Science Fiction Studies

#107 = Volume 36, Part 1 = March 2009

Julia List

“Call me a Protestant”: Liberal Christianity, Individualism, and the Messiah in Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, and Lord of Light

The religion by which you rule is very ancient, goddess, but my protest is also that of a venerable tradition. So call me a protestant, and remember—now I am more than a man.—Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (109)

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967) are important sf works of the 1960s, a period when the genre’s focus shifted dramatically towards exploring the social ramifications of scientific developments rather than the intricacies of the technologies themselves.1 Centered on messianic figures that readers are invited to associate with Christ, these Hugo Award-winning novels use science-fictional worlds to critique contemporary religious institutions and to explore possible alternatives. The psychological approach of the texts to human behavior in general and to religion in particular has affinities with the British “New Wave” sf of writers such as Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard. Their focus on the phenomena of messianism and alternative religious movements equally reflects widespread interest in these subjects in a range of British and American sf of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Moorcock’s own satirical novella “Behold the Man” (1966) and his Jerry Cornelius novels, Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man (1971) and A Time of Changes (1971), and Philip K. Dick’s explorations of the dangers of aspiring to God-like power in the triumphant Nazism of The Man in the High Castle (1962).                

Yet Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, and Lord of Light differ from such New Wave critiques of messianism in their affirmation of the power and responsibility of the individual to resist the frequently malign influence of institutionalized religion. While recognizing, along with many of their contemporaries, the inherently destructive and entropic elements of human nature and society, these texts affirm the possibility that critical thinking and a strong ethical center can allow a person to overcome baser drives, even if in reality they often fail to do so. This retention of American individualism parallels what Roger Luckhurst has identified as the “libertarian stance” of Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land, a tendency he depicts as showing continuity with Campbellian “Golden Age” sf rather than the New Wave (161).                

While the novels uphold the authority of the individual in questions of religious judgment and reject many features of traditional theism and organized religion, they leave unchallenged certain other concepts and values of religious origin that form the basis of the “new,” more secular structures advocated by all three novels. For the most part, the concepts retained are those of one of the most liberal and well-educated segments of 1960s American society, the mainline Protestant upper and middle classes. As Wade Clark Roof points out, in the mid-to-late 1960s

Liberal Protestantism was in hegemonic decline, even though it enjoyed a cultural triumph of sorts: values long identified with its heritage, such as individualism, freedom, pluralism, tolerance, democracy, and intellectual inquiry, came to be thought of as the dominant liberal values of the society. Its institutions were in trouble, but the values it advanced found wide acceptance. The young who dropped out of the mainline Protestant churches, in effect, did not so much abandon the heritage as embrace deeply the values that had been taught to them—most notably, to rely upon their conscience and to think for themselves about moral and religious matters. (65)

Despite differences in their settings, cultural influences, and politics, the fictional religious organizations and conflicts of all three novels consistently manifest the values of a Protestant heritage.

Pluralism, Secularism, and the Social Elite. The religious views of the major characters in Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Lord of Light reflect this cultural shift towards pluralism and the encouragement of free religious thought. All three novels establish a dominant philosophical framework that is essentially agnostic, relativistic, and tolerant. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw, the aging mentor of the novel’s messianic protagonist who is often seen as a mouthpiece for Heinlein, embodies this trend.2 The narrator states that “as a devout agnostic, Jubal consciously evaluated all religions, from the animism of the Kalahari Bushmen to the most sober and intellectualized of the major western faiths, as being equal” (208).3 In Lord of Light, Sam—who pretends to be the Buddha in his war against heaven—also does not discriminate between creeds, responding to his evangelical Christian antagonist Nirriti’s quotation of the Beatitudes—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (310)—by stating that he agrees “with everything you said … and so do the followers of the one they called the Buddha” (311).4 Equating aspects of his own pseudo-Buddhist doctrine with Nirriti’s Christianity does not present any theological problems, for Sam does not believe in God and values the teachings of peace, mercy, and righteousness in a form abstracted from any particular religion. Declaring to his demon helper Taraka that “I never believed in it myself, and I still don’t,” Sam notes that he “could just as easily have chosen another way—say, Nirriti’s religion—only crucifixion hurt” (298). While there are elements of both religions that Sam respects, his choice of doctrine is pragmatic, “based upon calculation, not inspiration” (298).                

In all three works, aspects of religious belief and practice are portrayed positively only if they have a useful social function. In Dune, the communal benefits of the native Fremen’s sincere religious beliefs are immediately apparent to the protagonist Paul’s mother Jessica when she witnesses their disciplined restraint at a hidden water-storage pool, with tribal leader Stilgar saying that “there were those among us in need of water ... yet they would come here and not touch this water” (367). When Stilgar chants his vision of abundant water on their desert planet Arrakis, she is genuinely moved, observing “her ... instinctively awed response” to the ritual. Yet her own position remains one of non-belief and detachment, which allows her to “adapt the techniques of legend and fear and hope to her emergency needs” (339). Dr. Yueh, the personal physician of Paul’s family, reveals a similarly secular appreciation of the usefulness of religious teachings when he gives a copy of the Orange Catholic bible—an ecumenical religious text—to Paul, suggesting that Paul “may find the book interesting.... It has much historical truth in it as well as good ethical philosophy” (55). In Stranger in a Strange Land, when Jill, Mike’s rescuer, claims that the fundamentalist Fosterites’ sacred text, the “New Revelation,” makes no sense and that “it isn’t even good morals” (391), Jubal Harshaw similarly argues that

The Bible is loaded with such stuff.... Crimes that would turn your stomach are asserted to be either divinely ordered or divinely condoned ... along with, I must add, a lot of hard common sense and some pretty workable rules for social behavior. I am not running down the Bible; it stacks up pretty well as sacred writings go. (393)

While the dominant philosophical perspective espoused by the novels is secular, this secularization serves, as in the “real” world, to distinguish between characters of different socioeconomic strata. As Roof observes,

this break in the way beliefs are held is, unsurprisingly, more pronounced among the better-educated ... that sector of the population oriented largely toward the production, interpretation, and dissemination of information and more inclined to look on cultural symbols, religious or otherwise, as humanly created. (55)

The second appendix of Dune makes the fictional manifestation of this division explicit, observing that the “agnostic ruling class ... believed essentially that all phenomena—even religious phenomena—could be reduced to mechanical explanations,” seeing religion as “a kind of puppet show to amuse the populace and keep it docile” (573). In his portrayal of Stilgar’s increasing faith in the legends associated with Paul, Herbert suggests that belief in this “puppet show” is not only associated with class but is at least partially constitutive of it. Shown throughout Dune to be a powerful tribal leader worthy of respect, Stilgar’s uncharacteristic reverence for Paul’s words when he describes rain on his home planet Caladan indicates to Paul that Stilgar has lost his ability to rule: “in that instant, Paul saw how Stilgar had been transformed from the Fremen naib to a creature of the Lisan al-Gaib [messiah], a receptacle for awe and obedience. It was a lessening of the man” (539-40; emphasis in original). A similar distinction is made in Lord of Light by the military scientist and “God,” Yama, in his discussion of the planet’s “demons,” a race who are “malefic … possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape” (30), but who are not “supernatural.” To his friend Tak’s suggestion that the distinction makes no particular difference, Yama responds:

it is the difference between the unknown and the un-knowable, between science and fantasy.... The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it.... The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either. (31)

This position is contrasted with the ignorance and superstition of the “common man” such as the merchant Vama, who, after hearing that the flush toilet has been reinvented, stores his family’s fecal matter because a longer karmic record of toilet-use will show his “rapid advancement in life” (236).                

The distinction between the secular upper classes and the religious masses is reinforced by the peculiar role Christianity plays in Dune and Lord of Light, where, paradoxically, references to the Bible and Christian practices serve as a secular cultural code that unites the elite. For Yama and Sam of Lord of Light, the Bible is one of many artefacts of Urath (Earth) culture shared by the “First,” the original ship’s crew, whose remembrance of their past home and its technologies distinguishes them as a class. The Bible’s status as a source of common reference rather than a religious text is apparent in the advice Yama gives to Sam when he is reluctant to preach a Buddhist sermon in which he does not believe:

   “I’m tired of lying to them,” [Sam] finally said. “I guess that’s what it really is.”
   “Lying?” asked Yama. “Who asked you to lie about anything? Quote them the Sermon on the Mount, if you want. Or something from the Popul Voh, or the Iliad. I don’t care what you say. Just stir them a bit, soothe them a little.” (42-43)

Elements of Christianity appear in a similarly residual way in Dune, where aristocratic characters occasionally refer to shriving in the context of threats to kill their enemies unconfessed (e.g., 555). Yet nowhere in the novel does anyone confess sins to a cleric, express a desire to do so, or convey any concern about dying with sins on their conscience. Despite having lost many of its religious connotations, the Bible also permeates the aristocratic culture of Dune and provides a frame through which Paul’s family, the Atreides, interpret the world. Grieving for Paul’s father, Duke Leto, Jessica quotes Ecclesiastes 3:6 to herself, attributing the words to the O.C. Bible (226); Paul describes lasgun activity in the desert as “pillars of fire” (Ex. 13:20-22); and Leto sees his enemy Baron Harkonnen embodied in the beast of Revelation (13:1), remembering the quotation as “a thing Gurney Halleck had once said” (213).5               

The religious class distinctions made by Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land are far more specific, differentiating not only between secular and devout but also between different Christian denominations. In a passage describing his religious beliefs, a line is drawn between evangelical, revival-style Christianity and other denominations:

The Fosterites’ flat-footed claim to utter gnosis through a direct pipeline to Heaven, their arrogant intolerance implemented in open persecution of all other religions wherever they were strong enough to get away with it, the sweaty football-rally & sales-convention flavor of their services—all these ancillary aspects depressed him. If people must go to church, why the devil couldn’t they be dignified about it, like Catholics, Christian Scientists, or Quakers? (208)

These “ancillary aspects,” however, are not the whole story. On more than one occasion, the demographics of the Fosterite church’s membership are crucial in his rejection of the denomination. Jubal Harshaw “might not be able to see the naked Face of God ... but his eyesight was good enough to pick out his social equals—and those Fosterites, by damn, did not measure up!” (210). In regarding Fosterites as his “social and mental inferiors” (394), Dr. Jubal Harshaw is a representative figure of his professional class, evincing actual trends in denomination membership at the time Heinlein was writing. In a 1961 study based on data from the late 1950s, Bernard Lazerwitz found that mainstream, liberal Protestant denominations such as the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches ranked highest (along with Jews) on measures of education and socioeconomic status, followed by Catholics, Methodists, and Lutherans, with Baptists at the bottom (571). Robert Ellwood points out that at this time, the leaders of the elite denominations “alone among religionists could talk as equals to the intelligentsia of the leading universities, the captains of industry, and the people who still, from the higher ranks of the State Department, the army and navy, and even Congress, kept tabs on how things went in Washington” (38-39). In contrast, “evangelicals made news only if they did something the mainstream considered disturbing or quaint, including the singularly large numbers they often chalked up for revivals or as members of their cardinal churches” (38).                

When religion in sf is portrayed in a positive fashion in association with an elite, it reflects this Protestant and liberal demographic reality. In Stranger in a Strange Land, the religion founded by Mike, though ambiguous, derives much of its appeal from an emphasis on practitioners studying Martian language and ideas for themselves, rather than promoting a fundamentalist view of scripture such as that of the Fosterites:

   “The discipline,” repeated Jubal. “That’s what I like best about it. The faith I was reared in didn’t require anybody to know anything… A man could be too stupid to hit the floor with his hat ... and yet he could be conclusively presumed to be one of God’s elect, guaranteed an eternity of bliss, because he had been ‘converted’.... This church doesn’t accept ‘conversion’ as I grok it—”
   “You grok correctly.”
   “A person must start with a willingness to learn and follow it with some long, hard study. I grok that is salutary, in itself.” (610)

Mike’s tolerance for other faiths contrasts starkly with the Fosterites; he admits to his Church of All Worlds members from Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic backgrounds who continue to identify with their original faiths. For Mike’s Muslim follower Mahmoud (although not for Jubal Harshaw), there is no contradiction between joining Mike’s church “all the way” and continuing to practice Islam—he has “done both” (599). The rationale behind such radical inclusiveness is revealed during Mike’s earlier forays into educating himself about different religions, when he tries to explain to Jill the value of all the religions he has explored:

“All those religions—they contradict each other on every other point but every one of them is filled with ways to help people be brave enough to laugh even though they know they are dying.... Jill? Is it possible that I was searching them the wrong way? Could it be that every one of all those religions is true?” (481; emphases in original)

Like Sam in Lord of Light, Mike is able to view all religions as valuable and essentially equivalent because he is more interested in the practical benefits of religion than in finer points of theology. Liberalism also underpins Heinlein’s positive portrayal of Islam, foregrounded by Jubal Harshaw’s conspicuously informed and respectful offer of soft drink and halal food to Mahmoud as well as a “prescription” that would have allowed him to consume alcohol. Although Jubal experiences a touch of regretful nostalgia at learning that Mahmoud is “not a traditionalist” and believes that Islamic dietary “legislation was given a long time ago, according to the needs of the time” and is now outdated (316), Mahmoud’s relaxed approach is critical to his full participation within Jubal’s drinking, nude-swimming, extended family unit.

Religious Power and Religious Freedom. Within this relativist and agnostic religious framework that privileges the liberal values of the college-educated social elite, it is not surprising that institutions and practices that threaten freedom of religious choice form the target of these novels’ most trenchant satire. High-profile contemporary debates on the separation of church and state arising from the election of the United States’ first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy (1960), Supreme Court rulings banning prayer in public schools (1962-63), and ecumenical conferences aimed at centralizing the governance of mainline Protestant denominations such as the first Consultation on Church Union plenary (1962) put issues of religious freedom at the forefront of the public consciousness.                

One of the most salient features of the novels’ depictions of religion is their critique of the notion that close ties between church and state will result in a strengthening of the spiritual and moral fabric of society, the belief at the heart of the controversy over prayer in public schools. Opponents of the banning of prayer, such as Cardinal Spellman, “protested that the Engel decision struck ‘at the very heart of the godly tradition in which America’s children have for so long been raised’” (Spellman qtd in Heale 21), casting religious traditions as exerting a moderating force on the “ungodly” secular concerns of education and government. In contrast, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Herbert suggest that a worldly concern with temporal and economic power is the necessary concomitant of any involvement of religious organizations in politics, in some cases becoming their entire raison d’être.                

In Lord of Light, the “Hindu” religion that involves the worship of the ruling Deicrats as “Gods” is purely a tool of political control: the human propensity to believe in the mythological and supernatural is manipulated to ensure that the general population never question their state of serfdom. When Sam wonders if the mechanical “pray-o-mat” (complete with slot-machine-like handle, flashing lights, and music) will inspire technological development, Brahma assures him that “as a divine manifestation, it is held in awe by the citizens and is not questioned, for religious reasons” (79).                

Similarly cynical is the Bene Gesserit order of Dune, whose Missionaria Protectiva has the function of “seeding the known universe with a prophecy pattern for the protection of B.G. personnel” (62). Through Jessica’s knowledge of the “standard” Missionaria Protectiva myth, she is able to cast Paul (and herself) as the messiah and mother expected by the Fremen, observing that “such people would be easy to imbue with fervor and fanaticism. They could be wielded like a sword to win back Paul’s place” (368). The imperial princess Irulan sums up the Bene Gesserit position in an excerpt from her work “Muad’Dib: The Religious Issues,” where she writes that “you cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion.... Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic” (462-63).                

The temporal concerns of organized religion are further satirized by an emphasis on the wealth of religious institutions as well as the shady economic practices by which this wealth is obtained. For the Deicrats of Lord of Light, the invention of prayer-machines has provided a particularly efficient method of fundraising:

Now that the karma idea has caught on, the things are better than tax collectors. When mister citizen presents himself at the clinic of the god of the church of his choice on the eve of his sixtieth year, his prayer account is said to be considered along with his sin account, in deciding the caste he will enter. (69)

The Fosterite church of Stranger in a Strange Land functions along similar lines, with Senator Boone observing that “there is economics in everything, even in the Lord’s work.” Boone points out that every “tourist” who visits the church “can’t even get a drink of water” without passing through a hall lined with “spiritual” slot machines that pay out in tokens redeemable at a bursar’s cage past the bar (367-68). Encouraging the gambling addiction of visitors to the church is only part of the Fosterites’ economic strategy, with members forbidden from purchasing brands not endorsed with the “happy, holy seal-of-approval with Bishop Digby’s smiling face on it,” and required to pay penance in the most literal sense if they patronize the businesses of sinners (198).                

It is not only religious institutions but religious individuals who use their power for financial and political gain. Self-interest is portrayed as endemic among the clergy. During Sam’s first visit to the temple of Brahma in Lord of Light, he is able to bribe the priest Judas-style with two purses of silver in order to use the Temple-to-Heaven phone, a practice which does not surprise Brahma in the least: “Sam is doubtless paying you for a private line, is he not?” “Lord ...!” (74). The mercenary tendencies of the priestly caste in Alundil, where Sam bases his ministry, also work to his advantage: “the local Brahmins did not approve of the antiritualistic teachings of the Buddha, but his presence filled their coffers to overflowing; so they learned to live in his squat shadow, never voicing the word tirthika—heretic” (99). In Stranger in a Strange Land, the Fosterite Supreme Bishop Digby, whose position gives him access to material luxuries—“his coffee and liquor and food were all excellent” (384)—as well as control over the media and considerable political clout, poisons his predecessor Foster to become head of the church. Heinlein emphasizes that this action and commitment to his religion are not mutually exclusive; Digby is described by Jill as giving the impression that “he really is devoted to his work” (388). Foster himself tells Digby that after his accession to Supreme Bishop he “did well enough” (406).                

Perhaps the murkiest mixture of moral sincerity and self-interest is seen in the rise to power of Paul Atreides in Dune. For Paul, ethical action requires exploiting the faith of his followers for his own advancement and also the monopoly of an essential commodity—the melange spice required for space navigation. Attempting to prevent the violent jihad he foresees his followers carrying out across the galaxy, he decides to try for the ultimate position of control: “they sense that I must take the throne, he thought. But they cannot know I do it to prevent the jihad” (540; emphases in original). By this point in the novel, however, he is also driven by revenge (“you think because I’m what you made me that I cannot feel the need for revenge?” [541]) and is willing to use his followers’ faith in him as the “Mahdi” (as well as his ability to destroy the spice, and thus the economic foundation of the Imperium) to succeed in his vendetta against the reigning emperor, Shaddam IV. By recognizing the baser side of human nature even within sincere religious figures and organizations, these novels all belie Spellman’s simplistic characterization of religion and the state as “friendly partners,” one of which provides spiritual guidance to the other (“Spellman Scores Ruling on Prayer” 12).  

While political involvement by any religion is portrayed as questionable, special attention is given to fundamentalist varieties, depicted as violent and repressive forces that threaten pluralistic societies. This danger is primarily a product of their intolerance, with the threat to religious freedom that this intolerance poses. For Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land, the sugar-coated eclecticism of Fosterite doctrine and the intemperate services that “Foster and Digby knew would sell” are nothing to be concerned about; the only thing that scares him is the thought that he “might live to see it sell too well—until it was compulsory for everybody” (388). Hints of the likely fulfilment of this prophecy emerge when the Fosterites throw their weight behind legal complaints against Mike’s church: “the prosecutor was not interested in antichrists—but there was a primary coming up” (567). In Lord of Light, such an oppressive theocracy is already well established, including the application of compulsory brain scans to detect unorthodox religious and political ideas before granting individuals access to transmigration technology. Jan Olvegg, an old friend of Sam’s among the original settlers, observes that “the old religion is not only the religion—it is the revealed, enforced and frighteningly demonstrable religion. But don’t think that last part too loudly” (66). Yet even the autocratic rule of a cynical technocratic class is considered a lesser evil compared to the prospect of rule by the former ship’s chaplain, Nirriti: “should he succeed he would set up a Dark Age worse than the one we’re beginning to come out of” (290). Yama’s argument that sincere evangelicalism is inherently more dangerous than any secular or even fraudulent counterpart is echoed by Stranger in a Strange Land’s Jubal Harshaw: “a confidence man knows that he’s lying; that limits his scope. But a successful shaman ropes himself first; he believes what he says—and such belief is contagious; there is no limit to his scope.” (364)                

Herbert differs from Heinlein and Zelazny on the importance of the “shaman’s” belief in his own teachings, portraying Paul as a successful religious leader who does not believe in the mythology that surrounds him. Yet all three texts assert that the secret of success lies in the power of messiahs to generate genuine faith, a state of mind portrayed as diminishing a person’s capacity for critical thinking. This principle is central to the utopian vision of Dune’s original planetary ecologist, Pardot Kynes, who has taught his son and successor Liet-Kynes that “religion and law among our masses must be one and the same .... [T]his will have the dual benefit of bringing both greater obedience and greater bravery” (318-19). For Kynes senior, the Fremens’ religious faith in his ecological project is needed only for its completion; they themselves are merely “the tools with which he intended to remake the planet” (566). In Lord of Light, Yamasimilarly recognizes the power of faith as a source of control when, needing troops for the revolt against Heaven, he tells Sam that he must preach a sermon to his followers in order to “call forth within them those nobler sentiments and higher qualities of spirit which make men subject to divine meddling” (42).                

“Innocent” Patty Paiwonski (473), one of the most devout characters in Stranger in a Strange Land, is depicted as being blinded by her faith in the Fosterite religious community. While she is describing the arrest and “Persecution” of Foster to Mike and Jill, the narrator intrudes to observe that

the Reverend Foster had realized early that, when it came to upholding religious freedom, brass knucks, clubs, and a willingness to tangle with cops was worth far more than passive resistance. His had been a church militant from scratch. But he had been a tactician too; pitched battles were fought only where the heavy artillery was on the side of the Lord. (430-31)

While the reader is informed later that the results of such a battle over the (unauthorized) biography The Devil and Reverend Foster were “incidental damage to other chattels and to real estate, plus a certain amount of mayhem, maiming, and simple assault” (483), Patty describes only the Fosterites’ smashing of “idolatrous images” (430) and the tarring and feathering of an “idolatrous judge” (431). No less striking to the reader is the conversion of equally “innocent” Jill (555), whose faith in the gospel truth of Mike’s teachings becomes stronger than his own. During a rare crisis of confidence, Mike asks Jill if “it is possible that we humans don’t have any ‘Old Ones?’ ... When we discorporate— die!—do we die dead ... die all over and nothing left?” (471-72; emphases in original). In response, she replies solemnly, “You yourself have told me. You have taught me to know eternity and you can’t take it away from me, ever” (472). That acquisition of Mike’s Martian language and world-view involves not only the adoption of his religious beliefs but also a loss of discernment is evident in Jill’s inability to detect any trace of irony in Ben Caxton’s observation that “Mike ... has certainly blossomed out. I think he could sell shoes to snakes.” She replies, “I’m quite sure he could. But he never would because it would be wrong—snakes don’t need them” (530).         

As polemical novels strongly in favor of freedom of religion, none of the texts questions the right of an individual to choose to be religious. Their concern is centered on the interference of religion in politics, violence, and the indoctrination of naive or disenfranchised individuals that places religious institutions in a position where they cannot be criticized or held accountable. For the Fosterites of Stranger in a Strange Land, freedom from the laws that apply to other organizations is the ironic consequence of legislation designed to protect religious freedom. Under the Treaty of Federation of this novel’s world-state, “all churches are equal and equally immune—especially if they swing a big bloc of votes,” and “a church is anything that calls itself a church” (365). Foster’s “willingness to tangle with cops” (430-31) also encourages his followers to terrorize the media and local legislature; as a result, Bishop Digby’s religious pronouncements are reported as “straight news” (104). The Bene Gesserit of Dune maintain a similar level of immunity through secrecy, carrying on their breeding program without the knowledge of many of its participants (24) and hiding the true extent of their operatives’ mental and physical powers from the general public (185). By locking ruling families into contracts, they are able to place their personnel and descendants on the imperial throne (237) and have even taken control of the succession by forbidding the Emperor’s Bene Gesserit wife from producing a son (342). When a religion melds with politics in such a way that its teachings cannot be criticized, individuals are left without any institutional protection against oppressive doctrine. To continue to live in the world of Lord of Light, a person must not have bad karma, and “the definition of bad karma is anything our friends the gods don’t like” (68).

Mysticism and the Counterculture. While the novels critique the institutions of religion and the manipulation of the faithful by religious leaders, they also recognize the validity of some religious experiences, with certain forms of mysticism involving the experience of pantheistic unity depicted as genuine. While theologically going far beyond the liberal Protestant tradition that underlies much of the dominant ideology of the texts, there are nonetheless affinities with Protestant theology’s shift during the 1960s to an emphasis on the immanence of God.6 In 1967, radical theologian Thomas Altizer came close to pantheism, celebrating the visions of William Blake and arguing that “the universe is but a mask of man; its ‘infinity’ testifies to man’s original and eternal state; the barrier that separates nature from man is but a sign of man’s present alienation” (Altizer qtd in Elwood 230). The privileging of immanent and universal concepts of God is a further reflection of the pluralistic values of the elite, a demographic bias that also underlies these novels’ use of religious concepts from Eastern and mystical strands of the counterculture. Involvement in countercultural new religious movements was closely related to higher education and socioeconomic status; in a study of religious and social experimentation in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s, sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that of the respondents who held “mystical” world-views, 53% were college graduates while only 22% of those holding “theistic” views were graduates (Consciousness 166). In addition to their greater compatibility with pluralism, “mystical” experiences allow for a spirituality that is individual rather than institutional. They do not necessarily require belief in any kind of personal deity, conforming with the new cultural context identified by Roof “in which faith was increasingly psychologized and viewed as a matter of one’s own choice and in keeping with one’s own experience” (65).                

The relatively positive portrayal of mysticism in the texts is exemplified by the experiences of Lord of Light’s Rild, a disciple of Sam’s whose spiritual insights are acknowledged both by Sam and the other “Buddhists” as indicative of Enlightenment. When he asks whether Sam has shared his experience of being “everywhere and a part of everything—the clouds and the trees, the animals in the forest, all people,” Sam affirms that Rild does indeed know “the joy of all things” (110). The contents of Sam’s teachings are carefully orchestrated to be consistent with this experience, with Zelazny incorporating Hindu concepts into Sam’s “Buddhist” sermons to create a pantheist theology in which the survival of the self—the atman—is possible through union with the whole: “he spoke of the unity of all things, great and small, of the law of cause, of becoming and dying, of the illusion of the world, of the spark of the atman, of the way of salvation through renunciation of the self and union with the whole” (106). The addition of concepts antithetical to Buddhism, such as atman and the unity of all things, is likely to have been a conscious choice, given Zelazny’s attribution to Sam of a far more orthodox speech based on the central Buddhist concept anatman—non-self: “open a fruit and there is a seed within it. Is that the center? Open the seed and there is nothing within it. Is that the center? We are two different persons from the master and the mistress of battles” (198). Zelazny’s use of sources for Lord of Light in which the doctrine of non-self features prominently likewise suggests that these departures from Buddhist doctrine are deliberate.7               

The significance of Zelazny’s changes becomes apparent at the end of the third chapter, in which Rild sacrifices himself by challenging Yama to a duel that he knows he cannot win, abandoning Buddhist pacifism for “the dictates of [his] heart” (115) that require him to confront the antagonist of his teacher. In accepting the “real death” so strenuously avoided by characters with the technology or the financial means to do so, it is suggested to the reader that Rild knows something that the other characters do not. This idea is made explicit when Sam tells Yama that Rild has died “to prove a point,” although exactly which point he does “not know.... I have listened too often to his sermons, to his subtle parables, to believe that he would do a thing such as this without a purpose. You have slain the true Buddha, deathgod” (133). By incorporating Hindu concepts of divine union and self into the novel and making them the center of Rild’s “enlightenment,” Zelazny allows for the possibility that Rild’s “real death” is not final at all. He moves closer to a Hindu (and also Christian) concept of the soul more familiar (and perhaps more acceptable to Western readers) than the vaguer mechanics of Buddhist rebirth. While Rild’s ultimate fate is never confirmed, his actions suggest that a spiritual meaning in life higher than the materialism of the “Gods” is possible and that true spirituality transcends creed, echoing the affirmation of immanence and pluralism present in both the Protestant mainstream and the counterculture.           

A more strongly countercultural and agnostic exploration of mystical experiences occurs in Dune. Jessica’s drug-induced union with the “race consciousness” of the Fremen and her absorption of the memories of the tribe’s past Reverend Mothers share many of the hallmarks of a religious experience, but are described in detached, scientific terms through Jessica’s awareness of the physiological effects of the drug on her body: “she began recognizing familiar structures, atomic linkages: a carbon atom here, helical wavering ... a glucose molecule” (408-409). In union with so many other minds, Jessica, rather than experiencing the bliss of transcendence, becomes starkly aware of her own place in an uncaring universe: “a terrible sense of loneliness crept through Jessica in the realization of what had happened to her. She saw her own life as a pattern that had slowed and all life around her speeded up so that the dancing interplay became clearer” (411). Chani, Paul’s Fremen concubine, is similarly unnerved by the prospect of opening her mind to him: “When the tribe shares the Water ... we’re together—all of us. We ... shared. I can ... sense the others with me, but I’m afraid to share with you” (415). Ultimately, however, their union is a loving and comforting one. Robert Hunt’s observations on Robert Silverberg’s novel A Time of Changes (1971) are apposite: “For although [the protagonist] experiences the classic mystic union—ecstatic, loving, selfless—this union is with other men and women, not with any supernatural entity. God is in humanity: we are God” (75). Faced with the reality of human insignificance in an impersonal universe, mysticism in Dune provides a source of spiritual transcendence independent of any belief in God; communion with humanity offsets the “anarchy from the outer dark” (547).               

The most ambiguous treatment of mysticism occurs in Stranger in a Strange Land, where doubt surrounds Mike’s Martian teachings about personal immortality. Heinlein’s novel includes scenes set in an afterlife presided over by a bureaucracy of angels under an “architect.” The novel concludes with the “Archangel Michael” appearing in this afterlife and conversing with Foster and Digby, who have both died and become angels. Elizabeth Anne Hull argues that “the novel ends on a note of extreme cynicism.... If one could believe in the nature of the universe Heinlein postulates, hedonism would be the only sane way to live” (47). Yet this is precisely the point: the Foster-in-heaven episodes that Hull finds “silly” (47) are deliberately implausible, forcing readers to question their belief in the literal survival of the soul. The reader is set up for this challenge by a conversation between Harshaw and his employee Duke in which Jubal considers the ethical implications of Mike’s literal and absolute belief that death is not the end of life:

   “But [Mike] wouldn’t feel guilty about killing you.... You see, Mike believes that your soul is immortal.”
   “Huh? Well, hell, so do I. But— ”
   “Do you?” Jubal said bleakly. “I wonder.”
   “Why, certainly I do! Oh, I admit I don’t go to church much, but I was brought up right. I’m no infidel. I’ve got faith....”
   “Do you want to be cremated or buried?”
   “Huh? Oh, for cripe’s sake, Jubal, quit trying to get my goat.” (183)

During the 1960s the majority of readers were in Duke’s position, nominally believing in an afterlife, even if they did not “go to church much.”8 This conversation illustrates what Peter Ruppert describes as the dialogic structure of (anti-)utopian fiction, in which

utopias set out to engage their readers in a dialogue on social alternatives and social variations. What initiates this dialogue is the experience of noncoincidence between social reality and utopian dream, the incongruence between what is and what might be or ought to be. (xi)

In the case of Heinlein’s novel, the non-coincidence occurs on the level of belief: forced to confront a universe in which the murder of Bishop Digby is harmful to Digby only because it interrupts his seduction of an attractive secretary (457), the reader is led to question whether absolute belief in the personality’s survival after death is philosophically and ethically plausible.                

If the heaven of Stranger in a Strange Land is unbelievable, what is the reader to make of Mike’s pantheism? Mike’s teachings are neither confirmed nor denied by the novel’s narrator, with the reader receiving only the subjective and inconsistent reports of its characters. Ben Caxton and Jubal Harshaw express scorn for Mike’s ideas in principle, with Jubal summarizing them sourly as “Solipsism and Pantheism. Teamed together they can explain anything” (517; emphasis in original). Yet Harshaw’s eventual visit to the nest also introduces the reader to the happiness that Mike’s teachings bring to his followers and the unwavering faith that leads him to martyr himself. An important episode that could affirm or contradict the commune’s beliefs—Jubal Harshaw’s vision of Mike’s “ghost”—is conspicuous for its ambiguity, however. Mike is identified by Harshaw himself in dialogue but not by the omniscient narrator, who does not name “the voice” or tell who or what “helps” Jubal in the bathroom (647-48).9 Even the dialogue between Archangels Michael, Digby, and Foster with which the novel closes neither confirms nor denies Mike’s doctrine. All three angels use the expression “Thou art God” (655), but given Patty’s earlier acknowledgment of the compatibility of this expression with Foster’s not unorthodox teachings on immanence (448), it remains unclear whether Mike and Foster mean the same thing by that phrase. As a result, Heinlein’s novel is just as agnostic as the other two. Spiritual experiences are depicted as real to their practitioners and potentially positive in their psychological effects, but their ultimate “reality” and significance remain uncertain.      

Denying the existence of an omnipotent personal deity, the novels emphasize instead the importance of human agency. In Lord of Light, Sam insists that destiny is not the cause of the mythically patterned events of his life but “rather an accidental social conscience and some right mistake-making” (314-15). In a parodic inversion of the language of Job, this denial of fate is extended to become a refutation of the power of the divine over the human individual. Whereas the biblical Job epitomizes submission to God, declaring that “if I have walked in falsehood or my foot has hurried after deceit—let God weigh me in honest scales and he will know that I am blameless” (Job 31:5-6), Sam shows less trust in divine jurisdiction: “if Brahma has me burnt, I will spit into the flames. If he has me strangled, I will attempt to bite the executioner’s hand” (186). Mike adopts an analogous position in Stranger in a Strange Land, telling Jubal Harshaw that his doctrine of “Thou art God” is “a defiance—and an unafraid unabashed assumption of personal responsibility” (636). Rather than being an external force with the power to damn or save, the God of Mike’s religion is entirely immanent and inseparable from the human, a concept that the majority of those who come to hear him preach are unable to accept: “no matter what I said they insisted on thinking of God as something outside themselves” (637).

The Messiah in an Individualistic World. Location of ultimate power and responsibility in the human becomes the basis for a critique of messianism in all three texts, with the protagonists Mike, Paul, and Sam presented as ambiguous messiahs whose flawed humanity is far more prominent than their “divinity.” This reworking of Christian mythology is a natural extension of the novels’ acceptance of a secularized universe. The novels explore the consequences of relying on fallible human beings for personal salvation when the soteriological value of faith is far from certain. Affirming liberal Protestant values that encourage individuals to “rely upon their conscience and to think for themselves about moral and religious matters” (Roof 65), the texts depict any delegation of spiritual responsibility and moral judgment as potentially dangerous, warning against the fanaticism that can be inculcated by charismatic spiritual leaders.                

All three “messiahs” attract followers who believe them to be prophets, and all provide some genuine spiritual inspiration to their devotees; but they are earthly rather than divine figures whose influence is based on their skill in manipulating the faithful. Paul Atreides of Dune, the Kwisatz Haderach created by the Bene Gesserit to see into the “unknown” (594), is endowed with prescient powers that are the result of genetic engineering and the ingestion of psychotropic drugs rather than visions from a divine source. He never comes to believe in the myths his Fremen followers build around him, remaining cynically detached from their devotion. At the same time, he does not discourage his followers from believing in his divinity. Preparing to ride a sand worm for the first time, Paul realizes “half pridefully” that he “cannot do the simplest thing without its becoming a legend” (448). As John Casey observes, “Herbert takes pains to ensure that we do not too readily ascribe mystical charisma to Paul” (517), instead using an omniscient narrator to provide an “objective” account of the real causes behind Paul’s actions. After Paul’s “resurrection” from a drug-induced coma, it is revealed that “others will spread the story until it was a fire over the land. Paul-Muad’Dib is not as other men, they would say ... he is indeed the Lisan al-Gaib” (513). Paul in this way becomes an example of the dangers of faith. Frank Herbert stresses the importance of this skeptical aspect of the novel:

it began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies .... What better way to destroy a civilization, a society or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero? (qtd in O’Reilly 42)

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein casts a similarly jaundiced eye on the influence of “messiahs.” Mike’s teachings are decidedly temporal, retaining much of the successful Fosterite doctrine that “if you like to drink and gamble and dance and wench—and most people do—come to church and do it under holy auspices” (394). Although Mike’s vision is sincere and his sexual practices are consistently endorsed by Jubal Harshaw, the happiness his teachings bring to his followers is often undercut. As Ben Caxton reports of the commune: “I talked to only about a third of them, Jubal ... but—yes, they’re happy. So happy they seem slap-happy to me. I don’t trust it. There’s some catch in it” (560). This catch is the diminution of critical faculties that we have seen occurring to starry-eyed devotees throughout all three novels, including, in the case of Miriam and Mahmoud, the complete merging of their will with Mike’s:

   “Sweetheart,” Miriam said earnestly, “that’s a solution I would just plain love —if Mike pushes us out of the Nest.”
   “If we grok to leave the Nest, you mean.”
   “Same thing. As you grok.” (602)

The impact of faith on critical thinking is most visibly conveyed by Jubal Harshaw’s abrupt conversion, which has been read by critics such as David Samuelson as an affirmation of Mike’s teachings:

Jubal is the major viewpoint character of the book ... [acting] as a surrogate for the reader. If this skeptic can become a believer ... how long can we be expected to hold out? (169)

Although this is precisely the effect that Harshaw’s capitulation appears to have had on many of Heinlein’s readers, for whom the novel became a countercultural Bible, an ironic reading is also possible. During his stay in the commune, Jubal contradicts or represses previously accurate observations, telling Caxton that “Mike is gentle, always” (595), despite having responded to an earlier assertion of Mike’s gentleness by telling Duke that Mike “wouldn’t feel guilty about killing you” (182). Once in the nest, Ben takes on Harshaw’s former role, reminding Jubal that “Mike isn’t gentle, Jubal. Killing a man wouldn’t worry him” (595). Rather than representing an unqualified validation of Mike’s teachings, Jubal Harshaw’s adoption of the commune’s lifestyle follows a pattern similar to that of Jill, Miriam, and Mahmoud, in illustrating the seductiveness of charismatic religious figures.                

Sam in Lord of Light is the most nuanced of the three protagonists, functioning as a vehicle of pointed religious satire as well as the prophet of a sincerely portrayed alternative kind of spiritual being-in-the-world. Making it clear that Sam’s adoption of the role of religious teacher is both fraudulent and opportunistic, Zelazny uses him to ridicule human credulity: “I’m very gullible when it comes to my own words. I believe everything I say, though I know I’m a liar” (48). Parodic parallels with the life of Christ serve to emphasize the role of his own self-interest, with Jesus’s driving out of the money-changers from the temple (Matt. 21:12) echoed in Sam’s raid on the body-changing Lords of Karma in order to acquire a new body, and with his resurrection from the dead being an unanticipated result of modifications made to his body as part of a deal with the Rakasha (“demons”). Sam’s drinking, smoking “Buddha” is saved from pure parody by the genuine spiritual growth he undergoes over the course of the novel. He comes to accept the validity of the experiences Rild has had under his tuition, and Sam’s teachings are further affirmed by the positive portrayal of the “Buddhists” of Lord of Light,whose devotion to Sam’s doctrines is revealed by their refusal to take “life of any sort” when the “God” Mara seeks to justify killing to one of the monks (36). In contrast, when Yama visits the temple at Alundil, he knowingly accuses the “Hindu” priest of being “as blasphemous as the rest of mankind” and he is not contradicted (123). The seriousness with which Zelazny depicts the mysticism of Sam’s followers relative to the institutionalized and often shallow faith of the priests allows Sam to function as a model for a different kind of spirituality that embraces critical thinking and personal judgment.                

The novels’ critique of the power of messianic figures to manipulate has at its base the progressive understanding of religion as a social and psychological phenomenon, combined with a Protestant emphasis on the importance of individual conscience and judgment in spiritual matters. The texts depart from this religious heritage, however, in their rejection of any kind of “holy spirit” or divine guidance for individual decision making, instead asserting a pessimistic image of humanity as inherently fallible and corrupt. In doing so, they draw on a quasi-Calvinist strand of the Protestant tradition in a secularized form, creating messianic figures whose use of their powers, however well intentioned, frequently results in death and destruction rather than redemption. As much anti-heroes as heroes, the protagonists embody a type identified by Juan Prieto-Pablos as the “ambivalent hero” of post-war American sf:

there is still a world in need of protection, but the hero is no longer an intrinsic part of it. The powers he can tap ... have transformed him into a source of the fears that had traditionally been provoked by the villain: if man’s innate tendency is destructive, what could an extraordinarily powerful hero do but to destroy with a force n-times greater? (66)

For Prieto-Pablos, Paul in Dune is one of sf’s most significant representatives of this character type, being “at the same time a hero and a monster” (71). As his power and influence increase, Paul loses the compassion for others that he displayed as a child when he saved the life of the Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (86) or opposed his father’s dishonest suggestion of forging signatures to confiscate property, wishing “an end to devious plots” (111). His transition into manhood and adult responsibilities is marked by a kind of dehumanization. His thought processes become increasingly detached, rendering him unable to feel anything except “here’s an important fact” (221) when considering the death of his father. While Paul is eventually able to mourn, his capacity for empathy decreases further as he ages: his response to a report from his friend Gurney Halleck concerning damage in the final battle reveals that his priority is no longer the human life conspicuously valued by his father and Atreides companions:

   “Nothing money won’t repair, I presume,” Paul said.
   “Except for the lives, m’Lord,” Gurney said, and there was a tone of
 reproach in his voice as though to say: “When did an Atreides worry first about things when people were at stake?” (537)

Casey observes that the religious beliefs planted by the Bene Gesserit in order to make the Fremen susceptible to Paul’s influence “present him with an opportunity to command rather than emancipate” (517), of which he takes full advantage, pursuing his own self-interest despite his concern for the well-being of the Fremen, who are relying on him for both political and religious salvation.                

In Lord of Light, Sam’s rather un-Buddhist penchant for war, combined with his technologically enhanced powers, has similarly unfortunate consequences despite his genuine desire to liberate the oppressed. During the battle of Keenset, a war fought by Sam and his followers ostensibly to defend the city’s technological progress, he causes the massacre of the very people he is trying to rescue. Watching the results of Nirriti’s zombies slaying everything they pass, Mara remarks to Sam that “this is your sort of war. Those were your lightnings striking friend and foe alike” (267). Quite happy to distinguish this aspect of his personality from his “Buddhist” ministry and social conscience, Sam does not deny Yama’s suggestion that he might have killed him in his sleep, contra the non-violence practiced by his followers:

 “You might have, though, eh? If you could get away with it? If none would know the Buddha did it?”
 “Perhaps,” said the other. “As you know, the personal strengths and weaknesses of a leader are no true indication of the merits of his cause.” (136)

Perhaps the most disturbing example of a fallible human being’s possession of unlimited power is Mike’s appointment of himself as a force of divine justice in Stranger in a Strange Land. He discorporates others at will if they are a threat to his commune or simply because he groks “wrongness.” As he declares to Jubal Harshaw with spectacular understatement:

   “all we were doing was much like a referee removing a man from a game for ‘unnecessary roughness.’”
   “Aren’t you afraid of playing God, lad?”
   Mike grinned with unashamed cheerfulness. “I am God. Thou art God ... and any jerk I remove is God, too.” (634-35)

Interpretations that largely exempt Mike from Heinlein’s satire are difficult to sustain in light of the many instances in which Mike’s judgment is shown to be flawed, even in the assessment of those closest to him.10 Meeting Ben Caxton at Mike’s commune late in the novel, Jubal Harshaw is horrified when informed that “Mike has told them that you are the only human being he knows of who can ‘grok in fullness’ without needing to learn Martian first” (593). Witnessing Jubal’s reaction, Ben admits that “even Mike has his blind spots—I told you he was only human” (593). In the 1991 edition of the text, Ben’s first visit to the temple is also the occasion of what appears to be a complete failure of “grokking” by Mike, again of a person with whom he is extremely familiar.11 Far from sensing Ben Caxton’s discomfort at his public displays of affection towards Jill, Mike proceeds to have sex with Jill in front of him, precipitating Ben’s mad dash for the exit (548). In addition to Mike’s obvious fallibility, his practice of killing those who stand in the way of his utopian vision is rejected by Jubal: “what a way to dispose of—no, I mustn’t be tempted” (153). Even though Harshaw himself “has a lengthy, though inactive, ‘Better Dead’ list himself” (486), it remains an inactive fantasy. Mike’s rationale for his actions is rendered even less convincing by the humorous and deliberately implausible ‘afterlife’ of the novel, which fails to provide any serious philosophical justification for his assertion that killing does no real harm.                

While Prieto-Pablos attributes the ambivalent nature of this type of protagonist to a fear of the corrupting nature of power, the texts go further than this, depicting a tendency towards violence as inherent in human nature. Possessed by the demon-lord Taraka, who uses his body to engage in torture, indulge in great quantities of alcohol, and enjoy a harem (Lord of Light 157), Sam becomes aware of his own pleasure and observes that “within himself, as within every man, there lies a demon capable of responding to his own kind” (158). In Dune, Paul’s attempt to avert the holy war he sees in his prescient visions is thwarted by the biological drives of the human “race consciousness,” which seeks mass violence in order to diversify the gene pool and ensure the survival of the fittest:

The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive.... And Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. (554)

While Paul’s impotence in the face of the death and destruction he foresees is terrifying to him, the novel stresses the dangers of trying to force natural cycles into static peace and stability; Irulan points out that “it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection” (438). If nature is not allowed to renew itself, stability will become stagnation and the human race will decline. Natural selection also emerges as an issue of concern in Stranger in a Strange Land, when Mike attributes the prevalence of war on earth to the need for the human race to “weed out” the weak as adults, in contrast to the Martian practice of leaving the young “nymphs” to fend for themselves so that the selection of the fittest will occur in childhood. He argues that “one way or another, competing and weeding has to take place ... or a race goes downhill” (636), a sentiment that Heinlein does not challenge and that has been observed throughout his work (see Smith). Mike’s religion itself functions as a selecting mechanism, leading George Slusser to argue that “it seems clear that Mike’s creed carries with it an elitism akin to Calvinism and predestination” (27). Slusser observes that “the poor unfortunates who never see the light are denied entry not for any objective standards they have somehow failed to meet, but because they cannot ‘grok’.... a person either has it intrinsically, or never will” (27-28).

Salvation by Work. For all the limitations posed by the destructive tendencies of human nature, the novels’ messiahs and their followers are able to effect positive changes in a limited, worldly sense, and retain in this way some degree of their soteriological function, though in a highly secularized form. Rather than depicting salvation centered on achieving eternal life in heaven through faith, the texts emphasize hard work and learning through heroic figures who are “self-made” men and women. In doing so, they support the values and institutions of the secularizing Protestant mainstream. Daniel Yankelovich found that “in 1973 the large majority of young adults continued to believe in ‘most aspects of the puritan ethic’—thrift, the sacredness of private property, hard work always paying off and competition encouraging excellence” (Yankelovich qtd in Roof, Carroll, and Roozen 67), and it is these values that the novels retain even though much of the original religious context has been abandoned.                

Hard work and study are undertaken by all the protagonists. This is exemplified in Dune by the extensive training on which Paul’s and Jessica’s mental and physical abilities are based. Don Riggs points out that the Bene Gesserit sisters’ “enhanced abilities may not be fundamentally different from those humans have today.... Herbert’s use of such terms as ‘prana-bindu’ implies disciplines of self-control developed by Eastern mystics long before the twentieth century” (115). Although Paul’s powers have a genetic component, their development is shown to be similarly reliant on “training, the sharpening of talents, the refined pressures of sophisticated disciples, even exposure to the O.C. Bible at a critical moment ... and, lastly, the heavy intake of spice” (Dune 228). Paul’s choice to continue with the training of his own free will pleases his father, who finds his son’s quick decision “formidable indeed” (62): industriousness is valued as a character trait even among the aristocracy.

The supernatural powers of Sam and Yama in Lord of Light are also underpinned by “science,” intelligence, and acquired skills. Taraka describes in scientific terms the settlers’ original methods of developing their abilities, observing that “they had been puny in the early days, struggling to discipline their mutant powers with drugs, hypnosis, meditation, neurosurgery—forging them into Attributes—and across the ages, those powers had grown” (283). While the power of all the “Gods” is based on this “special physiology” (23), Sam’s and Yama’s final victory over them is due to superior intelligence and strategic planning. Yama tells Ratri that “much of my power is in the form of knowledge, which even the Lords of Karma could not have wrested from me” (23). He is challenged by Sam to acknowledge this: “why have you, master of arms, master of sciences, come as lackey to a crew of drunken body-changers, who are not qualified to polish your blade or wash out your test tubes?” (135). In turn, Yama informs Sam that he has reincarnated him for his “Machiavellian scheming” (19) rather than for the supernatural powers that are also of great use to them militarily. By centering success in the novel’s epic battles on abilities that are developed rather than innate, and by showing these abilities being exercised in skirmishes between highly accomplished characters such as Sam and Yama, Lord of Light privileges the Protestant ethic identified by Yankelovich: hard work pays off and competition encourages excellence.  

Mike’s powers in Stranger in a Strange Land can also theoretically be acquired by anyone, based as they are on a Whorfian view of language as influencing a person’s experience of reality. Once proficient in Martian, his disciples will possess all of Mike’s psychic abilities: “the concepts can’t be thought about without the language, and the discipline that results in this horn-of-plenty of benefits ... all derive from the conceptual logic” (610). The work needed to acquire these abilities, is, says Jubal, “salutary, in itself” (610), a position affirmed when Patty tells Ben that learning Martian is “not easy; I’m not perfect in it myself. But it is much Happiness to work and learn” (513). Jubal Harshaw declares early in the novel that he has no interest in protecting Mike’s wealth because “he has earned none of it” (127), and Mike’s behavior when he first leaves Jubal’s home shows that he has internalized his mentor’s work ethic: he gets a job as dishwasher and educates himself from public libraries (421). After spending time with a traveling carnival, however, and learning “what the chumps want” (418), the honest, hardworking side of Mike’s character is eclipsed by his showmanship. The first major sign of his degeneration is the acquisition of a set of diploma-mill degrees for which no work was required and that make Jubal want “to throw up” (486).                

The use of the Prometheus archetype—in addition to the more familiar Christ figure—as a model for the protagonists further emphasizes that they provide “salvation” through training and knowledge rather than through belief or faith. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Ben Caxton remarks to Jubal Harshaw that “Mike is our Prometheus—but, remember, Prometheus was not God.... Mike is a man along with the rest of us ... even though he knows more” (590). Lord of Light’s Sam and his Accelerationism likewise aim to provide knowledge and skills for the here and now. Sam tells his friend Kubera that “I decided that mankind could live better without gods.... I wanted to give them a chance to be free, to build what they wanted” (247). Joseph Francavilla points out that “the connection with the Promethean gift of fire is made even more explicit ... when Sam tells Brahma that men should not be considered slaves and should be given the benefit of the gods’ technology. Brahma replies: ‘But they are still children, and like children would they play with our gifts and be burnt by them’” (219). In Dune, Paul is also a Promethean figure, benefiting his followers more through the training he has received than as the prophet they believe him to be. Stilgar bases his initial decision to protect Paul from the Harkonnens as much on his useful skills, such as using a “thumper” to distract worms, as on the possibility of his being the awaited messiah, “Lisan al-Gaib” (323). Paul’s influence as an adult member of the tribe is likewise cemented by his talents as a trainer, strategist, and commander for the Fremen’s guerrilla war with the Harkonnens:

He thought of the power he wielded in the face of the pogrom—the old men who sent their sons to him to be trained in the weirding way of battle, the old men who listened to him now in council and followed his plans, the men who returned to pay him that highest Fremen compliment: “Your plan worked, Muad’Dib.” (444)

Even the Fremen religion is centered on war and revenge in the temporal world, with the daily rite of remembering the enslavement of the Fremen: “we will never forgive and we will never forget” (460). They are waiting for the Mahdi who will lead them to an earthly paradise based on agricultural science, not faith.                

While the novels’ messiahs provide their followers with the knowledge and skills required for secular “salvation,” they are far from advocating the unlimited embrace of Mammon. It is in opposition to excesses of material wealth that they exercise their most iconoclastic function. Not opposed to worldly successes per se, they nonetheless seek to expose the results of pursuing luxury at the expense of morality; they satirize regimes, institutions, and individuals that place profit over human life. Their work ethic is distinctly Puritan, rewarding productive labor rather than wealth for wealth’s sake.                

In Lord of Light, Sam (and later Yama) pit themselves against the “Gods,” who maintain their opulent lifestyles by suppressing the development of technologies that would threaten their power and improve the quality of life of “mortals.” At Sam’s first “video-conference” with Brahma, he opposes this restriction of technology: “we of the crew should be assisting [the passengers and our offspring], granting them the benefits of the technology we had preserved” (78). Brahma’s protestations of innocence when charged by Sam with deliberately suppressing technological development (79) are belied by his enjoyment of the luxuries his position affords him, including jewels such as “a clasp of fire opal” and “a purple crown, studded with pulsating amethysts” (75). Sam, himself a prince, presents a comparatively unadorned figure in “dark jodhpurs, a sky-blue khameez, the blue-green turban of Urath and an empty scabbard upon a chain belt of dark iron” (74-75). In addition to seeking a more equitable distribution of resources through a military offensive against the “Gods,” Sam attempts to undermine the influence of the wealthy Brahmins by promoting an ascetic religious practice based on renunciation of rites and temples. Sam’s retention of this actual point of difference between Buddhism and Hinduism—he preaches “the meaninglessness of the Brahmin’s rituals, comparing their forms to vessels empty of content” (107)—echoes Catholic-Protestant conflict, an analogy that becomes explicit when Sam uses it himself later in the chapter; he tells Kali’s statue that “the religion by which you rule is very ancient, goddess, but my protest is also that of a venerable tradition. So call me a protestant, and remember—now I am more than a man” (109).                

Many of Paul’s revolutionary efforts in Dune are directed against the corrupt economic system represented by the Harkonnens and the Guild. Baron Harkonnen’s displays of wealth are contrasted with the Atreides’ unpretentious lifestyle, a counterpoint introduced when, soon after the family’s arrival, Leto stops a hand-washing custom in which the Harkonnen’s guests had habitually wasted water (152). The luxuries of the Harkonnen court on their home planet of Giedi Prime likewise come at the price of the quality of life of their subjects, whose city streets are lined with “rubbish heaps, and scabrous brown walls reflected in the dark puddles” (371). Whereas the Harkonnens live in constant fear of an uprising (371), the Guild, maintaining an equally oppressive monopoly on space travel, are blinded by their dependence on the spice required for navigation (514); they assist the Emperor Shaddam IV’s invasion of Arrakis in order to ensure their supply. For all his prescience and military prowess, it is taking control of this essential commodity that enables Paul to gain control of the Imperium, liberating his people from Harkonnen rule by learning how to destroy the substance that the Guild and the Harkonnens desperately want.                

Mike’s religious community in Stranger in a Strange Land is not free from amoral economic practices, exploiting the earnings of others to support the commune. In his state of innocence, Mike is used to satirize this same exploitative tendency in the Fosterite church, when he produces three consecutive jackpots on a church slot machine (369). While Mike is unmoved by his winnings, the reader is shown the extent of Boone’s “faith” when he remarks that “I’d hesitate to call this a miracle. Machine probably needs a repairman” (370). Although on the surface Mike’s own church appears to have abandoned the worldly trappings of the Fosterites, living simply and communally without even clothes to indicate status, Slusser notes that “in another curious contradiction, Mike’s group, we learn, is nothing less than an enterprising band of super-capitalists” (27). Mike guilt-trips his parishioners into donating at collection by inviting those in need to help themselves from the overflowing collection baskets left by the last crowd. This leads Harshaw to observe that Mike’s “pitch, properly given, should result in more people giving more.... it would be hard indeed to reach in and take out money when the people on each side of you are putting money in” (519; emphasis in original). The other sources of funding for the Church are equally dubious in practice. When Mike’s follower Sam provides actual examples of the commercial activities in which the Church is involved, explaining that “any of the disciplined can make any amount of money at anything—real estate, stocks, horse races, gambling” (605), it quickly becomes apparent that the “industries” that underpin the church are either not producing anything useful for society or are illegal. Ben’s observation that Mike’s “communist” society is “a fake ... bolstered up by Mike’s enormous fortune” (512) is only partially true; the church sustains itself financially, but not through “honest” work, and it requires the surpluses of a capitalist economy to function.

Old Values, New Communities. Rejecting material success in and of itself as the goal of “salvation,” all three novels draw on humanistic traditions, locating the meaning of life in positive human relationships. The worth of an individual is seen as inhering in the value s/he places on human life. Insofar as this basis for ethics is not concerned with the existence of any kind of God, it is a radically secular position consistent with the novels’ affirmation of human agency and responsibility and with their agnostic, tolerant embrace of religious pluralism. Yet there is also a conservative side in this emphasis on community, family, and friendship, and it is closely tied to the texts’ pessimistic view of human nature. Observing that experiments with alternative forms of religious community in the 1960s attracted much attention, Wuthnow suggests that in the minds of contemporary observers

freedom was understood as a desire not so much to discard all forms of religious organization as to move from organized religion to new religious communities. Freedom would thus at least be constrained by such leavening influences as the need to get along with each other and to get things done. (After Heaven 58-59)

Having little faith in the innate morality of most individuals, and repeatedly emphasizing the extent to which self-interest motivates people’s actions, the texts portray human love as a source of meaning and transcendence in life and as a moderating influence linked to ethical behavior.                

In Lord of Light, friendship is given a prominent role as the basis of an ethical system that overrides other creeds and allegiances. After discovering the death of Brahma, the “Goddess” Ratri fears that she will be killed to limit the number of people who know. Yet rather than reporting her to the other “Gods,” Kubera promises to protect her “because you are my friend” (244). Realizing the value of such relationships is central to Rild’s renunciation of Kali-worship and, later, the Buddhism that he learns from Sam. His final sacrifice is centered around an ethic apparently based on his sense of responsibility for Sam as his “only friend” (112). He violates Buddhist principles to teach Yama an important lesson about the value of human ties: “By opposing you now and in this manner, I also betray the teachings of my new master. But I must follow the dictates of my heart” (114-15). The privileged position of friendship as a basis for ethical decision making ultimately transcends the political system of alliances that otherwise governs major decisions in Lord of Light’s universe. This emphasis on friendship affirms the value of community and human life against a totalitarian class of Deicrats, who think nothing of killing to maintain their status.                

Friendship and family loyalties are also central in Dune. Valuing human life is established early in the novel as the basis for morality, when Kynes finds himself reassessing Leto in light of his actions at the spice field: “this Duke was concerned more over the men than he was over the spice”; against his own will he admits “I like this duke” (150; emphases in original). The association of these priorities with the Atreides continues with Gurney Halleck, who observes his men tending their wounded and reflects that “the Atreides training—‘We care for our own!’—it held like a core of native rock in them” (301). The breakdown of these relationships and values marks Paul’s decline, leading him to reject official marriage with Chani for a more politically advantageous match with Irulan, a relationship he approaches with the utmost callousness: “that princess shall have no more of me than my name. No child of mine nor touch nor softness of glance, nor instant of desire” (562). There is an important social component to this process, as Paul and his immediate family adopt the opinion that established standards of human behavior no longer apply to him. Irulan herself writes that “there is no measuring Muad’Dib’s motives by ordinary standards” and that being “less than a god, more than a man,” he “denied the conventions of his ducal past with a wave of the hand” (536). After watching Baron Harkonnen’s vicious nephew Feyd-Rautha poison a gladiator in a rigged contest, the Emperor’s friend Count Fenring goes so far as to suggest that Feyd-Rautha could have turned out to be a much better person if he had internalized the compassionate principles that Paul later rejects (391).       

Stranger in a Strange Land places an equally high value on positive human relationships. H. Bruce Franklin observes that “the underlying power of [the novel] ... is its quest for community” (137). This quest is reflected in the high value the text places on practices that bring people closer together, including the all-singing, all-dancing Fosterite service that Mike recognizes as “a growing-closer as real as water ceremony” (379). To Mike, the ecstatic dancing and not the sermon is the most important part; he groks “that the words were not of essence” (380). Although the bulk of Fosterite doctrine is rejected by Mike, its emphasis on the uninhibited expression of (hetero)sexuality is consistently portrayed in a positive light and becomes the central feature of his own Church of All Worlds. Mike sees in sexuality the essence of all that is good in humanity and a source of spiritual transcendence; he tells Jubal Harshaw that “the actual joining and blending of two physical bodies with simultaneous merging of souls in shared ecstasy of love ... it’s the source, I grok in fullness, of all that makes this planet so rich and wonderful” (632). Mike’s approach to sex is not without boundaries, and he emphasizes the importance of being in an emotionally intimate relationship, telling Jubal that “I had not the slightest wish to attempt this miracle with anyone I did not already love and trust” (633-34). Far from advocating the abolition of the family unit and limitless casual sex, Mike’s church provides a classic example of Wuthnow’s alternative religious organization, rearranging an existing social structure to include multiple adults and their children, who are bound by the commitments associated with traditional marriage.               

Stranger in a Strange Land’s combination of countercultural innovations and traditional values illustrates at a microcosmic level the positioning of a major current in American sf of the 1960s—in relation to its religious heritage and also its increasingly secular social milieu. Bringing together mainline Protestant and secular humanist values, Heinlein, Herbert, and Zelazny all adapt the figure of the messiah to fit within a non-theistic philosophical framework and provide an alternative value system for the modern world that does not rely on reference to a personal, omnipotent deity. For the most part, “salvation” is translated into success in the temporal world, in which hard work and an emphasis on family and friendship (rather than guidance from God) become the keys to combating flaws in human nature. This fundamentally alters the soteriological function of the messianic protagonist, which becomes restricted to a Promethean provision of knowledge and skills rather than revealing a path to salvation through faith. Human rather than divine figures, the messiahs of these novels are as fallible as their followers and serve as warnings against the dangers of fanaticism. Underlying this non-theistic world view, however, are values of distinctly religious origin, ranging from the Puritan understanding of work as inherently beneficial (and luxury as inherently suspect) to a liberal Protestant and countercultural affirmation of immanence and personal spirituality. Even at their most agnostic, these influential texts reflect the ecumenical mood of the 1960s, basing their pluralism on a respect for the benefits that religious practice can provide, despite their skepticism about its theological basis.

                1. For a discussion of this shift, see Aldiss and Wingrove (286).
                2. Diane Parkin-Speer, for example, has referred to Jubal Harshaw as “continuing in the role of Heinlein’s mouthpiece” when he is defending Mike’s attitudes towards group sex (215).
                3. The version of Stranger in a Strange Land cited in this essay is the uncut 1991 edition, based on Heinlein’s original typescript, which was shortened by approximately 60,000 words at the request of the publisher prior to its initial publication in 1961 (Stranger ix). Differences between the two versions of the text that are significant in the context of this discussion have been noted, with references to the 1961 text cited as (Stranger 1961).
                4. Sam in Lord of Light is also occasionally referred to by the names “Tathagatha,” “Siddhartha,” and “Kalkin.”
                5. Chapter and verse numbers refer to the King James Bible.
                6. See, for instance, Roof, Carroll, and Roozen (68-71).
                7. Jane Lindskold, for example, identifies Edward Conze’s anthology Buddhist Texts Through the Ages as one of Zelazny’s sources (27); it includes the following passage on the emptiness of the self:

“To what extent is the world called ‘empty,’ Lord?” “Because it is empty of self or of what belongs to self, it is therefore said: ‘The world is empty.’ And what is empty of self and what belongs to self? The eye, material shapes, visual consciousness, impression on the eye—all these are empty of self and of what belongs to self. So too are ear, nose, tongue, body and mind …: they are all empty of self and of what belongs to self.” (91)

                8. A 1968 Gallup poll found that although only 43% of American adults regularly attended church, 73% reported believing in life after death (see Fiske).
                9. The scene in which Mike loses his virginity to one of Jubal’s secretaries is the only other occasion in the novel where Heinlein goes to such lengths to avoid naming names. Otherwise, the narrator is a highly visible presence who regularly intrudes to comment on events and dialogue.
                10. Since the early days of Heinlein criticism, critics such as Alexei Panshin and George Slusser have argued that the reader is not intended to question the validity of Mike’s faith despite its disturbing consequences, suggesting respectively that “if you grant the story’s premises, the religion cannot be argued with” (Panshin 101) and that “Heinlein clearly wants no such trial [of Mike’s principles], the implication being that any such test would result in their defeat” (Slusser 26). This reading persists among recent commentators such as John Casey, who despite acknowledging that the ending of the novel “unambiguously exposes Heinlein’s sceptical and ironic response to his comedy of faith,” (508) argues that Heinlein “expects his reader to simply accept that Smith, selflessly sacrificing himself, is indeed a sort of saviour” (507). Slusser, Panshin, and Casey represent the majority of critics who address this subject. Although some critics such as Leon Stover have suggested that Heinlein does pointedly satirize Mike’s cult (56-57), they do so by assertion rather than through critical discussion of the text.
                11. Russell Blackford compares the two versions of this episode (74-75). The sex scene is omitted from the 1961 edition, in which Mike also expresses reservations about Ben’s readiness for the water ceremony and displays much better judgement (Stranger 1961, 330). Blackford observes that the 1991 edition, in which the sex is reinstated, makes much more sense, as it gives Caxton a plausible reason to be shocked.

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