortion clinic. There were no casualties, but the clinic was forced to close down due to the damage inflicted in the attack.
  • Nov. 2. 1992 — Westmont, Ill.: Anti-abortion extremists set fire to the Concord Medical Clinic. Heavy rains extinguished the blaze before significant damage occurred. Investigators subsequently discovered a large puddle of gasoline inside the clinic, which had been the scene of months of protests prior to the arson attack.
  • Nov. 3, 1994 — San Rafael, CA: Anti-abortion extremists bomb a Planned Parenthood clinic. There were no injuries and the building sustained minor damage.
  • Nov. 2, 1995 — Pensacola, FL: The All Women’s Health Center is hit with an arson attack. There were no injuries. Pensacola was an epicenter of anti-abortion terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1994 assassination of an abortion provider and clinic escort by the Rev. Paul Hill, and multiple clinic bombings.
  • Nov. 1, 1996 — Hannibal, MO: Anti-abortion extremists firebomb a family planning clinic. No one is injured in the attack.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 24-30

“White middle-class revolutionaries” Charles, Bryce, and Jonathan Tuller

White middle-class revolutionaries you say? Welcome to 1972!

Both of the incidents described below comfortably fall into the category of New Left revolutionary terrorism, which I mentioned last week. Generally speaking, leftist terrorism of this sort was intended by its perpetrators to be a means to reform (if possible) or destroy (if necessary) an existing social or political system so that a new, more just, system can be built on its ashes. In this regard it is both future-looking and idealistic if not utopian.

Of course the problem here was that there weren’t all that many folks interested in signing on to such a revolutionary venture. Exploited classes, the revolutionaries argued, don’t necessarily recognize the extent of their own exploitation. This was an insight that New Left groups garnered from writers like the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and particularly his influential 1964 book One Dimensional Man. In it Marcuse argues that capitalist society creates manacles of privilege that keep the public docile and content. Here’s a representative passage:

The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

Under such conditions, the people are blinded to their own oppression. They willingly buy in to a system that controls them. The more comfortable they become in material terms, the more enslaved they are to a system that exploits them to maintain an unjust and unequal status quo.

It was this logic that allowed middle-class college students, and other seemingly unlikely revolutionaries, to justify their violent activism. In short, they were rejecting their manacles of privilege and fighting in common cause with oppressed peoples and other revolutionaries worldwide.

In short, New Left terrorists saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, who, through violence, could create the conditions that would lead to the political awakening of the masses who, under the leadership of the terrorist cadres, would then sweep away the corrupt and oppressive old world and create a new, and better, one. This is an old idea. We can trace it back to Italian socialist and revolutionary Carlo Pisacane, who wrote in 1857:

The propaganda of the idea is a chimera; the education of the people is nonsense. Ideas result from deeds, and not the latter from the former; it is not the case that the people will be free once it is educated, rather it will be educated once it is free. The only work a citizen can undertake to benefit his country is to contribute to the material revolution: conspiracies, plots, insurrectional attempts, etc.

Which brings us to Charles Tuller and his sons, Bryce and Jonathan, who in 1972 embarked on a years long spree of revolutionary violence, beginning with the incident described below. Charles Tuller, a 48-year-old native of Alexandria, VA and employee of the US Commerce Department, enlisted his teenage sons and one of their high school friends to form a revolutionary cadre aiming to fundamentally transform American society. A 2018 story posted at Boundary Stones, the history website of public TV station WETA, explains Charles’ rationale:

Concerned with systemic racism and poor socio-economic conditions in many strands of American society, Charles envisioned a grassroots movement that would upend existing power structures and establish a new, more equitable, and communally-based system of governance.

Some years later, in a jailhouse interview, Charles laid out the group’s vanguard strategy:

We decided to form a group and equip ourselves so we could eventually break with our government or what is called law, and try to do something about reconstructing a new system … we would be very security conscious and extremely mobile … able to get to any part of the country, where we would talk with local people and find indigenous leaders … we wanted to latch onto local situations and get people to take some kind of direct action (to) act as their own government, as their own political force … we wanted to act as catalysts …

The first step in their revolution, having stockpiled weapons and camping gear, was to raise the money necessary to live a life on the road while waging war against the status quo. That brings us to our look back at this week in US terrorism history.

  • Oct. 25, 1972 — Crystal City, VA: Four self-described white middle-class revolutionaries (the Tullers and friend William Graham) attempt to rob a branch of the Arlington Trust Company. Two of the perpetrators cut the branch’s phone lines, and then, dressed as telephone repairmen, entered the building asking to speak with the branch manager. When they told him they intended to rob the bank, the manager refused to cooperate. A struggle ensued in which the manager was shot to death. An Arlington police officer, responding to a report of the phone lines being out, was also shot to death, though one of the perpetrators, Bryce Tuller, was wounded in an exchange of gunfire. The four escaped the bank without managing to steal any money. Four days later, on Oct. 29, the group stormed onto an Eastern Air Lines flight at Houston Intercontinental Airport and hijacked it to Cuba. An Eastern ticket agent was shot to death, and another airline employee was wounded.
  • Oct. 26, 1972 — Houston, TX: A police officer is ambushed while leaving a restaurant by two reported members of the Black Panther Party. Officer Jerry Spruill was shot six times in the back, later dying of his wounds. One of the perpetrators, Marvin Fentis, was arrested in 1973 after a shootout with police in Garland, TX. He was paroled after serving 14 years in prison.

This week in terrorism history: Oct. 17-23

Black Liberation Army recruiting poster, circa 1981.

This week is all about New Left and Black revolutionary terrorism. That’s 1970 for you. The key group in the spotlight is the Black Liberation Army.

The BLA was an underground Black Power revolutionary organization active from 1970 to 1981. Its membership was initially drawn from former members of the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Afrika. It emerged, in part, as a consequence of a split in the leadership of the Black Panther Party and a dispute over “reformist” rather than “revolutionary” nature of the party’s social programs. It’s aim was to wage war against the United States with the stated goal of taking up arms for Black liberation and self-determination.

The Black Liberation Army carried out a range of attacks including bombings, the assassination of police officers, jail breaks, and robberies, which the organization characterized as “expropriations.” The organization ultimately collapsed after the robbing of a Brinks armored truck, assisted by former members of the Weather Underground, resulted in the killing of a guard and two police officers.

  • Oct. 18, 1970 — Irvine, CA: An unknown group, though suspected anti-Vietnam War protesters, detonates a bomb at the Stanford Research Institute, a lab facility owned by Stanford University. SRI, which was largely funded by the US Department of Defense, had contracts for work on chemical and biological agents with military applications. It was a regular target of violent anti-war activism during the 1970s.
  • Oct. 19, 1970 — Irvine, CA: A second bomb targets a virus research center at the Stanford Research Institute. As in the attack the day before, no one was injured in the bombing.
  • Oct. 20, 1970 — Cairo, IL: Black militants set fire to the Veterans of Foreign Wars building and then open fire on police and firefighters responding to the blaze. Police fired hundreds of rounds into the neighboring Pyramid Courts housing project, taking more than an hour to secure the area. No one was injured in the gun battle, but the building was destroyed.
  • Oct. 21, 1970 — Cairo, IL: In a second day of racial violence, black militants armed with automatic weapons open fire on the Cairo police headquarters from locations in and around the Pyramid Courts housing project. Police returned fire in what would turn into a three-hour gun battle. No one was injured in the attack.
  • Oct. 22, 1970 — San Francisco, CA: Members of the Black Liberation Army plant a time bomb outside St. Brendan’s Church, which was packed with mourners attending the funeral of a San Francisco police officer killed in the line of duty while responding to a bank robbery. The bomb detonated, but none of the worshippers were injured.