Full Metal Alchemist: Science vs Religion
Full Metal Alchemist is one of the most acclaimed anime and manga franchises of recent years. One reason for this is the series complex take on a variety of real world subjects. This ranges anywhere from racial tensions and military dominance in government to man’s place in the natural balance of the universe. The series was not afraid to tackle many social, psychological and philosophical questions. One prominent theme within the manga and both anime adaptions is the struggle between science and religion. Here we shall explore the stance of the show on both methods of exploring creation.
Scientific Principles in Alchemy
In this world, science has essentially taken the form of alchemy. Alchemy itself is a fusion of scientific principles and magical properties all based around one basic concept, The Law of Equivalent Exchange. This law states that to gain something of value, something of equal value must be lost. Essentially that means that in alchemy, and in life, an alchemist cannot create something without losing something in return. This itself is based around the law of matter stating that matter cannot be created or destroyed but merely changes form. This philosophy extends to the Elric’s view of the world as well. In an attempt to bring their mother back to life, they assumed that a soul merely required some DNA and physical properties. This caused the ritual to go wrong, with the Alphonse losing his whole body and Edward losing several limbs. What they received was a deformed monstrosity which barely resembled their mother. This mistake would be the primary motivating force for the brothers to seek out a way to reclaim their bodies.
Father Cornello and Abuse of Power
The first episodes of the anime opens with a situation which questions the place of religion in society. The two main characters, Edward and Alphonse Elric, have traveled to an isolated city in search of the Philosopher’s Stone. This stone is a legendary device which supposedly allows skilled alchemists to bend the laws of alchemy. They have been drawn to this city by rumors of a religious leader named Cornello, who supposedly is using the powers of a god to perform miracles. These include bringing people back from the dead. Edward suspicions are confirmed that Cornello is using the a version of the stone to perform such miracles. Essentially, these miracles are simply alchemy in disguise. Cornello is also using his influence to create a religious following and make followers out of the townspeople to worship him as a prophet of sorts. Edward and the audience soon learn that Cornello may not be as well meaning as he first appears.
Walking into a search of the supposed sun god, Edward encounters one of the villagers. This is a young woman named Rose who is a devoted follower of Cornello’s. She is so utterly devoted that she believes Cornello’s promise that he can return her lover back to life. Edward scoffs at this, claiming Cornello must be a fraud and that her beliefs are foolish. Rose retorts a common argument regarding faith, that science cannot disprove the existence of an omnipotent creator. Edward’s own beliefs are heavily rooted in science, being alchemy in this case, and gives her an example of hard reality based on scientific observation. He explains the chemical breakdown of a human being. Drawing for his own experiences trying to play play god, he explains that some laws cannot be broken. Therefore, Cornello can’t simply create these miracles from nothing. Edward explains he is simply using some form of alchemy to change matter.
Edward sees Cornello and by extension organized religion, as a massive deception to the uninformed and uneducated populace. To him, all existence can be explained through scientific observation and exploration. Interestingly, Rose retorts back that there is a great deal that alchemy does not know. Science still doesn’t have all the answers. If Edward completely believed in the laws of alchemy, we even both finding a way to bypass them?
Scar and the Religious Jihad
The series does not shy away from that fact that both science and religion have very apparent dark sides. The main vehicle for this the Ishval conflict. The nation of Amestris, whom the Elric brothers serve, once had a major conflict with the nomadic Ishvalans. This war resulted on destruction and death on both sides and nearly led to the genocide of the entire Ishvalan tribe. Drawing possible comparisons to recent events, the Ishavaln conflict is similar to decades long conflicts within the Middle East. The Ishvalans themselves have a society and religion similar to many Arab cultures. One refugee named Scar has taken it upon himself to wipe out all state alchemists within Amestris.
Scar claims that alchemy perverts the natural order, much like some religious fundamentalists claim science may be an affront to God. Scar commits many brutal murders in the name of his religion. In an encounter with Edward, the young alchemist points out the hypocrisy of using religion as an excuse for vengeance, even if it contradicts the principles of Scar’s own belief system. What’s worse, Scar is using a form of alchemy to exact his revenge. This is a commentary on the often contradictory nature of religious based terrorism. Murder is typically not condoned in most religions, yet some would hide behind a religious cause an excuse to break such creeds. Even so, Edward is unable to refute that fact that science, in this alchemy, led to the near destruction of an entire race of people. A simple comparison to the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II is the most obvious example of this counter point. Both sides can easily be used for evil just as much as a force for good.
The Nature of the Homunculus
One crucial aspect of this balance between religion and science lies with the villains of the series, the Homunculus. These creatures are partially human and created by alchemists who attempt to bypass of the laws of alchemy by performing human transmutation. This refers back to the mistake the Elric brothers made with their mother. These creatures are a constant reminder of their failure. However, it is worth noting that for a scientific principle that is established as being unbreakable, many alchemist seem to be looking for loop holes. This reflects the darker side of science. It even suggests that there are simply some things mankind may not be ready for.
A similar idea was posed in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein believed he could conquer death and overreached his authority. Much like the Elrics, he attempted to play God by assuming he knew everything he needed to know. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, the homunculus are perversions of mankind’s attempts to break the boundaries of science. In this case however, the results were somewhat dire. Whether or not these creatures are considered fully sentient is left up to debate among the characters. It is interesting that though these monsters were the product of scientific experimentation, some of them consider the possibility of humanity. The concept of a soul for instance, is the something these creatures strive for. The source of the soul is obviously more spiritual in nature which may find it’s roots within the source of alchemy itself.
The Gate and The Truth
The primary idea behind Full Metal Alchemist is balance. So it is fitting that the series would have a balanced view on the opposing view points of science and religion. As many scholars have pointed out, science and religion have many of the same goals. They just have different ways of approaching them. Ultimately, both deal with defining the concept of existence. One goes by observation and experimentation, while the other deals with ritual and faith. Alchemy in this universe is steeped in scientific observation but actually has many mysterious mystical properties. Whenever an alchemy ritual is performed, it opens up a mysterious portal known as The Gate.
This strange dimensional ripple seems to be the source of an alchemist’s power, allowing him to transform matter. What this dimension is exactly is surprisingly unknown despite an entire scientific society basing it’s beliefs and culture around it. Much can be said for many properties that scientists use in the real world. Many observations are made to explain why certain things are the way they are. Still, many things are still left unknown. For instance, a common question a child may ask it, “Why is the sky blue?” Scientists can explain the chemical reactions in our atmosphere which produce a blue sky. However, they can’t explain why it would be blue rather than red or green. There are simply some things some definitive answers we do not have. Morality for instance, is not something easily defined by science. Such answers are provided to many people through religion.
The spiritual nature of Full Metal Alchemist is equally as prominent as scientific observation. After all, the series itself is based around almost magical concepts of alchemy. This in itself suggests that religion may simply be science that have elements of science we do not yet understand. The mysterious nature of The Gate as the source of alchemy is an interesting enigma. It is the source of scientific power, but contains a mysterious unknowable force. One comparison could be made to observations about black hole and worm holes in deep space. Science has some idea regarding their purpose and make up, but there is still much we do not know about them at the end of the day. What the series suggest it is may offer more religious connotations than scientific ones however.
When Edward enters The Gate again, he realizes it is something alchemists refer to as The Truth. This dimension is higher plane of existence where all knowledge and matter converge at once. It is suggested that the source of life, and more specifically the human soul, can be found within this place. This Gate is the source of all knowledge. It is the source of life. Even so, it is still very much beyond human understanding. As the series concludes, Edward learns that his simply part of a much bigger whole, and his use of alchemy is but one way of taking part in a much grander design. The conclusion of the series, particularly Full Metal Alchemist:Brotherhood seems to suggest that neither view point is wrong, there is simply much more to learn. Mankind still has a long way to go. Science and religion are simply two paths to the same ultimate knowledge of self-discovery.
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