Bioshock & Religion: A Look At Extremism
The following article contains spoilers.
“No gods or kings, only man” – Andrew Ryan
This is probably one of the most quoted of Andrew Ryan’s thoughts, and rightly so. It encapsulates the essence of his line of thinking. He sought to create a society free from religion – among other things – and aptly named that place Rapture. This society would focus on the abilities of the individual, and they should reap what they sow. As anyone who visited Rapture will know, that did not go well. Seeing it from a religious (Christian) perspective, Rapture lost its morals as soon as it let go of religion. Without religion’s guidelines and messages of humility, modesty and compassion, Rapture was doomed to fail. Well, then the opposite should work: A city built on Christian values. As Bioshock Infinite showed us, that did not work out either.
“As the months and years turned to memories, so did the men of Congress turn to righteousness. And through the technology of men, the dollars of Washington, the Lord worked his will upon Columbia and raised her high above the Sodom below” – Zachary Comstock.
Despite Ryan and Comstock’s obvious differences in what role religion should play in their versions of Paradise, their motivations are roughly the same. They’re fed up with society and abandon it. They want to create worlds free of dissenting opinions, where they end up becoming idolized themselves – almost to divine stature. One key difference, though, is that Comstock at some point wishes to return to society, to “drown in flame the mountains of man.”
“It’s doubly ironic that a city that prides itself on its individualist ideals controls people’s faith and constructs a cult of personality around Ryan.”Rapture and its inhabitants have firmly atheist viewpoints. So firm, in fact, that religious people in Rapture are viewed with a great deal of suspicion, as for instance Christianity is officially banned. It’s a sort of reverse theocracy, where lack of belief has become brutally repressive. It’s doubly ironic that a city that prides itself on its individualist ideals controls people’s faith and constructs a cult of personality around Ryan. Even if he found the concept of faith ridiculous and ultimately damaging to the human spirit, as an Objectivist Ryan ought to let it pass him by.
Ryan’s laissez-faire attitude towards science and technology allows for the creation of ADAM and thus the splicer. Ryan believed the science on the surface world was bound by “petty morality.” Morality imposed, one could argue, from a Christian background. Now, I’m not arguing that Christianity is the only religion that shares the aforementioned morals, nor that all Christians are necessarily moral people – history has definitely taught us the opposite – but much of what we in the Western world have historically considered to be morally correct has sprung from religious texts. Without religion, the people of Rapture lose their guidance and are dominated by selfishness and greed.
“His devotion to science and technology as the saviors of mankind are also indicative of a techno-utopian worldview, i.e. technology is inherently good and more technology will bring about a utopia.”However, it can also be seen as a perversion of atheism. At its core, atheism simply covers the lack of belief. There’s not much else to it, really. Andrew Ryan, though, has had such negative experiences with religion that he bans it entirely. His devotion to science and technology as the saviors of mankind are also indicative of a techno-utopian worldview, i.e. technology is inherently good and more technology will bring about a utopia. And no questioning of these ideals are tolerated. In a way, atheism in Rapture has turned into a religion. As Ethan Lewis over at Den of Geek writes: “…free enterprise is almost like a religion within Rapture. It is considered nearly a holiness that shall not be blasphemed. Those who do not truly believe are considered parasites, and are referenced as such throughout the game.”
Moving on to Columbia, it’s clear within the first ten minutes that religion is an important theme. After your initial ascent, you enter a cathedral filled with water, and an angelic choir sings in the background. Moments later, you find yourself reluctantly baptized and are free to enter the superficial paradise that is Columbia.
Immediately, you notice posters and statues of Comstock. You see and hear his works recited as you navigate the streets. You also quickly notice how this isn’t an inclusive form of Christianity, as it’s built on American exceptionalism and racism. Comstock’s Christianity is a fundamentalist one, where he has cherry-picked the parts that fit into his world view. The people of Columbia – well, most of them – follow Comstock blindly, because he’s a charismatic man with a simple, strong vision. It’s a sad reminder of how people can abandon their critical thinking when a great orator speaks. Like Jeremiah Fink, manufacturer of the vigors, remarks on a voxophone: “The truth is, I don’t have a lot of time for all that prophecy nonsense. I tell you, belief is…is just a commodity. Old Comstock, well, he does produce.” The people have a craving for meaning, belonging, and Comstock provides just that.
Comstock’s religious ideals and his vision for Columbia comes from a vision he had, as the archangel Columbia showed him a city in the sky in a vision. On a voxophone, he says “Why do you show this to me, archangel? I’m not a strong man. I’m not a righteous man. I am not a holy man.” And she told me the most remarkable thing: “You’re right, Prophet. But if grace is within the grasp of one such as you, how can anyone else not see it in themselves?” The archangel never existed, as Comstock saw Columbia via the Luteces’ device, but this quote demonstrates Comstock’s delusion. He has to sell the idea to the people.
It’s also remarkable how both Ryan’s and Comstock’s vision culminate in a similar manner. In Rapture, the working class start a revolt led by Frank Fontaine – in the guise of “Atlas”, a working class hero – which leads to the fall of the city. In Columbia, Daisy Fitzroy leads the Vox Populi against Comstock and his ilk’s oppression. It’s as if these “paradises” will always be superficial. Once you start poking around the cities, you discover that they’re far from utopias for all, and that inevitably has consequences. At the same time, none of these revolutionary movements are particularly “good”. “Atlas” merely uses the working class and the Splicers as tools in his own power struggle with Andrew Ryan, and Fitzroy and her compatriots are particularly vicious, as they torture and execute soldiers as well as civilians. It simply continues a circle of violence.
“The racist tendencies which Booker showed when he was involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre are allowed to grow in Comstock’s mind, and it turns him into making Columbia into a racist cesspit.”Although it initially may have been a bit confusing, making Comstock and Booker the same person was also a sound move, as we are shown how the act of baptism can completely change a man. Booker, who denies baptism, lives with his guilt although he tries to wash it away with alcohol instead. Comstock, who accepts it, believes himself absolved of his sins because he had a bit of water splashed on him. The racist tendencies which Booker showed when he was involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre are allowed to grow in Comstock’s mind, and it turns him into making Columbia into a racist cesspit. In effect, it shows that religion is not enough to redeem your actions. You need to fully understand that what you did was wrong, and then actively try to fix it – even if it may be impossible.
“There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city” – Elizabeth
When comparing Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite – casually ignoring Bioshock 2 – it seems clear that they show two sides of the same coin. They show the destruction that could happen when you take things to the extreme, ignoring all opposing opinions. They show how dangerous it can be when a single person’s thoughts are worshipped, taken in uncritically. And through the lens of religion, they show us that – in the end – it doesn’t really matter whether you believe in gods or not. Belief and disbelief can both be abused if its adherents don’t think for themselves.