Study Guide

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Mercerism

By Philip K. Dick

Mercerism

Feeling a little down about your post-apocalyptic life, full of empty apartment buildings and electronic sheep?

Enter Mercerism, a new religion based on the life and teachings of a man named Wilbur Mercer will appear on the scene. It's spread all over Earth and in the space colonies, thanks to some mysteriously-appearing empathy boxes that showed up after Mercer's death.

Talk about mystery: Mercer is a major conundrum. His followers don't exactly claim that he's a god or deity, but they don't not claim that he's a god or deity, if you know what we mean. But is it just that new religion smell that has people converting or is there something more? Let's find out.

Be Excellent to Each Other

We guess Mercer was a big fan of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, because he basically stole Keanu's life philosophy.

Mercerists follow two major tenets: (1) be empathic to the individual, and (2) work for the good of the community. (Sounds pretty solid to us.) And instead of heading to a church or temple to worship, Mercer's followers use a device—the empathy box. Gripping the twin handles of the empathy box, users enter a parallel world, or perhaps a shared hallucination, where everyone is connected together within Mercer's mind:

[Isidore] crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging—accompanied by mental and spiritual identification—with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. (2.22)

Everyone takes place in the ritual together, a collective consciousness all crammed into Mercer's head. Think Facebook without Farmville or LoLCats, just everyone hanging out together in one virtual "like"-fest. When Wilbur Mercer is dinged with a rock, "it hurts like hell" for everyone (2.25). It's not just pain but also joy that is shared through empathy. As Iran notes, one day she was connected with someone whose animal had died and the shared joys of others helped lifted the man's spirits (15.62). Empathy leads to a sense of community; community leads to empathy.

But what's the purpose of all this feel-goodery? Is there a religious end game of paradise or salvation? Or an epic end-of-the-world battle between gods, monsters, and burly, bearded men set to the tune of a MegaDeth soundtrack?

It's none of the above, Shmoopers. Mercer even tells Rick there is no salvation (15.108). In his own words, Mercerism exists to show "that you aren't alone. I am here with you and always will be. Go and do your task, even though you know it's wrong" (15.110).

Artificially Flavored

There's just one problem with all this empathy talk: Mercer is a phony and a fake. Late in the story, Buster Friendly has a 60 Minutes-type expose where he proves that Mercer is really an actor named Al Jerry and that his world was created on a soundstage. The whole thing is like an interactive movie, and for a TV-guy like Buster, that is just the worst kind of deception.

Of course, this accusation could be boiled down to a TV-guy-said, Deity-said scenario. Well, except for the fact that Mercer totally sides with Buster:

"I am a fraud," Mercer said. "They're sincere; their research is genuine. From their standpoint I am an elderly retired bit player named Al Jerry. All of it, their disclosure, is true." (18.90)

Hold on though; Mercer isn't through yet. He may be a conman, but his opponents will "have trouble understanding why nothing has changed" (18.92). Rick backs Mercer up on this one, too. When Iran asks him if he believes the Buster Friendly expose, he answers, "Everything is true. […] Everything anybody has ever thought" (20.22).

It just doesn't matter who Mercer is, or whether he really exists at all. His tenets are outside such physical ideas as fact or fiction; they're true because people like Rick, Iran, and Isidore believe in them.

Six Degrees of Separation

Mercer's life story is loaded with references from myths and religions. Here are a couple of the ones we spotted:

  • Mercer's climb up the barren hill strongly resembles Sisyphus' unending task of pushing a rock up a hill in Hades. (2.21)
  • Mercer's foster parents, Frank and Cora, found him floating on a raft in a scene very similar to Moses being found by one of Pharaoh's daughters. (2.26)
  • The rocks being thrown at Mercer are reminiscent of a type of capital punishment called stoning, which shows up a lot in the Bible.
  • Like Jesus, Mercer could resurrect the dead and is crucified. (2.26)
  • Mercer copies Jesus further by appearing before people after his death. Jesus appeared before his disciples, Mercer before Isidore and Rick. (15.110)

So, is Dick suggesting that other religions of the world are frauds, too? Maybe. But does that make them worthless? Maybe not.