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Volume 1120

 Religious Themes in the Novels of
 Edgar Rice Burroughs 

 by Robert B. Zeuschner, Ph.D.
 Associate Professor of Philosophy
 Pasadena City College

Religion, in one form or another, is a significant part of the lives of most human beings, and often we are curious about the religious beliefs of others who are important to us. Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of the most widely collected authors of the twentieth century, and his novels and literary creations are important to many contemporary readers. He has been universally accepted as ranking among the greatest of the pulp fiction writers, who wrote for pulp magazines between about 1910 to 1940. However, he has not been accorded the status of a great novelist. Most certainly Burroughs ranks among the greatest story tellers, but his stories do not rank with the greatest novels, and we can see one reason why this is so when we examine the treatment of religious issues in the writings of ERB. Those who read the many novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, including his science fiction classics set in Mars (Barsoom) and Venus and other places, and his jungle romances featuring Tarzan of the Apes, often see offhand remarks concerning religion scattered throughout his novels. Let me explore the implications of these various quotes.

The topic of religion was obviously something of concern to ERB, because it is both implicit and explicit in Burroughs’ works, sometimes with just a brief aside on one page, and sometimes with a fully worked out theology of a civilization. But we don’t find religious themes discussed the way many of the great novelists of the early 20th century did. One very good reason that Burroughs did not deal with religion had to do with the audience he was writing for. ERB was a pulp author, and the pulp magazines had no interest in publishing anything with philosophical or psychological depth. These magazines thrived on action. The pulp readers were primarily young men who wanted to read about adventure, not theology or Dostoyevsky. The pulps were simply not the appropriate forum to discuss religious issues. Although this is true, I doubt that ERB would have treated the topic differently even if he had sold his tales to the slicks (higher quality literary magazines) or directly to hardback publishers avoiding the constraints of pulp magazines.

I believe it is primarily in the Barsoom series and in the Tarzan series that ERB most explicitly toys with religious ideas (however, he wrote most often about these two realms so it shouldn’t be surprising).

Let me begin this discussion by trying to figure out in what sense we are applying the term “religion” to the fiction of ERB. We can start by noting that Edgar Rice Burroughs uses “religious” in a context in which formal group membership is not important. Consider Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, where we find "Tarzan of the Apes was not a church man; yet like the majority of those who have always lived close to nature he was, in a sense, intensely religious ..." (Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, p. 55).

In what sense was Tarzan “intensely religious”? Scholars have labored long and hard in the attempt to define the term “religion,” but most scholars are concerned with arriving at a definition which will accurately describe the whole range of activities called “religious” in the world. Although most Western people assume that all religions involve the existence of a God, this is simply false. It turns out that there are major world religions which have no belief in a god or gods, and so "belief in a divine being" won’t work as a necessary feature of religion. There are major world religions which explicitly deny (and argue against) the existence of a  human soul, and others which do not think there is any life after death. Obviously these factors are not definitive for the term "religion." Some religions put no value on belief, or faith. Some major world religions do not even have a moral code, so morality is not typical of all world religions.

Despite all of that, ERB was not a scholar of religions, and it is doubtful that he had any understanding of religions other than one or two forms of Protestantism and perhaps the Roman Catholic faith. We know that Burroughs' father expressed a strongly negative opinion about Roman Catholic authoritarianism and devotion, which he apparently interpreted as fanaticism, as quoted in the following:

"The major belonged to three military societies, the Masons, the American League and was lifelong Republican. . . .  In 1887 he was an official witness to the execution of the convicted Haymarket bombers who had been arrested after the Haymarket Square riots, a mass labor protest in May of 1886. In 1889 he was even excused from jury duty for his prejudice against Roman Catholicism after declaring "I have no prejudice against the individual, but I have against the religion. I do not believe in fanaticism anywhere."'
I do not think that it is going too far to suggest that ERB may have been influenced by his father’s attitude towards authoritarian religions in general, which we see in his novels set on Mars which have a strongly negative depiction of Barsoomian religion.

ERB’s knowledge of Christianity may have been far from exhaustive, but his knowledge of Eastern religions appears to have been almost non-existent. There are a few references in his novels which makes this clear. From the Moon Maid it is clear that he didn’t have a clue how reincarnation is supposed to work in Hinduism (no Hindu would have recognized the lives of the Julians as examples of their religious doctrine of transmigration of souls). In Jungle Girl it is clear that he has almost no understanding of Buddhism. However, this is not a criticism of Burroughs. He was a writer of pulp fiction, not a scholar of world religions. In fact, for the first decades of the twentieth century, virtually no one in this country had any knowledge of Asian religions because the scholars were only beginning to publish accurate studies and translations, and most of it was done in Europe and published in non-English languages (especially France, Russia, Germany and later in England).

What sort of definition of “religion” would account for ERB’s own view reflected in Tarzan and his intense religiosity? We can rule out some definitions right away. Some scholars attempt definitions of “religion” by stressing the external object of religion, such as "the belief in spiritual beings" or "the experience of the Holy" Erich Fromm writes that religion is "any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives to the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion". These don’t seem relevant to ERB’s religious view as it is found in Tarzan or John Carter. No hero in the writing of Burroughs have any sort of religious devotion towards any external supernatural being. Those characters who do have such devotion are usually depicted as superstitious and foolish.

There is more to most religions than just devotion to some external deity. Most contemporary scholars attempt to find definitions which can incorporate the external, the social and the internal element. For example, “Religion is the commitment of a person or a group to a way of life based on certain beliefs and attitudes, and conceived as most likely to guarantee the conservation of and increase of life's dearest values” (Lyons). Here’s another: “Religion is man's attempt to 'revitalize' problems and evils by interpreting them as part of some larger good, some conception of the absolute that puts the individual's problems into new perspective, thus to remove or reduce their crushing impact.” Even when we expand the definition of “religion” to include more than objects of external devotion, none of these seem to apply to the religious nature ERB’s Tarzan or John Carter. Nature does not affect Tarzan or John Carter with “crushing impact.”

A textbook says this: Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish  powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures). Although this may describe the great majority of world religions, it does not apply to ERB’s world view.

Some definitions of “religion” stress internal subjective experience, and these seem closer to the sense that ERB uses. Consider Paul Tillich who thought of religion as the ultimate meaning of human existence. Robert Olsen writes: “Religion is that aspect of a culture based upon the premise that what is capable of dealing with the ultimate problems (death, meaninglessness) of human existence lies beyond cognition or technological control.” These sorts of definitions seem to me to be closer to ERB’s use of the term, and closer to his understanding.

So based on that, I’ll use the word “religion” in the sense that I suspect ERB would have understood. Religion involves an internal subjective experience involving the idea that the ultimate problems of human life are beyond intellectual and technological control. But, it is more than this. For Burroughs, the term “religious” must stress the sense of awe and appreciation one feels when face to face with the raw impersonal power of Mother Nature in all of her untrammeled and even savage beauty. I think it would include the mountains of Arizona and Utah, the rivers and canyons which ERB explored on horseback in the 1890s, and even the Otz mountains in the setting sun of Barsoom, or the ochre dead sea bottoms illuminated by two moons overhead. There is a mysterious power in Nature (sometimes referred to as mana) and an emotional awareness of this seems to be what ERB describes as Tarzan’s religiosity.

It is clear to me that when he describes Tarzan as “intensely religious,” ERB does not mean typical Western religions. In the realm of Tarzan and John Carter, there is constant rejection of any religion which is an institution or an organization which tends to stress belief in a supreme being who rewards and punishes, a rejection of a being who intervenes in human lives, who performs miracles, who enjoys sacrifices, and who demands obedience, devotion and faith. In his novels, ERB criticizes religions where a supreme being judges human beings, a being who is thought to send some to a heavenly realm and others to a hellish realm. Burroughs valued a personal freedom, and he had no use for religious organizations or institutions which claim to have the authority to control important parts of your life (thereby echoing the sentiments of his father). So, religion in Burroughs implies an intense subjective feeling of awe and amazement at the wonder and power of Nature. That definition is where I’ll start. 

Clearly, one major religious theme in the writings of ERB concerns death. But, in this case, it is the absence of speculation on what comes after that is so religiously interesting. Consider a very basic religious theme: is there life after death? Is there anything about a human being which might survive the death of the physical body and the death of the brain? Is there anything about your consciousness or my consciousness which might survive when our brain dies? Are we a mixture of two fundamentally different things, physical bodies and non-physical minds, or are we basically just physical? Every one of Burroughs' heroes faces the immediate threat of death, and faces that often, but ERB never seems to probe this question of what happens after. Instead, he has the pulp-author’s need to rush to get to the action, and the metaphysical themes and religious questions are short-changed. The classic ERB hero does not fear death, and seems to have no firm feelings one way or the other regarding the possibility of a heaven or hell.

Another religious theme about which ERB was silent and which he could have developed was faith, and the loss of faith which results from living in a cruel world, or which results from the revelation of the falsity of one’s dearest deeply held religious beliefs. In ERB’s world, is faith in any power beyond the individual appropriate? I submit in ERB's realms, faith is irrelevant. It is replaced by self-confidence and courage. Faith and the loss of faith is a potentially profound theme. But what does ERB do with this profound theme? Nothing. I would argue that faith was simply unimportant in Burroughs’s own personal view, and this is reflected in the obvious absence of the concept in his novels. 

There is another religious theme omitted in the ERB canon: can religion (or art) help people to find meaning in their lives? I think one could argue that for Burroughs, the beauties of Nature, honor, loyalty, friendship and love gives meaning to one’s life. But not religion, or art.

The religious imagery is consistently richest in the Barsoom novels. The Gods of Mars is the locus classicus of most of the religious themes in ERB. The River Iss and the Valley Dor are metaphors which are difficult to overlook. The River is the image of life, and the Valley is the Garden of Eden. What does ERB do with these? In the novels of Burroughs, there is no escape from the river of life, and when one relies on religion to try to give ultimate meaning to life, one finds that the Garden of Eden is just the valley of the grave and a final death. There is no deity. The god or goddess is no goddess at all. The wicked goddess (and her villainous priests who think themselves godlike) keep all the other Barsoomians from using the water of Eden which would enrich their lives. The religion is a false religion. One wonders whether ERB could have recognized any religion as a “true religion” and what the characteristics of such a religion would be. 

The hero of these novels, John Carter, reveals the falsehoods taught by the priests, the Therns, and the First Born, but, as we all know, old religions die hard. It was a common view about a hundred years ago to assume that as science further explained human existence, religion in general and Christianity in particular would wither away as facts replaced myths and superstitions. Clearly, this has not happened. Old religions die hard. Burroughs notes that many places in Barsoom still hold onto their faith, but he does not explore the religious dimensions of this. Instead, they are simply treated as ignorant and as enemies to be overcome or freed from the bonds of organized religion.

There is another important dimension to the religiosity of Burroughs. Some of the most important themes of Christianity are simply irrelevant, or disregarded. Consider the Christian gospel which is one of the bedrocks of the church: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now consider the Tarzan novels or any of the other tales. ERB’s gospel is neither "the meek shall inherit the earth" nor "Love they neighbor as thyself" nor "turn the other cheek." The actions which give meaning to life (and in Gods of Mars, the actions which bring about resurrection after symbolic death at the end of the river) result not from faith or meekness, but from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a friend, sword in hand, fighting to the death. The gospel is courage and friendship. I am going to guess that ERB himself would have been a very good friend.

When it comes to religious symbolism, one stellar symbol is one of ERB’s two greatest heroes, John Carter (the symbolism in the initials “JC” has been noted by other writers). JC/John Carter is godlike in a very Christian sense. Carter has the life span of a god. Carter is godlike because he comes into the world of Barsoom from outside the world (he actually comes out of the heavens). JC incarnates into Barsoom. JC saves the world. In saving the world, JC dies in the process, giving up his life so all inhabitants of the planet can live (A Princess of Mars). In the cave in Arizona, he dies, and in so doing he is dying into a new life on Barsoom. There he destroys old religions and false beliefs. And he offers up his own life so that a world can survive. His life is sacrificed and not given up happily; he dies on Mars and is resurrected. But he does not gain a reward in heaven; after death his life is pain and incomprehensible grief; Carter feels that his god (Mars, the deity and the planet) has forsaken him. 

What religion did John Carter teach to the Barsoomians, and what religion does he establish? The simple answer is “none at all.” It might be argued that he replaces belief in Issus with a new recognition of the true religion which recognizes the inevitability of competition and violence, the scientific truth that only those who are most fit will survive to reproduce their kind. In this Barsoom, it is not faith in supernatural beings that gives meaning to life. It is friendship. It is not being meek or gentle. JC awakens gentle feelings of affection in Sola and even Woola, brings the recognition of friendship to the mighty Tars Tarkas, even Thuvia learns about true love from the love of JC. JC makes a friend of Xodar and then Talu. In a shallow reading, it just seems as if he is making friends. But, in the deeper meaning, he is teaching these people the deepest meaning of life which is friendship, loyalty, and love; these are the meaning of life, and the religious world-view of John Carter. 

I would conclude that this reflects the sense in which Tarzan is “intensely religious.” I would also suggest that this reflects the religious view of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a man who never attended church, who never instructed any of his children in any religion, who rejected church services as he was dying, and asked to be cremated and buried under a friendly tree. None of these reflect any interest in anything that most of us associate with “religion.” 

From his life and his novels, we know that he was opposed to organized religion, and shows no evidence of believing that any force would answer prayers, or provide a life after death. We also know that ERB himself thought that Darwin was correct and human beings had evolved from simpler life forms, and that we were all part of nature. Nowhere in his works does he indicate that he accepts any of the fundamental claims of Christianity, things like Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the incarnation, creeds like the divinity of Joshua (rendered into Greek as Jesus), the carpenter of Nazareth, or atonement, where the torture and death of Joshua/Jesus atones for the original sin of Adam and Eve. I feel confident in saying that Burroughs was not a Christian in the sense of accepting the doctrines of any of the many sects of Christianity.

The label from religious studies that I feel best fits ERB is deism; i.e., ERB is a deist. A deist is someone who believes that there is a supreme force behind an amazing universe, but a deist does NOT believe that the supreme being cares about us, rewards us, punishes us, answers prayers, or performs miracles. Where ERB might have got this from is difficult to say. Deism is ancient, and the term deism does describe Aristotle's view of religion, but it also describes the religious views of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Adams, and many others who signed the declaration of independence. ERB was well read in Greek mythology and European history; perhaps some Greek philosophy or the attitudes of European "freethinkers" towards religion might have rubbed off on him. It is entirely possible that he simply reasoned his way to the deist position on his own.

We can conclude by quoting the words of his son-in-law James Pierce, who married Joan Burroughs and knew ERB well from 1927 until Burroughs’ death in 1950. Concerning ERB’s attitude towards religion, James Pierce wrote:

"He had no religious affiliation, and none of the family ever attended church to my knowledge. . . . Mr. Burroughs was an agnostic, I believe, and unlike W. C. Fields, did not turn to the Bible toward the end of his life. ... He did not believe in funerals. He requested no services and cremation. His wishes were granted."

The article and its contents is © Robert B. Zeuschner, 2004. A shorter version of this article appeared as part of a series of articles in the journal ERBapa, issue 68, January, 2001.


About the author:
Robert B. Zeuschner
Bob Zeuschner has been reading and collecting Burroughs books since the early 1950s. He has a Ph.D. in comparative philosophy, specializing in Buddhist philosophy and ethics. At Pasadena City College, Pasadena, California, he teaches a wide range of courses in philosophy, including ethics, logic, and critical thinking. He also teaches courses in world religions. He has published translations from the Chinese and the Japanese, and spent time in Japan studying Zen garden design and Chinese Ch’an Buddhism. He is the author of a detailed bibliographic guide on Burroughs entitled Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Exhaustive Scholar’s and Collector’s Descriptive Bibliography (McFarland, 1996). Dr. Zeuschner is also the author of a college textbook on ethics entitled Classical Ethics East and West: Ethics From A Comparative Perspective (McGraw-Hill, 2000) which includes Dr. Zeuschner’s translations from the Chinese and the Japanese. Dr. Zeuschner has been playing acoustic guitar almost as long as he has been collecting Burroughs, and specializes in the acoustic blues styles of pre-World War II solo guitarists, especially Scrapper Blackwell. His guitar collection includes two National steel-bodied guitars, three Martin guitars (one from 1926), and several others. His home is also full of books and Japanese sumi-e scrolls. Original Burroughs inspired art by J. Allen St. John, Roy G. Krenkel, Thomas Yeates, and Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell fill the walls. Dr. Zeuschner is especially lucky because he has a very understanding wife named Lindy.

Volume 1120

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