Despite its obvious theme of ecology, which has generated much of the book’s popularity and the ornate gothic surface that attracts so many of its readers, the main theme of Dune is religion, and especially the interaction of religion with human culture as a whole. The presentation of religion in the book is quite remarkable. Given the feudal character of the social structure of the novel, with its emperors, dukes, and barons, one might expect to see noble households with a chaplain and a church hierarchy that parallels the political hierarchy, but there is nothing of the kind. No noble character ever attends a religious service. The existence of a chapel or church building is never hinted at. The book’s aristocratic characters seem for the most part to live in a secular world in which religion plays no role. The only exception to this pattern is the common use of a scripture, the Orange Catholic Bible. Gurney Halleck is thought eccentric because of the readiness with which he quotes from it, yet the book is considered an appropriate and meaningful gift from Doctor Yueh to Paul. Herbert supplies the history of this document in an appendix. The book was produced after the Butlerian Jihad with the goal of producing a synthesis of older sacred scripture, such as the Bible and the Koran, but also to combine this with elements of other religions, such as Obeah, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
In the same appendix, however, Herbert provides a resolution to this difficulty. The Orange Catholic Bible is seen as an important signifier of cultural tradition, but to indulge in it excessively is superstitious. Scripture may contain some vestige of truth and beauty, but only if it agrees with other philosophies. Religion has practically ceased to exist among the aristocrats of the galactic empire, ‘‘the agnostic ruling class . . . for whom religion was a kind of puppet show to amuse the populace and keep it docile, and who believed essentially that all phenomena—even religious phenomena—could be reduced to mechanical explanations.’’ This attitude toward religion as a tool of social control used by the elite class to manipulate society was first put forward by the Greek philosopher Plato in The Republic. It was enthusiastically taken up during the Enlightenment and later, finding expression equally in the writings of Thomas Paine and Karl Marx, and it is manifestly Herbert’s own attitude to religion. Herbert’s original conception for Dune was to explore the effect of religion, viewed in this light, upon human civilization and especially how it can, or even must, lead to disaster.
Herbert told his biographer, Timothy O’Reilly, about the origin of Dune: ‘‘It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this idea that superheroes were disastrous for humans.’’ But this idea had a specific origin in Herbert’s life also. One of Herbert’s closest friends was the psychologist Irene Slattery. She was a German who had left her home to escape the Nazis but not before personally observing the rise of Hitler. According to Brian Herbert in Dreamer of Dune, his biography of his father, Slattery’s reminiscences about Hitler made a profound impression on Herbert:
“Hitler terrified her from the moment she first gazed upon him. He was a skillful demagogue, she said, an expert at couching twisted angry thoughts in words that sounded convincing. He was a hero to the German people, and terribly dangerous in that position, she felt, because of the way his people followed him slavishly, without questioning him, without thinking for themselves.”
These ideas were incorporated into the plot of Dune at several levels. Herbert uses Hitler as an example of the idea that someone could rise to political power because he plays the part of a hero, because his life and career seem to parallel national or ethnic myths. Another use of Hitler is in the idea of the Voice, the power of the Bene Gesserit to probe the psyche of any individual and find a way of speaking that is absolutely persuasive from rhetorical, intellectual, and physiological perspectives so that the listener cannot resist the persuasion of the speaker, even if ordered to do something contrary to his or her own will. This is based on the widely reported and apocryphal power of Hitler’s rhetoric to hypnotize his listeners and control their wills. When Lady Jessica uses the Voice on the mentat Thifur Hawat, he reacts in much the same way Irene Slattery did to Hitler: ‘‘Does every human have this blind spot? he wondered. Can any of us be ordered into action before we can resist? The idea staggered him. Who could stop a person with such power?’’ Herbert put his general treatment of messianic political leaders quite plainly in Dune in the mouth of the elder Pardot Kynes: ‘‘No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.’’ Nevertheless, the Fremen accept Paul as their messiah, and Herbert explicitly says that in his political addresses to his followers Paul uses the Voice to control their reactions and decisions.
According to O’Reilly’s biography of Herbert,
“For years he researched the origins and history of religions, trying to understand the psychology by which individuals submit themselves to the juggernaut of a messianic myth. He continued to study psychoanalysis and philosophy, and added history, linguistics, economics, and politics, trying to grasp the whole pattern.”
In other words, he tried to understand all of human existence as a system prone to being upset by hero worship. The academic critic David Miller nicely summarizes Herbert’s approach to politics and religion in Dune:
“Much of the complexity and depth of Herbert’s . . . Dune . . . derives from an elaborate system of power structures; hence, a good question with which to begin is ‘‘Who’s in charge?’’ Ultimately the answer is ‘‘No one,’’ but several organizations think that they control both tactical and strategic flow. One may think of the power structures as a system of overlays, each level of which believes that it is using all the others.”
Each faction believes that it is in control of the system because the balance benefits that faction, but in reality it is the balance itself that controls each element of the system. It is religion and especially, in Herbert’s view, the rise of a messianic figure that can most easily upset the delicate balance of the system.
Unlike the elites of emperors and dukes, the Fremen, standing at the very bottom of the social hierarchy of the Imperium, very definitely have a religion and a religious worldview. They think of their religion as the native foundation of their own culture. It is a religion based on many elements of Islam and Christianity, yet it is also polytheist and embraces many deities other than the supreme god. Its strongest element is hope in the coming of a messianic figure, the Lisan alGaib, ‘‘The Voice from the Outer World,’’ the Mahdi who will lead them to paradise. Herbert is very specific about the true origins of this religion, however. For the last ten thousand years, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood has run an operation called the Missionaria Protectiva. In this program, a Bene Gesserit is sent to each of the thousands of different worlds of the Imperium to found an artificially created religion among the uneducated common masses, gaining converts through preaching (no doubt using the Voice) and performing what seem to be miracles utilizing her prana-bindu training, ‘‘seeding the known universe with a prophecy pattern for the protection of B.G. personnel.’’ The organization has created a religious mythology that can be exploited by any Bene Gesserit who might find herself marooned among converted peoples at any time in the future. Jessica, well aware of the activities of her order, is able to exploit the Fremen’s religious beliefs exactly as intended, and she quickly becomes a Reverend Mother among them, a position that not only gives her high status and a claim to protection, but gives her great sway and influence over the population of an entire planet, but especially in positioning Paul as their messiah.
The manipulative and secretive Bene Gesserit Sisterhood grew in Herbert’s imagination from the anticlerical stereotypes of his youth. In his memoir of his father, Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert explains the origin of the Bene Gesserit.
“His Irish Catholic maternal aunts, who attempted to force religion on him, became the models for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood of Dune. It is no accident that the pronunciation of ‘‘Gesserit’’ and ‘‘Jesuit’’ are similar, as he envisioned his maternal aunts and the Bene Gesserit of Dune as female Jesuits.”
The Bene Gesserit become Herbert’s archetype of the religious domination of society by elites.
For Herbert, the most important element of religion is messianism. Paul is immediately identified with the Fremen messianic figure of the Lisan al-Gaib because he is the son of a Bene Gesserit, a belief that becomes the source of his political control over the Fremen tribes. He can become a dictator over people who recognize him as the embodiment of their ideas about the epiphany of the divine in the world. He does not have to win the right to lead; he lets himself be identified as the leader they have been waiting for. This dictatorial level of control, based originally in Herbert’s mind on the rise of Hitler, is nevertheless not a judgment on the leader, as he explains in ‘‘Dune Genesis’’: ‘‘People tend to give over every decision-making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the myth fabric of the society. Hitler did it.’’ However, he considers the same to be true of John F. Kennedy. The problem, Herbert says, is with the nature of the social control that messianic figures wield, whether for good or evil: ‘‘It’s the systems themselves I see as dangerous.’’ But this introduces a paradox. The religion of the Fremen is by definition false, the result of manipulation by the Bene Gesserit, yet Paul is a truly messianic figure. Ironically, he is unknowingly created by the Bene Gesserit with powers to shape the future to his will, moving far beyond anything the sisterhood intended. So how can a false religion give rise to a true messiah? The answer is directly related to the problem of the Bene Gesserit eugenics program, but not in an obvious way. Carefully created by selective breeding, Paul uses his powers to overturn all of the sisterhood’s work and stir up an indiscriminate mixing of human genetic material. For Herbert, all of this has been arranged by a higher power, the human need to evolve: ‘‘The race knows its own mortality and fears stagnation of its heredity. It’s in the bloodstream—the urge to mingle genetic strains without plan.’’ But it is just here that Herbert falls into the trap of religious thought that he is so manifestly trying to avoid and analyze from outside. A mechanistic process such as evolution does not have an end goal; it does not seek any one particular end rather than another. Nature is incapable of caring whether isolated populations mix their genetic material or not. Isolation does not mean ‘‘stagnation,’’ but rather the possibility of speciation; in any case, the genes do not care how they do or do not change. However, Herbert cannot escape the apocalyptic religious model by which any process, even a mechanistic one such as evolution, leads toward a fixed goal. The teleological thinking that Herbert ascribes to evolution in ultimately creating Paul and using him as its tool is entirely the product of human imagination—of Herbert’s imagination—and its religious impulse. Paul’s destiny is not understood through the scientific process of evolution but through a religious worldview. While Herbert tries to transcend religion, he cannot quite make a final separation from it, even at the deepest level of his fiction.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Frank Herbert, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Bradley Skeen, Critical Essay on Dune, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.