Playing God: Religion in Star Trek

By Michelle T.

“A-koo-chee-moya. We are far from the sacred places of our grandfathers, and from the bones of our people, but perhaps there is one powerful being who will embrace this good crew and give them the answer they seek.” (Capt. Janeway, Voyager, The Cloud)

I’m watching Voyager for the first time, and this episode struck me. Not the plot, or Janeway’s desperation for coffee, but that particular line she speaks at the end. For me that encapsulates so much of what Star Trek represents and the positive future it shows. No, not that in the future everyone ought to have spirit animals and go on vision quests, but rather they ought to exhibit the same respect and curiosity Captain Janeway shows for Chakotay’s beliefs.

Religion is a tough subject in Star Trek. It’s well known that Gene Roddenberry was a staunch atheist and wanted to avoid all mention of religion in his show. As the various series progress, though, Star Trek does become more inclusive of religion.

It barely comes up in TOS. None of the characters are expressly religious, and the only religion or gods they encounter tend to be of the “false god” trope. These false gods are more advanced beings that take advantage of less learned civilizations with their technology and knowledge. We do see some aspects of Vulcan belief and culture. Whether or not we can classify the Vulcans’ reverence of Surak’s teachings as a religion, well, that is debatable. There is no god that they worship, but it is a set of beliefs that dictates behavior and how Vulcans live their lives day-to-day.

TNG goes a few steps further with Roddenberry’s beliefs. There are numerous instances of Picard and his crew encountering false gods and denouncing the impact of religion on societies. One episode in particular, the season 3 episode “Who Watches the Watchers,” clearly illustrates how earlier Star Trek portrays religion. The crew of Enterprise has accidentally shown their superior technology to the proto-Vulcan Mintakans, who conclude that Picard is a god. This exchange between Picard, Riker and Dr. Barron is telling:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Dr. Barron, I cannot, I *will not* impose a set of commandments on these people. To do so violates the very essence of the Prime Directive!
Dr. Barron: Like it or not, we have rekindled the Mintakans’ belief in the Overseer.
Commander William T. Riker: And are you saying that this belief will eventually become a religion?
Dr. Barron: It’s inevitable. And without guidance, that religion could degenerate into inquisitions, holy wars, chaos.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Horrifying. Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? NO!

For much of TNG, this is what we see from our characters. After Gene Roddenberry’s death this does start to change. In later seasons we begin to learn more about Klingon beliefs, in particular about the mythical figure Kahless. In the episode “The Rightful Heir” Worf suffers a crisis of belief, and Picard suggests he take a leave of absence to find what he needs. In this instance, Picard is fully supportive and tolerant of his crewmember finding spiritual meaning.

Benjamin SiskoThen, we get DS9. Where do you even begin with the role of religion and spirituality in this series? It plays an integral role in the plot, the world, and the development of many of the characters. If you’re reading this, I assume you’re familiar with the general premise. Sisko is assigned to Deep Space Nine, where he unwillingly gets labeled by the population of Bajor as the Emissary of their gods, the Prophets.

We watch him struggle with this and what it means for him through most of the seven seasons of the show. Are the Prophets gods? Are they just wormhole aliens? The Prophets are difficult to define, and even the science and logic that Sisko and so many Federation citizens hold dear cannot explain them. Eventually he does come to accept that they have an effect on Bajor’s affairs and care for its people. He embraces his role as the Emissary and takes on Gul Dukat, who has allied with the evil Pah-wraiths, to save Bajor.

DS9 also chose to make Major Kira explicitly religious. She maintains her faith in the Prophets and the religious institutions of her people (with the notable exception of Kai Winn.) Kira keeps up on what is happening in the Vedek Assembly and how it relates to the governance of Bajor. What I find compelling about DS9 is that none of the other characters mock Kira for her beliefs. They continue to respect her, ask questions about the Prophets, and try to understand where she is coming from. In this particular case, it may be easier for the crew of DS9 to accept Kira’s religion. There is an objective basis for it in reality, since the wormhole/temple is visible and the Prophets/wormhole aliens speak to Sisko and others. They take concrete action later, too, by destroying the Dominion fleet coming through the wormhole to attach the Alpha Quadrant.

Jadzia, just before her death in “Tears of the Prophets,” goes to the temple on the station to thank the Prophets. Kira had prayed to them on her behalf , asking that they help Worf and Jadzia have children. Jadzia has just found out that they can. She says “I’m not sure if I’m doing this correctly. I don’t come here a lot, and to be perfectly honest, I feel more comfortable thinking of you as wormhole aliens, but Kira believes that you’re much more than that. Maybe she’s right. I don’t know. But if you are Prophets, and you are listening, I just wanted to say…” She respects Kira, and understands that her religious beliefs are part of who she is. Jadzia loves Kira for what she believes, not in spite of it.

I can’t say much about Voyager yet, other than my previous mention of Chakotay and his beliefs. I haven’t watched Enterprise, so I have no opinions there at all, unfortunately. From what I have seen, though, I think the later Trek series were right to bring more focus to religion and spirituality. No matter what you believe or don’t believe, the curiosity about our origins and life’s meaning is integral to the human experience. Star Trek would have been remiss to avoid the subject, and to portray it only in a negative light. Bad things can come from religion, and certainly many terrible things have been done in its name. Good can come from it, too, though. I think the acceptance of religion shown by the later series helps illuminate Gene Roddenberry’s ideals more than leaving it out entirely. The future Star Trek shows is one where we accept each other despite differences in gender, race, species, and religion, and don’t discriminate or hate based on those differences.

(Thanks to Memory Alpha, imdb.com, and http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/inconsistencies/religion.htm for quotes, episode information, etc.)

Michelle lives in Fargo, ND, where she does normal people things by day and nerdy things by weekend and night. Her interests range from Star Trek, to history, archaeology, languages, fantasy and sci-fi, and cats.

9 Comments ON " Playing God: Religion in Star Trek "
  • alt_example

    Varzec March 11, 2015 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Very good article. I look forward to anything further on the subject. Also if you hven’t watched it , check out the Final Frontier, that movie has siginifigant references to the spirituality of several races and thier quest to Shakari beyond the galactici barrier.

  • alt_example

    Toni March 11, 2015 at 10:58 am - Reply

    Interesting article!Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As a person of faith, I’ve often contemplated the role of religion in Trek and how it is portrayed. I’d be especially interested in seeing what you think of this episode: http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Sacred_Ground_%28episode%29

  • alt_example

    Mike Poteet (@Bibliomike) March 11, 2015 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Fantastic overview, Michelle. You sum up each series’ overall approach to religion accurately and interestingly! I, too, am glad that Trek ultimately treats religion and spirituality as a part of “the human adventure,” with consequences (good and ill) for all of us, believers or not. It enriches the franchise’s vision of the future.

  • alt_example

    Michelle T. March 11, 2015 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Varzec- I have seen The Final Frontier. I definitely appreciate the spiritual/religious commentary in it, though I thought it was a bit heavy-handed.
    Toni- I’m about 6 episodes away from that, it looks like. I imagine I’ll have more comments after I watch it!
    Mike- Thanks!

  • alt_example

    Prof. Dr. Zarek March 12, 2015 at 4:06 am - Reply

    I like the Article.

    Yet i dislike the intigration of religion into the Star Trek mainplot after the death or Roddenberry.

    In my opinion Religion is the cause of most of the evil in our world and the main factor why we still wage war.

    Roddenberry knew that, as long as you have something that sets people apart from each other they have a hard time to get along with each other.

    Religion and Racism are besides personal greed the most disruptive forces humanity still has to overcome to finaly be somewhat close to what Roddenberry invisioned.

    The Original Series “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” showed how pathetic racism is.

    The same applies to ideology or religion as shown in the original episode “Patterns of Force”.
    As long as there are beliefs that can be manipulated by a single person or all powerful entity atop a society disaster is just a mater of time.

    I am all to well aware of the fact that my statement is most likely step on a lot of peoples toes but that is to be expected if opinions differ.

    Gene Roddenberry was a visionary he realized that we as people have to become equals not through forcing our beliefs on others waging war, enslaving or oppressing but to let loose the shackles of religion and racism.

    Having added this much focus of religion into DS9 was in my opinion just to cater to a greater audience.
    As it is pretty much with every US TV Series there is always the underlying Religion Question always the one Black Cast member and at some point all make a big fuzz about either being a christian or Jew.

    So yes DS9 was for me the least Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry loved to watch himself.

    I hope i did not upset to many of you with my assesment of Star Trek and Religion and hope this will give a different view of the matter.

    Life long and prosper
    Leonard Nimoy you will be missed for ever.

    • alt_example

      Mike Poteet (@Bibliomike) March 12, 2015 at 9:33 pm - Reply

      Dear Dr. Zarek – Thanks for sharing your view. No doubt religion is certainly the cause of, or at least the excuse for, too much evil in history and today. It’s also, of course, the source of, or expression of, much beauty and goodness. I think later Trek tried to portray religion in all its fullness, good and bad as Michelle argues in her essay.

      I certainly don’t think DS9 was “catering” to anyone by including religion. If they wanted to cater to people of faith, they wouldn’t have given us characters like Kai Winn, who clearly manipulated religion for her own ends. If they’d wanted to cater to non-religious people, they wouldn’t have included Kira as a character of deep faith.

      • alt_example

        wardcalis March 23, 2015 at 11:47 am - Reply

        I kind of agree with you both. most of the time, accept for Voyager, when religion was depicted it was usually disparaging and pointed out the flaws, intolerance and close minded thinking that religion advocates. I approve of most of the way religion is depicted in startrek accept for Voyager

  • alt_example

    seannewboy March 12, 2015 at 6:23 am - Reply

    Excellent article.

  • alt_example

    Eklinaar March 15, 2015 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Great post. I’ve had conversations like this with a number of my Trek friends. I would posit that the beliefs held by Starfleet officers regarding exploration and the pursuit of scientific truth does constitute a religious framework. Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as being a non-religious human. Atheism is just as much a religion as any other, in my opinion. I was also glad when Star Trek started incorporating a more pluralistic view of religion in the later series.

    For those interested in sci-fi and religion in general, Babylon 5 did a great job portraying religion in a pluralistic society in a realistic and meaningful way. It was also written by a staunch atheist, yet one who ended up taking a strikingly different attitude towards religion than Roddenberry. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the two.


leave a response




Join the Priority One Team

Latest Tweets

Leave us a voice message!