If you had asked high school or college Chris to name his favorite TV show, Star Trek would have been near the top of the list. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation right from its 1986 beginning, and in the process worked my way back to “The Original Series,” which debuted on NBC fifty years ago tonight. I’ve enjoyed the J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek movie series and will very likely give the newest TV version (Discovery) a shot when it debuts next year.
But the fact that I almost let the day go by without thinking to post anything on the occasion tells you that Trek has slipped from my consciousness a bit. So while I don’t have the time or knowledge to explore the topic fully myself, anyone interested in the intersection of Star Trek with the most important themes of this blog might want to visit Ex Astris Scientia, a Trek blog hosted by a German design engineer named Bernd Schneider.
While his focus is primarily the technology of Trek’s future, Schneider also wrote a fascinating article on religion in Star Trek. On the one hand, he finds, creator Gene Roddenberry’s hostility to organized religion and theistic faith seems to have shaped Trek considerably:
Religion seems to be largely absent from the futuristic and secular world of the Federation and in particular from human society. Star Trek’s takes on religious topics are often critical, and they almost routinely close with a victory of science over faith.
Several episodes explore the dangerous power of religious belief, with god-like figures undermined with the help of Kirk and crew. But Schneider acknowledges that “explicit anti-religious statements are comparably rare in Star Trek, even during most of the time when Roddenberry was still alive.” A 1968 episode set on a parallel Earth even gave a positive portrayal of anti-Roman rebels who worshipped “the Son of God” (so said Uhura, correcting Spock for once). The two weakest of the movies made with the original cast (Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the William Shatner-directed The Final Frontier) were rather overtly spiritual, concerned with themes of creation and transcendence.
Brannon Braga, who wrote for The Next Generation and produced two later spinoffs (Voyager and Enterprise), insisted “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 he also was interested in exploring religion through non-human species like the hive-mind Borg and the Bajora, who were introduced on TNG and then played a central role on the spinoff Deep Space Nine, in which Schneider thinks “the reputation of religion in Trek has improved… even if it is only an exception made for recurring characters.”
(Writing for the Gawker sci-fi blog io9 in 2008, Charlie Jane Anders went even further: “Deep Space Nine has religion built into its DNA at so many levels, it’s practically a religious allegory with space-opera trappings.” And while she was ultimately dissatisfied with that show’s treatment of faith, she argued that DS9 writer-producer Ron Moore learned lessons from that experience when he went on to produce a show whose religious themes were at least as prominent, but rendered with greater nuance: Battlestar Galactica.)
In the end, Schneider comes down hard on Roddenberry (who died before DS9 premiered) for infusing his most famous legacy with his atheism:
His reasons for rejecting religion stand against the fact that billions of religious human beings on present-day Earth live in relative peace and tolerance. There are certainly fundamentalists who do not respect other views than their own. However, just like political fanaticism this is just an outgrowth of the human nature, not of the idea of religion. It is simply unfair and counter-productive to ignore the ways of life of the majority of humanity in an effort to depict Star Trek as a desirable future for them…. With a firm stance that it would be better to take away faith from people, Star Trek, in its few worst installments, is just as narrow-minded and arrogant as the religious zeal it strives to condemn. On these occasions Star Trek acts against its own principles.
Whatever his reasons were, Gene Roddenberry was mistaken about religion. I am glad that he hit the nail on the head with other ideas that he came up with.
Click here to read Schneider’s full article, “Religion in Star Trek.”