First, let's make sure we're all on the same page. What do I mean when I say "religion" and "faith"
and "belief"? Who is this Gene Roddenberry? Was early Trek really that antagonistic about religion?
And what exactly is this Star Trek, and is it really that important? Hopefully, this section
answers some of those questions.
As a question that's been debated for centuries, it's unlikely it will ever be
possible to come to any kind of consensus regarding what is "religion" and what
is not. The most I can hope for is establishing how I define religion in the
context of this project, and there are two definitions offered by others that
have shaped the way I understand the concept:
"the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in
harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto" - William James
"The study of lived religion directs attention to institutions and persons,
texts and rituals, practice and theology, things and ideas--all as media of
making and unmaking worlds. This way of approaching religious practice as
fundamentally and always in history and culture is concerned with what people
do with religious idioms, how they use them, what they make of themselves and
their worlds with them, and how in turn people are fundamentally shaped by the
worlds they are making as they make these worlds" (Robert Orsi,
The Madonna of 115th St. xix).
The first thing to notice about these two definitions is that
neither mention any gods or supernatural entities or processes. While many
insist that belief in some form of God might be a cornerstone of belief, many
scholars disagree. This broad perspective allows for the consideration of
organized religions as well as more New Age understandings of the world, and
even individuals who show a religious-like devotion to anything from sports to
the philosophies of a given scholar.
Orsi's conception of Lived Religion, on the other hand, broadens the
understanding of religion away from religious hierarchies and organizations and
puts the interest back in the hands of the practitioners. It looks at the way
people actually live their lives rather than the doctrine and rules espoused in
a bound document that may not always be read.
These two definitions together position religion as the understanding that there
is a way the world should be and looks at the way people respond to that
understanding and how it affects the operations of their daily life. It's a
definition that is somewhat broad, but one that is more fitting for an
increasingly diverse religious landscape. It's also works quite well for the
world of Star Trek in which there are few clearly defined and theologically
complex belief systems, but numerous individuals who hold passionately to
various ideals and rules.
If you didn't answer number three (and didn't know
that "Qapla" means success in Klingon) then you might want to read this section,
otherwise, feel free to skip
Star Trek was created was created by television producer and
former WWII fighter pilot, Gene Roddenberry. The show aired for only three
seasons on NBC (1966-1969), but it captivated enough to make it one of the most
influential and expansive cultural products ever. The show was about a space
ship of travelers studying the galaxy, making contact with new species and
learning new things along the way. It was pitched as "Wagon Train" in space, a
kind of galactic western. The show, taking place in the years 2265-2269,
depicted a utopian futuristic world in which different species, genders and
cultures all worked together peacefully. The crew of the Enterprise were all
members of Starfleet, an space exploration organization that's a part of the
United Federation of Planets. Their guiding rule is the Prime Directive, a rule
of non-interference. While bent or (arguably) broken a number of times
throughout the series' and films, the Prime Directive insists that "members of
Starfleet are not to interfere in the internal affairs of another species,
especially the natural development of pre-warp civilizations, either by direct
technological revelation." (Memory Alpha, Prime Directive).
There's more to the Star Trek universe and Starfleet than just the Prime
Directive. It takes place during a time of relative peace. No one in the
Federation is going hungry, there's little to no violence and money in the
traditional sense is replaced by a more socialist economic system focused on the
betterment of mankind rather than the embiggenment of one's pocket book.
The show and the interesting tolerant and technologically advanced future it
presented caught on among fans, and even after the show was cancelled, a fan
community burgeoned. The original series was followed by five other series (Star
Trek: The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and
Enterprise). The franchise has also expanded to include ten movies, hundreds of books, at least one language, and any
number of other products. And that's just the officially licensed stuff. The
fans have expanded the world themselves with fan fiction, videos, films, music
All these items, while focusing on different characters or aspects of the Trek
verse, stem from the same idea, that of an idealistic future world full of
tolerance, exploration, and community. A world created and envisioned by Mr.
last section mentioned Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. Some of his
beliefs were alluded to, but what did he actually think, and what was his goal
when developing Star Trek?
His goal was to portray a very Utopian view of the future. And the Utopia he
envisioned was based on his own understanding of humanity and of what humanity is capable.
young age he had the understanding that religion is irrational and silly, saying
it "was largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious things" (Star Trek
Creator, 37). He's a self-proclaimed humanist, whose statements about the nature
of God and humanity support humanist views
(The Last Conversation 72).
Regardless of his views on religion, one of the primary tenets of the Star Trek
world was the belief in tolerance of those different. Infinite Diversity in
Infinite Combinations was a catchphrase used throughout the show that
highlighted the many different species, cultures, genders, and ideas that
permeated the show all with equal treatment. This IDIC philosophy was not all
talk. A certain lack of diversity existed but can easily be chalked up to the
more conservative attitude of the 1960s (baby steps are to be expected) and Star
Trek featured the
first interracial kiss on television between Captain Kirk and
the African-American Uhura . It's
Star Trek's firm belief in IDIC that has been the source of much of it's popularity,
but it seems the same tolerance was not always afforded religious beliefs, and
that may have to do with Roddenberry himself.
Yvonne Fern broght up this point with Roddenberry shortly before his death;
You're liberal and tolerant--about racial equality, abortion, homosexuality,
women's rights, sex, all the popular issues--but when you meet up with, say, a
Baptist, for example, you will unhesitatingly condemn him to oblivion. You
choose your points of tolerance very carefully. It seems to me that when you say
you've evolved beyond something, that's just another way of saying that whatever
you are beyond, or think you are, is by definition inferior, that your views are
superior. (The Last Conversations, 108)
His reply that suggests that while that
observation may be true, it was never explicitly his goal;
I never meant to
give that impression. If I did, then I will correct it. I condemn charlatans. I
condemn false prophets. I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational
decision, to drain people of their free will--and a hell of a lot of money in
the bargain. (108)
While Roddenberry intended to be a little more tolerant in his own life,
he still lived under the presumption that religion would one day fall
away, as would more traditional personal relationships (something else
that existed very rarely in Star Trek. Roddenberry
pointed out that the Star Trek universe he imagined in his head was not
quite the same as the universe that existed on television. That would
have been impossible, as various production and industry concerns shaped
the show beyond Roddenberry's initial vision.
Nevertheless, his intense involvement in both The Original Series and The Next
Generation, including reading every script before approving it for filming,
assured that his vision was followed as closely as possible despite such
constraints. After he died it was the goal of the franchise to continue to honor
his vision while continuing to keep it fresh for new audiences. Whether that's
been the case is open to debate.
Perhaps it's notable that at startrek.com a search for the word "religion" brings up only one
result, and it's for a convention recap in which Ronald D. Moore is discussing the spiritual
aspect of his non-Trek Battlestar Gallactica. It makes sense. Gene Roddenberry conceived of
the future as a place where the irrationality of religion was no longer necessary. In The
Original Series the only religion (beside a few throw-a-way comments or images) was Vulcan.
Spock, being half-Vulcan, worked to adhere to the Vulcan philosophy of suppressing his
emotions and there is occasional discussion of his beliefs or rituals. Other religions
encountered on TOS were those followed by various aliens the crew discovered, and in almost
every instance their God was uncovered to be a hoax or something completely explainable.
This tradition continued in The Next Generation. Once again, only one crew member was
depicted as having religious beliefs. This time it was Lietenant Worf, a Klingon. Despite
Worf's occasional encounter with Klingon beliefs, throughout most of TNG, other references to
God or religion follow the same lines as TOS. As long as Roddenberry was involved, the
depiction of religion on the shows (and the movies) largely matched his own beliefs. Religion
was false, and often did more harm than good.
After his death, however, there seems to be a shift in Star Trek's portrayal of religions and
people of faith. One of the major premises of DS9 revolves around the beliefs of the Bajoran
people and their assertion that Commander Sisko, the leading Starfleet officer aboard the
station, is their Emmisary. The discussion and development of that faith as well as the continued
exploration of Worf's Klingon beliefs permeate much of the show and questions of faith and the
nature of belief prevail .
Voyager, in many ways takes a step back from DS9. The show returns once again to space
exploration premise, but unlike the crews of the various Enterprises, the crew of Voyager do not
all come from Starfleet and don't all share the same love and devotion for exploring and making
scientific discoveries. Also, in Voyager, more crew people than ever before in a Star Trek series
have religious beliefs of some form or another. Both Klingon and Vulcan are represented, as are
Talaxian, Ocampan, and Borg. Additionally, the juxtaposition of the goals and aspirations of the
Captain and other Starfleet crewmembers with the concerns of non-Starfleet personnel highlights the
many ways Starfleet doctrine and science serve as a religion to many. In many ways, the importance
and prevalence of religion in people's lives won out over the belief that it will simply become
unnecessary in the future. However, the simple inclusion of religious beliefs doesn't suggest the
way in which those beliefs are portrayed.
Star Trek: Voyager premiered in 1995 as the flagship show of Paramount's new United
Paramount Network, making it the first regular network live-action Trek show since The Original Series.
The show was meant to fill the void left by the recently concluded, highly popular The
Next Generation, and as such returned to the premise of one crew on a ship, exploring
space from which Deep Space Nine departed.
The show's premise revolved around a ship trying to find its way home and exploring an
unseen part of the galaxy while they're at it. The ship was stranded
70,000 light years
when Voyager went to track down its first officer who had not been heard from in some time.
He was serving as a spy among the Maquis, a resistance group fighting against ill-treatment
by a species known as the Cardassians who recently acquired some Federation colonies, and who
are considered terrorists by the Federation and Starfleet. Both Voyager and the Maquis ship
get transported to the Delta Quadrant on the opposite side of the galaxy and both crews face
heavy casualties, leaving them little option but to join forces and attempt to make the trek
home as one crew on one ship.
There are two things that made Voyager different. For one, the captain was a woman,
something that had never been seen in Star Trek but seemed a natural progression after
the first two series were manned by white men, and the third manned by a black one.
The second difference, however, and the one more applicable to this study, is that
Voyager's crew was not made up of just Starfleet officers. The other one-ship, one-crew
shows all featured a complete cast of characters who worked their way through Starfleet,
being taught Starfleet ideals and beliefs along the way, graduated, and then served on a
ship alongside others with the same training and understanding of exploration and the
(for the most part) same view of the world. Voyager was different. Yes, the captain, the
chief tactical officer, and the green, optimistic ensign were all Starfleet officers, as
was the Emergency Medical Hologram that soon took over as ship Doctor, but the story behind
every other character is not so cut-and-dried. Three characters started in Starfleet and
left at different states of involvement for various reasons, and wound up in the Maquis and
would be viewed as terrorists by the Starfleet, two more are aliens who are introduced to
Starfleet and the Federation in the first episode, and while they agree to live by the rules
of the ship, they haven't been instilled with the same general philosophies as bona fide
Starfleet officers. The last primary crewmember was a Federation citizen who was assimilated
by Borg, the biggest enemy of the federation, and was separated from the collective and was
restored back to her more human self by the Voyager crew.
This differentiated crew offers a more diverse view of Starfleet protocol and ways to
interact with other species. It also opens up for more thorough exploration of various
ideologies and belief systems. Not only are a number of Voyager;s senior staff not
officially Starfleet officers, many are untraditional officers, and different species
with different beliefs, which play an important role in their lives.
The combination of these non-Starfleet ideas as well as the polyglot of cultures and
religions encountered throughout the ship's adventures in this uncharted part of space
open up a number of situations in which faith and belief is confronted and interacted
with. However, unlike Mr. Roddenberry's initial disregard for any type of faith in a
higher power or unseen being, Voyager seems to have a much more nuanced view,
acknowledging that religion sometimes has a place in people's lives and it shan't be
treated too lightly.