I love me some Star Trek, I’m not going to lie. It’s science fiction, sure, but it always, when it’s at its best, has been interested in telling stories about the world as we know it. Even though it pushed its metaphors a bit too far at times (Vulcan AIDS, anyone?), Trek has often had trenchant and sometimes profound things to say about modern-day race relations, politics, and culture. Its commentary on religion, however, has often been problematic. There’s a tone of dismissal in the way the show sometimes portrays people of belief; a snooty air of disbelief that people in the 24th century could actually believe in a deity. But is Star Trek anti-religion, or merely skeptical about it?
A lot of its odd attitudes about religion, at least early on, has to do with the influence of Gene Roddenberry, who once famously stated:
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.
Producer Brannon Braga later noted:
[Roddenberry], himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.
Earth religions still appear here and there in Trek, but generally only in passing, as when Picard celebrates Christmas with his family in Generations, or the occasional biblical quote used to make a point; priests are said to still officiate weddings, and Chakotay’s ambiguous mysticism indicates that at least some humans cling to a belief in something more than science. Two consistent story devices offer up a more fertile ground to examine Trek’s theories of religion, though: the persistent notion of false gods throughout all of the various series, and Deep Space Nine’s look at the conflict between organized religion and spirituality.
One of the ways Roddenberry broached the topic of religion in the 1960’s (when expressing overt atheism, as he did above, would’ve essentially guaranteed his show an early end) was through the use of the “false god” plot. This plot actually recurs throughout all of the various incarnations of Trek, but it’s particularly common in The Original Series. A backwards society is kept in thrall to a more advanced species or imposter, who blind them to the truth of the universe with technological shadows and mirrors. Among the episodes that employ this methodology are “Return Of The Archons,” where a 6,000-year-old computer (does that number remind you of anything?) is revealed to be mimicking a culture’s chief prophet, until Kirk manages to convince it to destroy itself; an almost identical storyline plays out in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” and “The Apple.” In “And The Children Shall Lead,” a telepathic alien kills the adult members of a colony and keeps their children in its thrall by allowing them to play all day long, until they’re freed by Kirk’s intervention. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” a race that exhibits apparently supernatural powers is found to merely be under the stimulating effects influence of the local food supply. This basic plot recurs in around ten different TOS episodes.
The false gods plot recurs in The Next Generation and onwards, of course, with episodes like TNG’s “The Devil’s Due,” where a con artist impersonating a culture’s most feared devil attempts to wrest control of an entire planet by making them think that their world is coming to an end, or Voyager’s “False Profits,” where two Ferengi imitate mythical gods to cow the local population of a planet after crash-landing there. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the TNG episode “Who Watches The Watchers?,” wherein Picard angrily refuses a doctor’s suggestion that he attempt to enact positive change on a primitive culture by pretending to be a god:
It’s difficult not to relate this recurrent use of false gods back to Roddenberry’s views of real-world religion. Was he asking people to reflect on the Occam’s Razor as applied to religion? Is it more logical to believe that Jesus actually possessed the ability to perform miracles, or that he was some kind of alien, possessed of near-magical technology? Or was he simply implying that it’d be better to throw off the shackles of organized religion, no matter how painful the realization that our Gods were all robots might be? It’s a curious repetition: the idea that religion deprives members of a society of free will, and in fact replaces it with slave-like worship of mere idols, and idols that are almost always corrupt, at that. Roddenberry might not have been able to be explicit about this message in The Original Series, but the repetition of the theme makes his point for him.
At any rate, William Shatner got the message, when he directed and co-wrote Star Trek V, perhaps the apotheosis (pardon the pun) of the false god plot, in which the Enterprise tracks down and kills God.
Deep Space Nine: The Zealous Faithful
My favorite of the various Star Trek series is, by a fair margin, Deep Space Nine, which also contains perhaps the most detailed look at the religious aspects of far future societies. Because it was able to embed the religious peccadilloes of the Bajorans across seven seasons, rather than having to deal with it in a single episode, and perhaps also due to the death of Roddenberry before the series went to production, the representation of religion was generally more sympathetic on DS9 than it had been on previous Treks, but that’s a kind way of saying that it was improved from a general stance of “religion is always wrong.”
It’s interesting that the series seemed poised to examine the intricacies of the Bajoran religion for the entirety of its run, and then, to boost ratings, sidetracked itself into Dominion War (which wound up being completely awesome, so heck if I mind). What’s perhaps most interesting about the Bajoran religion, based upon a belief in the presence of gods who lived in a wormhole near their home planet, was that their belief was actually proved correct, in contrast to the con men and trickery behind most Star Trek religions: there were, indeed, supernatural beings inside the wormhole, which manifested themselves to Captain Sisko, and which were powerful enough to be effectively godlike. (More precisely, we might say that the issue of belief or faith is never one that needs to be raised.) Which raises the question that helped define the relationship between the scientific Starfleet and the pious Bajorans: is there a difference between a godlike alien creature and a god? (In the case of the Q, which come as close to gods as Star Trek has ever really gotten, that difference might be that they evolved into their powers over time, having once been mere mortals; the Prophets were left rather ill-defined in this regard.)
The interplay between the Prophets and the rest of the universe was sometimes inconsistent and at other times silly, but the writers of DS9 took a more careful look at the politics of the religion itself, planting pious but open-minded Bajorans like Kira against the orthodox, intolerant, fundamentalist majority, as represented by Kai Winn, who was willing to bomb schools and attempt assassinations on her political rivals to stay in power. The organization is not much different from the 16th-Century Catholic Church that the Assassin’s Creed games mock so well: everyone wants to be pope and is willing to do almost anything to ensure that they, and not their enemies, assume the office. It's not all bad, however, with Kai Opaka acting as a serene presence early on in the series, and with many Bajorans, like Kira, having used their religion as a source of solace during the long period of Cardassian occupation.
Winn, however, is one of science fiction’s great religious bogeymen. Sci-fi at its worst has often treated religious populations as hypocritical extremists, and Winn, despite her over-piousness at the beginning of the series, does eventually betray all of her beliefs over a combination of jealousy that a human could possess the ability to communicate with her gods while they leave her out in the spiritual cold, so to speak, and her own admitted and lifelong spiritual emptiness. What’s worse, she eventually came under the thrall of the Bajoran devils, the Pah-Wraiths, and almost led the entire galaxy into damnation by releasing them from their prison. It’s a little sad that Louise Fletcher, best known for her Oscar-winning role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is also mainly noted among genre enthusiasts for a role possibly even more monstrous.
In the end, DS9 upgraded Star Trek’s treatment of religion from “mostly contemptuous” to “ambiguous with a hint of disdain.” (It’s worth noting that the series couldn’t help inserting another example of false gods, in the form of the Founders and their drug-addled worshipers the Jem’Hadar.) Like much of the treatment of Vulcan spiritualism throughout various Trek series (but especially in Enterprise), the end stance would appear to be that spirituality can be a force for good in the life of an individual, and perhaps even a society, but that organized religion often leads to corruption, discrimination, and hypocrisy.
What’s The Verdict?
It’s obvious that Star Trek, even after Roddenberry’s passing, has never been overly enthusiastic about religion as a force for good, but as time has passed, the producers and writers of the shows that followed his death warmed up to religion - to a degree. Is Star Trek anti-religion? If you take The Original Series into consideration and average out all of the opinions offered on religion throughout all of the films and series, the answer is almost definitely yes; if one considers only the episodes produced after Roddenberry’s passing, though, we wind up with interesting looks at the religions of the Bajorans, Vulcans, and Klingons that lead to a significantly more ambiguous view of the role of religion in the lives of the people living in the Trek universe. As far as the human species goes (with the possible exception of Voyager’s Chakotay), however, the only religion that really matters is, of course (given the genre), science, the solution to every problem encountered, great or small.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have faith, though...faith of the heart.