Prophecies, ancient sisterhoods, a bible that’s orange for some reason. Religion in Dune can be a bit confusing. To help, Gizmodo parsed the main, spoiler-free stuff you need to know before Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation arrives this December.
Of course, the biggest question of all might be: What is religion in Dune? That depends on who you ask. For some, like the Fremen, it’s a way of life. But for the people in power, it’s a political tool. Many of the folks in the upper echelon of Dune’s world—like the Spacing Guild, which controls all interstellar travel–are agnostic. Even the Bene Gesserit doesn’t consider itself to be a religious group, but its members fuel belief in others to serve their own ends. That’s because Frank Herbert’s series was designed to examine the intersection of religion and politics, partially inspired by growing up in Catholicism.
Please keep in mind that this is an explanatory piece looking at the beliefs of the sci-fi novel and where they come from. There have been concerns raised about Dune’s cultural appropriation, possible anti-religious views, and the series’ incorrect usage of Arabic terminology. But they have been raised by people more knowledgeable than myself, and I’ve included some links for reference.
The Orange Catholic Bible
In Dune, there isn’t a central belief system—apart from God being a multi-gender Supreme Being—but there is an adherence to religious traditions. At the centre is the Orange Catholic Bible. This is the main religious text used throughout the universe, created thousands of years ago by mixing hundreds of belief systems into a single amalgamation.
It all started with a rage against the machines. About 10,000 years before the events of Dune (making it about 10,000 years after our present-day), people had become dependent on artificial intelligence, or the “god of machine-logic.” A massive, 200-year rebellion called the Butlerian Jihad led to a total rejection of AI technology, adopting the belief that “man may not be replaced.” Side note: This is why Mentats (a discipline created as a human substitute for computers) like Thufir Hawat exist, trained to be humanity’s closest thing to computational thinking.
Following the Butlerian Jihad, the Spacing Guild and Bene Gesserit (two groups growing in power and influence) convinced the leaders of all religions in the known universe to combine their efforts and create one text. It merged, re-interpreted, and otherwise used thousands of beliefs from the “Old Empire,” meaning the religions of our time like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and others. The Commission of Ecumenical Translators worked for seven years—risking violence and near-total anarchy—eventually releasing the Orange Catholic Bible, also known as the Koranjiyana Zenchristian Scriptures (and a few other names). It was a 1,800-page book that cobbled together bits and pieces from all known religions, which served a general theme of “never trust the machines again.”
As far as why it’s called the Orange Catholic Bible, there are a couple different explanations, none of which were confirmed by the author himself. Herbert’s son and Dune series author Brian Herbert has said it’s a combination of Catholicism and Protestantism (in reference to the Orange Order, an Irish Protestant and political society), representing the blending of multiple belief systems into one. The Dune Encyclopaedia claimed it started as a joke poking fun at the text’s own pompousness, and that it’s a play on words—because “Koranjiyana” sounds like “orange” when said really fast.
And yes, you can buy it.
The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood is a unique and mysterious order of women (modelled after Herbert’s Catholic aunts), who worked for thousands of years to further the evolution of humanity in their image. The group emerged in the wake of the Butlerian Jihad (although the order may be much older than that), positioning themselves alongside the Spacing Guild as one of the most powerful political forces in the known universe. They possess mental and physical abilities from a lifetime of training—including vocal influence, truth-sense, and the power to control every muscle and nerve in their bodies. The strongest among them can even access matrilineal memories dating back tens of thousands of years.
They are not a religious organisation, but they use religion to achieve their own ends. Much of their knowledge is contained in the Azhar Book, a manual that includes information on the most ancient beliefs and is said to predate the Orange Catholic Bible. But they are largely agnostic and see gods as a creation of man.
Here’s a passage about the Bene Gesserit, from House Harkonnen by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, that helps explain: “Religion is the emulation of the adult by the child. Religion is the encystment of past beliefs: mythology, which is guesswork, the hidden assumptions of trust in the universe, those pronouncements which men have made in search of personal power, all of it mingled with shreds of enlightenment. And always the ultimate unspoken commandment is ‘Thou shall not question!’ But we question.”
The sisterhood understood that superstition and faith were some of the best tools at their disposal to gain power throughout the universe and they had two ways of implementing it. There was the Missionara Protectiva, or the “black arm of superstition,” where members of the order would travel to developing worlds and plant seeds of superstition and prophecy, collectively called the Panoplia Propheticus, which could be exploited later when they’d grown into grander legends.
Then, there was the breeding program. For thousands of years, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood implemented a careful and strict breeding program, akin to eugenics. Bene Gesserit sisters were trained to control their own fertility, which meant they could choose when they got pregnant and even the gender of the child. Members were placed in noble houses as wives and concubines for the purpose of bearing the right children to continue the plan, which was to ultimately birth the first male Bene Gesserit. Not only would he have access to patrilineal memories, something they’d long lacked, but he would be a Messiah-like figure called the Kwisatz Haderach who would lead the universe and secure Bene Gesserit supremacy.
It’s unlikely the Bene Gesserit actually believed the Kwisatz Haderach was a Messiah, but it doesn’t matter even if they did. The point wasn’t that they wanted to create their own god, it’s that they wanted to create (and control) a god for everyone else.
If you want an example of the Bene Gesserit’s Missionara Protectiva in action, all you have to do is look at Arrakis. The Fremen religion is a mixture of Zensunni, an ancient belief system based on the Sunni denomination of Islam and Zen Buddhism, and the prophetic whispers of the sisterhood. Zensunni came from a group of travellers called the Wandering Zensunni, who ventured from planet to planet trying to escape persecution from raiders and slave traders. Over the centuries, the belief system adapted to the harsh desert environment of Arrakis by emphasising strength and survival over pacifism, incorporating melange into their diets, and adopting the great Sandworm of Arrakis (or Shai-Hulud) as a manifestation of God.
However, a good portion of their religion had been implanted by the Bene Gesserit sometime in the distant past. The Fremen believed in a great prophecy that an outsider called Lisan al Gaib (or Mahdi), a young man with the power of foresight who was descended from a Bene Gesserit, would arrive on Arrakis and lead them to freedom. This was actually one of the sisterhood’s most intense prophecies, used only on the harshest, most inhabitable worlds where a Bene Gesserit would need extra help asserting control over the region.
By the time House Atreides arrives on Arrakis, the Mahdi legend has taken on a life of its own—one that ultimately becomes tied to Paul Atreides. But that’s another, more spoiler-filled conversation for another time.
Dune arrives in theatres on December 26.