The Gospel According to Roddenberry

Blog | | Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Star Trek and religion? Yes, please!

I’ve had a secret book project lurking inside my mind for a while now. It’s actually an idea that I had a number of years ago. Basically, it would be a systematic look at the religions of Star Trek. I mean, I’ve read that lawyers have written papers about the legal system of the Federation. A number of years ago, some of the professors from my alma mater did a paper on the family communication systems displayed in some of the episodes. And I figured it might be a kick to have a pastor take a look at the religions presented in the Star Trek universe and try to sift through them to figure out what the disparate races actually believed. I even got started on the research a number of years ago, watching the first season of The Original Series and taking notes. I even heard what could be mistaken as a seeming benediction in the first episode, when Sulu “blesses” Yeoman Rand with the odd phrase, “May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet.” Awesome stuff!

But then I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the second season and didn’t want to buy one of my own. So the project kind of fizzled.

But then, thanks to the miracle of Netflix, I’ve been able to resume my Star Trek viewing, going through all three seasons of the Original Series, diving into the Animated Series, and working through the Next Generation.

And in the weeks that this has taken, I’ve noticed something: I wouldn’t have had that much material if I had just gone with those three. Oh, sure. There are divinities of a sort, such as Apollo or Trelane of Gothos. And let’s not forget Q. But by and large, religion doesn’t play much of a role in 23rd and 24th century society. The few times it does come up, it’s mocked (such as when the Mintakan people mistake Picard for a god, the belief of which is roundly snorted at by the Enterprise-D crew). Or it’s co-opted in odd ways. For example, in the abysmal episode Sub Rosa, at Dr. Crusher’s grandmother’s funeral, the alien Scottish governor oversees the proceedings. And some of the words sound very familiar. I’ve said them myself plenty of times, “. . . ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope . . .”

Now, normally, when I do that, I keep going with this: “of the resurrection to eternal life.” But that’s not what alien governor dude said. Instead, he finished it with some lame Hallmark-esque nonsense like “. . . that she’ll live on in our hearts and minds.” Crazy thing is, this whole scene was taking place outside of a church building, or at least, something that looked like one. So they put it in for the tourists? No wonder Anne Rice doesn’t want her name associated with this dreck.

But then things changed with Deep Space Nine. I’m only halfway through the first season so far, but already, we’ve seen great respect shown to the Bajoran prophets. And I know what is to come: Klingon wedding rituals, Ferengi afterlife visions, plus the twisted theological world of the Dominion. There was a shift where suddenly, what once was mocked suddenly could come out in the light.

Cole Matson, in a recent blog post, points out that DS9 aired two years after Roddenberry’s death. With different people at the helm, we could see how spirituality plays out in a highly technological society. Rather than mocked, it has its place and hey, wouldn’t you know it, it can even be shown as a driving force. Think the ending season of DS9. The war with the Dominion has a deeply spiritual component to it as Gul Dukat champions the cause of the pah wraiths against the Prophets, and the war isn’t truly over until . . . well, spoilers. Sorry. The point is this: the wormhole aliens or Prophets or whatever you want to call them never tell the Bajorans to stop worshiping them. There’s never a moment where the aliens say, “C’mon, folks, knock it off, we’re just an alien society that lives outside of linear time. Please stop.” Instead, the worship of the Prophets almost seems proper given the cultural context. They provide hope and protection to the Bajoran people. Their faith is rewarded.

This gives me hope. While DS9 wasn’t well-received at the time, I think it has aged well and shows us that yes, spirituality and science fiction can go hand in hand.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll write that book someday. But for now, I’m going to have some fun getting re-acquainted with some old friends.

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John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister. By night, he writes weird stories. He lives in South St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife and two sons. His first published novel, Failstate, a superhero fantasy for young-adult readers, debuted in April 2012 from Marcher Lord Press. Keep up with his own website at The Least Read Blog on the Web.

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10 responses

  1. That is one reason I loved DS9, the religious aspect. Although I winced during the episode where all the Bajoran children are taken out of school when they are taught their gods are really just aliens and Kai Wynn walks in. But I appreciate that respected members of DS9 are shown to believe, and not mocked for it (Kira Nerys).

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  2. I’m greatly interested in the results of your research.  I’m almost done watching TNG, most of the episodes for the first time.  I’ve never really seen much of anything from Deep Space 9 yet, but I’ve read essays about Roddenbury’s atheist agenda in TNG and how DS9 is different.

    I’ve also seen all of Babylon 5, the producer of which –J. Michael Staczynski — is also an atheist, at least according to Wikipedia.  However, Babylon 5 handles spirituality very carefully, and even though it’s far from Christian, I feel that the series is at least honest about the need for spiritual transcendence.  Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 have more than spirituality in common; they’re both set on space stations, for one, and I’ve heard conspiracies from both fandoms claiming that the other ripped their show off!

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  3. My favorite ‘religious’ moment in Star Trek comes from Star Trek V.

    The whole film seems to want to debunk religions as lies coming from some nasty alien in the center of the galaxy. But its own plot holes are like photon torpedoes shot at that thesis.

     Like, who was powerful enough to imprison this god-like character in the first place? 

    Anyway, my favorite moment comes when the god-like alien asks for the Enterprise and Kirk is like, “What does god need with a star ship?”
    Such a searing condemnation of false religions that value their good works as  a means of salvation. God doesn’t need your five pillars or your holy undies or your star ships! God is the one doing the saving, doing the work. We just have to receive. And whenever I see some legalism, my nerd brain always says quietly to itself, “What does god need with a star ship?”

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    • Yes.  A lot of times, atheistic themes in fiction make good, valid points, points that don’t at all contradict the truth of God despite their lame attempts to do so.  Sometimes atheists think that God is a god, other times that treat Him like Satan.  In both cases, I think I can find a lot of support for truth in stories framed to dismantle truth.

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  4. I never did quite buy into DS9. I loved Star Trek for the ‘trek’ aspect — the exploring and discovery of new worlds and new peoples. Sitting on a space station and dealing with international politics bored me. And I didn’t like the pseudo-religious stuff, because I didn’t trust their portrayal of religious folks, nor did I like their religion.
     
    At least, that’s how I felt back then. I’m sure I missed out on the nuances, not having watched much of it (I did catch episodes here and there).
     
    I’m sure the religious themes were part of the reason DS9 wasn’t as popular. The original sans-god Star Trek no doubt appealed to other folks like Roddenberry, folks who liked to think that humanity would outgrow their obviously childish (ha!) need for a god or savior.
     
    Of course, if these enlightened viewers were as scientific as they thought they were, they’d have realized that observable evidence of history proves that humanity has always needed God and will always come up with something to fill that gap. Maybe they just figured that evolution would eventually weed out this basic human “fault”, rather than believing that evolution obviously prefers believers (if evolution existed) and finds them “fitter” than unbelievers. Heh.

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  5. I should watch some of those shows at some point

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  6. Beau Quilter says:

    Have you taken a look at the Star Trek Voyager series? One the main characters is the captain’s Number One officer, Commander Chakotay. Chakotay is a native American who engages in spiritual journeys with his animal spirit guide.

    My take on the religious content seeping in after Roddenberry’s death? Huge disappointment.  Roddenberry had it right. Supernatural faith has little to no place in a secure, peaceful, and advanced human civilization of the future.

    I know you’ll disagree – just wanted you to hear from the other side of the fence. 

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  7. Interestingly, I’ve been re-viewing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and appreciating this series even more this time around. To all this renewed discussion about Trek religion, I have only one thing to say: “Fascinating.”

    One thing to say starting out, that is.

    I’m firmly with Morgan in DS9 fandom. Yes, episodes such as that season-1 show in which Federation and Bajoran beliefs clash did occur, yet ultimately because of the series’ emphasis, they cast blame on legitimate false purveyors of religion, not the beliefs themselves. Roddenberry-Trek would have ended with yet another unmasking of the ridiculous posturing, needy, pathetic “god”-imposter. Yet at the end of each DS9 episode focusing on Bajoran religion, those beliefs are respected.

    Going through TOS for the first time, I’ve seen this contrast more strongly. This also applies to the first few seasons of TNG, though those didn’t have the color and pulpy fun of TOS. Moreover, in TOS Roddenberry decided humanity was still “evolving,” giving rise to situations like aliens righteously trapping Kirk on the desert planet with the Gorn, to fight out their differences; yet by the time of TNG, he must have decided, “that’s it, we’re evolved by then,” and as a result the stories were weaker and the characters relatively one-dimensional and insufferable snots.

    1. Q, acting like the “omnipotent god” stock-character from TOS, arrives to put humanity on trial. Picard and the crew prove him wrong, and Picard angrily, somewhat self-righteously denounces Q’s self-righteousness. Behold humanity, faster, better, cheaper (in the case of Riker)! So get off my bridge.
    2. People got annoyed with Wesley Crusher the wonder child. I’m not sure we realize that without other writers pushing against Roddenberry’s concept of internal conflict-free characters, everyone would be acting like Wesley.
    3. People critique TNG season 1 for only having potential, and not nearly the wonder as the later seasons and series. There’s a good reason for that: when humanity is going about the galaxy basically staring at its own highly evolved navel, there’s little capacity for delighting in something beyond itself.

    By contrast, after Roddenberry’s death, other producers could come “outside” the series’ central conceit, the “evolved” Federation, and explore how those beliefs contrast with others’ beliefs – without having chest-thumping insufferable-snot Wesley-on-’roids Humanity win yet another round. In DS9, with its crucial story element of the Prophets (i.e., the wormhole aliens), the series does not condemn anyone, whether Federation humanism (I believe it’s actually called humanism at some point!) or Bajoran faith. The episodes, and the arc as a whole, end not with pronouncement of all beliefs’ lies and absurdities, but with questions. Who is right: Federation officer or Bajoran? Meanwhile, the Klingons and even the Cardassians have some challenging and internally consistent beliefs — and even the Ferengi!

    But certainly, by the series’ end, Bajoran faith has been absolutely vindicated. That’s the spoiler John wanted to avoid in his column, and I will similarly avoid it here. I will only say that the series’ spectacular finale certainly incorporates some timeless fantasy archetypes, including evil spiritual beings and Chosen One themes, and even echoes a pivotal moment in The Lord of the Rings. It seems humanism alone does not a good story make. You need to borrow from good-vs.-evil faith too.

    That’s not to say that Bajoran religion honors Christianity, specifically, or that it was without faults. Bajoran religion seems to be all traditions and symbols and ancient texts, but has little to say about personal ethics. You can be a Bajoran monk and have overnight fun with your girlfriend, for example. And not even the woman trying to become Bajoran “pope” instead of you will make a scandalous case of it.

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  8. The episodes I loved were when Benjamin had visions from the Bajoran Prophets.   I felt they captured somewhat a real prophet may have gone through.

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