A huge series of novels set within the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the “Horus Heresy” tells the story of a massive rebellion against the Imperium of Man started by a man who was once the darling son of the Empire, Horus. Here, I want to discuss the way that the first two novels discuss religion and, in particular, the notion of “false gods” while setting it alongside false gods we face in our world today.
The Gods of Humanity
One of the background ideas in the Horus Heresy series is first introduced in the novel Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. This is the notion that the Emperor of Mankind has waged a lengthy Crusade to unite humanity, and that one of the primary aspects of this Crusade was the destruction of all religions. This theme is expanded greatly in False Gods by Graham McNeill, the second book in the series. Here, we find utter contempt from several of the main characters for those who carry along in different religious traditions. In this fictional world, it is unclear whether Christianity or any other major world religion ever existed, though a few analogues exist here and there. The main characters who express this disdain for religion, though, are also those who are pushing forward their own religionless agenda of one rule and a totalitarian state.
The False Gods of Statism and Totalitarianism
It is there–in the agenda of the totalitarian state combined with a kind of cult of statism that we find the true “false gods” in the novel False Gods. Yes, that’s a confusing sentence, but let’s parse it some. For Horus and those who follow him, the notion of the state itself has become a kind of idealized deity. There are even some who are working in this fictional world to deify the Emperor, and readers of the other fiction will know how that turns out. Horus and his ilk have worked for an ideal society, and it is one they don’t know how to stop fighting for. By making their god into the state, they ritualize violence and sanctify war. Their fall from grace, as it begins in this book, is surprising in some ways, but almost inevitable in others, due, again, to the way that violence in the name of the state has become an end for itself.
We live in times in which statist violence is still sanctified. Whether it is dropping bombs on civilians in the name of our protection or the revision of history to make our own nation state the side that is in the “right” no matter what, the protection of the state leads to the worship of violence and the lifting up of war as an end rather than as a means (as one might argue for in Just War theory). I’ll be very interested to see if these themes continue to develop in the Horus Heresy, which can almost, so far, be seen as a critique of the worldview of the “good guys” in this fictional universe.
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