Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Worship the Bomb

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Ever since that famous scene in Planet of the Apes with the temple dedicated to an unexploded nuclear missile, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of post-apocalyptic theology. The duality of simultaneously worshiping death and finding ways to validate the lives of those who continue to survive takes on a very literal dynamic in these stories and it allows for some unique and fascinating narrative possibilities. While numerous classic geek works from Tank Girl to Adventure Time examine this in one way or another, I have long been particularly fascinated by the Children of Atom from Fallout. Granted, with the amount of time I’ve spent playing Fallout games, I know more about their beliefs than I do many real-life religions, but something about the Children of Atom hits right at the issue of what our artistic musings about post-apocalyptic religion really say about us as a culture.

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Top: Warboys pray at the altar of V8 in Mad Max: Fury Road. Bottom: High Confessor Tektus leads the Children of Atom in praying to a nuclear submarine in Fallout 4.

While we don’t know what a post-apocalyptic religion would actually look like, we have real-life cults with apocalyptic visions that share some commonalities. We also have real-life mainstream religions that reference apocalyptic events. Large-scale death and destruction are a historical part of most major religions, in some cases as an allegorical component to the philosophy and in some cases as a literal part of the religion’s history, often both. Many of these stories are given apocalyptic qualities in their retelling. But “fictional anthropologies” of future religions are incredibly revealing and deeply fascinating. From the various “mini culture” city-states deifying gasoline and automobiles in the wastes of Mad Max’s Australia, to a monk guarding the knowledge of the past in Canticle for Leibowitz, to a tribe worshiping the power of the Ringworld engineers’ long abandoned buildings, there are some common themes among our favorite works in this sub-genre that are worth exploring. To me, the Church of Atom is an arguably perfect example of those themes, so I have chosen to focus mainly on them throughout this post.

There are very different views of the Church of Atom (COA) within the fictional world it inhabits. We get to see numerous factions with widely varying natures and there are some major inconsistencies between the Children in Fallout 3 and those in Fallout 4. In Fallout 3, the faction living in Megaton is basically a mainstream church. They worship the undetonated nuclear bomb after which the town is named and provide weekly services attended by numerous townspeople. In Fallout 4 they are violent lunatics who often attack on sight; later in Far Harbor we gain deeper insight into the group, but they are much darker that the Children in Megaton even then. But that is similar to real-life religions: churches, mosques, temples, and all other places of worship often have vastly different tones and messages from country to country, city to city, even street to street. But there are always some commonalities that connect them to the theological framework of the religion as a whole based on common teachings and shared beliefs.

In the case of the Church of Atom, that theological framework essentially revolves around the worship of atomic explosions and, by extension, radiation. In a world where humanity lives in the ruins 200+ years after an apocalyptic nuclear war, this group worships the power that caused that destruction (referred to as “The Great Division”) and views death in a nuclear explosion as the highest possible good. They believe that the sheer volume of energy released by hundreds of nearly simultaneous nuclear detonations during the Great War caused the god Atom to emerge and bathe the world in “his glow”—radiation. They pray to atomic weapons in many cases, worshiping their potential to create new divisions, and view radiation as a sacrament. They often revere “ghouls” (humans who have mutated and look like zombies but are immune to radiation), and in some factions humans will intentionally expose themselves to radiation in an attempt to mutate themselves. In some other factions, the random nature of how radiation’s effects can manifest in a population is seen as the will of Atom. While there is debate as to how to interpret this belief, all factions believe that the nuclear apocalypse was an act of mass creation; that billions of new universes were created, giving birth to a new god.

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This gets back to the “fictional anthropology” thing again. As our understanding of how the forces of nature actually work grew, humanity transitioned from a paganistic paradigm based off natural forces to a polytheistic one of increasing formality to a series of overlapping monotheistic religions. While there are certainly a wide variety of faiths on earth, over half the world’s population follows some variety of either Christianity (appx 31%) or Islam (appx 22%) and the next largest group is people not affiliated with any religion at 15%. We can track a strange parallel to that progression in our post-apocalyptic stories. When we “reset” civilization like that, we assume that we would revert to worshiping the most powerful forces we encountered: those connected to the apocalypse. To those in Furiosa’s Australia, that means cars and gas—these things led to the end and they keep people alive after it. To the Church of Atom, that means radiation and nuclear weapons—they are bound up in the destruction of the world and worshiped as a key to its salvation. Their members are largely people who have mutated over the generations so that they are immune to radiation poisoning. Like the worshipers of the Divine Bomb in the Planet of the Apes universe, the followers of Atom are mutants who are adapted to live in the world caused by the thing they worship. They are, quite literally, the “children” of Atom.

“So God created mankind in his own image; in his own image God created them.”
Genesis 1:27

There are numerous references to the fact that characters in the Fallout universe experience “old world blues”. They are acutely aware of exactly how much humanity has lost and have a sort of permanent melancholy which occasionally borders on traumatic shock. This feels realistic. I do not know what it actually feels like to live in a post-apocalyptic world (and I hope I never learn). The closest I can imagine is that particular type of cold paralysis one feels when unexpected horrible things happenplus, throw in the fact that essentially everything in day to day life would likely be a trigger for that sensation. “How can I care about existing in a world like this?!” not only feels like a very human reaction, but a primary question that religion arguably attempts to address in the first place. Atom’s answer to the question plays right into that reaction through the belief that those who died ascended to another phase of existence, leaving near-infinite quantities of new life in their wake. The Church of Atom believes that death in an atomic blast causes your body to be turned into billions of new universes in an act of mass creation, and they eagerly look forward to the next Great Division.

That’s a compelling message. It’s a message very similar to one that made thirty-nine people put on a pair of sneakers and drink lethal poison in a California mansion as a part of the Heaven’s Gate incident. In that case, the cult believed that an apocalypse was imminent and that only the faithful could escape through shedding their physical bodies.“You can escape the horror of daily life in a world like this if you die in service to…” is the message of both the real-life cult and the Children of Atom. The “blank yet blissful” mannerisms of several COA characters seem to be modeled on those exhibited by members of Heaven’s Gate and other cult groups. It also makes me think about the concept of the rapture from Christian scripture. While there is some debate within Christianity as to how literal this is meant to be taken and how much is based on a translation issue, the belief that some will physically ascend to heaven as some are “Left Behind” is not only popular in the modern zeitgeist but seems to be very similar to what one might expect to feel after surviving the apocalypse.

There is also the need to cope with surviving the death of billions of people and an effective end to civilization. That survivor’s guilt was so pervasive in the communities that made it through the dreadful events of the Great War that it coalesced as part of the background consciousness of the culture for centuries. Atom’s message that those deaths were an act of mass creation and that those people were martyrs who, in death, created uncountable billions of new worlds would seem quite appealing. It also bears a strong similarity to real-life cults and religious beliefs. Both the Manson Family and the members of the Peoples Temple who died in Jonestown started out as idealists trying to save the world. But over time at the hands of a charismatic madman they became death cults, “destroying the world to save it”. This is beginning to happen in the Fallout 4 add-on Far Harbor, where the Grand Zealot of the local chapter of the Church of Atom is moving his followers towards holy war and nuclear mass death.

In some ways, this also hints at the Hindu god Shiva’s role as both creator and destroyer and as part of the cycle of existence with destruction a necessity for future creation and vice versa. There are numerous interpretations of Shiva and the nature of this cycle, but the concept of a continual process of destruction and rebirth and the idea of Shiva emerging from the cosmic forces of that cycle are fairly universal. While the COA’s teachings are not specific, the idea that there is a god who is responsible for both creation and destruction is quite similar, as is the concept of that god being a manifestation of a formless extra-dimensional entity and/or the collective unconscious. The Children believe that in the moment when one is dissipated by a nuclear blast one becomes infinite, gives birth to new universes, and becomes a part of Atom himself.

“Verily, [Shiva] is the inner self of all beings.”
The Upanishads

“The Universe is the unfoldment of His power.”
Shiva Sutras 3:30

Aside from the darkness much of the COA seems to dwell in, there is a positive element to some of their beliefs. They provide a narrative and philosophical context to the circumstances of their environment. They view creation as the goal of life, albeit in an often woefully misguided form. They have saved people from death and from horrible circumstances. They have given hope to the downtrodden, they have treated “ghouls” as equals (or perhaps even betters) when nobody else would even look at them. In the case of the Megaton faction, they have become a pillar of the community and guaranteed its survival. This, however, hints at another similarity to real-life religions: the morality of the religion often comes down to the morality of those acting on its behalf.

As with almost any religion, there is more than one competing interpretation of those core beliefs. One of the main schisms we get to see in Fallout is that between confessor Martin and high confessor Tektus. Remember, this is all 200 years after the bombs fell. There’s been time for these beliefs to develop and evolve. The Church of Atom likely formed out of the various apocalypse cults coming together around a specific atomic bomb and eventually spread as an organized religion. One of the things that is a constant source of tension is how literal to take Atom’s teachings. The Church of Atom believes death in a nuclear explosion is the ultimate good and, well, they have access to a nuclear weapon. While they don’t have a way to set it off without player intervention, these two leaders of their church had a major schism over the issue of whether or not their faith requires them to attempt to detonate the atomic bomb they live on top of. The militant side won and initiated things like inquisitions, executions, and warmongering. In a matter of weeks the Church of Atom went from being a strange but harmless bunch of “religious kooks” to a dangerous cult armed with nuclear weapons.

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Ah, so it’s that kind of atomic doomsday cult then.

It’s impossible to discuss fictional doomsday cults and their connection to reality without at least touching on IS. IS is not a mainstream religion; they are an apocalyptic cult seeking the end of the world as we know it. Like the Aum Shynrikyo, they cannot be negotiated with, as their goal is to destroy almost everyone outside their group as a part of a divine plan. When those who desire power meet large numbers of people with nothing to lose, disaster happens. This was the case in Iraq and Syria. This is also the case with the Children of Atom. When Tektus, a power-hungry zealot, gains power, he is able to turn a quirky fringe religion into a doomsday cult, one with the ability to do massive damage to a lot of innocent people. That is neither meant to trivialize nor oversimplify the situation in Iraq and Syria, but the concepts IS represents are mirrored in this content, particularly given that its birth would have been dominating the news during the creation of that content.

So what are we saying with all those fictional bomb cults then? I think it’s obvious: we’re writing about what happens after the end of the world so we can try and prevent it from ending! We create these fictional religions based on the tools of our self-destruction as a way to better understand ourselves and the role of real-life religions in our lives. By going through the thought experiment of playing with a fictional post-apocalyptic faith, we can explore things vital to our real present-day existence. We face fears that scientific progress will outpace philosophical and spiritual progress, we may be facing imminent doom, our superficial reality doesn’t offer any solutions, and while some of the things we believe may help save us, some may actually be speeding our end. We are essentially expressing hope that we address these issues before the apocalypse does it for us and that we can make sure our religions help rather than hinder that effort.

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In the end, I am fascinated with the Church of Atom because it simultaneously holds up the proverbial mirror to the impact of religion on civilization and to the aspects of human nature, positive and negative, that draw us to religion in the first place. It shows us, again, that all a religion is, at the end of the day, is a group of people united by a philosophical, spiritual, and cultural code. We let those religions become forces for good or ill. Not only when we’re deciding which faction to help when playing Far Harbor, but in how we actually lead our daily lives.


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