[This article contains spoilers for the movie Dune]
The science fiction genre is full of worlds of the future marked by technological advancements beyond our wildest dreams. We see how this technology and scientific knowledge influences the society’s worldview and how it affects how the characters interact with each other. Although these worlds are laudably rich and dynamic, they tend to confuse scientific and religious progress. “Star Trek,” arguably the most popular science fiction show of all time, had strong anti-spiritual undertones that reflect the philosophy of show creator Gene Rodenberry, who was a deep and vocal atheist. These future worlds, the authors will say, learned so much about the nature of the cosmos that they were compelled to regard as foolish any position that professed a world beyond the empirical. Moreover, many of these worlds claim that religion and spirituality are utterly impotent forces that push people towards vice rather than virtue, claiming that even if we could preserve religion after scientific progress, we should not. not. There is, however, a world of science fiction that is steeped in spirituality and religiosity and affirms the power these forces have over society, even in the face of such vast technological and scientific development: Frank Herbert’s “Dune”.
Dune is a special sci-fi universe because it lacks many of the genre’s standard attributes. There are few to no robots in Dune and very little AI, as there was a war against what citizens of the universe call “thinking machines” many years before the book began. Additionally, they have an unconventional method of space travel, which involves ingesting a substance called a spice mix, which allows navigators to guess the path they need to take through space while moving at lightning speed. All of this already sets Dune apart from its contemporaries, and its take on spirituality is equally unique.
The main political players in Dune all adhere to an unnamed religion whose holy book is called “The Orange Catholic Bible”. It’s made clear throughout Dune that at some point in the past, all of Earth’s major religions coalesced into one. Since then, the religion of all humans has been an amalgamation of the different denominations we know today. The Fremen, inhabitants of the desert planet Arrakis (otherwise known as Dune, hence the title of the book), follow a distinct religion that revolves around the great desert worms that create a spice mix under the sand. and the promise of a messiah figure who will lead to a land filled with water. One of the major conflicts in the book is the main characters’ struggle to understand and accept Fremen beliefs, which they initially view as primitive and insane but come to accept in the end. Ultimately, it is the beliefs of the Fremen that allow the main character, Paul Atredies, to triumph and fulfill his destiny.
One of the major themes of Dune is the power of religion, whether based in truth or not, to mobilize and inspire people. The main character’s mother, Jessica Atredies, is part of an all-female cult known as the Bene Gesserit and is often heard reciting the mantra “you must not be afraid, fear kills the spirit” for many years. many stressful moments in history. It is the Bene Gesserit, specifically Jessica, who inspire Paul Atredies to live up to the mantle of Kwisatz Haderacht, a prophetic figure who will be the only man to learn the Bene Gesserit art of intense psychological self-control. Additionally, the entire second half of the book revolves around trying to fulfill the Fremen prophecy of a savior who will come and turn the desert to water. We never know if any of these prophecies are true, and the author makes sure to let us know that neither do any of the characters, but nonetheless the characters strive to fulfill these prophecies and in many cases, succeed. The tension between the truth of prophecy and our desire to fulfill it is powerful in the work of Frank Herbert, and it speaks volumes about the power of religion as an enduring force that influences human beings.
But Frank Herbert doesn’t make much of the triumph of religion over godlessness, nor does he explicitly condemn non-religious people. In fact, Herbert remains ambiguous about whether the main characters’ religions are forces of good or evil, and he treats them with the subtle complexity they deserve. I think Herbert’s point in making religion the center of the Dune world is simply to say that religion is here to stay. We can dream all we want of a world where we cast off the “irrational” shackles of spirituality and look to science for truth, but Herbert believes that the power of spirituality and the hold it has on our imagination and on the human condition in general is too deep for it to disappear. The power of religion, the power of the idea of the world beyond our senses or immutable ineffable truths, is not in danger of being superseded by science (as if the two were first in comparable fields) . Herbert rejects this Nietzschean idea of the decadence of God’s place in society, saying that even in the year 10191 humans will be more religious than ever, regardless of your view of religion.