Frank Herbert’s Dune: The Power of Religion

In his 1965 science-fiction novel Dune, Frank Herbert addresses many social and political issues of the time.  Most importantly, the intersection of religion and politics.  Religion plays a very large part in the novel, influencing almost all aspects of life in the universe, from the political system to the social culture of the Fremen on Arrakis.  It is exploited by the powerful in order to gain control over civilizations.  Additionally, religion begins to corrupt Paul Atreides, the protagonist of Dune, and change his motives as the prophet of the Fremen.  Collectively, they form the entire basis of the Fremen culture on Arrakis, which is completely grounded in religious influence.

Dune takes place thousands of years from now on one of many human colonized worlds, the desert planet Arrakis, a planet which is abundant in a universally sought after spice called melange.  These worlds are ruled by the Great Houses, which includes the House of Atreides, of which the protagonist Paul Atreides is apart of, and their rivals the House of Harkonnen.  The story revolves around Paul and his mother, a Bene Gesserit woman (women trained with special powers) named Lady Jessica.  They are humans from the planet Caladan who move to Arrakis to meet up with Paul’s father Duke Leto, the ruler of Arrakis.  In doing so, the Fremen, natives of Arrakis, believe that Jessica and Paul are fulfillers of a prophecy that claims a Bene Gesserit woman will arrive on Arrakis with a son, who will lead them to terraform the Arrakis’ desert environment into a lush, green world.

After arriving on Arrakis, Duke Leto is betrayed by Dr. Yueh, a House of Atreides member.  Yueh replaces one of the Duke’s teeth with a poison capsule and delivers him to Baron Harkonnen, the Duke’s enemy.  Meanwhile, most of the Atreides are wiped out by Sardaukar, Harkonnen controlled soldiers, but Paul and Jessica escape.  Hawat and Halleck, two other members of Atreides, also escape.  Duke Leto kills himself with the poison tooth, but Baron Harkonnen survives the attempt and escapes. Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens and agrees to work for them.  Paul and Jessica are captured by the Fremen at the order to Kynes, a Fremen leader.  Paul becomes idolized as a prophet by the Fremen, and is named Maud’Dib.  Paul discovers his abilities to see into the future and back in time.  These abilities exceed those of his mother, despite her being a Bene Gesserit.  Years later,  Paul has become a spiritual leader of the Fremen, and his mother the new Reverend Mother.  The Fremen discover that Rabban, the Baron’s nephew assigned to Arrakis, has stopped receiving assistance from the Baron, so they plan to invade and take control of the Arakeen capital.  In order to stop the Fremen, Emperor Shaddam IV personally comes to Arrakis with an army of Sardaukar and Harkonnen.  However, this army is quickly defeated by the Fremen.  Baron Harkonnen is killed by Alia, Paul’s younger sister who was born on Arrakis, but Paul’s youngest son Leto dies during the battle.  Hawat is injured in the battle and dies in Paul’s arms.  Paul decides that the best way to remove Emperor Shaddam IV from power is to marry his daughter, Princess Irulan.  In protest, Feyd-Rautha, the baron’s nephew, challenges Paul to a duel.  Paul kills him, which makes the Emperor agree to Paul’s demands, thus making Paul the new Emperor of the universe.

Religion is used as a tool for the leaders to keep control of the general population and heighten their apparent divine status.  The Spacing Guild, an interstellar monopoly on space travel, abuses religion as a means to keep their control over the universe’s transportation systems.  As Herbert explains in the second appendix:

The agnostic ruling class (including the Guild) 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. (Herbert, 812)

It is evident that, to the rich and powerful, religion is a scapegoat.  It’s a deceiving method with which to obtain power.  The Bene Gesserit, a renowned order for women, privately uses religious tactics to achieve their status.

The Bene Gesserit, a very prestigious self-proclaimed secular order, hypocritically uses religious practices in their teachings, which in turn gave Bene Gesserit members a prophet-like status among the Fremen.  Lady Jessica, for example, fulfills a prophecy that she and Paul are the saviors of the Fremen.  Hawat says to Duke Leto “Yes, my Lord. They’ve a legend here, a prophecy, that a leader will come to them, child of a Bene Gesserit, to lead them to true freedom. It follows the familiar messiah pattern” (Herbert, 163).  Herbert explains that “The Bene Gesserit, who privately denied they were a religious order, but who operated behind an almost impenetrable screen of ritual mysticism, and whose training, whose symbolism, organization, and internal teaching methods were almost wholly religious” (Herbert, 811).  Near the end of the novel, Jessica is promoted to Reverend Mother of the Fremen.  In order to do so, she must drink a poisoned liquid, a liquid which she makes safe by using her powers.  She effectively cheats to pass the test, elevating her rank in the Fremen society, and simultaneously gains more respect from the Fremen.  After the ceremony, Jessica says to herself, “Let the people drink of it and have their awareness of each other heightened for a while. The drug is safe now… now that a Reverend Mother has changed it” (Herbert, 580), acknowledging her newfound position in the Fremen society.  By becoming the Reverend Mother, Jessica also inherits the memories of the previous Reverend Mothers, which in turn provides Jessica with knowledge that will grant her even more power over the Fremen.

The influence of religion is not exclusive to the Fremen natives and also begins to corrupt Paul once he develops his sixth sense to see into the future and back in time.  He slowly becomes more and more absorbed in his newfound ability.  The more immersed he becomes, the more he begins to see his new powers as divine origin and how the Fremen prophecy must be true.  As Gurney Halleck says to the Lady Jessica, “‘Why is he doing this? Does he think to get himself killed and achieve martyrdom? This Fremen religious prattle, is that what clouds his reason?’” (Herbert, 781).  Paul becomes arrogant and selfish after obtaining his powers, going so far as the completely refuse assistance from his mother, whom he has looked up to.  He says to her “‘I want no special advantage for this one,’” followed by, “‘Step back out of my way’” (Herbert, 781).  While some of his confidence is certainly true, a good portion comes from his arrogance as a result of his figurehead status among the Fremen.  Jessica claims that “[she] found no covetousness in these faces. They were held at a distance by the religious ferment around Paul’s leadership” (Herbert, 690).  Paul’s status with the Fremen has granted Paul a great power, and he knows it.  It obvious that Paul takes advantage of this power to control the Fremen society, eventually using his influence on the Fremen to overthrow Emperor Shaddam IV from power and claim the throne for himself.

The structure of Fremen society is heavily built upon religion, which is both a major strength and a major weakness of the Fremen culture.  As Kynes’ father explains to him, in Fremen society,

‘Religion and law among our masses must be one and the same[.]  An act of disobedience must be a sin and require religious penalties. This will have the dual benefit of bringing both greater obedience and greater bravery. We must depend not so much on the bravery of individuals, you see, as upon the bravery of a whole population’ (Herbert, 444).

To the Fremen, religion is the foundation with which their entire culture has been built on.  To commit a crime against religion is to commit a crime against the Fremen people.  The Bene Gesserit exploited this, launching the Missionaria Protectiva, a program designed to reaffirm religious beliefs in cultures so the Bene Gesserit could take advantage of them.  As Lady Jessica says to herself, “So our Missionaria Protectiva even planted religious safety valves all through this hell hole. Ah, well… it’ll help, and that’s what it was meant to do” (Herbert, 459).  The strength of the Fremen society is also its weakness.  Religion unites the people, but it also provides an outlet for exploitation, as can be seen with Missionaria Protectiva.

Religion is the strongest part of Fremen society, but also its greatest weakness.  It is exploited by power organizations such as the Space Guild and the Bene Gesserit.  Most importantly, religious beliefs of the Fremen have the power to influence non-Fremen, such as Paul Atreides and Lady Jessica.  With this knowledge, the Fremen are susceptible to outside influences, and really never make choices for themselves.  They believe themselves to be an independent civilization, yet they are controlled by outside forces they are oblivious to.  Until the Fremen break free from their bonds to religion, they will forever be puppets to a greater power, even if that power is one of their own.

Works Cited

1.  Herbert, Frank (2003-08-26). Dune. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.


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