To Forsake God or Be Forsaken
Man is a religious creature by nature, as evident throughout history. But at some point, man has asked: wouldn’t we be better off without it? Religion has always had a role in society and whether that role is good or bad has become a heated topic of debate. One side argues that human kind needs a ‘god’, to pacify fears, to inspire hope, to explain the unexplainable. However, the opposing side says that religion is the root of discord and unhappiness in the world. But what happens when you take religion out of history entirely? What happens when you are denied the ability to practice religion or even believe in a supernatural power? What happens when the government manipulates individuals’ beliefs? Two dystopian novels by the titles of Brave New World and The Wanting Seed, explore the outcomes of these what-ifs and demonstrate the role of religion in society.
The first novel we will look at is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In this particular work of fiction, Huxley envisions the year 2540, an advanced time where man is no longer conceived and born naturally, but rather artificially. And while still infants, people are conditioned to fit into classes and trained for a singular, predetermined job. The World State, or government, essentially controls every element of an individual’s life. What a person comes to believe as the truth, any element of faith or conviction, is also conditioned and controlled. For example, the World State, went so far as to replace the word ‘god’ with ‘Ford’, in reference to Henry Ford, to completely erase ‘god’ and the concept of ‘god’ from the minds of its citizens. The reason being for this totalitarian type of regulation is mainly because the World State believes man doesn’t need religion.
The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well-off; they’re safe; they’re near ill, they are not afraid of death. They’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, no children or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. (226)
This implies that the citizens of the World State have no need for religion because they are completely content, and religion is only needed when people are suffering or unhappy. And yet, even this content society has a need to partake in rituals liken to a religious ceremony, called Solidarity Services. Huxley makes several references to Christian practices that can be seen especially in these services. Participants make the ‘sign of the T’ (sign of the Cross), pass a cup of soma (a popular drug) around for all to drink, and sing hymns: “Feel how the Greater Being comes! Rejoice and, in rejoicings, die! Melt in the music of the drums! For I am you and you are I” (82). The end of the service results in an orgy. In this passing of the cup, can be seen two references. One is a reference to Communion. In a Catholic or Anglican Mass, congregation members who choose to partake in Communion all drink from a chalice (a cup) the Blood of Christ in a means to be ‘One’ with the Body of Christ. This also could be what the orgy is also alluding to when becoming ‘one’ with each other, in a mockery of sorts. Another reference that can be interpreted in the passing of the cup is an initiation ritual. In most groups, religions, and cults, those who join must commit an act all the other members have committed or are committing.
All these examples demonstrate the need for humans to be united in a community of sorts. And the oldest bonds formed, outside of blood, are in religion; for a religious group is a community tied together by a strong, common belief (Why Religion Matters). Villages, cities, kingdoms were therefore often made up of people of the same religion in medieval times. So Huxley, in an ironic sense, has the World State contradict itself by supplementing their own religious behavior.
This controlled way of life enforced by the World State is not so prevalent, however, that it reaches all parts of the world. There is, in contrast, the poor and more primitive civilizations outside the city limits. In the story, there is a place in Nevada called the Savage Reservation. Here, polytheism is practiced; meshing together religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Totemism. Considered to be wild and barbaric, these people are much worse off in terms of technology and everyday life. Yet, they find security in their beliefs and rituals, despite its brutal nature. For instance, take the savage, John. He is very passionate about his personal and culture’s beliefs. One cannot help but feel moved at the passion John displays compared to the conditioned and robotic response of the London inhabitants. In response to Mustapha Mond, one of the World State Controllers, who says convenience is all that matters, John declares:
But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin […] I’m claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid, the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind. (246, 247)
What John is so adamantly insisting, really, is the right to be human. And it is in human nature to search for a greater being or purpose and when found, to share it with others. Of course, those beliefs may be incorrect, foolish, or all of the above, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong or good or bad. No government should have the means to take that away. Certainly, A Brave New World demonstrates that a world with religion is better off than a world completely lacking it.
Now The Wanting Seed takes a different approach when it comes to the inclusion and segregation of religious practice. In this novel, the dystopian society goes through three phases: the Pelphase, the Interphase, and the Gusphase. These phases are transitions in politics and government control. During the Pelphase, Pelagianism is practiced. There are few rules and laws and the government is liberal. Everyone believes that humanity is intrinsically good, therefore, there is no need to regulate deviancy because people can do no real harm. This relaxed way of life then slowly, by and by, becomes more unstable. This is when society transitions into the Interphase, a time of riots, corruption, and police enforcement. The government then takes the reins and brings the chaos to a sharp halt by becoming more controlling. This is the transition into the Gusphase, of Augustinianism, a more conservative and religious view point. During this period, humanity is believed to be intrinsically evil, and therefore, is vigorously regulated and controlled; the complete opposite of the Pelphase.
In regards to religion, The Wanting Seed copies Brave New World in its replacing ‘god’ with another word. However, instead of ‘Ford’ it’s ‘Dog’. This word, uttered like a curse, refers to Mr. Livedog, a comic book character responsible for all that’s bad in the world. One of the main characters, Tristram, explains it here: “We are both God and the Devil, though not at the same time. Only Mr. Livedog can be that, and Mr. Livedog, of course, is a mere fictional symbol” (Burgess, 12). This peculiar name, if rearranged, spells out ‘Evil god’. Indeed, if Mr. Livedog is both god and the devil than it would make him an evil god. However, the people of the Pelphase don’t believe in any god, good or evil. Priests and the like are unfrocked and thrown into prison, so as to keep all that religious nonsense to themselves, and away from society. Thus, citizens can simply go about happy in their total freedom, where it’s privileged to be homosexual and the death of a child is the stuff of trivial gossip, not tragedy. But as the book progresses, society take a distinct 180 turn and transition into the Gusphase, where religion is turned to like a lifesaver being grabbed by a drowning man.
Now, before the Gusphase, the Interphase had people starving because there was a food shortage. People had turned their stomachs to their fellow man. Cannibalism became commonplace. And as a result, the supposed overwhelming population began to shrink. In an attempt to stop this from happening, the government set all the priests free so as to offer an anchor to people mad from hunger. But is it really an earnest return to religion? Not according to Father Shackel,
Oh, don’t think the State’s at all concerned with glory of God […] The State’s scared of forces it doesn’t understand, that’s all. The leaders of the State are suffering from an accession of superstitious fear, that’s what it is. They’ve done no good with their police, so now it’s the priests they call on. There aren’t any churches now, so we have to go up and down our allotted areas, feeding them all God instead of the law. Oh, it’s all very clever. I suppose sublimation is the big word: don’t eat your neighbor, eat God instead. (140, 141)
What Father Shackel is referring to when he talks about feeding them God is Communion. Catholics and Anglicans believe that God is truly present in bread in wine after Consecration, that they are literally consuming His (Jesus’s) Flesh and Blood. It’s as if Burgess is saying, ‘why sacrifice your companion when God already sacrificed His Son for your sake?’ Either way, religion is now something people are turning to. But while it appears to be Catholicism or Anglicanism they are turning to, it is in actuality, a mix of Christian religions. Calvinism, Presbyterianism, and possibly others, are all thrown together and jumbled about, each person taking what they want from each (100). It doesn’t even have to be monotheistic, just as long as there is a greater power to believe in, just as long as there is something providing comfort is these days of tribulations.
However, not everyone turns to god in their misery. For quite some time, Tristram has maintained his liberal beliefs. Therefore he clashes with his brother-in-law Shonny, who is a religious man. Though Shonny, towards the end of the book, has his faith shaken when his children are eaten. The dialogue between the two men provide an interesting perspective on a negative aspect of religion.
I tried telling myself that God knew why it had happened, that there was a divine reason for everything. I even came to mass this morning, ready to be like Job and to praise the Lord in the transport of my miseries. And then I saw. I saw it in the priest’s fat face; I heard it in his fat voice. A false God has taken possession of them all. (203)
Shonny is expressing his doubt and dissatisfaction with the church he sought condolence from. Many people today also are not satisfied by religious services and find them fake and overly superstitious. They would rather believe in only themselves and what can be proven with science than turn to a god. This is Tristram’s stance in response to Shonny:
It’s people like you who’ve made the kind of world you say you no longer believe in. We were all safe enough in that old liberal society (Pelphase) […] Once you kill the liberal society you create a vacuum for God to rush into, and then you unleash murder and fornication and cannibalism. (204)
Tristram is basically asserting that it’s pointless to search for God, that God and religion are, in fact, the very source of madness plaguing them all. However, how can religion, in of itself, be the source? How does religion replace freedom? After all, the act of worshiping is an act of free will. But if what Burgess is trying to say through Tristram, is that when you take away freedom, humanity will turn to God, then he is not mistaken. Man will turn to religion, but it is human kind’s natural inclination to violence and disagreement that spawn the evil in the world, not his inclination to turn to God. The real blame for the horror occurring in Tristram’s and Shonny’s world is the government. “Perhaps because we’ve a government that believes having the illusion of free will” (242). The government used propaganda and sleight of hand to make people believe they possess total freedom or security. In actuality, society is being manipulated, just like in Brave New World. Thus, while religion may have its faults and failings, it is not, in itself, a negative factor in society, but rather, a positive one.
So what has looking at these future dystopias taught us about the role of religion now and in the future? To begin with, Brave New World demonstrates that the absence of religion stifles humans’ ability to think critically and have deep relationships. All people seek is instant gratification, so if they are given pleasure continuously, they will not question their existence, or suffer, or wonder what lies beyond death. John, however, coming from a religious community demonstrates the influence of religion on social development and how they produce virtues such as passion, chastity, and loyalty. He also, though, had a misguided conscience and violent tendencies possibly developed from the influence of his community’s religious practices and beliefs. He is similar to Shonny, in the sense, that they were both religious men and had their beliefs shaken by the cruel reality in which they lived in. While in The Wanting Seed, religion is embraced by society at a point, the people of Brave New World never encounter it outside of John, the Savage Reservation, and Solidarity Services. On the other hand, the people of The Wanting Seed are not only informed about religion, but are also fully capable of practicing it.
In conclusion, religion is very important to humanity. The Wanting Seed demonstrates that religion plays a role in stabilizing society. Brave New World demonstrates that religion plays are role in emotional and intellectual development. Religion, in the broadest sense, has a natural and positive effect on the community, as has been proven in studies:
The overall impact of religious practice is illustrated dramatically in the three most comprehensive systematic reviews of the field. Some 81 percent of the studies showed the positive benefit of religious practice, 15 percent showed neutral effects, and only 4 percent showed harm. Each of these systematic reviews indicated more than 80 percent benefit, and none indicated more than 10 percent harm. Even this 10 percent may be explained by more recent social science insights into “healthy religious practice” and “unhealthy religious practice.” (Why Religion Matters)
Religion, of course, can be corrupt and have negative effects, if practiced beyond the bounds of moderation. But the pros of religious inclusion outweigh the cons. The world in general is much better off with religion than without it. We should tread carefully, so as to not entrust our entire livelihood to the government, who could take it away. Today, religious freedom is precious to many people. Precious enough to have wars fought over and the like. But if we take away religion, for sake of avoiding dispute, we take away morality and other basic human rights.
In so doing, the opponents of religious freedom, properly understood, explicitly reject the foundational liberal value of tolerance. They are wrong. […] Freedom of religion falls when we refuse to allow people to align their lives, their families, and their businesses with the dictates of their faith. And if freedom of religion falls, so do all of our other rights. (The Decline)
Therefore, let us guard, and not overlook, the value of religion and the right to practice it. After all, Huxley’s and Burgess’s predictions, satirical and over exaggerated as they may be, could very well come true, in regards to the absence of religion, in the not so distant future.