The Curious Case of Religion in Fullmetal Alchemist

Roy Mustang as an amigurumi has absolutely no relation to religion… or does it?

Kidding aside, Fullmetal Alchemist (in this case, glancing at the anime) is very interesting when looked at from a religious standpoint – and, no, I don’t mean as a piece of potential propaganda (although I would find it curious if it were to be used as such). Fullmetal Alchemist ostensibly carries an anti-religious message, although, as I’ve demonstrated before, it can also be viewed as having a good deal of religious symbolism, specifically Christian symbolism. However, I believe we can agree upon the fact that there is an undercurrent of anti-religiousness.

And yet… I counter that, despite containing elements which clearly reject the notion of organized religion, Fullmetal Alchemist in a sense reinforces the power structures of religion, albeit in a form not generally recognized as being religious in nature.

Before I get into it, let me briefly touch on a question which is truly very central to my entire argument – what is religion? What, indeed – this is a question which has been debated for ages, and will continue to be, because of the very fact that, ultimately, there is no one true answer, regardless of how hard some will argue in favor of a particular stand-point (you’ll find this especially amongst religious fundamentalists, as they feel that their method of worship/devotion is the only religion – everything else is merely a ‘cult’). However, I can give examples of what constitutes religion and use these examples to illustrate a sort of guidelines by which one can utilize, even if a definite definition continues to elude us.

I would say that the best way to explain what comprises ‘religion’ is to state that a religion is a set of beliefs by which one lives, and which often, but not always, contains supernatural elements. Thus, systems such as Islam or Zoroastrianism are religions, as are Confucianism and Taoism. But, wait a minute, aren’t Confucianism and Taoism philosophies? While both do contain philosophies, they are actually best categorized as religions – the only reason a Western audience perceives of them as otherwise is due to orientalism’s pervasiveness in our relation to the East – that is, that the Orientalists only considered as religions those which they saw as being similar to Christianity, by containing a sacred text, a concrete notion of afterlife, and a divine figure, among other things. This model also excluded Buddhism, which also gets wrongly categorized as a philosophy despite the fact that it is actually a religion.

Also necessary to my argument is a basic understanding of the concept of civil religion. There are a few different interpretations of this idea, but the one which I will be using here is that of nationalism as a religious feeling and thing of devotion. For example, consider American civil religion, the system in which people hold up America as an idealized being and display total devotion to it in the form of blind patriotism. Here, the founders exist as mythical, canonized beings of sorts, the Constitution as a sacred text.

And so we return to Fullmetal Alchemist.

Fullmetal Alchemist displays an anti-religious bent in its very opening act, in the town of Liore, with its fraudulent priest and obliviously devoted followers. The priest is shown to be a wicked man, manipulating the townspeople for his own ends, but the townspeople are depicted no better, for they are portrayed as ignorant and close-minded. Ed’s statement of lacking faith himself, in anything truly, is only indicative of the larger stance the show is taking on religion.

Liore continues to resurface as a symbol of anti-religious sentiment – the townspeople continue to be ignorant and easily led, as Rose later becomes the figurehead of a maternalistic cult. People rise up and barbarically fight themselves weary, destroying their very town in their unquestioning allegiance to their religion. By the end, the people of Liore are decimated, their town reduced to rubble, and fleeing even as their religious leaders use trickery to lead soldiers into town to be sacrifice for the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. Not quite a pretty picture of the religiously devoted, is it?

There is also the matter of the use of Christian symbolism toward the end of the series, as Dante leads Rose to what is supposed to be her demise. The pair enters a large cathedral, before descending a long staircase to chambers below. Rose asks about the cathedral and Dante states that it is from a religion no longer practiced – a religion that caused the deaths of many because of its inflexibility. Rose is horrified, but Dante merely smirks to herself.

Speaking of Dante, her name itself fits into this overall anti-religious theme – after all, the name ‘Dante’ conjures up images of a fiery hell, as Dante’s Inferno is a fairly well-known piece of literature. Thus, the original Dante’s name has been conflated with a religion (in this case, Christianity), and for a character with that name to act as the villain of the piece is to further paint religion in a negative light.

Now that we’ve gotten past the obvious bits, I return to the concept of civil religion – take a moment to consider the government and the military (which are one in the same) of Amestris. Nationalism leads the day in Fullmetal Alchemist’s world, as Amestris leads a number of military expansionist efforts throughout the course of the show, to no apparent resistance by the non-targeted groups of the country (i.e. anyone other than the Ishbalans and the people of Liore). Those within the system have faith in the system for the most part, even those who feel there are flaws that need fixing – take for example Roy Mustang, who pursues the position of Fuhrer in order to make changes for the better, but certainly doesn’t seek a total overhaul of the system itself. This total dedication to the system and the country as seen through the paradigm of this system falls directly under the auspices of civil religion. That the system is corrupt and dominated by an inhuman monster is a clear indication of how we are meant to feel about this brand of religion.

But, wait a minute, didn’t I say that FMA also violates its own position? Of course – it certainly does!

The fact of the matter is FMA doesn’t give as much of a positive portrayal of religion as is does a negative one, and it ultimately is probably an unintentional portrayal that only religion student freaks like me will pick up on – or, rather, interpret in such a manner.

Alchemy is exactly where FMA gives a tacit endorsement of religion – after all, it fits in with my general guidelines for what constitutes a religion. Alchemy is a system by which the alchemists of the series live, setting out a framework for which to approach the world from. Continuously repeated is the central tenet that nothing can be had for nothing, something which the alchemists apply to every aspect of their living, not simply their alchemic works. And while Ed may insist he isn’t a religious young man, he adheres just as closely to the principles of alchemy as Rose adheres to the religion of Leto, the sun god – just because his system is apparently backed up by science does not change the fact that it is a system to which he is deeply devoted and utilizes in both his daily life and in how he interprets the world.

The other good alchemists of the series do the same, while it is the bad ones which pursue the Philosopher’s Stone in their quest for unlimited power – these guys don’t play by the rules of alchemy, and are punished in their demise – they have been struck down because they did not live out the tenets, while those who do remain safely practicing their craft; in a sense, the wrath of god has been meted out. Even Ed and Al suffer the consequences of breaking with the rules, as they pay for their sin of attempted resurrection with portions and the whole of their physical selves. The alchemic system wins out, and those that use it correctly, who follow the rules of it, are presented as noble figures.

Thus, we are presented with a positive, albeit pretty obscure, notion of religion, which, while not canceling out the overwhelming sense of negativity, nevertheless exists alongside of it.

If you read this whole thing, congratulations, even if you disagree with me =)

And, just as a side-note, alchemy was a pretty religious practice itself in this world at points in history – which I could’ve tied into my overall argument somehow, but I’ll admit I’m not as familiar with it as I feel I should be.

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10 Responses to The Curious Case of Religion in Fullmetal Alchemist

  1. Pingback: Conspirama

  2. Просто восхитительно!

  3. I can’t comment in detail, as I’m a stranger both to Fullmetal Alchemist and to the study of religion. What I glean from the post is that FMA presents organised, montheistic religion in a bad light while being happy with religion as a personal code/set of beliefs. The obvious next question is ‘Is what FMA says about religion right?’

  4. Yamcha says:

    I would say alchemy is more a philosophy than a religion because alchemists don’t prescribe to the notion of all powerful deities. You could have taken the easier argument that FMA is more about science vs. religion, but I like how you link the similar relationship between science (alchemy) and religion.

    • Skakmat says:

      Buddhism doesn’t have the concept of an all-powerful god either.

    • Dark Kalum says:

      Considering Brotherhood, I see it the way you see it. Science vs. Religion. Though… not only does the show have a negative outlook on religion, it could also be said it has a negative outlook on science. Unfortunately it seems your comment is rather old now, so you may never see this. :/

  5. Kairu Ishimaru says:


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  7. *sigh* The religious symbolism in FMA can be taken about as seriously as in Evangelion. It’s there, but it’s really just a reference to western culture and alchemy itself. It was really cool that Arakawa actually used real alchemic symbols as a way to draw the circles, but they’re never used in any sort of context that promotes nor demotes Christianity. However, the manga/show does however support the idea of following your own path and not sticking to a creed such as the Lior episode–or the entire original series.

    As for Edward, he states in the Japanese manga that he is an Atheist, but they decided to be less offensive by translating it as “I’m not the type of guy to believe in that stuff” or whatever. The fact that he saw the face of “god” and refuses to acknowledge it as such is really a fascinating statement. Though, I can’t help but think it isn’t god at all. The god we see in brotherhood/manga is merely a physical representation of everything all mashed into one–so i guess it is in a way… But certainly not the Christian god. Hiromu Arakawa specifically said “there is no Christianity in the world of FMA” despite the real world alchemic symbolism which, in turn borrowed from Christian and Jewish culture.

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