Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Superman, Christianity, & Syncretism… Maybe?

So we all known Superman is Jesus, right? I talked about that before, and while it’s downplayed in the comics, it’s so obviously and almost painfully written into some of the movies that you have to wonder if there are any non-Christian fans of Superman at this point. Even when Superman isn’t being practically written as Christ, he is always displayed as having extremely Christian values. I don’t have a problem with it; I mean, it makes a lot of sense. Superman was found and raised by two midwestern farmers. So yeah, Superman more than likely follows some form of Protestant Christianity. A lot of people argue that he’s Methodist, which I can see, but it’s also never really specified; he just comes off as generic Christian.

superman:jesusExcept when he’s proclaiming his faith to the god Rao, the lead god in a pantheon of others that Superman’s people, the Kryptonians, worshiped. So, what, is Superman a Christian? Did he convert to Raoism after learning it was the faith of his people? Did he combine the two? Well, let’s try to figure it out!

So the idea of Rao being a god only came much later on in Superman. Basically, some writers sat down and decided that Krypton would worship their sun Rao as their main god, presumably because they thought Superman saying “Great Rao” instead of “Great Krypton” would be less silly. When Superman first started to embrace Raoism, the ideas behind the religion weren’t really thought out yet. As a kid I remember watching the Justice League animated series and hearing Superman say something like “Great Rao” in the same way that Wonder Woman would say something like “Great Hera”. Superman was raised on Earth so if he just wanted to use a dramatic exclamation, he didn’t have to draw from his Kryptonian heritage to get one. We can only assume his use is deliberate. I assume Superman came to know about the Kryptonian faith through the technology left to him by his birth father, Jor-El. Inside the Fortress of Solitude (Superman’s home away from home in the arctic that was created by Kryptonian technology). Superman learns all kinds of things about where he is from, so it makes sense that he would also learn about any faith systems that the Kryptonians follow.

Raoism(Sidenote: Why, in things with alien or mythical races, do entire races all follow the same faith or philosophy? Our own race has a ton of religions and philosophies, but a whole alien species only has this one religion? Really? Anyway, that’s a post for another time.)

So was what Jor-El recorded enough to convert Superman away from his Christian faith? Well, no one, to my knowledge, ever explains how Superman feels about anything of this, but I have a couple different theories in mind:

One, Superman views Raoism as more of a cultural thing and less of a religious thing. There are a lot of people who practice their religion as a way to connect to their ancestors or even just their immediate families. Even if tomorrow I decided to become an atheist I would still probably participate in religious things with my family. Maybe I’d even say a prayer to honor my dead relatives, because even if I don’t believe, they did, so it’s kind of a way to pay respect. Superman is the last of his race (for the most part) so it’s only natural that he would want to connect with them on some level. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is filled with Kryptonian cultural artifacts; perhaps he embraced Raoism as a part of that culture. Maybe he only learns about it to show respect to Supergirl, one of his only surviving family members, who was much older when she left Krypton and probably is a believer of Raoism. It would make sense for Superman to embrace Raoism, at least to connect to his culture and even his current and past family members.

kryptoniansTwo, Superman is actually a convert to Raoism. Maybe the information Jor-El saved about Raoism was really spiritually moving for Superman. Maybe when Supergirl arrived, her beliefs swayed him. Or maybe Raoism was more of a philosophy than a religion, anyway, so Superman saw no real issue embracing it. In the TV show Smallville, Clark gets The Book of Rao and it describes how for the Kryptonians science is religion. And while Smallville does a really poor job at actually explaining Raoism, I do find the idea that for Krypton science and religion being one makes a lot of sense. Jor-El, Zod, and almost every other Kryptonian that we see before the planet is destroyed seem to be extremely scientifically minded. And yeah, science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive or incompatible; Albert Einstein was a follower of Judaism, and many of the world’s greatest scientists like Gregor Mendel and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck were priests/monks of the Catholic Church. Heck the father of the Big Bang theory was a Catholic priest named Georges Lemaître. So while there are Biblical literalists who deny certain scientific discoveries and while there are people of other faiths who reject science, for the most part, it seems many religions have found a way to embrace both. I think I could buy a kind of worship of science or worship of knowledge from the Kryptonians, because in the few times we learn anything about them there is rarely any mention of religion, while discussion of science seems common enough that even children can discuss certain scientific principles.

But I think the more interesting question is, if Raoism is actually a religion with a pantheon of gods as occasionally described in the comics; could Superman have converted to Raoism? Well yes, obviously, but I will say, as someone who is religious, it’s sometimes hard to leave behind the religion you were raised with. I have dabbled in the idea of there being multiple gods, but even when I hated Christianity, it was hard for me to shake the idea that I was doing something wrong if I worshiped more than one god. Even today I sometimes have doubts that some of my beliefs about my faith are wrong. That’s not to say it can’t be done, though, and if this is the case for Superman I would like to hear about it. I know Superman is a comic book character and so we have to keep the plot action-packed, but it would be nice to learn at least a little about his faith journey and how he moved from Christianity to Raoism. Heck, I would even like to know how his Earth parents took it or if he even told them.

SupermanThe third and final option is that Superman combined both Christianity and Raoism in some way. We talked about syncretism before, but it basically means combining or intertwining belief systems to work together. If Raoism is more philosophy than religion, then Superman can easily follow both. Just like there are philosophies compatible with various religions. But if Raoism is a religion, then how would Superman combine Raoist beliefs with Christianity? Well, honestly he could have done it quite easily. Right now there are people who consider themselves Christians Pagans or Christian Wiccans, and like with many things in Paganism/Wicca, each practitioner kind of follows their own path. Some simply use magical or pagan rituals to pray to the Abrahamic god, other worship the Trinity as three separate gods, and some combine pantheons of other gods with the Abrahamic god. So really all Superman would have to do is figure out what way of combining the two faiths would work best for him and would honor both faiths. Again, there might be some difficulty overcoming old beliefs, but that’s the same with every faith journey. It would be hard but it is certainly possible.

I think the real issue here is, like with many comic book characters, religion is kind of half-heartedly referenced, but no one either wants to take the time or knows enough to really explore it. Superman has also been something of a Christian icon for years so maybe people are afraid to really go there and argue that Superman isn’t Christian or at least isn’t Christian the way people originally thought. But I think it would add a lot to Superman as a character to at least discuss this faith journey. If Superman remained Christian, that’s fine, but at least tell me what he thought of Raoism and if he incorporates it culturally in any way. And what Raoism is actually like; is it more sciencey or more theistic? If Superman does practice Raoism or a combination of Raoism and Christianity it would at least be interesting to know how he got to that point. I’m not saying we need to turn Superman into some sort of dissertation on theology, but belief systems, religious or not, inform the readers about the character. It tells us something about who they are. Right now Superman’s belief system is kind of confused. He fluctuates from Uber Christian to kind of Raoist depending on who’s writing him. It would be great to have a little more clarity given to one of our most well-known heroes.


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4 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Superman, Christianity, & Syncretism… Maybe?

  1. Christians are actually the people most bothered by making a fictional character an allegory for Jesus. We tend to find it insulting to the uniqueness of Jesus. And in fact many of the Pop Cultures heroes seen as Christ like actually wind resembling the popular view of The Antichrist. Superman I absolutely put in that category.

  2. Er. While there is indeed quite a lot of Superman-as-Jesus stuff out there in various Superman adaptations (the whole ending of Superman Returns drips with it), the core religious analogy in the Superman mythos is *Moses*, not Jesus. Little baby’s life is in danger so his parents put him in an ark/boat/ship and send him off to save him from the destruction his people face, he gets adopted, grows up to become powerful/wise? It’s pretty obvious, and the core of the Superman origin story. And (imho), quite a lot closer to the core of Superman than any of the Jesus-imagery that sometimes gets added in addition to the Moses-imagery.

  3. While Superman is clearly a messianic figure, I don’t think it can be assumed that either Superman as a character is himself Christian or that the religious background of Superman as a piece of fiction is a specifically Christian one.

    It’s not a scholarly source, but I found this article on Superman’s likely Jewish roots to be interesting.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/16/superman-is-jewish-the-hebrew-roots-of-america-s-greatest-superhero.html

  4. I find it amusing how modern perception of the origin of Religion from Atheists pretty much assume all religion was Sun worship in origin. And that clearly influenced this whole decision to make Krypton’s religion about worshiping it’s Red Giant Sun.

    Of the Major Polytheistic religions of Antiquity only Egypt even remotely ever had Sun deities as the top deities. And even then that only really happened via their internal syncretism of identifying Amum with Ra at a latter point in their later development. Aknaten’s Aten based Henotheisim was a failed and rejected experiment. Ultimately Egypt at it’s most primitive just worshiped The Nile.

    Some Pantheons like the Sumerians even had the moon outranking the Sun. IN Greece every god was the favorite god of some city. In Rome the Sol Invictus clt became the official Imperial Cult very late, in the 3rd Century AD. In origin Rome considered it’s Patorn god to be Mars.

    But those are the Sophisticated religions, the Hypothosis remains that they started out as Sun worship. But no Pritive religions actually seem to Worship the Sun, they mostly focus on worshiping nature spirirts.

    Of course the Bible sometimes describes Jesus in terms symbolically linked to the sun ‘The Sun of Righteousness”/ But if Jesus was really meant to be a Sun god then Christmas and Easter would actually switch places on the Calendar. The Winter Solstice is when the sun seemingly dies and rises again.

    So basically I”m saying that I feel making Krypton’s religion just Sun worship was an incredibly lazy and boring decision. The usual stuffy image of Krypton has me thinking they’d favor a Platonic or Gnostic religious system.

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