Saturday, November 10, 2007

Star Trek and Religion (A Conversation with Prof. Mary Jo Weaver)

After earning her Ph.D at the University of Notre Dame in 1973, Prof. Mary Jo Weaver (Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University) wrote and taught about contemporary American Catholicism. Her publications focused on the history and politics of institutional Catholicism, as well as the impact of feminism. Two books, in particular, explored the political divisions and competing ideologies that shape modern Catholism: Being Right: Conservative American Catholics (1995) and What's Left?: Liberal American Catholics (1999).

Mary Jo Weaver also taught several courses on Star Trek that incorporated popular culture, theories of religion, and analytical explorations of cosmology. She was kind enough to speak with us about religion and spirituality in the Star Trek universe.

Trekdom: Professor Weaver, thank you so much for the taking time to speak with us. Like many teachers and scholars, you've had success using Star Trek in the classroom. Whether giving introductory lectures on modern intellectual history or delving into complex debates about religion, philosophy, science, and politics, Star Trek has been a useful teaching aid. Why is that? Is it simply because artifacts of contemporary popular culture are useful teaching aids, or is there something unique and special about Trek?

Mary Jo Weaver: Trek is useful because I found many of its episodes able to dovetail with what I wanted to do in the classroom. I would have used another bit of popular culture, but happened to love Trek and to own most of it, so tailored my course to it. For example, I wanted students to understand a bit of Freud’s critique of religion and why he dismisses arguments from antiquity. Well, “Devil’s Due” is a great episode for Freud: it is about reality, about how mythological figures fool people, about the weakness of the argument from antiquity etc. Anyway, point is, I was interested in students understanding Freud, not Trek. I think Roddenberry was interested in making a successful television series, and it happens that he had a pretty well-developed consciousness as a secular humanist (thought human beings had unlimited potential to do good, especially if not impaired by evil systems by which he usually meant religion, or the military, or business). He was able to take on issues because of the Sci-Fi format and he produced an excellent show. I do not believe that Trek is all that interesting intellectually in itself, but it is suggestive and works with a variety of approaches to deepen awareness of a variety of issues.

Trekdom: If you could characterize Star Trek's overall stance on religion and the existence of God(s), what would you argue? Was there a consistent message throughout the various series, or did the message change over time?

Weaver: Not sure it had or was all that interested in taking a stance on God. GR did not like organized religion, and he was drawn to some Enlightenment thinkers which means that when he did open up vaguely religions themes, he sounded like some of those people. In that, again, I think he reflected the culture of the 60s. By the 90s, with the rise of some religious alternatives (ecumenical, new-age, etc.) Trek was able to reflect some other ways to look at religious material. Early Trek (esp original series) was horrid when it took on religious themes head on (“Who Mourns for Adonis” is a cliché argument about how we’ve outgrown our need for the gods – Plato made the same argument long, long ago) but those episodes are useful to get students interested and to guide them toward sources that can flesh out, criticize, and evaluate the “stance” presented in the program. Trek is only consistent as a barometer of cultural change (by the 90s folks were comfortable with Native American ideas, so Chakotay goes on vision quests and has a quasi-mystical approach to some things; by the 90s anthropologists were interested in religious practices (Victor Turner, Geertz e.g.) and so we can see Janeway searching the Federation data base on religious anthropology and using it to undergo some sort of ritual. The nice thing about that episode is that her knowledge won’t get her very far, that she has to rely on her own self, her experience (not someone else’s data), and that, too, is one of the theme songs of the 90s.

TD: It's interesting because many fans argue that Gene Roddenberry's secular humanism and personal intolerance for faith and organized religion contradicted his proclamations of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." When the later series treated mysticism, spirituality, and faith with more respect, Star Trek started to finally live up to its professed embrace of multiculturalism and competing worldviews. Any thoughts here?

Weaver: I don’t think he was intolerant of faith, but surely had no use for organized religion. Infinite diversity is not really a religious formula, it is more of a nod to Darwin and to the complexities of the material universe translated into human terms. There are times in interviews that GR sounded like Plotinus or something (ultimate union with “The One”). Faith is a tricky matter – often even in shows where they almost admire a mystical approach, they continue to show an aversion to “faith” which suggests to me that they think faith is something inexorably connected to institutional religion. Trek’s multi-culturalism was mostly racial and that’s great. Not so embracing of gay characters, or conservative believers or other groups that make multi-culturalism more interesting or (for some) more vexing. DS-9 was fascinating about religion and politics. I never quite knew what to make of the prophets, or of Sisko’s experiences with them. And, frankly, DS-9 was not on my radar screen the same way TNG and VOY were when I was creating the syllabus.

TD: Star Trek is at its best when it deals with complex social issues in provocative ways. Those examples of social commentary could be quite preachy at times, as with "Let that Be your Last Battlefield," "Who Mourns for Adonais," and "Who Watches the Watchers." Still, Trek asks viewers to think and reflect about important issues. However, with Star Trek: Enterprise, it seemed like that aspect was lost amidst laser fights, steamy decon rub-downs, and Vulcan zombies in space. I can think of only one episode ("Chosen Realm") that approached the topic of religion in a direct way. Do you share my frustration here, or would you say that ENT had much to say about religion and philosophy?

Weaver: Enterprise was horrible exactly as you say, because there was no there there. Who cares how they came up with “Red Alert?” Nothing to think about, just something to see. The social commentary episodes you mention were preachy which is why I think Trek is much better when it comes at religious issues in a tangential way (Transfigurations, e.g., about the personal evolution of humanoid species into cosmic light particles, is provocative and open to a variety of religious interpretations). I think ENT had nothing to say about religion (except, perhaps, that in its institutional form—the old GR bugbear—as in Vulcan monasteries, religion is horrid). My guess about the steam decon scenes is that TV studios are probably more interested in such scenes than Trek creators in some ways.

TD: Star Trek is now in the hands of J.J. Abrams, whose previous work on Lost explored the conflicts between a man of science (Jack) and a man of faith (John Locke). If Abrams' 2008 Star Trek reboot recreates those types of dichotomies and uncompromising battles, would that be good for Star Trek, or would you like to see something much different?

Weaver: (Will wait and see)

TD: Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure.

Weaver: This was fun.