Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Star Trek and Religion: From Iconoclasm to Tolerance

by Jared B.

In a 1991 interview with The Humanist, Gene Roddenberry spoke candidly about his views on religion:

"It was clear to me that religion was largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious things… I just couldn't see any point in adopting something based on magic, which was obviously phony and superstitious."

In many ways, Star Trek: The Original Series reflected Roddenberry’s skepticism and lack of faith. His envisioned universe of the future centered on man alone as the ultimate authority, in complete control of his own destiny. With unlimited potential, human beings could become godlike, utilizing science, reason, and technology to explore the unknown and explain the phenomenal. There was no higher authority that the crew of the Enterprise must bow down before. There were no theological truths, only universal and secular humanistic ideals. Everything in the Trekverse could be explained through reason and rationality. Just as there was no “absolute evil,” there was no “absolute benevolence.” In short, the Star Trek universe was godless.

In its evolutionary view of human progress, Star Trek disposed of religion and superstition as relics of the past. Any alien society that worshipped deities was deemed inferior and less enlightened. Indeed, Captain Kirk became the ultimate iconoclast and destroyer of false gods. For example, in “Who Mourns for Adonais,” Kirk and crew encounter the Greek God Apollo, who demands their worship in exchange for providing a lush paradise. Kirk is very clear: Apollo is an artifact, interesting from a scientific point-of-view, but in no way to be treated as a deity. Worship would be servitude and blind obedience, the very negation of the most cherished of human values: freedom and self-determination. With his ship and crew in peril, Kirk destroys Apollo’s temple, which is the energy source of his godlike magic tricks. Thoroughly defeated, Apollo admits, “the time is past; there is no room for gods.”

“Who Mourns for Adonais” is but one example of a recurring theme in Star Trek: evolution, freedom, and self-determination require the destruction of gods, whether in the form of aliens with godlike abilities (“The Squire of Gothos,”) or supercomputers that pretend to be divine (“The Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”) When Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy raise questions about the Prime Directive of non-interference with the natural evolution of these cultures, Kirk’s justification is always the same: These people, in being forced to worship and obey, are no longer evolving naturally; their culture is one of stagnation. They must be forced to know the truth: that their god is a lie, and it must be destroyed for their own good.

Were there exceptions to this theme? In “Bread and Circuses” the worship of “The Son” (Christianity) is presented in a positive light. Former slaves embrace this new religion and rebel against the injustice and barbarity of Roman rule. The Enterprise crew admired and supported that rebellion. Yet, this did not mean that they admired Christianity. Instead, they valued the rejection of authority within the natural “parallel” evolution of the planet’s culture, which, reason suggests, would eventually overthrow “The Son” as 24th century humans had done ages past. There is also the infamous line in “Who Mourns for Adonais” when Kirk states, “We have no need for Gods; we find the one quite adequate,” which endorses a monotheistic view of the universe. However, it could be argued that Roddenberry allowed this line because he was placating the audience, just as he had done in Have Gun, Will Travel. As he admitted years later, he could never fully say what he wanted in the late 1960s, due to network interference and censorship.

With Star Trek: The Next Generation, Roddenberry’s atheistic vision of the future was expressed in more forceful ways. “The Chase” made it clear that all humanoids had evolved from a common species that roamed the galaxy dropping the primordial building blocks of life on different planets. In other words, the origins of humanity were anything but divinely inspired. Other episodes, such as “Devil’s Due” relished the dethroning of false gods. Yet, by far, the most explicit rejection of religion and faith came with “Who Watches the Watchers.” When the Mintakans, a primitive yet enlightened culture, mistake Captain Picard for “an Overseer” (a deity discredited long ago as myth), they begin to revisit those false beliefs of the past. Picard is explicit about what this means for the Mintakans: If they continue to believe in a god, then their culture is “de-evolving.” Re-introducing religion into their enlightened society represents the ultimate violation of the Prime Directive. The unintended, yet immense damage caused by religion must be undone, even if it required Picard to sacrifice his life to prove that he is not divine.

Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were Roddenberry’s Treks, explicitly atheistic while espousing the absolute truth of secular humanism, a belief system that worships man and science, not magic or alien parlor tricks. Even when Roddenberry was not directly involved in the writing and production of episodes or films, many writers stayed true to the original “spirit” of Roddenberry’s iconoclasm:

Kirk: Excuse me. I’d just like to ask a question. What does God need with a starship?
Voice of a false God: Bring the ship closer.
Kirk: I said, what does God need with a starship?
McCoy: Jim, what are you doing?
Kirk: I’m asking a question.
Voice of a false God: Who is this creature?
Kirk: Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?
Voice of a false God: You doubt me?
Kirk: I seek proof.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier concludes with yet another death of a god. Arguably, this film was a more deserving dedication to Gene Roddenberry’s legacy than was its successor, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Roddenberry’s legacy didn’t survive intact after his death. Perhaps it began in executive producer Rick Berman’s office, where a small bust of Gene Roddenberry’s head was sometimes blindfolded during creative discussions. Whether Berman and others were consciously “retuning” Trek to be less critical of religion is debatable. It may have happened unconsciously, with many writers unaware that Roddenberry was turning in his grave. Yet, Berman-era Trek’s attitude towards religion, faith, and spirituality was extremely different from Star Trek or Star Trek: The Next Generation. Deep Space Nine explored Bajoran spirituality fairly open-mindedly, and the lead character, in the end, embraced his role as a spiritual emissary to the “Prophets.” Instead of lumping all religion into the category of bigotry and intolerance, Deep Space Nine distinguished between good and evil religious figures, as well as healthy and harmful forms of worship. Characters also became more open about faith. Although Deep Space Nine’s believers (Kira and Quark) tended to be outside of the “godless” Federation, Voyager’s first officer Chakotay was a man of intense spirituality. Faith and religion now had a place on the bridge of a starship. Additionally, post-Roddenberry Trek began portraying “gods” who could be downright benevolent. The wormhole aliens protected the Bajoran people, and they even took sides in the Dominion War. In Voyager, the Caretaker clearly loved the Okampa, and his most inhumane actions occurred in efforts to save his “children.”

Post-Roddenberry Trek displayed a reverence and respect for religion and faith that had been largely absent from the Star Trek franchise. Regardless of one’s judgment of how this change affected the franchise, it is a definite part of Rick Berman’s legacy. It is also telling that when the reins were handed to a TOS fan, Manny Coto, during the last seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise, the episode “Chosen Realm” suddenly brought the franchise full circle, back to Roddenberry’s hostility towards gods.

Were these changes good for the Star Trek franchise? It is unclear. On one hand, Berman’s Trek showed a tolerance and respect for faith that fit well with Star Trek’s embrace of diversity and IDIC philosophy. One of the central contradictions of Roddenberry’s beliefs had been resolved by tossing out his intolerance for “superstition” and “idiotic primitive beliefs” while leaving in proclamations of tolerance and diversity. On the other hand, perhaps something inspiring was lost in the mix of cultural relativism. The intense faith in humanity’s potential to be its own god, the comfort of universal scientific truths, and the crusade to bring freedom and self-determination to the enslaved and stagnant were inspiring parts of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Although it bordered on the fanatical, Roddenberry’s atheism was still a hopeful vision of a future in which humans controlled their own destinies in a mature and enlightened way.

Star Trek’s depiction of religion and faith could also be seen as a reflection of its contemporary context. In the late 1960s, many intellectuals thought as Roddenberry, espousing faith in science while preaching classic values of the Enlightenment. Yet, by the 1990s, Trek took the postmodern turn as academics and other intellectuals struggled to adopt a more subjective outlook on other cultures and religions. Where the franchise will go in the future is unknown. Star Trek is now in the hands of J.J. Abrams, whose previous work on Lost explored the deep tensions between faith and reason. It will be interesting to see how Abrams’ perspective influences Star Trek.


Sources consulted:

Porter, Jennifer E. and Darcee L. McLaren, eds., Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture (1999)

Kraemer, Ross S., William Cassidy, and Susan L. Schwartz, eds., Religions of Star Trek (2001)