“God is dead… And we have killed him”, writes Nietzsche. But Paul Atreides, Muad'Dib, lives. Frank Herbert’s Dune novels have made a blockbuster return with Denis Villeneuve’s latest film adaptation featuring Timothée Chalamet. And where Dune returns, Nietzsche returns with it, and in particular, Nietzsche’s critique of the power of religion, writes Kevin S. Decker.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is a space opera treasure trove, and its sequels show it to also be a Pandora’s Box of long games and latent surprises. Director Denis Villeneuve’s latest adaptation of the Duniverse, released in 2021, allows us to explore so many things—survival, honor, deep ecology, strategy, weird psychic and physical capabilities, psychology, gender, prophecy, religion. In particular, it showcases how cultures retain traces we recognize despite their mutation over millennia—the stories of the great houses of the Landsraad, the Emperors, and the God Emperor unfurl over a jaw-dropping sixteen thousand years’ span of time.
Even that far in the future, the human race’s survival depends on whether they take advantage of what the past has sedimented in human nature and consciousness—group memories, rituals, responsiveness to the environment. Herbert’s focus on humans as historical beings parallels certain traditions of Western philosophy since Georg W.F. Hegel. His idealism and its later offshoots—existential phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics and pragmatism (among others) spotlights our categories for thinking about the world not as timeless, a priori features of minds like ours, but instead as things that have histories that we ignore at our peril.
A religion, whatever else it might be, is both a thing with a history as well as a structure for thinking about the world’s beginning and ending and all the laws and values that suspend the universe between origin and its final acts. The histories and structures of world religions had been of interest in Europe since the first part of the nineteenth century, when Arthur Schopenhauer—a bitter rival of Hegel—incorporated ideas from newly translated Sanskrit Hindu sacred texts into his work and David Friedrich Strauss initiated the academic “historical Jesus” movement in his 1835 book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined—whose ideas, intriguingly, seemingly infuriated everyone, but none more so than followers of Hegel like Bruno Bauer and, surprisingly, a young philologist named Friedrich Nietzsche.
The constant specter in Nietzsche’s work that must be confronted is nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless if religious and moral principles are not absolutely true
From the very first of his writings, Nietzsche’s work on philosophy, music and tragedy in ancient Greece bent towards cultural criticism. His criticisms of The Life of Jesus center on the idea that Strauss does nothing more than offer new (Darwinian) reasons for supporting antiquated (Christian) beliefs, so he avoids the difficult work of creating new values for a new world. Similarly, Nietzsche’s first book The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, published in 1872, pipes the praises of tragedy as a coping mechanism in Greek culture before the leavening effect of Plato’s philosophy, while at the same time suggesting that a decadent and culturally exhausted Germany might create its own paths for tragic coping from cues in the music and drama of Richard Wagner. The constant specter in Nietzsche’s work that must be confronted is nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless if religious and moral principles are not absolutely true.
Similarly, the important “world historical” individuals in the Duniverse are those who fight—by hook or by crook—against nihilism in the form of the extinction of the human race. I believe that Nietzsche would have been tickled by the parallels between his own thinking and the decadent culture of the far future Imperium in Dune. Herbert’s world-building of the far future rests on a “Great Convention” that, at least on the face of it, is supposed to ensure stability between the interests of several great family Houses engaged in a cold war, an Emperor from the House of Corrino, and the Spacing Guild. All acknowledge that “He who controls the spice controls the universe,” since “spice melange,” a naturally produced awareness-enhancing narcotic that also forestalls aging, has formed the foundation of commerce and technological development in the “Duniverse” for millennia. It’s also crucial for travel and cultural development, vital for the “folding of space” that allows Spacing Guild Navigators to corner the market on interstellar travel. The catch is that spice only occurs in one place: the desert planet Arrakis, or “Dune.” It is the byproduct of the life cycle of Dune’s massive, destructive sandworms. And so he who controls Dune, controls the universe.
The six Dune novels authored by Herbert represent a possible future for today’s religions on Earth. They are also a study in “plans within plans within plans” over generations, and as it turns out, what makes possible the confrontation between the Corrino Imperium, House Atreides, and the dark and sinister House Harkonnen are two powerful religious forces. On the one hand, there’s the Orange Catholic Bible, created by the Guild to provide a common holy book to unite all human religions for greater political stability. On the other hand, the women’s religious order called the Bene Gesserit has, for millennia before the events of Dune, manipulated religious opinion throughout the empire to support political agendas, despite their own lack of religious faith. The ideological seeds planted by the Bene Gesserit’s galaxy-wide Missionaria Protectiva allow Paul Atreides, heir to the bounty of Arrakis, to bond with the native Fremen of that planet, interweaving his destiny with theirs. In Dune, there is a bitter irony about the role of religious authority, its absolute claims on belief and action, and its natural propensity to seek alliance with, and control over, politics: despite the lack of genuine faith among the powerful—primarily the Bene Gesserit—who channeled its power on Dune. Instead of being a force for social cohesion and a common morality that some Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and Voltaire claimed it could be, religious faith becomes a force for Fremen resistance against the Harkonnens and the Emperor; Paul’s leadership (under the moniker “Muad’Dib,” a Fremen name) that, instead of freeing enslaved and oppressed people everywhere, has surprising and tragic results.
In short, Paul hopes to fundamentally change the universe for the benefit of humans, but, by the end of Dune, he “saw how futile were any efforts of his to change even the smallest bit of it.” To engage with the dialectic of religion and its power over hearts and minds on its own terms is already to lose; Nietzsche must have felt the same way about the rationalizations of David Strauss in The Life of Jesus. That’s one reason why it’s wrong to read Nietzsche’s most (in)famous proclamation, “God is dead” as a philosophical or theological claim. It is, rather, an accusation of cultural decay that side-steps arguments about whether belief in God is “properly basic” or whether Christianity is best understood as “inclusive” or “exclusive” in order to reset the terms of the ongoing western argument about individuality, authority and values. It’s not an argument: it’s Nietzsche’s equivalent to the old George Carlin joke about Jesus choosing Athens airport as the site for his second coming and, as a result, being shot as a terrorist.
For Nietzsche, nineteenth-century bourgeois morality and its reliance on Judeo-Christian teaching was to be criticized for two reasons: its appeal is dishonest, its effect unhealthy (in the widest sense of that term, both physically and spiritually). It is dishonest because it masks its true source in the “will to power” that all living beings exert in order to survive and control behind appeals to God’s omnibenevolence, human reason and “natural law.” It is unhealthy because, as Nietzsche shows in On the Genealogy of Morals and The Gay Science, the only way to validate “right” and “wrong” naturalistically (contra David Strauss) is to tie them to the “life” and “individuality” that create values in the first place. In The Antichrist, he writes, “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.”
Nietzsche puts many of the ideas we’ve examined in the mouth of an eponymous prophet, a hermit who emerges into civilization after ten years in the wilderness to declare the need for the people to overcome the “human, all-too human” morality and religion of their decadent society
It’s appropriate, then, in concluding this look at Nietzsche and Dune to gesture toward the most interesting commonality between them: Nietzsche, in his philosophical prose poem Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, puts many of the ideas we’ve examined in the mouth of an eponymous prophet, a hermit who emerges into civilization after ten years in the wilderness to declare the need for the people to overcome the “human, all-too human” morality and religion of their decadent society. And Herbert’s second book, Dune Messiah, features a hermit called “the Preacher.” The Preacher returns to Arrakeen, capital of Arrakis, accusing his people, “You fool yourselves with images you cannot possibly understand. You cripple yourselves with these toads of ritual and ceremony!" We are left to decide whether Paul’s actions here are hypocrisy or redemption; he calls out the ignorance and idolatry of the citizens of Arrakis for having worshiped a man as a god and the foolishness of blind submission to a group of power-hungry, traitorous fools. The Preacher’s jeremiads, like Paul’s alliance with the Fremen, have unexpected results as the Duniverse is turned over to Paul’s descendants to rule.
In the here and now, institutional religion has done little to curb—and much to inflame—similarly grandiose ideas about survival amid forces of “replacement.” The tremendous reach of its beneficent hands should have, by now, made a much greater impact on poverty, illiteracy, child mortality, racism, ethnic cleansing, and regional wars than it has. Nietzsche was correct that we need a new moral basis for creating better lives—religion has had its chance—and if we don’t have the courage to abandon it, we risk the imperiled and uncertain future that Frank Herbert painted for us in Dune.