Science fiction is often times used to tell stories about the human condition because of how sci-fi uniquely offers situations and settings that provide such a rich platform for these types of stories. Star Trek is no exception and has often been lauded for its ability to provide stories that deal with various aspects of the human condition wrapped up in a Utopian futuristic setting. However, it seems Star Trek hasn’t really done as much exploring of religion as it should. Considering how big an aspect of humanity religion is and how Star Trek is often equated with exploring humanity, one would think that religion would figure heavily but that isn’t the case. This may be in part because of Gene Roddenberry’s pronounced atheism or the subsequent writers’ wish to keep one of the most controversial topics out of Star Trek but in any case, Star Trek simply hasn’t explored this issue as much as one would think and when they do, it’s almost never explored in a realistic or meaningful way.
Back in 1966 when The Original Series first aired, Star Trek religion-focused examples were few and limited. Perhaps the two most religiously oriented episodes are “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Bread and Circuses”. The former presents the origins of the ancient Earth Greek polytheism as a product of alien influence when the Enterprise discovers Apollo, an alien being who used his great power to demand worship from the ancient Greeks. In “Bread and Circuses”, the Enterprise discovers a society greatly akin to ancient Rome nearing its fall as paralleling Earth history. There is also a group of people who preach kindness, brotherhood, and peace who are described as “sun worshipers”. This is, however, confusing to Spock who recalls that most societies that practice sun worship are usually barbaric and warlike which is at odds with this group’s teachings on peace. It isn’t until the end when Uhura figures out that they are actually worshiping the “Son” of God. Again, paralleling early Christianity as it grew during the years preceding the fall of the Roman Empire, however, this episode seems more focused on how this alien world is paralleling Earth’s history and less about how the religion actually impacts people. Aside from these two episodes, The Original Series only scantly references any Earth religion usually through a Christian reference here or there from Kirk or McCoy and any time they discover a religious aspect of an alien society, it is always portrayed as being more alien influence similar to the Apollo situation from “Who Mourns for Adonais”.
In The Original Series movies, only one directly deals with a religious aspect and that is the heavily panned fifth film, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In this film, the Enterprise crew meets Spock’s half-brother, Sybok, who has rejected Vulcan logic and seeks to find God at the center of the galaxy where the Vulcan heaven, Sha Ka Ree, is supposedly located. Once there, they discover an alien entity who passes himself off as God in order to gain Sybok’s trust. Kirk, however, discovers a flaw in God’s logic when the entity requests a Starship to be able to escape his planet and Kirk wonders why an all-powerful god would require a ship to do anything. Once the realization that this entity cannot be God, Sybok sacrifices himself to defeat the entity as the Enterprise escapes. Again, this film doesn’t really deal with religion in any realistic way since the “God” figure is again portrayed as an alien whose great power is mistook for the divine.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the same attitude towards religion is again taken, although I would say much more militantly so, and the vague Christian references that Kirk and McCoy would often give are entirely absent in this incarnation of Star Trek. Every portrayal of religion is shown only in primitive alien societies who are seen as not having evolved enough to abandon religion as Earth has. I would hazard a guess that this is because Gene Roddenberry had become much more humanist and instead of thinking that religion wasn’t for him, as I would guess he felt during The Original Series, he instead began to feel that religion was an opposing force to progress and human evolution which is why TNG presents itself as much more atheist and humanist than its predecessor. One interesting religious aspect of TNG, however, is the character of Q. While TNG is arguably the most openly atheist and devoid of religion, Q is presented as an all-powerful and all-knowing being but uses his powers to annoy, badger, and generally cause no end of mayhem and misery for Picard and his crew. I would submit that Roddenberry used Q to say that if God existed, he would be a bully and therefore unworthy of divinity or respect.
Perhaps the most religiously oriented incarnation of Star Trek, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine presents a multifaceted approach to exploring religion and is perhaps the only Star Trek incarnation that does this in a serious and respectful manner. The most prominent religious aspect is the Bajoran religion to which main character Kira Nerys ascribes. The Bajorans believe in a religion curiously similar to both Judaism and certain denominations of Christianity. Their gods, the Prophets, are beings of great power that reside in the Celestial Temple and are said to look out for and guide the Bajorans. Starfleet, however, presents the more atheist and skeptical view of the Bajoran religion as they see the Prophets as another example of aliens using their great power to masquerade as gods; however, due to the way the Bajoran religion is portrayed, mostly through Kira’s devout faith in the Prophets, the audience is often left wondering if the Prophets aremerely powerful aliens or if they are something more. This is compounded by the interactions between more religiously important characters like Captain Sisko, who is chosen by the Prophets in the first episode to be their Emissary, Kai Wynn, the often antagonizing leader of the Bajoran religion in a role similar to the Catholic Pope, or Gul Dukat who, by the series’ end, joins the Pah Wraiths in their war against the Prophets. The depth and respect afforded to the Bajoran religion is something that hasn’t been seen in Star Trek before or since Deep Space Nine which I submit is unfortunate.
In Star Trek: Voyager, the only real religious aspect that the audience is presented with is through the character of Chakotay.
This Native American First Officer is portrayed as a devout follower of his Native American religion; however, his religion is always portrayed as vague, nondescript, and an amalgam of basic Native American beliefs with no attention given to how his tribe’s beliefs differ from other Native Americans or anything like that. Unfortunately, Chakotay’s religion ends up being used as mostly a plot device for when he needs information. During these situations, Chakotay will enter a “spirit quest” with his spirit guide, Akoocheemoya, and will always be presented with the needed information just in time so his objective will be completed. Essentially, Chakotay’s religion isn’t really anything more than a stereotype used as a plot device, making any exploration of this religion mute and pointless.
In Star Trek: Enterprise, there is perhaps only one episode, Chosen Realm, that deals with religion. In this episode, the Enterprise crew finds the crew of another ship that are found to be religiously fanatical and use violence, mostly through suicide bombers, as a form of enforcing what they would see
as peace on a planet that has been war torn by religious war for years. Considering that this episode was released in 2004, it can be seen how this would be culturally relevant since 9/11 was still fresh in the cultural mindset and many people were blaming religion for the cause of that disaster as well as other violence that ensues in the modern day. As the episode ends, the fanatical leader of this religious sect is returned to his home planet only to find that the religious war he sought to end has completely destroyed his planet and left it uninhabitable. This approach to religion seems to mirror the TNG approach as it displayed religion as a cause of great strife and holding a people group back from evolving into a more peaceful society; however, it still seems that religion here is portrayed very generically and it doesn’t actually explore how religion works on a personal level like it did in Deep Space Nine.
With the notable exception of Deep Space Nine, Star Trek has curiously ignored, misrepresented, or criticized religion as holding people back from becoming better. While Star Trek is famous for its exploration of the human condition, it seems to have largely failed in this area. With a new series being released in 2017, I would hope that a broader and more understanding attitude towards religion be brought to Star Trek as it is a huge part of the human condition that deserves more attention and respect than what the vast bulk of Star Trek has done.
What do you think about religion’s inclusion in the Star Trek universe? Do you think it got a fair shake in the various series? Comment below with your thoughts!