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Cromulons and Headists: Finding Religion in 'Rick and Morty'

Karl Hughes
(All images IMDB)

Rick and Morty can't resist the tug of religion in its dark and expletive-filled sci-fi universe.

It would be easy to dismiss the cartoon Rick and Morty as having nothing of significance to say about religion. In the first episode, the titular character Rick Sanchez expresses the sentiment that "There is no God, Summer. You gotta rip that band-aid off now, you'll thank me later." Yet despite this dismissal, the show manages to address a number of arguments regarding God, Satan, nihilism and the pursuit of happiness, and offers possible answers to some of these issues.

Rick and Morty was created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland. Originally a loose satire of the Marty McFly and Doc Brown characters of Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future (1985), the show has evolved as it tells the story of Rick Sanchez, a genius alcoholic grandfather. It’s repeatedly mentioned that he’s the smartest man in the universe, offset by the fact that his vast knowledge means he is “...diseased, he's mentally ill, he's an absolute lunatic because he lives on this larger scale." (Schwartz, T. 2013). Aware of the meaningless of existence, he drowns himself in hedonism, using sex, drugs and adventure as a constant distraction.

After being an absent father for the majority of his life, Rick now lives with the daughter he abandoned, Beth. Beth has grown into an insecure and unhappily married mother of two, made worse by the fact that her ambitious career plans were halted after an unplanned pregnancy following Prom Night sex with her now husband, Jerry Smith. Their children, Summer and Morty, are both teenagers going through the difficult social maze of puberty and high school. Morty regularly accompanies his Grandfather on various adventures each episode. Using these five characters and an extensive supporting cast, the show uses recognisable imagery and storytelling styles to discuss a wide range of socio-political issues.

Science fiction has a long history of reflecting current trends in social opinions of religion but is often overlooked, as “a genre that generally avoids admitting to the centrality of religion in the literature. And when we do see religion in science fiction it is, predictably, viewed negatively…” (Busto, RV. 2014) Rick and Morty doesn’t do this however, which is a surprise considering the motives of the protagonists. Instead, it uses science fiction as a storytelling template that is able to address current social questions, and religion is no exception. “Science fiction queries the existence of god, questions the nature of the soul, theorizes about theories of religion, and pokes holes in the notion of a shared reality.” (Busto, RV. 2014, p. 401)

Showrunner Dan Harmon uses a writing structure based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. However, using a two-act framework in the way that Harmon does means that the linear nature of Campbell’s structure is broken, and highlights a key element of Rick and Morty and its approach to the management of its own mythmaking. Using two narrative paths, each episode “...contrasts the chaos of Rick and Morty’s universe against the damage that it inflicts on the individuals within it, deriving emotional pathos from rampant surrealism.” (Evans, T. p10). Using the recognisable clichés of science fiction narratives, Rick and Morty serves as part of a larger experiment in storytelling, becoming part of the vast swathe of modern monomyths to serve as “sociocultural engines of meaning, providing heroes, villains and quests that we consider worthy of emulation.” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 21)

Rick and Morty is able to do this by incorporating questions regarding religious practise in a familiar yet incredibly dark and expletive-filled universe. By utilising tropes of a variety of aliens, as well as human responses to them, the show also serves to reflect the current growth of atheism and enthusiasm for the potential for science, rather than religion, to lead us into the future. To Rick, science is the religion, and it is important above all things, including love. Harmon sums up the basic premise of the show when he says that “Science rules supreme, marriages are on the rocks, and things get so chaotic that it does boil down to the petty, emotional issues of humanity. And the moral is that we’re all pretty insignificant.” (AdWeek. 2017). Rick and Morty works in that it is able to communicate “....something about religion, in part because of the juxtaposition of science and religion, and in part because science fiction frees the author to imagine new patterns and new contexts for religion.” (Sullivan, B.M., 2014. p 439)

Rick and Morty is set in a fairly standard and recognisable world. It’s important that we recognise this world and there is a down-to-earth quality about much of the storytelling. In this, Rick and Morty is neither too different from our reality, nor is it too similar. This is helpful because “too removed and the SF text loses purchase, or becomes merely escapist; too close and it might as well be a conventional novel...” (Roberts, A. 2006. p16). In other words, when it comes to critically assessing any work of science fiction, “the fantastic perspective needs to be melded with the mundane in order to function effectively.” (Roberts, A. 2006. p 21) Rick and Morty accomplishes this with the narrative structure that Harmon and Roiland utilise, with one arc taking place in science fiction territory, alongside a more grounded arc.

The surreal and often chaotic feel of Rick and Morty is of a significant benefit to the writers and viewers. It means that the sacred and profane have no obligation to be separated. For example, in the episode "Rixty Business", Summer finds out that her parents considered abortion and that if they had gone through with it, their lives would have been much improved. This mundane narrative touches on the transcendental when later in the episode, Morty is able to point to the grave in the garden that contains his own corpse. The coming together of the banal and the surreal offers a way for Summer, and the viewer, to realise the futility and fleeting nature of existence, whilst being framed in an almost everyday story of wasted ambition. (Religion Dispatches. 2016)

Rick and Morty: Get Schwifty

At the start of the episode "Get Schwifty", a Cthulhu-like universal being appears on Earth. Its arrival causes environmental devastation, chaos and death. The primary narrative arc follows Rick and Morty as they try to save Earth from the giant heads, that Rick identifies as the alien race ‘Cromulons’. However, the second narrative strand concentrates on the everyman reaction to the appearance of the Cromulons: some of the humans misinterpret the Head as a god. This second arc then tackles the concept of a cult in much the same way that other animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy have done, and is similar to portrayals we have already seen in mass media representations of “New religious movements (NRMs) (often pejoratively labelled “cults”) have long been feared and persecuted before becoming part of America’s accepted religions -- if they ever find such tolerance.”(Feltmate, D., 2012.)

Yet it also represents them in a slightly different manner than Family Guy and The Simpsons, seeming to indicate that cults, and religions, serve a function when faced with the terrors of the unknown. The cult of Headism, which sees itself more as a growing religion than a cult, uses many of the standard methods of the mass media in depicting NRMs. The silly hats and the invented customs are intended as a mockery, but not so much of NRMs than of established religions. Yet the intended consequence is the same, in that “Fictional cults frequently take widely held perspectives of actual religious movements and render them either more absurd or more frightening.” (Laycock, J. 2012. p 81)

The problem portrayed in the show is that the Headists assume the nature of the Cromulons as gods. Despite the fact that the Cromulons are unaware of the Headists, the religious group assumes reasons for events based on their own interpretation, because they are unaware of the full facts. The immediate confusion regarding causality and correlation is an established human conceit, especially when it comes to articles of faith, in that “primitive religion enables human beings to draw connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena.” (Geraci, R. 2006)

It has become an amusing standard in fiction that an invading alien force would most likely be greeted with a willingness to serve by many. For example, “I for one welcome our insect overlords” has become an internet meme (The Simpsons: Deep Space Homer). We initially see this acquiescence with Principal Vagina (the Principal of the school Morty and Summer attend), after the townspeople seek sanctuary in the local church. He proclaims that “The old gods are dead, fuck all previous existing religions, all hail the one true god, the giant head in the sky.” As the religion grows, they create an entire scripture, “Heavenly heads and cranial creator, forgive my transgressions against family and community. May my chores complete me as I complete them” that echoes the basis of Judeo-Christian religious scripture, forgiveness and meaning.

Beth attempts to point out the difference between causation and correlation, but she's dismissed by Jerry as an “evangelical atheist” when she expresses concern about the wisdom of staying in town with the Headists. She too is swayed by the benefits of the cult when she sees the effect that the religion has on her daughter, Summer. Headism quickly becomes a “Sociospera -- culturally constructed and socially reinforced conceptions of transcendent hope.” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 22)

Laycock believes that “...animated sitcoms depict cults as peculiar groups that prey exclusively on the foolish, gullible, and lonely.” (Laycock, J., 2012. p 92), and staying true to this definition, the person most affected by their role within the Headists is Summer. Portrayed throughout the series as a teenager with low self-esteem and the need for constant validation through her peers, Summer is the result of an unplanned pregnancy and is going through the tense minefield of the education system. This reflects the common perception of NRMs that their members are eager to fill a void, to find friendship, meaning and validation from peers. This establishes Summer in the same relative social subculture as Meg from Family Guy in the episode "Chitty Chitty Death Bang" where she too is influenced by an NRM: “Uncertain of the future, with career and life goals neither clearly seen nor firmly established, cults provided a packaged personality, and the illusion of security in a comfortable, orderly structure and safe non-threatening, non-competitive, predictable, repeated routine.” (Laycock, J., 2012. p 95)

Not all of the tropes of NRM representation in science fiction and animation are present in "Get Schwifty". There is no brainwashing, the ‘outside world’ is not portrayed as evil or something to be feared, and there are no examples of controlling personal freedoms. Perhaps the difference is that the Headist’s believe that the Heads are gods, whereas the Movementarians of The Simpsons episode "The Joy of Sects" are based more purely on the basic public perception of the cult paradigm. (Laycock, J. 2012. p 93) The Headists have had their religious questions answered in that the being they worship is within view and “literally controls the fucking weather.”

We do, however, see extreme authoritarianism and discipline; even though Beth and Jerry are clearly not invested in the cult, they appreciate the positive effect that it has on their daughter, so are willing to overlook/ignore inspired punishments. The Headists establish trials similar to those of witch hunts, although their means of execution has more in common with Buddhism than Catholicism. They tie thieves and other transgressors to balloons and send them up to the Cromulons, believing that they will return to Earth as newborns. The symbolism is stark, the victims are being ascended to the heavens, where their sins are forgiven and they may return anew.

Rick Sanchez is noticeably an atheist, yet this episode shows a slightly different relationship between the show’s creators and religion. Faith itself is shown in a very positive light. The Headists are shown repeatedly to be incorrect in their assessment of events, and are shown as foolish because of this incomprehension. Yet the society and mini-civilisation that they form is clearly shown as efficient and a vital tool that prevents despair and social chaos in the face of Armageddon. In this portrayal of an NRM, Headists are able to carry on living productive lives because of their misguided faith, rather than despite it. This raises interesting questions about the origins of religion, and the importance that can placed upon religion as a social necessity in times of ignorance and confusion.

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