Earlier this year (21 August 2021), Yanis Varoufakis published an article about politics and international relations, discussing Star Trek’s (ST) Prime Directive, i.e. that those with superior technology must not interfere in cultures/communities which are still technologically behind: “the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota”. Varoufakis finds this liberal anti-imperialist doctrine particularly fascinating because it was part of the original Star Trek (TOS) in the 1960s and could be interpreted as a criticism of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. He calls this a clear political philosophy and a critique of US foreign policy that is still relevant today. It is a good point, but I do not want to delve further into political philosophy and ST here; rather, I would like to examine whether ST lends itself to a similar analysis with regard to religious and moral philosophy.
ST’s creator Gene Roddenberry was an atheist and “secular humanist” (i.e. espousing a philosophy that emphasises the importance of reason and people, rather than religion or God, for human fulfilment), who imagined a future without religious doctrine and conflict. To quote long-time ST producer Brannon Braga on Roddenberry’s wish to cast off “superstition and religion”:
“This was an important part of Roddenberry’s mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.”
As an interesting aside, the word “God” was banned, even as an expletive, in Discovery (one of ST’s most recent reincarnations). So, is ST a universe devoid of religious and moral philosophy (which I prefer to “superstition and religion”)?
To begin with, ST is full of encounters with god-like beings, such as Q. Q is most definitely not a god, but he does remind us of the Ancient Greek and Roman gods in his capriciousness and callous disregard for individuals. Even his affection for Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) reminds us of Roman and Greek mythology, with bored gods playing with their favourite mortal toys (like Q plays with the crew of the Enterprise in his first appearance in Encounter at Farpoint). Since each episode is created by humans, we should not be surprised that the writers and producers draw their inspiration from human history, mythology, and religious and moral philosophy. A nice detail is that even semi-gods like Q show character development. Q in particular appears in several episodes in STNG and Voyager (VOY) and gains depth over these episodes.
To my mind, the Klingons also fall into this category of drawing from human history: they are a war-like race that seem like a cross between certain aspects of the Vikings and Japanese samurai. The Klingon philosophy is based on being a warrior as a way of life, attaining a glorious death, semi-religious rituals (e.g. the Klingon death rite), weapons as semi-mystical objects (e.g. the bat’leth, a double-sided scimitar), Kahless (a messianic figure in Klingon lore), Sto-vo-kor (the Klingon afterlife) and Gre’thor (a Klingon Hades). The most interesting thing in Discovery is the Klingons wishing to remain themselves, with their own language and culture, and not to be absorbed into a Federation that would literally “emasculate” them. Although female Klingons are presented as fierce warriors too, they do seem to be reduced to the status of Klingons-with-breasts, i.e. there is no real attempt made to differentiate between the Klingon sexes in ST.
In his article on opuszine, Jason Morehead gives examples of TOS episodes where human religions are at the very least respected. In TOS: Balance of Terror, Captain Kirk officiates a wedding in a universal “chapel” on the Enterprise at the beginning of the episode. The chapel appears again at the end of the episode as a place for grief. In STNG, the chapel seems to have been replaced by the holodeck where the crew can recreate any place or ritual they wish, e.g. the Klingon Rite of Ascension is STNG: The Icarus Factor. In TOS: Bread and Circuses, Uhura corrects the crew’s erroneous interpretation of the “sun” worship in the local culture, reminding them of the worship of the “son of God” in Earth’s not-so-distant history. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are forced to acknowledge the power in history of a religion based on love and brotherhood, where great sacrifices are possible.
Morehead finds it fascinating that even in TOS, religious matters do occasionally creep in:
“…it seems odd to strive to be so faithful to the letter of Gene Roddenberry’s ethos when even he was frequently incapable of doing so. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s weird to be so focused on this particular aspect of Roddenberry’s vision (his atheism), particularly when those series that he was most involved in - The Original Series and The Next Generation - weren’t afraid to include such content. (If nothing else, religious and faith matters can make for great drama.)”
Brannon Braga has also been quoted as saying:
“…there was no consideration in giving humans, talking about God, or talking about those types of things. We wanted to avoid it to be quite frank. But we did very often explore theology through alien characters. Which frankly is much more interesting anyway. Whether it was the Bajorans and their religion or the Borg and their religion. They had the religion of perfection. That, I think, was more interesting. We want to keep Star Trek secular. The human facet of Star Trek secular.”
This brings us nicely to The Borg as seen in STNG and VOY, and the Bajorans and their “Prophets” in Deep Space Nine (DS9). The Borg with their extreme collectivism and hive mind could be seen as a sublimated form of communism: there is no “I”, only “we”. Yet even this collective has a “queen” presented very much as an individual, comparable to a female Stalin or dictator. Characters like Seven of Nine in VOY are shown as needing to recover from the complete brainwashing that comes with such a totalitarian philosophy. The Borg have a form of immortality (each drone’s memories and experiences live on in the collective consciousness) and they strive for a perfect (technological and transhumanist) “ideal”, both of which are aspects of most world religions.
The Bajoran faith and mysticism is built around their Prophets, regardless of the fact that Starfleet science considers them “wormhole aliens” (DS9: Emissary). Ben Sisko asks his son Jake to respect the Bajoran belief in their Prophets as gods in DS9: In the Hands of the Prophets. For Ben Sisko, your own beliefs do not mean that you can disregard and disrespect the beliefs of others; “it is a matter of interpretation”. The Prophets are one of the central plot arcs in DS9. I could not summarise it better than here on Ex Astris Scientia:
“The general tendency is that the Bajoran faith grows on Ben Sisko, that the Prophets are gradually becoming more god-like and that ultimately Ben even becomes one of them. The Prophets’ god-like nature becomes particularly clear in the episodes where they determine the destinies of the Bajoran people and of Sisko, respectively…”
This reminds me of Old Testament prophets in the Christian Bible, and Sisko’s journey has Buddhist undertones for does he not become a sort of Buddha in the eyes of the Bajorans?
This brings us to the Vulcans and a bridge into humanism, where each individual has agency and can contribute to the future of the human race. Whereas ancient Vulcans seem to have practised a polytheistic faith (STNG: Gambit), modern Vulcans have enshrined logic and science above all else, based on a philosophy developed by Surak, where logic must rule over all emotions and science has an answer for everything. Is this not a large part of secular humanism? Humanism in my view simply replaces gods with humanity. Behind STNG’s utopian universe in particular is the belief that humanity can move beyond its primitive origins, reach for the stars and achieve wondrous things. This comes uncomfortably close to deifying ourselves, creating an “Übermensch” or, at the very least, an unforgiving meritocracy. This is why one of my favourite episodes is STNG: Hollow Pursuits.
Hollow Pursuits is for me a critique of an unbridled humanism. The character of Barclay begins as a perceived failure in STNG: he is shy, nervous, a terrible communicator and physically unprepossessing; he has OCD tendencies and seems bright but unstable. Barclay does not fit in and even Picard trips up and uses the crew’s nickname for Barclay (Broccoli). Barclay hides on the holodeck where he has developed programmes to boost his lack of self-confidence, leading to a holodeck addiction. It is the only episode that shows the crushing weight of the meritocracy that comes with Roddenberry’s espousal of humanism. It also shows how the crew must take some responsibility for the state Barclay is in (highlighted by Guinan in one scene) and for understanding and supporting him. With the right support, Barclays is able to prove that he too has a valuable place in the ST universe. This episode is also humorous and shows that audiences held the fumbling Barclay in great affection because he went on to appear in other episodes where it is precisely his idiosyncrasies that help him save the day. This offers a little balance in an otherwise painfully perfect social order.
I would argue that all of the ST universe contains spirituality in some form – for what else is a search into the mysteries of the universe and the nature of man? I would also argue that this spirituality has a place in even a mostly atheist or agnostic future (and that humanism itself is a moral philosophy, even if it is not a religious one). As the authors (Jörg Hillebrand et al) of Ex Astris Scientia (EAS) state:
“Roddenberry condemned religion because it suppressed people in his view, which is definitely true for some eras of human history. But he did not look at the other side of the medal that, quite contrary to his statement that religion is making people dull, it has enriched Earth’s cultures and even science in the course of the centuries. What would our world be without its magnificent cathedrals and temples, without music and literature inspired by religion, without scientific interest that has its roots in the desire to be closer to god(s)?“
They go on to say:
“There are certainly fundamentalists who do not respect other views than their own. However, like political fanaticism this is just an outgrowth of human nature, not of the idea of religion. It would be unfair and ultimately counter-productive to ignore the ways of life of the majority of humanity in an effort to depict ST as a desirable future for them. In order to achieve Roddenberry’s utopia some day, we could ponder about abolishing everything that might be subject to misuse or what might restrict our freedom. But then we could question the existence of just about every technological, cultural, political or social custom, law or institution, anything that makes up our lives. With a firm stance that it would be better to take away faith from people, ST, in its few worst instalments, is just as narrow-minded and arrogant as the religious zeal it strives to condemn. On these occasions ST acts against its own principles.”
However, I would not couch my conclusions quite as negatively as EAS because ST has involved many different “cooks” and they did not “spoil the broth”. In fact, the ST canon in all its guises repeatedly asks questions and draws many different conclusions about philosophy, religion, mysticism, faith, rituals, false gods, humanism and the human race’s general search for meaning. If this universe sometimes contradicts itself (or its creator), that is a happily accurate rendition of our own universe, where we are faced with many questions, conflicting views and no easy answers.
Coda: Some claim that ST itself has turned into a religion or cult, with its conventions, fan clubs, forums, fan fic, a founding prophet (Roddenberry), a set of (humanist) beliefs or principles, scripture in the form of well-loved and much-quoted episodes, debates about what is “canon” and what is derivative, collectibles as pseudo-sacred objects, a vision of a utopia to be striven for, etc. However, I think I would agree with Mark Strauss’ conclusion that this is a bridge too far. Fandom or even a sub-culture do not a religion make.
Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.
Fascinating article which has really improved my understanding of religion in Star Trek.
I liked the breadth of this essay in terms of its treatment of the ST canon, but I found its engagement with the topic of religion as “religious and moral philosophy” and “faith” unfortunate. Outside of Protestant Christianity, it’s uncommon to find religious traditions where practitioners focus more on what they belief than action. Even in traditions like Islam and Judaism where some beliefs are quite important (eg monotheism), people focus much more on what they have to do to obtain worldly and otherworldly goals, and emphasis on belief is even less in most Buddhist, Hindu, shamanic, indigenous, etc. traditions. A mode of human agency is a much more fruitful place to begin characterizing religion. I discuss this some in my essay on Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie”: https://andydibble.com/2021/12/05/agency-and-cognitive-value-in-the-paper-menagerie/
I am not a Protestant, I am Catholic-by-my-definition just so you can place this author’s creed though it wasn’t relevant to my article. I disagree with your comment “outside of Protestant Christianity” and the sweeping statement that “it’s uncommon to find religious traditions where practitioners focus more on what they belief (believe) than action”. I have experienced my own faith/belief that colours/informs every area of my life, not just my actions, and this is not uncommon for many Catholics. Or for many Christian denominations where people’s beliefs form part of their daily thoughts, emotions and habits/rituals, as well as actions. Spirituality or mysticism that colours every aspect of a person’s life, whatever you prefer to call it, is part of all the major world religions/philosophies: Kabbalah (Judaism), Sufism (Islam), Vajrajana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, a lot of hinduism, etc. I have no problem with you preferring to look at religion via human agency; I just think that you are then summarily dismissing the whole gamut of mysticism out there (religious or not). It is perhaps more obvious in poorer societies how a person’s faith/spirituality is part of their everyday lives because they have to psychologically rely on it in a much more fundamental way than those (like you and me) living in wealthier societies.