The religious dystopia of Dune: a theological review
by Aaron Solomon Adelman
Description of the series: Soft science-fiction depicting an interstellar human civilization thousands of years in the future. Emphasis is placed on development of humanity rather than technological improvement. Six original novels by Frank Herbert (Herbert 1975, Herbert 1981, Herbert 1983, Herbert 1987, Herbert 1987, Herbert 1987). Authorized fan-fiction published during the original run of the series (McNelly and Herbert 1984). Various minor works (Herbert, Herbert et al. 2006). The series is currently being expanded by Brian Herbert (son of Frank Herbert) and Kevin J. Anderson (Herbert and Anderson 2000, Herbert and Anderson 2001, Herbert and Anderson 2002, Herbert and Anderson 2003, Herbert and Anderson 2003, Herbert and Anderson 2005, Herbert and Anderson 2006, Herbert and Anderson 2008, Herbert and Anderson 2009, Herbert and Anderson 2010, Herbert and Anderson 2011, Herbert and Anderson 2015, Herbert and Anderson 2016).
Note: The Dune series is long and freakishly complicated. Any description is necessarily abbreviated. It will be assumed here that the reader is more or less familiar with Frank Herbert’s novels. (The other material does not add much theologically.)
Significance of the series: The series is popular enough that it is still being expanded. It has also spawned a movie, two miniseries, and some video games. There currently is a threat of there being a new movie. Very relevant to these reviews, the series has inspired at least one Web-site of religious texts (Hare) specifically inspired by The Orange Catholic Bible (though the result is actually more like The Azhar Book), and there have been people trying to defictionalize things from the series. There have been at least two attempts to create a real-life version of The Orange Catholic Bible, one which actually got far enough to be published (Religion 2015). Furthermore, there are manuals for real-life Bene Gesserit and Mentats (cheerioh 2017), and there used to be a site promoting real-life Zensufism.
Science-fiction frequently ignores religion or treats it as a peripheral issue. Consider, for instance, the famous Star Trek franchise. The series depicts the future of humanity as one in which religion seems to play little role and indeed is at best rarely depicted on-screen. The Dune franchise, on the other hand, appears much different. Religion (among humans) appears on-screen constantly, and without it the plot would be radically different.
Before proceeding, two core truths must be stated which explain much of what happens the Dune universe.
1. The Dune universe is a dystopia. The Dune universe is not even the sort of dystopia in Brave New World, in which the inhabitants find pleasant, but an outsider would find horrific. Life in the Dune universe is terrifying, filled with violence and political intrigue. Whole institutions in the Dune are nightmares, e.g., the Bene Gesserit are an anti-feminist nightmare, and the Tleilaxu are a biotechnological nightmare. The reader should expect all sorts of evil from human history and a few more kinds as well to make an appearance and be considered completely normal and part of the status quo. Dark aspects of religion are presented—along with dark aspects of much of human existence.
2. Religion in the Dune universe is written from the point of view of an atheist. This matters, because people frequently do not think about their own religion the way that people of other religions (including atheism) think about it. The way religion in the Dune universe is depicted concentrates largely on the externally visible. (Bear with me. We will get to examples.)
To the credit of the authors, they get some things right:
1. Humans are generally religious. In real life, most humans subscribe to a religion, even if their subscription is merely nominal. In the Dune franchise, religious people are everywhere.
2. Religion is intertwined with politics. On much of real-life Earth, people take this for granted. Political parties and even whole countries frequently have religious affiliations, and sometimes the affiliation is anything but nominal. Religion is invoked to get people to act—something which frequently happens in the Dune series.
In extreme, and all too frequent cases, wars in real-life have been fought—and are still fought—over overtly religious issues, with warriors sometimes even acting suicidally. Most prominently this is in the form of jihad—Islamic holy war. Yes, violence in the name of religion happens in many religions, but there is no question that Frank Herbert was thinking specifically about jihad in the name of Islam, currently a religion in the name of which much war today is waged. The Fremen, the most prominent jihadists in the Dune series, are descended from Egyptians (indicated by their name for themselves, Misr), speak a language descended from Arabic, and practice a religion descended from Islam—not to mention that jihad is the term used for Muad’dib’s wars and the earlier war by humans against thinking machines.
3. Some religions are personality cults. Many new religious movements form around a single, charismatic person. This one person may hold disproportionate or even absolute power over the group. The new religious movement’s ideology may well be whatever the leader says. For an extreme example, Nuwaubianism was whatever Dwight York said it was, even though he shifted the alleged basis for his religion among Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and ancient Egyptian religion. Personality cults in the Dune universe exist around Pardot Kynes, Paul Atreides and his sister Alia, and Leto II. There is also a threat that such a cult will form around Sheeana.
4. Religions are not static. Religions in real life change. Though many religious people aim to stick to some traditional form of their religion, religions do evolve over time. Some end up very different from how they started out. New religions can even sprout out of old ones. The Dune series has its own religious history in which many new religions come into being, develop, and even get replaced by new religions. Much of this development takes place off-screen, but the Zensunni religion changes its authorities and deities over the course of the series; at the start of the original novel and even that of the prequel novels, Zensunnism has already moved far from Islam or Buddhism. It even has a backstory in the form of the Second and Third Islamic Movements which preceded it.
Sadly, many things in the depiction of religion in the Dune universe are difficult or outright wrong.
1. Secularized versions of ideas from real religions. Frank Herbert incorporated non-religious versions of prophecy, afterlife, and resurrection of the dead into the Dune universe. Even a casual student of religion should know that all of these are mediated by gods or karma, not natural or technological phenomena. To make things worse, they are done wrong. Paul may see the future, but he has no communication with any god and no moral message. The Bene Gesserit may be advised by the dead, but we never hear of a Heaven or Hell. Resurrection is not supposed to be without memories which have to be recovered by trauma. To make things worse, the authors do not attempt to provide an explanation for any of these, even a totally lame one.
2. Lack of any realistic idea how religious people think. A religious writer’s idea of dystopian religion might be to explore a theology gone horribly wrong, perhaps a mystical nihilism or a personality cult which rationalizes everything the leader does, no matter what. This is not what happens in the Dune series. As mentioned above, the Dune universe reads like it was written by an atheist with little exposure to religious thought. Most of the emphasis on religious people is on how they behave in front of others. Very little attention is given to religious epistemology or thinking. Consider Zensunnism, for instance. Zensunnis get a lot of screen-time, but there are big holes in their theology. At the time of Dune, they worship Shai-Hulud, the sandworms of Arrakis as an incarnate god. The Zensunni also consider the sandworms to be Shaitan, the devil, as well. We are not given any clear idea why they take this theological position. We are not told how this theology relates to any sort of scripture. Likewise, the reasons for religious practices or moral behavior are not given, not such much as “Thus is it written in the Book of Laws”. No one talks of a revelation or prophecy from Shai-Hulud. There is no Zensunni mysticism, and despite “Zen” being part of their name, there is no Zensunni meditation.
It is not just religious thought at a specific time which is lacking in the Dune universe; the authors fail at explaining how religions develop. E.g., the Tleilaxu come to accept Leto II as “the Prophet”. Why? We are never told. Neither are we told realistically how humans shift to worship a goddess or a three-part god with male, female, and neuter parts. We are never told how Buddislamics came to identify with Zen Buddhism, Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, or Sufism—something akin to Christians identifying themselves with pre-Christian Jewish groups yet still maintaining their Christian identity. We are also not realistically told why the Zensunni accept Pardot Kynes as a holy man whose commands go unquestioned, why they accept Paul Atreides as their Madhi, why they accept Paul and sister virtually as deities, why they accept Leto II as a god, or why they eventually start praying to Sheeana. And these are just the beginning. The reasons given are weak at best. (E.g., Pardot Kynes told someone “Remove yourself”, and the man immediately committed suicide—a story which sounds fake, even for a miracle story.) For the most part, the reader has to accept that they simply are and get on with reading the story.
Please note: the question here is not whether anyone trying to be reasonably self-consistent or honest having the views of a Zensunni, Tleilaxu, Orange Catholic Bible believer, or anyone else in the Dune universe could exist; people in real life hold a wide variety of theological beliefs, some of them every bit as unusual as anything in the Dune series. How people in the Dune series reach their theological positions and satisfy themselves is mostly absent. Your humble blogger could speculate on how Zensunnism got started or what is in the gaping holes in theology, but that would be fan “theories” or fan-fiction, not a theological review.
Also: The Bene Gesserit deliberately manipulate religions and even create them from scratch to manipulate “primitive” people. How they manage to get said people to accept foreign ideas is never really explained.
Also: In the Butlerian Jihad, humans of all religions band together to fight a holy war against artificial intelligence. Afterwards, they agree that computers are religiously prohibited. Considering that there can be large disagreements even within religions (e.g., “two Jews, three opinions”), getting such high levels of agreement between different religions is hard to believe. That humans in general would so readily accept a new, clearly not divinely demanded duty upon themselves in complete disregard to all religious tradition is downright impossible.
3. Lack of value of humans. In the real world, humans generally at least pay lip service to some version of the Golden Rule or human rights (e.g., “You will love your neighbor as yourself”). Such values are frequently cited when discussing the values of many religions. In the Dune universe, humans frequently have little concern for their fellow humans other than their loved ones, friends, or tribe—if even these. There are a few characters which have some sense of human decency, but most are jerks, if not downright psychotic. As such, violence, murder, rape, manipulation, war, slavery, torture, and even deliberately tailoring humans for various purposes are common. Religious people in the Dune universe are no exception. The Zensunni are violent and xenophobic. The Zensufi Tleilaxu aristocracy use Tleilaxu women for growing custom human beings, and their lower classes are treated as disposable. The Butlerians are technophobes and hypocrites who are prone at any moment to explode into senseless violence. While there are real-life religious people who fail to live up to their own religions’ calls to love their neighbors, in real life there are also other religious people who decry the hypocrites. (E.g., Stephen Colbert does a marvelous job on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert poking fun of Christians who act in ways blatantly contrary to what Jesus did in the Gospels.) In the Dune universe, those who decry the hypocrites are conspicuously absent. And at no point is this fundamental shift in human attitudes for the worse ever explained, even badly.
Also: one might think that religious people were being stereotyped as being horrible people, but adamant secularists in the Dune universe, such as the Corrinos, Harkonnens, and Honored Matres, are also frequently horrible people. A few religious people, such as Jews and Buddislamic monks, are depicted as decent people. These decent people are as subject to persecution as anyone else in the Dune universe.
4. Syncretism. Many people in real life do mix two or more religions. E.g., in China there has commonly been blending of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Traditional Religion. Much less common is for anyone to establish a blend as a religion in its own right; the only example your humble blogger is aware of is the recent phenomenon of “Chrislam” (Christianity + Islam) in Africa. Established blends in the Dune universe can be from two or more religions which are even more different than Christianity is from Islam. Take Zensunnism, for example. Buddhism is nontheistic; any gods which exist are themselves caught up in the cycle of reincarnation. Islam, on the other hand, is monotheistic, with Allah never being incarnate and an essentially different being from mortals. Logic demands that one cannot believe both religions without compromising at least one of them: Allah must be Himself caught up in the cycle of reincarnation, or Allah must be an exception. Frank Herbert never explained how—or even if—he solved this or any other contradiction between Buddhism and Islam. Such blends are the religious equivalent of transporters in the Star Trek universe: they may be useful for telling stories, but once one tries to dissect them, major difficulties in the concept show up.
5. The Orange Catholic Bible (OCB). This is the mother of all syncretisms, a condensed, harmonized version of a number of major religious texts. The OCB is the product of representatives of all major religions who took it upon themselves to remove conflict between different religions and thus prevent future religious wars. See Appendix 1 for a summary of what books any of the authors claim are in The Orange Catholic Bible. Composite religious texts do exist, but none quite like the OCB. In some cases, a single redactor commits plagiarism (The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America , the works of Anton Szandor LaVey (Smith 2001), the works of Helena Blavatsky (Coleman 2004), The Urantia Book ). In others (the Bahá’í scriptures), the authors are building on preexisting material which they view themselves as the legitimate heirs to. In others (Neopaganism), objective truth is not much of a concern, so the authors borrow whatever they like with impunity. Group efforts to patch together texts from multiple religions like the OCB into a coherent whole, on the other hand, are at best rare; if such efforts happen, the results do not garner the attention the OCB does.
If Frank Herbert was trying to model the OCB on something not obscure, it would likely be the Documentary Hypothesis. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah was patched together from four separate texts (J, E, P, and D). But even the Documentary Hypothesis is a poor precedent. The Torah was purportedly assembled and harmonized over hundreds of years, not quickly, not by a committee, and not from the texts of unrelated religions.
For a closer fit to the OCB origin story, God’s Book of Eskra 48 in Oahspe (Newbrough 1912) has something similar to the composition of The Orange Catholic Bible: a council of religious scholars condenses and harmonizes a number of preexisting religious texts; the most notable difference is that this council has divine sanction for their actions. Earlier chapters also deal with condensed, composite, edited religious texts. However, your humble blogger is unaware of even a hint that Frank Herbert was aware of Oahspe, a channeled text of which most people would probably never hear if it were not for the Internet Sacred Text Archive or this review.
Granted, the publication of a syncretic religious text by prominent religious leaders would be seen by many as heretical, perhaps meriting the death penalty. (The publication of the OCB caused riots and lynchings.) But the eventual widespread adoption of the OCB starting with widespread rejection and condemnation is unprecedented and left unexplained.
Conclusion: The Dune series is an imaginative set of stories which correctly recognizes that religion is important in human life and history. However, the authors failed to learn how religious people think. They are often murky about their characters’ religious beliefs and reasoning. The authors well may have not considered the question of religious thought seriously or decided it was simply not what they wanted to examine in their stories. Many find the books interesting reading, but their relationship to real-life religion is limited.
Theological rating: C-.
Appendix 1: Books of The Orange Catholic Bible
Jewish books (derived from the Hebrew Bible)
Genesis (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406, 412)
(“harmonized with the Quran”)
Exodus (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
(“harmonized with the Quran”)
Laws (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414)
(≥ 32 chapters. Derived from Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, “supplemented by the Tawrah, Quran, Confucian traditions”—indicating that the writers of The Dune Encyclopedia probably were not clear that the “Tawrah” is none other than the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—and “harmonized with the Quran”.)
Promises (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
(Derived from Joshua, Judges, Ruth; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Kings (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
(Derived from Samuel, Kings, Chronicles; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Refugees (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
(Derived from Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Job (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 413, 414, 415, 456)
(≥ 19 chapters. Little changed.)
Psalms (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414, Herbert and Anderson 2006, p. 281)
(≥ 105 chapters. Psalm 29 is “bastardized”.)
(“assimilated to Taoist and Socratic dicta, at least”) (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
Preacher (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 413)
(Derived from Ecclesiastes.)
Prophets (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414, 415)
(≥ 113 chapters. Derived from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, The Twelve; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Note: Song of Songs was deliberately omitted. (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406) Also note that the ordering used is Christian, not Jewish.
Christian books (derived from the New Testament)
Gospel (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 413, 414, 415)
(≥ 36 chapters. Derived from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Jesus has been reduced to just another prophet under Islamic influence, “harmonized with the Quran”.)
Apostles (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
(Derived from Acts, “harmonized with the Quran”)
Epistles (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406, 412)
(Derived from Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Revelation (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414, 415)
(≥ 17 chapters. Little changed.)
Saari (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
(Derived from the Qur'an, influenced by Song of Songs. Is this a version of the Maometh Saari of Third Islam?)
Kalima (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 457, Herbert 1987)
(≥ 467 verses. Derived from the Qur'an. If Saari is really based on the Maometh Saari, poetic intuition suggests Kalima is a version of the Muadh Quran.)
Sura (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 457)
Siret (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 411-412)
Masnavi (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Traditions (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Upanishads (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Vedas (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Puranas (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Gita (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Sutra (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407, 413)
(≥ 124 verses.)
Bodhisatvara (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 412)
(≥ 73 chapters.)
Navachristian books (derived from the Navachristian Bible)
Avatara (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 411)
(≥ 1,181 verses.)
Unnamed Navachristian text (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407)
Zensunni books (probably derived from the Zensunni Codex)
Koan Answers (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Ohashi (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 411, 412, 414)
(≥ 65 chapters.)
Hui-Neng (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Tao (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Eisai (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 413)
(≥ 2 chapters.)
Analects (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Pahlavi (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Arran (Herbert 1981, McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
(≥ 11 chapters. Contains material from Revelation (from the original New Testament). This is the only book of The Orange Catholic Bible mentioned in Frank Herbert’s books.)
Blake Skul Visions (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
(≥ 99 verses. Influenced by Song of Songs.)
Revelations (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407, Herbert 1987)
(≥ 61 verses.)
Hymns (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Holy Lives (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Testimonies (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Kimla Septima (Herbert and Anderson 2001, p. 11)
(≥ 5 chapters.)
Note: We have no guarantee that this list is exhaustive; the article on The Orange Catholic Bible in The Dune Encyclopedia makes no mention of Eisai, Sura, or Kimla Septima. There may well be other, yet unknown books. Also, there is very little overlap in material between the fictional OCB and the published defictionalized one.
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The triumphant conclusion to the blockbuster trilogy that made science fiction history!
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