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Cromulons and Headists: Finding Religion in ‘Rick and Morty’

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.

The Devil Exists, But God Doesn’t

Difficulties in the animated series arise when Rick is represented within an episode as a god himself. In “The Ricks Must be Crazy”, Rick and Morty travel into the microverse that Rick has created in order to power his car. The universe that he’s created is fully realised, and the smartest scientist on the universe’s equivalent of Earth has also created a microverse, and within that another scientist is creating his own.

Over the course of the episode, the drama is primarily an exploration of the usefulness of an all-powerful creator. One character, on learning that his creators are nothing holy or transcendent, merely scientists such as himself, reacts badly. Awareness results in him committing instant and fiery suicide, recognising what he considers the futility of his existence, torn between “…the optimism of scientific adventure and the pessimism brought on by the burden of knowledge gained from such endeavors.” (Nowak, G.T. 2015. p 60) Rick battles this binary dilemma by numbing the pessimism with drugs, sex, alcohol and distraction.

“And that guy made a universe. And that’s the universe where I was born. Where my father died. Where I couldn’t make time for his funeral because I was working on my universe.” — Kyle

Although the title of the episode takes its name from the comedy/melodrama The Gods Must Be Crazy (Dir. Jamie Uys, 1980), the events of the story bear as much if not more in common with the higher beings of Erich von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods (Bonnier AB, 1968) who guide the evolution of a species. Rick and Morty, and later Zeep, disguised as aliens, come to help the citizens of their respective creations. The show suggests dark reasoning behind this guidance however, in that both Rick and Zeep guide their civilizations for personal gain, rather than any benevolence one might take away from Daniken’s ideas.

Rick doesn’t have a belief in a creator, but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to use the concept of being a god in order to make his car run. He is a false god, with hints of Revelation 4:11 — “you created all things, and by your will they existed.” It’s here that the show raises the concept of what a god might be. Rick did not create all things, he did not create the base universe of his origin. To Zeep though, Rick created his entire universe. It “..implies, however, that there are true gods — or a true god — against which the false can be measured and that we are in a position to make that cosmic determination.” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 165) In a nice parallel to ancient mythology, Zeep Xanflorp in the microverse is the show’s Prometheus, stealing fire (or in this case, power), from the ‘gods’. His disdain for Rick only grows throughout the episode.

In exploring these issues, the show asks, “What allows a god to remain a god? And what happens when a god falls from grace?” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 31) In the case of “The Ricks Must Be Crazy”, the end result is entropy. Zeep is aware of the true nature of his universe, but has no choice but to continue living as a slave to Rick, along with every other living being on his planet. Zeep Xanflorp is not willing to destroy a Universe in revenge for being created.

It’s worth noting that “The Ricks Must Be Crazy” is one of the episodes where the Portal Gun is used by Morty to travel into a different universe. The Portal Gun is an important element of Rick and Morty. It’s the show’s equivalent of a Stargate, or the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, or Harry Potter’s Platform 9 and ¾s. It’s a literal gateway “from one cosmic region to another… But like these other passageways, the Stargate is not for everyone; it is reserved, as it were, for those who have been called or initiated into its mysteries.” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 177) In the case of Rick and Morty, initiation is through intelligence and science, calling for a more scientific outlook on life rather than a religious one. Cowan discusses the importance of the Stargate at length, and the Portal Gun serves exactly the same purpose: “…each time they step through the Stargate they continue the human quest for transcendence in two very particular ways: (a) exploring the boundaries that mark the transcendence of origins, and (b) affirming the importance we place on our sense of centrality in the quest for transcendence of those boundaries.” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 177)


Rick and Morty: Something Ricked This Way Comes

Some episodes deal with more traditional Judeo-Christian figures. In the episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes” we are introduced to The Devil. The Devil’s nom de plume is Mr. Needful and his character is obviously a parody of Stephen King’s antagonist in Needful Things (2016). As in King’s novel, The Devil in this episode opens a shop where the stock is free, but there are unintended consequences. The King version could be seen as an allegory for the negatives of greed, consumerism and excess and the Rick and Morty episode follows similar narrative paths. Obviously not as subtle as the novel, in the 30-minute episode we have a faster resolution and the antagonist’s evolution separates it from the work that it homages. Rick and Morty twists the character into depression and suicide before reinvention as a Steve Jobs-type character. This is interesting because Jobs is considered, some may say, almost Christ-like by Apple devotees, and because the parallels of the danger of consumerism and big business are the same. Omar Lizardo argues that modern representations of The Devil have evolved to portray the character less as a “coercive medieval monster” and instead more firmly linked to persuasion and greed, thus commenting on consumer society. (Lizardo, O., 2009)

So in the universe of Rick and Morty, The Devil exists. Yet Rick repeatedly insists that God doesn’t. This is not a rare occurrence in popular culture. Whilst evil is often represented, God is a conspicuous absence. This may have originally been due to the fact that in the Abrahamic religions it was considered forbidden to depict God. The reason God hasn’t yet appeared in Rick and Morty (if ever) is because there is no need to show any kind of balance between good and evil, because there is no balance. There is just the cold, uncaring universe.

This possible contradiction of the Devil’s existence and the non-existence of God can be explained easily by the laws of the show’s world-building, in that even though The Devil reveals that he lives in Hell, in this case Hell may not be an afterlife, but rather an alternate dimension (as there’s no shortage of those).

Of course, for all of his atheism, Rick still resorts to a final prayer before impending death in “A Rickle in Time”, and showrunner Harmon doesn’t deny that there might be a god. Discussing the character, Harmon reveals that Rick is “… all about science and is so smart that he wants to beat God at his own game… He’s playing checkers with God and he’s going to win.” (Zahed, R. and Zahed, R. 2013)

In “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” Rick builds an Artificial Intelligence and dooms it to life with a very empty meaning.

“What is my purpose?”

“You pass butter.”

“Oh my god.”

The Butter Robot is alive, and “Science fiction also envisions the creation of artificial intelligence as another form of life, similar to but divergent from human selfhood.” (Sullivan, B.M., 2014. p 498) In discussing the AI narrative, Cowan suggests that “…the hope of transcendence is all too often bound by the unseen consequences of our limitations.” (Cowan, DE. 2010. p 41) Limited transcendentally, the Butter Robot is eager to understand it’s purpose, only to feel the dejection and despair of it’s severely limited function: passing butter.

The religion of an Artificial Intelligence would be less interested in the notion of a creator, since it would be aware that it was created by humanity and not some invisible deity. While Hinduism, for example, seems to allow no room for the concept of the transcendence of an artificial being, as it wouldn’t be a man, it would lack a soul, Buddhism, on the other hand, is not so dismissive. The Dalai Lama has spoken of the possibility of a “stream of consciousness” entering a computer” but not of a “computer developing something we might consider equivalent to human consciousness.” (Sullivan, B.M., 2014. p504)

The belief in Transhumanism is that of improving the human body until we become ‘perfect’. It’s important that popular culture studies this concept, remarks on it, and slowly normalises it in the public eye. Debates over whether Transhumanism is a religion continue to this day, even within Transhumanist communities where “…a vociferous debate rages at every suggestion that transhumanism might be a religion.” The goal of Operation Phoenix in the episode “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” is prolonged life, perhaps even immortality. Rick transfers his consciousness into that of a younger clone, becoming Tiny Rick. The question then becomes, if humanity can create immortality, what need is there for faith in an afterlife? If “…science and technology will provide many of the desiderata of religion, such as provision of immortality and the resurrection of the dead” then what use is heaven or reincarnation? Operation Phoenix ultimately fails because Rick’s Self has been realigned and aspects of his personality have been excluded. With them restored, it’s back to nihilism and all that entails. (Geraci, R.M., 2011. p 142)

Rick becomes Tiny Rick primarily out of boredom, but at the end of the episode he reveals that he has a number of clones that are ready for him to transfer his consciousness to. Despite his craving for adventure and low tolerance for boredom, Rick still doesn’t want to die. “Of course, it is natural that people would seek cures to their ailments, including death, but to a considerable degree it is science fiction that pushes us to believe that technology can truly bring these ends about.” (Geraci, R.M., 2011. p 166) Rick might not have got the technology right for Phoenix, but you can be assured that he’ll continue to try. Geraci argues that the use of transhumanism concepts in popular culture will encourage the general public to become more “familiar with those concepts, and perhaps even adopt transhumanist religiosity in their own lives.” (Geraci, R.M., 2011. p 156)

This belief in the potential immortality of AI and cloning is adhered to with as much faith as any established religion, with followers believing absolutely that science will be capable of elevating humans into something closer to perfection. “With their distinctive ideas of repeated rebirth and understanding of consciousness, Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions are particularly conducive to the presentation of issues of identity and selfhood, and consideration of questions on human nature and the human condition.” (Sullivan, B.M., 2014. p 490) With concepts such as these broadcast to the general public, they “…promulgate faith in immortality, resurrection, and the creation of divine beings, and thus parallel Christian claims about salvation, though replacing superhuman divinities with superhuman machines.” (Geraci, R.M., 2011. p 143)

The final significant theme to be explored is that of Bostrom’s Simulation Theory (Bostrom, N. 2003), and the inherent issue with that and the nature of a creator. Is God us? Bostrom’s Simulation Theory poses the notion that mathematically, it is more likely that we are living in a simulated reality than not. The question of whether we are artificially intelligent background characters or higher beings experiencing a different life is essential in the current discourse of whether we have a Creator or not. Rick and Morty shows us an exploration of this in two ways.

Just Stop Needing to Be Happy

In “Mortynight Run”, Morty and Rick play a Virtual Reality arcade game called ‘Roy: A Life Well Lived’, in which the player lives an entire lifetime as an invented character. The player is unaware of their previous, real existence and is completely invested in the life of the character they’re playing. When the game is over, Morty is disoriented and confused, asking for his wife and having the sensation of his memories coming back. If we look at Roy as one of Bostrom’s simulations, then it’s not a leap to imagine that we ourselves are merely playing a game, and if so we ourselves, unknowingly, are like gods “…in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the post-humans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are ‘omnipotent’ in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are ‘omniscient’ in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” (Bostrom, N. 2003)

Then there is the episode “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”, in which aliens attempt to fool Rick into giving up the recipe for Dark Matter by trapping him in a growing number of realistic simulations. Roy, and the simulation that Rick has to escape from in “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”, is similar to the premise of The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) (which in itself is “…analogous to samsara, the illusory world that is not the reality it appears be” (Ford, 2002, 137). At the end of “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”, Rick drunkenly attacks Morty, angry that he can’t be 100 percent certain that he’s not still in an alien simulation.


Rick and Morty: M. Night Shaym-Aliens!

Rick and eventually Morty (and to a lesser extent Summer), are in various stages of acceptance as to what they see as the true nature of the universe, and the ultimate meaning of life. The show places much emphasis on insubordination, the futility of existence and the need for personal gratification as opposed to doing what society tells you will make you happy. “The best thing to do is to stop needing to be happy and to learn to take things as they come. Things are never entirely happy, nor are they entirely sad; they just are. According to Rick and Morty, we just have to deal with that.” (Evans, T., p.10)

Popular Culture reflects the morality of the culture that it represents. Shows like Rick and Morty use parody, comic absurdity, and nostalgia to reflect current thinking and often provide possible answers. This is important because entertainment as a pastime enables “…us to discern what our own views are, and to develop a self-understanding.” (Marsh, C. 2016. p 11)

Morty sums up the show’s philosophy in “Rixty Minutes”: ‘No-one is born on purpose. No-one belongs anywhere. Everybody dies.’ This statement heavily resembles a quote from French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” (Somers, P.P. 1969. pp. 693-700) Although this may sound bleak, it’s followed by showing what Morty has slowly discovered over the course of his adventures; family, friends, experiences and the occasional feeling of safety and belonging are what living is for.


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Karl Hughes is a journalist and has published with Cultjer and Sabotage Times. He’s writing his dissertation for an MA in Popular Culture.