“Do you have any gods, Captain?” asks the Vorta, Kilana, in the Deep Space Nine episode, “The Ship”. “There are things I believe in,” replies a disgruntled Captain Sisko. Was Sisko’s reluctance to share his faith due to his hostility towards the Dominion? Or was it because Star Trek doesn’t discuss human religion the same way it discusses the faith of its many alien cultures? Are the writers to blame, or can it be explained in-universe?
Throughout the series, we learn about the intricacies of Klingon, Bajoran, Ferengi, and countless other species’ religious beliefs and how they reflect on their societies. However, Star Trek rarely touches upon humanity’s relationship to religion in the 23rd and 24th centuries.
The writers intend the audience to identify with the show’s human characters, yet something so important to humans of the 21st century seems absent in the 24th. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, clues throughout Star Trek can give us an idea of the “things” Sisko believes in.
Religion in the 23rd Century
In the Discovery episode New Eden, the crew discovers a church from the 21st century. Pike asks Commander Burnham and Lieutenant Owosekun if either has ever been inside a church. Burnham replies, “I am familiar with the text of Earth’s religions”, and Owosekun replies, “My family are non-believers”. Two answers that imply religion has become a rarity. Answers that also allow the writers to deflect the need to elaborate on the exact state of human religion.
The fact that Pike even has to ask the question implies that a church is now a novelty among humans. Despite the episode’s discussion of human faith, it is always in relation to 21st-century humans, never 23rd-century society. While Burnham and Owosekun’s lack of religious beliefs falls in line with their characters, it feels like a missed opportunity to shed light on how human religion has evolved over the centuries.
When Worlds Collide
In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the crew of the USS Enterprise meets God. Well, sort of. The crew travels to the center of the galaxy to confront what Spock’s half-brother Sybok believes is God. However, Captain Kirk ultimately reveals this God to be a malicious entity that eventually attacks the Enterprise and her crew. An interesting meta-text that suggests people should not place faith in gods and higher powers.
At the end of the film, Kirk posits that while God might not be out in space, he travels with them in their hearts. This implies that the question of faith is still alive and well in the 23rd century. Perhaps Kirk himself still believes in a traditional human view of a god. This falls in line with an earlier statement from Kirk in The Original Series episode Who Mourns for Adonais. Here, Kirk makes the claim, “Man has no need for gods. We find the one quite sufficient.”
Religion in the 24th Century
While Star Trek V suggests that God may be out there, The Next Generation episode, The Chase, answers the question: God exists, and she’s an alien. The Enterprise, along with the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians, find a recording of an ancient humanoid creature that claims that billions of years ago, their species spread their genetic material across the galaxy to create an ecosystem of humanoids. Something the Cardassians and Klingons refuse to believe.
This episode directly disproves the idea of a divine creator. However, the show never considers the discovery in relation to human religion. A far cry from the established ideology of Kirk. If religion played a central part in 24th-century society, this revelation would herald a complete redefinition of humanity’s sense of self and origin. Despite this, the characters act as if it’s simply an interesting archaeological find.
This episode suggests humans now inhabit a post-faith society, one based solely on science. A society where questions of creation and divinity are no longer important. While humanity abandoning religion by the 24th century could explain this notion, it once again seems like a missed opportunity for the writers to have a meaningful discussion about the relationship between science and human faith in Star Trek.
The Will of the Prophets
The closest Star Trek comes to exploring the clash of science and religion is, of course, Deep Space Nine. Benjamin Sisko serves not only as the Commander of Deep Space Nine but also as the Emissary of the Prophets. Sisko must constantly balance his life as a Starfleet officer and as a religious icon. In the end, he ultimately chooses to walk with the prophets, abandoning his ties to humanity.
However, the conflict for Sisko always centers on his duty. His duty to the Federation, and his duty to the Prophets, but never conflict with his own personal beliefs in a god. He does not have to give up any personal belief to have faith in the Prophets. Perhaps duty is a part of the mysterious “things” that Sisko believes in, which makes the choice to give himself fully over to the prophets so difficult. Maybe humans of the 24th century not only believe in the value and power of science, but also in the sanctity of ideals and morals.
Is God Dead?
The relationship between religion and Star Trek is complicated. Star Trek V, which directly dealt with human faith, arguably almost killed the franchise. Perhaps the creators of Star Trek never intended to talk about the state of Earth religion in a meaningful way. While The Orginal Series dabbled with the idea that humans still believe in a god, The Next Generation laid the question to rest.
Although the writers included references to traditional Earth religions, they never chose to address the central question: Do our characters believe in God? Religion in Star Trek has mostly been something for the aliens of the galaxy to explore, never humans. But then again, what are the aliens if not a vehicle for a reflection of humanity?
Star Trek’s secular themes have been handed down from the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. As an avid atheist, his personal beliefs informed the characters’ beliefs and helped shape Star Trek’s post-religion society. Roddenberry said “I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will… 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.”
Whether or not the characters of the show think as lowly of religion as Roddenberry did, the audience can still feel his resistance to religion in Star Trek to this day. Perhaps it was Roddenberry who spoke through Kirk, when he posed the question, “What does God need with a starship?”
Star Trek: Discovery returns to our screens with Season 3 in 2020.
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