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.

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