Religious Addiction in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

When Father Leo Booth wrote When God Becomes a Drug in 1991 he probably wasn’t planning on it being so well represented in an anime about scientific blasphemy, world domination, and occasional height jokes as comic relief. He wrote it as a means of explaining how people become religious addicts. Just like drug addiction, religious addiction requires you pick up the proverbial syringe, only the high consists of a superiority complex and a sense of righteousness. This addiction has similar consequences to that of a substance abuse addiction: loss of family and friends, lack of foresight and reason, and risk of reliance on substitute substances in order to quit.

The entirety of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood carries religious undertones with dialogue of truth, one, all, and God, with the religious theme most prominent in Episode 3: City of Heresy. The viewer is introduced to Father Cornello, a priest who feigns religious miracles by using an ill-gotten philosopher stone to perform alchemical magic in front of city crowds. These miracles won over the admiration of a young girl named Rose, who follows Father Cornello’s teachings without hesitation. Her unquestioning belief remains uninterrupted by the Elric brothers even as they attempt to explain the falsehood behind Cornello’s miracles.

Rose speaking admirably of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Father Cornello.

Cornello’s use of crowd manipulation is quite apparent, but his grip on Rose is a little tighter. He turns to Rose and asks, “Who rescued you when you lost your love in an accident last year?” Transfixed and beholden to Father Cornello and his empty promises, it isn’t until Rose witnesses Edward and Alphonse’s metal bodies that she finally confronts the realization her late love will never come back from the dead. She falls to her knees and cries “What am I supposed to cling to now?”

Father Leo Booth helps us to understand Rose’s unwavering faith with his explanations of the functions of religion in a society:

  • To avoid error in order to escape punishment
  • To compensate for deprivations and suffering
  • To provide rules for correct behavior (so that rewards are guaranteed)
  • To maintain social control

Rose’s display of religious addiction is packed into less than 30 minutes of animation, but it offers a crash course and hits every point of Father Leo Booth’s expertise on the subject. Cornello gives promise that following his rules will provide reward in order to maintain social control, while Rose is desperately trying to avoid suffering. While both agree on the effects of religious addiction, FMA:B and Father Leo’s philosophies differ in their explanations of the recovery process.

Father Leo’s book features an entire chapter dedicated to the twelve step recovery process modeled after that of Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps he lists for full recovery would require time, dedication, and reconciliation with all other parties that were harmed by the addiction. Moreover, the process happens in stages, meaning each phase would require some sort of closure before advancing. He even calls the final stage “ongoing recovery”, suggesting that it is really a state of remission and that there is no complete cure.

Meanwhile FMA:B decides to expedite the process with a “wake-up call” approach. Is it possible this is due to time limitations? Sure. But it’s not unreasonable to say the writers intended for Rose to be shocked out of her religious trance. After she notices Edward’s metal arm, he turns to her and says, “This is the body of a sinner who encroached upon God’s territory.” If it was a great shock which caused Rose to fall into addiction, FMA:B tells us it requires a great shock to pull her out. The show treats any collateral damage done to her emotional/mental well-being as a requirement for the change. You could say it’s a law of equivalent exchange: an amount of trauma as the cause for religious addiction requires an equal amount of trauma to break the religious addiction.

The Elric brothers force Cornello to admit his lies. Rose feels shocked and betrayed by Cornello’s confessions.

For viewers this begs the question of how Rose’s story would continue if they were to follow her recovery. What happens to Rose after she accepts that she can no longer cling to religion? Father Leo would most likely argue Rose had only managed the first of six stages: perception. She now understands her position as a religious addict. In order to be free of her reliance on religion, she would need to process through stabilization, followed by an early-, mid-, and late-stage before she can be spiritually and emotionally healthy. If Father Leo were to continue writing Rose’s story, she would have stood after her weeping to make amends with loved ones and sought further support from a network of other religious addicts. Not only would she have to accept the consequences her addiction had caused, but it would also require her to analyze her own behaviors, journal them, and make meaningful connections between her actions and the psychological undercurrents that cause them.

Let’s not get too serious here though. We’re talking about an episode of an anime. This extent of detail in the recovery process would be totally unnecessary to pile onto Rose’s character. But FMA:B leaves us wondering about our real lives. Who are the Father Cornello’s? How can I help the Rose in my life? Is grief confrontation just a catalyst for the twelve step process of lifelong healing? Or perhaps if the grief is very recent, the recovery process is much faster. Be sure to leave a comment below and tell me what you think.

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