Gods and Their Followers: On Reading The Dune Chronicles and A Canticle for Leibowitz

Religion is a central part of real world cultures around the world and since art imitates life it also becomes a central part of the fictional worlds that authors create. The appearance of these religions changes depending on the genres that they are places within but regardless of what forms they take fictional theologies can serve as a focal point for thinking about the place that real world religion occupies. In the Dune Chronicles Frank Herbert creates a new religion with his protagonists at the centre while Walter M. Miller Jr uses a changed version of Catholic Christianity in his dystopian novel Canticle Leibowitz. These different depictions of the religion in fictional worlds make a good basis for examining what these authors may be trying to say about real world religion.

Miller’s novel is absurdist, the way he represents religion takes Christianity and twists it into extremes that show exactly how much a system can be manipulated. However the way in which he does this may seem closer to comedy to any real discussion of religion, for a modern reader the memorabilia of Saint Leibowitz are just shopping lists and scribbles so the character’s elevation of them to the place of religious icons can be challenging to connect with. Herbert is also fundamentally disusing how religion can be used for political or social goals but his novels are dripping with cynicism. Characters in the Dune Chronicles debate the merits of being a god with both themselves and those around them with a callous examination of how divinity can allow them to guide a population to the desired results. Paul becomes Maud’Dib to keep humanity on the Golden Path but steps back from full embracing godhood, his son does not turn away from that label but both are aware of the fact that religion and their places as objects of worship give them immense power over the population. Even once the god figures are dead the series hinges on characters that fit themselves into one religious system or another to gain legitimacy. Herbert shows how characters can walk the line between belief and exploitation within organized religion for their own gain with little consideration for how a true believer would fit into those systems.

The continuing integration of a clergy with politics and science in both Herbert and Miller’s works is opposite to the trajectory that development has moved in the real world, as over time intellectuals have gradually led people away from complete reliance on the church. This contrast between the fictions that have been constructed and what the reader experiences in their own lives asks them to consider what the implications of these fictional worlds is. Around the world there are fundamentalist movements that seek to reintegrate religion fully with politics and academia not just in the middle east where various extreme Islamic groups want to institute strict versions of Sharia law but in North America where a vice president was elected who advertises himself as “A Christian, and conservative, and a republican: In that order”. This wasn’t the political climate that Herbert and Miller were writing in but their stories are still transferable to the increased tension of today where we as a global society try to work out what role religion should play in the ways we run our countries.

Despite the vastly different approaches that are taken in Miller and Herbert’s work they raise similar questions surround the nature of organized religion. At what point is faith pushed out by ambition? How much power should organized religion hold within the government? Should religion even have organized structure or is faith fundamentally corrupted when it mixes with power? Even these questions have their own problems as they are based to varying degrees in the assumptions of atheism. For readers of faith these texts may raise completely separate questions or could be read as so inherently atheistic that the texts are unable to make a true commentary on religious systems they are not respectful of. Regardless of the perspective of the reader the Chronicles of Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz create and stark dichotomy of two world and two faiths that exhibit many of the challenges of our world and our religions.

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