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.

Comments

  1. Annie Grieshop says

    The first that comes to mind is Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow”. There are others, but no argument from me re the centrality of religion in “Dune” (the book, haven’t seen the movie).

    I’ve been contemplating the parallels between CHOAM and VOC, the Dutch East India Company that played a similar role in cultural and environmental control/destruction. My focus has always veered toward the cultural/religious aspects of Dune, but seeing it as an environmental story has me reading it once again (for the umpteenth time).

    Long time no see/sing, Peter!

    • Pete Trumbore says

      Hi Annie!

      I have to admit that I was slow to really think about the environmental aspect of the story despite how clearly Herbert made it a focal point. I was drawn to the story for much the same reasons as you, the deep world building and the fascinating depiction of what millennia of cultural and religious evolution might look like. I also really liked the seamlessness of the low-tech/high-tech aspects of Herbert’s universe. It just makes sense to me.