Author Frank Herbert was raised Catholic, and his experiences with the religion found their way into 'Dune.'
The latest sci-fi action movie Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 book of the same name. When watching the movie, much of the original spirit of the novel shines through, which was originally influenced by the Catholic faith.
Herbert was raised Catholic, though his experience wasn’t very positive and is one of the reasons he abandoned his faith later in life.
Jesuits and religious nuns
According to a biography written by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, Lady Jessica and the “Bene Gessarit” group of women were directly influenced by Jesuits and his Catholic aunts who raised him in the Catholic religion.
His Irish Catholic maternal aunts, who attempted to force religion on him, became the models for the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood of Dune. It is no accident that the pronunciations of ‘Gesserit’ and ‘Jesuit’ are similar, as he envisioned his maternal aunts and the Bene Gesserit of Dune as female Jesuits. The attempted brainwashing by his aunts, as he later termed it, was performed over the protestations of F. H. [Frank Patrick Herbert, Sr.], who was an agnostic.
Besides his Catholic aunts, Herbert was taught by Jesuits, and their skill at argumentation was another influence, though he sought to reject everything he had received. He notes this in a biography written by Tim O’Reilly.
I was a rebel against Jesuit positivism. I can win an argument in the Jesuit fashion, but I think it’s flying under false colors. If you control the givens, you can win any argument.
Connected to his experience with Catholicism is how the leaders of the Bene Gessarit group of women are called “Reverend Mother,” a direct nod to superiors of women’s religious orders.
The Messiah and his Mother
Paul Atreides is often referred to as a “messiah” figure, and it is no surprise that his mother, Lady Jessica, is a direct reference to the Blessed Mother, who was the mother of the messiah, Jesus Christ.
The desert planet of Arrakis only heightens these associations, as it recalls the time of Jesus and Mary in the desert, especially the “Flight into Egypt.”
In many ways Paul is both a Moses and Jesus figure, destined to lead the Fremen out of their “bondage” in the desert, into freedom. This is why they are called “Fremen,” for they long to be “free-men.”
Critique of Catholicism
Yet, while Herbert was influenced by Catholicism, it is clear that his experience was negative. He felt that religion was forced down his throat, and his world of Dune was one of the ways he dealt with his childhood. Instead of finding consolation in the Catholic Church, he felt oppressed, and it is no surprise that many of the Catholic symbols in Dune are eventually turned upside down.
Herbert would eventually convert to Zen Buddhism, and his characters end up adopting a spirituality that is more in line with Buddhism than Catholicism.
It’s a reminder that the Catholic Church poorly presented can turn people away from God. Evangelization is meant to attract people to the beauty of Catholicism, not create more wounds. Still, even in its imperfection, Dune is able to create an entertaining sci-fi adventure that has glimmers of truth hidden within it.