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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Faith, or Lack Thereof, in Star Trek


By Raymond J. Keating

Late last month, I stumbled upon a series of essays at about Star Trek. It turned out to be the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Wow. Since I became a fan as a kid with the original Star Trek series in reruns during the 1970s, the fact that it’s been two decades since Captain Jean Luc Picard first beamed into our living rooms makes me feel kind of old.

Several conservatives writing on NR seemed to wrestle with being fans of this rather liberal television show. It’s an interesting point, including for this self-confessed conservative Trekker. Perhaps it’s as straightforward as a combination of interesting characters, compelling stories that often involve some big issues to debate and discuss, cool space stuff, and general sci-fi geekiness.

But one of the most annoying facts about Star Trek is its heavy secular humanism – particularly after the original series. In all my years watching five Trek television series (six, if you count the animated series) and 10 films, I can only recall four instances where God or faith in God were prominently mentioned or evident.

Three occurred in the original Star Trek series.

In an episode titled “Balance of Terror,” a member of the crew prays on her knees in a chapel after the death of her fiancé. In another episode – “Who Mourns for Adonais?” – Captain Kirk tells a powerful alien who wants the crew to worship him as a god that our one God is sufficient.

Most powerfully, in “Bread and Circuses,” the crew visits a planet where the Roman Empire is still running things in the 20th century. After Kirk, Spock and McCoy escape to the Enterprise, Lt. Uhura notes that she has been monitoring transmissions, and discovered that the peace-loving “sun” worshipers on the planet were not actually worshipping the sun, but instead, the Son of God. And Kirk remarks: “Caesar and Christ, they had them both and the word is spreading only now.”

As Mr. Spock would say: Fascinating.

But that was really it on the positive side of the Star Trek religion equation.

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the point of the entire movie seemed to be to question the existence of God.

Meanwhile, the Next Generation television show wallowed in a rather foolish utopian vision of the perfectibility of humankind. The sinful aspects of human nature simply withered away. The Federation is billed as paradise in space.

No one in Starfleet apparently was a Christian or a Jew. However, some pagan beliefs were given screen time, such as in Star Trek: Voyager, as well as alien beliefs, including Bajoran and Klingon religions.

For a show supposedly celebrating diversity, why are the humans actually so terribly bland in their faith, or perhaps more appropriately, lack of faith. Wouldn’t it be more interesting – and realistic -- to have Christians and Jews, for example, on board these starships? Are we really supposed to believe that there are no Christians in the future?

This lack of faith aboard starships over the past two decades can be explained in two ways. The first is a lack of courage on the part of Trek’s creators to portray full human beings, including their religious beliefs. That’s not unusual on television in general, but seems to particularly plague the science fiction genre.

Second, like so many (but far from all) in Hollywood, those who made these shows probably have very little regard for religion. They would like Christianity, for example, to go away in the present, so why include it in their own visions of the future?

In fact, Gene Roddenberry, the late creator of Star Trek, rejected Christianity in his teenage years, and became an atheist. He actually was quite hostile to religion. In one interview, he was quoted: “Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.” In another, Roddenberry reportedly declared: “If people need religion, ignore them and maybe they will ignore you, and you can go on with your life. It wasn’t until I was beginning to do Star Trek that the subject of religion arose again. What brought it up was that people were saying that I would have a chaplain on board the Enterprise. I replied, ‘No, we don’t.’”

No Starfleet chaplains? How sad for Star Trek. But worst of all, how sad for Roddenberry.



Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the “On the Church & Society Report.”  This column is from the latest issue of the “On the Church & Society Report,” which also features “Exit from the Episcopal Church … and Entry,” “The Costs of Piracy,” and “Superman as a Christ Allegory.”To receive a free four-issue trial of “On the Church & Society Report,” send an e-mail request to [email protected].

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