Monday, July 2, 2007

The Religion of Star Trek

A short excerpt from Dr. Lawrence Gage's lengthy article at Real Physics:

The Religion of Star Trek
by Lawrence Gage.

As far as cultural influence is concerned, Star Trek rivals the actual space program in cultural influence. What ideas lie behind the Trek universe and propagate through its popularity?

Salvation from Above

First let's examine the fictional origins of the Trek universe. In Star Trek: First Contact, the "next generation" crew of Enterprise is thrown back in time to the mid-21st century to witness an historic moment in the Star Trek mythology. In the (supposedly) semi-barbaric aftermath of "World War III," Zefram Cochrane1 invents the warp engine that will propel mankind to the stars. This first run coincides with a routine Vulcan mapping mission close enough to detect the "warp signature," thereby initiating humanity's first contact with extra-terrestrials.

As one fan site puts it: "On that evening [sic] an alien ship from the planet Vulcan made first contact with humanity. This event over the course of the next fifty years saw an end to war, hunger, poverty and all the social ills that plagued society."

From this "first contact" mankind is able to found the United Federation of Planets. In some unexplained way, man's contact with supernal forces recreates his nature so that he no longer suffers the many moral limitations that presently plague us. (Exactly what primal hunger in man this visitation satisfies we are left to puzzle for ourselves; we return to this question shortly.) The Federation is a socialist utopia. As Jay Johansen puts it,

There is no money, for everyone simply works out of a desire to contribute to
society and help his fellow man, and takes back only what he needs. Private
enterprise is the enemy, at best an amusing throwback to less enlightened times,
at worst a dangerous villain to be fought and defeated. There is no need for a
multitude of competing organizations within society. Instead the people
voluntarily cede all authority to a single organization controlling all aspects
of life, for this promotes co-operation and efficiency.

The Anti-Religion

Again, Jay Johansen notes:

In the first episode [sic?] of Next Generation, "Q" puts humanity on trial. One
of his accusations is that humans kill each other in "disputes over your tribal
gods". Note Picard's reply. He doesn't say that some people have used religion
for their own personal ends, or that religious freedom is something worth
fighting for. No, he replies that humanity has "outgrown" that - in other words,
he apologizes for the existence of religion in human history.

This approach reeks of John Lennon's unimaginative manifesto Imagine, about which I've written before. The underlying belief is that all our unhappiness and strife originates in the "superstitious prohibitions" of religion. Essentially, Lennon idolizes his own desires.

The Creator's Beliefs

Now we turn to the actual origin of the Trek universe. Its anti-religious philosophy originates in the personal beliefs of the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry. An extensive 1991 interview with Roddenberry in The Humanist reveals much about the personal credo out of which Star Trek sprang. The article notes Roddenberry's reception of the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association on May 10, 1991, and opens with some background on its subject:

Gene Roddenberry is one of the most influential yet unheralded humanists of the
twentieth century. His two most famous creations, Star Trek and its successor
Star Trek: The Next Generation, are solidly based upon humanistic principles and
ideas. His creations have moved, inspired and sparked the imaginations of
millions of people around the world. The basic massage of both Star Trek and
Star Trek: The Next Generation is that human beings are capable of solving their
own problems rationally and that, through critical thinking and cooperative
effort, humanity will progress and evolve.

Roddenberry clearly understands the profound cultural effect of his beliefs:

...Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more
than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial
philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to
comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star
Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the subjects they’ve

The interview voices many typical humanist anti-religious prejudices as well as the cow-eyed utopianism so characteristic of the mid-20th century, but one statement of Roddenberry's in particular is worth discussion:

Censorship traveled a wide path. There was censorship about areas of skin that
were left open. If a girl was in a light blouse and her nipples raised and
showed through the blouse, you had to have band-aids over the nipples. You could
not have visible nipples. How much skin was permitted to show used to be almost
a matter of geometry and measurement. I remember doing shows that showed the
inside of a woman’s leg. Those shows were turned down because, for some reason,
the inside of the leg was considered vulgar.

Let's overlook the verbal imprecision: it is not so much the body-part that is considered vulgar, as showing the body-part. What is interesting here is how he sees something as potent in meaning as a woman's body to lack any special significance. To him the sacredness of sexuality—a proxy for the sacredness of the human person in whom sexuality resides and from whom every person issues—is just another thing in the world among so many equivalent things. (It is also interesting that he says "girl" instead of "woman"—like the show, he was an interesting mixture of the "progressive" and the "unenlightened" throw-back.)
Gage goes on to label other traits, such Blindness as Religion. Read the full article at Real Physics