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A Guide to Atheism in Star Trek

It’s no secret that there is a lot of atheist perspectives espoused within the Star Trek franchise. And I am certainly not the first to write on the subject. However, with as diverse an audience as the various Trek series has had over the years, with fans around the globe from every walk of life, it seems it must have gone over a lot of heads. Or perhaps the matter is simply overlooked by those who would object to it. There’s no argument that, above all else, it is humanism (which can be embraced by those of almost any creed), which is the overarching philosophy of Star Trek. You might call it it’s Prime Directive.

Nevertheless, it’s apparent to anyone paying attention that in the Trek vision of our future, humanity has moved beyond religious beliefs and superstitions. In fact, even among most other alien races, religious beliefs and practices seem to consist of little more than ritual and mythology, and one is left with the impression that respect for such things is motivated more by cultural relativism than by a sense that they might contain existential truths.

The atheism within Star Trek is hardly subtle. And if there is anyone to whom it is not obvious, then perhaps it’s simply due to the lack of the term being used. And it’s hardly a necessary one. In a future where religious belief isn’t held by the majority, and where present-day faiths have long since gone the way of ancient mythology, there would be little relevance for the word “atheist”. How I would love to see the day when this label, which I currently affirm proudly, is a useless one. But alas, for now I turn to Star Trek, just as so many do for the variety of ambitions they hope will become part of future reality.

This post is meant to be a simple guide to some of the atheism within Star Trek. It will no doubt be rather summary than extensive. There is afterall a lot of ground to cover.  But feel free to add to the discussion in the comments section.

We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes. – Gene Roddenberry, Free Inquiry (autumn, 1992)

Gene Roddenberry - Creator of Star Trek

Raised as a Baptist, Roddenberry attended church every week with his mother throughout most of his childhood. But since a young age he had the understanding that religion is irrational and silly, saying it “was largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious things”, and he began to reject the teachings of his church between 14 and 16 years old. As an adult he recalled the religion he was raised in with some disdain. He identified himself as a Humanist. In 1986 he joined the American Humanist Association and remained a Humanist throughout the rest of his life.

STAR TREK, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity’s exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of STAR TREK is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry’s imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry’s mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of STAR TREK and STAR TREK: 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. – Brannon Braga, International Atheist Conference in Reykjavik Iceland June 24 & 25, 2006

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.

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. It’s Star Trek’s firm belief in IDIC that has been the source of much of it’s popularity.

While Roddenberry promoted tolerance, he still lived under the assumption that religion would one day fall away, as would more traditional personal relationships (something else that existed very rarely in Star Trek). And he set out to portray this within his version of humanity’s future. Although, 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.

Star Trek TOS

In The Original Series the only religion (beside a few throw-a-way comments or images) was the ironic Vulcan religion, based around logic. 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.

In the 1960′s the original Star Trek series’ atheistic plots were indeed more subtle than in the subsequent 24′th-century shows which aired from the late 1980′s through mid-2000′s. They mostly involved the aforementioned stories in which advanced aliens or other lifeforms would assert themselves as false gods, only to be debunked by the crew of the Enterprise. Such examples are the episodes “Return of the Archons”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, “Catspaw”, “The Apple”, “Who Mourns for Adonais”, “And the Children Shall Lead”, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, and “The Squire of Gothos”. I say that this is more subtle because the notion of false gods isn’t entirely antagonistic toward religion. Though, the idea behind these plots were aimed to promote skepticism of religious beliefs. And this theme carried through into the later incarnations of Trek.

The most notable commentary on religion featuring the original cast was in the film ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier‘.

In it the Vulcan renegade Sybok manages to seize control of the starship Enterprise so he can reach a distant planet (outside the ‘Great Barrier’ of unexplored deep space) called Sha Ka Ree, where a mysterious, God-like entity supposedly lives (Sybok has had visions of this God). When they arrive, the planet appears barren until a series of curved rocks rise out of the ground and “God” appears to them.

God asks the crew how they got there. When they mention the Enterprise, God demands to join with the starship so he can leave that side of the Great Barrier and share his wisdom with the rest of the universe.

Kirk: What does God need with a starship?
McCoy: Jim, what are you doing?
Kirk: I’m asking a question.
“God”: Who is this creature?
Kirk: Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?
Sybok: He has his doubts.
“God”: You doubt me?
Kirk: I seek proof.
McCoy: Jim! You don’t ask the Almighty for his ID!
“God”: Then here is the proof you seek.
[Hits Kirk with lightning]
Kirk: Why is God angry?
Sybok: Why? Why have you done this to my friend?
“God”: He doubts me.
Spock: You have not answered his question. What does God need with a starship?
“God”: [hits Spock with lightning; then addresses McCoy] Do you doubt me?
McCoy: I doubt any God who inflicts pain for his own pleasure.

Star Trek : The Next Generation

With more freedom in storytelling than was possible in the 60′s, “NextGen” was able to be less allegorical when dealing with the subject of religion. Whereas the original series dealt mostly with false gods and prophets, the shows set in the 24′th-century were able to more directly criticize the idea of religious faith itself.

This is most evident in the third season episode “Who Watches the Watchers”. In the episode, Captain Jean Luc Picard is mistaken for a god by a primitive civilization, the Mintakans, when they inadvertently discover a Federation observation post. The Mintakans are a rational people and even as a pre-industrial society have already long-ago dismissed supernatural beliefs. However, upon witnessing Starfleet‘s capabilities, those superstitions begin to resurface. The crew of the Enterprise then had to attempt to undo that damage.

Horrifying… Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No! – Picard

This episode represents the epitome of the Star Trek view of religious beliefs, and is noted as a personal favorite of Gene Roddenberry. It states in no uncertain terms that faith is ignorance, something to be surpassed, and a victory to have overcome. The plot aims to show the harm of superstition and irrational beliefs, though the situation is far from the gravest faced in the series. More so, the episode deals with the ethical dilemma of having imposed these beliefs back upon this society, and the repercussions it can have in their development. In what I consider the most poignant scene is where Picard takes it upon himself to enlighten the leader of this tribe, taking her aboard the Enterprise. The way he reasons with her, and the analogies he uses to make make her understand that they are advanced but not superior beings, are truly insightful.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarke

Not many episodes dealt with religion as it’s main plot in this way, with of course exceptions such “The Devil’s Due”, which follows in the footsteps of TOS’ “false god” plots (albeit more blunt with the message). However, commentary on religious beliefs and faith were made throughout the series. In many instances commentary wasn’t even necessary. The humans of the 24′th-century’s take on faith was just as evident from what, in many circumstances, they did not say.

 The crew of the Enterprise-D encountered many powerful species, including the Q, a seemingly omnipotent and immortal species who form the Q Continuum, possessing the ability of instantaneous matter-energy transformation and teleportation, as well as the ability of time travel. The Q have control over space, matter, and time. In dealing with the infamous “Q“, a member of this god-like race, the Enterprise crew never once, despite his abilities, were compelled to exalt him as a supreme being. Captain Picard was even known to speak down to him, something to which Q (though he’d rarely admit) respected him for.

While humanity is practically unanimous in terms of supernatural beliefs, the galaxy is not devoid of religion. Species such as the Klingons are heavily ritualistic and spiritual. They believe in Sto’Vo’Kor, the afterlife for the honored dead, where all true warriors go after they die to fight an eternal battle against great enemies. There are, though, many Klingons who do not believe in these things literally, or at least have a reserved amount of skepticism about them. But they honor these beliefs nonetheless, arguably for the sake of tradition. In a galaxy of thousands of different species, it only makes sense how culture-bound many civilizations seem to be. And the impression given is that, within the Star Trek universe, it seems to have more to do with preservation of cultural identity and ideology than pure religious devotion.

 It can of course be debated how honestly religious or not other species in the Trek universe actually are. But it has little relevance on humanity’s position, which according to Roddenberry is what always mattered. Often, when a alien society’s beliefs are portrayed as sincere, it was done to intentionally draw a direct contrast to human culture. And as sincere in their beliefs as some of this species may have been, their beliefs more often than not are shown to be unfounded or incorrect. Such is the case in the episode “Rightful Heir”.

In this episode, Lieutenant Worf suffers a crisis of faith which leads him to an encounter with the seemingly resurrected messiah of ancient Klingon religious beliefs. He soon finds himself caught between supporting the religious figure and the more secular leader of the conventional Klingon political power structure. Worf is a character who embodies the cultural relativism within Star Trek, having been raised on Earth by adoptive human parents, and constantly struggling with his identity between his upbringing and his Klingon heritage. He starts out in the episode with the aforementioned crisis of faith, trying desperately to have a vision of the messiah, Kahless. But when Kahless actually appears, Worf becomes the episode’s skeptic.

As the episode unravels, it turns out that Kahless did not “return”. He is a clone, created from the DNA of the original warrior, done to fulfill prophesy for political reasons. The clone himself even comes to accept that he is in fact not the real Kahless.

Kahless left us, all of us, a powerful legacy. A way of thinking and acting that makes us Klingon. If his words hold wisdom and his philosophy is honorable, what does it matter if he returns? What is important is that we follow his teachings. Perhaps the words are more important than the man.” — Kahless (clone)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

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 seemed to be a shift in Star Trek’s portrayal of religions and people of faith. One of the major premises of Deep Space Nine 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, as well as questions of faith and the nature of belief.

Hence DS9 unarguably involves the most spiritualism and religion of any of the Star Treks. It is a common criticism among fans that DS9 involved too much religion, and for this reason turned off some loyal viewers. However, the simple inclusion of religious beliefs doesn’t suggest the way in which those beliefs are portrayed. The show was still overall fairly critical of religion in it’s plots (though, this series did have some irritating exceptions). Nevertheless, in true Trek form, the religion in the show was often shown in a less than flattering light.

Most of the religion within DS9 involves the Bajoran religion, which was centered around the Prophets, the Bajoran name for the aliens residing inside the Bajoran wormhole, which the Bajorans believed was the Celestial Temple. Bajorans thought of these aliens as gods and often prayed to them for guidance. They also believed that everything happened for a reason, as it was the will of the Prophets, and that starships were guided by the hands of the prophets while passing the wormhole.

This remains true to the original theme of how religion is portrayed in Star Trek. While a particular culture may view various beings or entities as gods, or worship them as such, often they are merely just another lifeform which that particular society doesn’t fully comprehend. Even when such a people do in fact understand the objects of their worship, revering them nonetheless, this still differs very much from the type of religious faith familiar to us in reality. And that is because of the fact that, within Trek, the existence of such beings isn’t in question. It is akin to someone who chooses to worship the sun. There’s no argument as to whether or not it exists, or is tangible. Most people just wouldn’t consider it higher power, or at least not divine. This by default makes Trek-universe religions, such as that of the Bajorans, somewhat more rational than the faith-based religions we know today.

Despite this, some still found DS9 to be comparatively easy on religion in contrast to the other series. This is understandable as the show’s lead, Ben Sisko, was in a position which required him to be particularly diplomatic about such matters. Sisko, who made first contact with the wormhole entities, is considered by the Bajorans to be the spiritual emissary to the Prophets. This is a role to which he is shown to be reluctant about and often uncomfortable wit. But as it is his directive to unite Bajor and the Federation, he has little choice but to fill those shoes.

But aside from such characters’ diplomacy and tolerance, religion within DS9 was shown as highly corrupt.  Many plotlines involved the character Vedek Winn Adami, a member of the Bajoran’s orthodox religious order, who eventually became Kai (essentially their “Pope”). Winn believed that the Federation presence on Bajor posed a dire threat to the Bajorans — that the people of the Federation were “without a soul” and existed in a “universe of darkness”. She also disagreed with the declaration of Benjamin Sisko, a “non-believer”, as the Emissary. As both Vedek and Kai, she is portrayed throughout the series as an opportunistic villain. The whole of the orthodox order within DS9 is quite analogous to the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy. In fact, the writers explicitly based this system on fifteenth and sixteenth century Catholicism, when the Pope was much more of a political figure than he is today, and different ‘orders’ all vied to have their candidate installed as Pope.

An episode of particular relevance is the season one finale, “In the Hands of The Prophets”. In it, Orthodox Bajorans object to secular teachings about the wormhole in the station’s school, causing tensions between fundamentalists and the Starfleet crew. This episode was an obvious commentary on the ongoing evolution vs creationism debate and whether “equal time” should be given in science classrooms. Specifically, the plot has parallels with the Scopes Trial. It also resembles the Dover Case (though the epsiode was filmed over 10 years prior).

The plot later escalates into violence as the school is bombed by religious zealots.

In relation to the overriding theme of this episode, Robert Hewitt Wolfe has said:

I have a serious objection to people trying to impose their values on other people. And that’s what this episode is about. No one has the right to force anyone to believe the things that they believe. That’s one of the beautiful things about Gene Roddenberry’s vision of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), and that was one of the things that we really wanted to hammer home here. Sisko does everything not to impose his values on the Bajorans, but Vedek Winn is determined to impose her values on everyone.(Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion)

Some additional commentary on religion was made in terms of the Founders, a group of Changelings responsible for the creation of the Dominion, a major galactic power. The Founders were largely content to leave the administration of the Dominion’s daily affairs to the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar. The loyalty of these species was genetically-engineered, which ensured absolute obedience to the Founders. The Founders themselves were rarely seen, even by their servant races, and were treated as gods or myths. Due to such a social standing within the Dominion, most of what the Dominion’s member races carried out were often for the glory of the Founders, or to please them in some way, similar to how religious figures prayed or carried out an action to please their god(s). The genetic-engineering also often served as a metaphor for religious indoctrination.

Odo: Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you believe the Founders are gods is because that’s what they want you to believe? That they built it into your genetic code?
Weyoun 6: Of course they did. That’s what gods do. After all, why be a god if there’s no one to worship you?

 The Vorta leader, Weyoun, provided many quips which acted to demonstrate religious hypocrisy.

Weyoun: Pah-wraiths and Prophets. All this talk of gods strikes me as nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
Damar: You believe that the Founders are gods, don’t you?
Weyoun: That’s different.
Damar: [laughs] In what way?
Weyoun: The Founders *are* gods.

Star Trek: Voyager

Voyager, in many ways takes a step back from DS9. The show returns once again to a 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 and Ocampan. Granted, not every member of the extended crew purports to belong to a religion. Also, some religions mentioned remain very ambiguous with very few details, suggesting either the beliefs are not very extensive or apply to only certain aspects of life.

And this is all well enough. Gene Roddenberry himself may not have objected (afterall, “IDIC”), as he undoubtedly would have to much of the overuse of spiritualism throughout DS9. But then there is the character of Commander Chakotay, who has the distinction of being the first human character to adhere to religious beliefs in the history of the Star Trek franchise. One wonders whether or not Roddenberry would have been rolling in his grave (not in any literal sense, of course). Perhaps not…..

Chakotay was created to be Star Trek’s Native American character. He was deemed a necessary addition to the Star Trek universe, because his race hadn’t been included yet. He was a modern answer to Uhura in the 60’s –he was invented to inspire a group of people who hadn’t seen many positive examples of their race on television nor in movies. The noble decision to create such a character already implied that spirituality within humans would have to be examined, although his particular beliefs are kept rather ambiguous to prevent pinning him down to any specific belief system.

To be fair, a single spiritual human-being hardly demolishes Roddenberry’s vision of the future. Overall the human race had still exceeded religious superstition, and an examination of the rare instance of one who still holds those sort of beliefs could have been interesting. However, what we ended up with were ludicrously lame plots where Chakotay summons spirit guides, or the episode “Cathexis”, in which Chakotay is in a coma for most of the episode while his “consciousness” literally floated around from character to character. Fortunately these absurd examples of focus on the character’s spirituality were eventually dismissed. Thereafter, there were occasionally off-hand references to his heritage or beliefs, but in a more subtle and appropriate manner. Alas, alongside his traditional beliefs, the Chakotay character remained a firm believer in science, albeit he still believed that there are some things that science can’t explain.

 Voyager touches occasionally on religion and spiritualism, but doesn’t evoke an atheistic perspective nearly as often as it’s predecessor Trek series. And when it does, it’s again often the familiar plots of false gods being uncovered. However, in Voyager it often tends to be only to the knowledge of the ship’s crew, leaving the peoples of the planets pleasantly oblivious (“False Profits”, “The Caretaker”). This has much to do with the outlook of Captain Kathryn Janeway. She is first and foremost is a scientist. Not that she never (to my chagrin) dabbled in spiritual beliefs. Early in the series, with the help of Commander Chakotay, she finds her animal guide and seeks it out for guidance (“The Cloud”). The Captian’s log at the end of the episode suggested she continued the practice for at least a time after the initial ceremony. However, when faced with a problem, she always seeks for the scientific answer. In the end, she usually finds religion rather silly. However, it is within her character not to disregard its importance in the lives of her crew.

The problem is that this respect for her crew’s beliefs sometimes clouds her better judgement, and in some cases is entirely irresponsible:

Captain Kathryn Janeway: There’s a limit to how far I’ll let religious practices go aboard this ship. If your belief system required you to sacrifice a child to your gods, I wouldn’t allow that either.
B’Elanna Torres: That’s an absurd example.
Captain Kathryn Janeway: You want to simulate a near-death experience, so you can revisit the Barge of Death; and you’re telling me what’s absurd?

This was followed by an emotional plea from B’Elanna, to which Janeway eventually caved.

Nevertheless, That ol’ Star Trek atheism does rear it’s head in two episodes in particular. The first is in “Blink of an Eye”.

In this episode Voyager approaches a planet rotating 58 times per minute and, while investigating, the ship enters a gravimetric gradient pulling it into an orbit in which the crew becomes trapped.  Time moves differently on this planet; one day on the planet is slightly more than one second long (1.03 seconds) in normal time. As time passes, the planet’s inhabitants quickly change from primitive to a technological society. Voyager, being stuck in orbit, becomes insinuated into the culture and mythology of the planet’s people. However, their understanding of what Voyager might be evolves rapidly.

From a pre-medieval scene on the planet:

Cleric: Protector, what exactly are you doing?
Protector: I’m sending him a letter.
Cleric: “Him”? S-s-sending who a letter?
Protector: The Ground Shaker. The Light Bringer.
Cleric: Had you been more attentive to my lessons when you were a boy, you would not be so gullible as a man.
Protector: On the contrary, you taught me well. Our ignorant ancestors believed every star was a deity. You taught me how foolish that was. “Superstition” you called it.
Cleric: And that’s exactly what it is.
[the Protector turns to a bush and plucks a fire fruit from it]
Protector: Hungry?
Cleric: [nervously] Uh, it’s, er, bad fortune to eat the fire fruit.
Protector: According to whom? Our ancestors? Don’t tell me you believe that old superstition.
[he throws the fruit away]
Protector: Perhaps we shouldn’t completely ignore the old beliefs, no matter how strange they may seem today. …Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the stars are gods, but then… what are they?

By the industrial-age they society has already begun to refer to Voyager as the “Sky-Ship”, understanding it’s a vessel, and begin attempts to make contact.

The second, and most prominent, example of an atheistic storyline in Voyager is “Mortal Coil”.

Neelix gets killed on an away mission, but Seven-of-Nine is able to revive, or more aptly in this case — bring him back to life, with nanoprobes. Neelix is discomfited when he is brought back, however, because while he is told that he was indeed dead, he did not experience the Talaxian afterlife. According to the Talaxian understanding of death, Neelix would find himself at the Great Forest surrounded by all of his deceased loved ones. As his entire family had died in a rather brutal war, he had found great peace and comfort in knowing that one day he would see them all again. When he learns this is a false hope, he doesn’t quite know what to think.

I didn’t ask to be brought back!
You were dead at the time.” - Neelix and Seven of Nine

When it’s clear his reversed death has caused him emotional damage, Chakotay helps him come to terms with some things by helping him reach an intense meditative state to find some answers. While meditating, Neelix sees visions of his family telling him how silly his faith is and it drives him further into disorientation causing him to choose to kill himself, believing his life to be pointless now without an afterlife. In the end, Chakotay finds him in time and reminds him that regardless of whether his beliefs are wrong or right, Neelix is a part of the Voyager family, and people need him, and he can’t throw that away. In the end that seems to be enough for Neelix.

Star Trek: Enterprise

Enterprise didn’t deal extensively with matters of religion, except in the case of the Vulcans. In fact, ENT probably delved deeper into the details of the Vulcan “faith” than ever done previously. However, this leaves little room for atheism or criticism of religion. This is as the Vulcan belief system is based on logic. They don’t believe in gods or for the most part really anything supernatural. It is more of a system of discipline, but with a certain amount of ritual and reverence. Over the course of the series you’ll find some commentary on dogmatism perhaps, but their beliefs don’t really lend themselves to much of an atheistic perspective. There’s a reason why in reality you don’t hear atheists say much about Buddhism. There’s some inner-peace and transcendental mumbo-jumbo, but the focus is mostly on philosophy and ritual, and overall it’s relatively harmless.

Being set much earlier than the other series, most of the humans seem to have a humble sort of agnosticism. Trekking out into deep space for the first time, it’s a fairly healthy attitude, and it plays very much into IDIC mindset. When one is about to embark into such uncharted territory, encountering new cultures every week, it would only be prudent to keep an open mind. The crew expresses respect for the various beliefs they encounter, even occasionally participating (sometimes with little choice), but you get the impression that they personally don’t buy into any of it.

There is however a notable exception in the episode “Chosen Realm”.

In this story the Enterprise is taken over by religious zealots. They believe the Expanse (an area of space riddled with a web of dangerous spatial anomalies) is their the Chosen Realm, and the Spheres were created by the “Makers” 1000 years ago and that the anomalies are their breath. It soon becomes clear that these people don’t have the best intentions. They take control of Enterprise and want to use it in the war against heretics.

With a ship hijacking, men armed with suicide bombs (biologically implanted as opposed to strapped to their chests, of course), and their mission essentially being a Jihad, one wonders how much 9/11 might have inspired the plot of this episode. There’s no information I can find to confirm this, but it invokes it nonetheless. These men are undoubtedly religious terrorists, and they are merciless. The leader, Pri’Nam D’Jamat, begins his takeover with a show of his conviction and willingness to go as far as he must, by having one of his bombers sacrifice himself, killing crew members in the explosion.

There is a frightening realism to this episode. Least of which is in the portrayal of D’Jamat, who truly believes he is doing the Makers’ work. He isn’t portrayed as your typical Star Trek “evil villain”. He believes in his cause and it’s higher purpose, and that is exactly what makes him so dangerous and beyond reasoning with.

D’Jamat: I’m trying to save my people.
Archer: Why do I have the feeling these heretics would say the same thing?
D’Jamat: They might very well. But it doesn’t change what they are. Enemies of the truth.
Archer: Your truth?
D’Jamat: There’s only one.
Archer: How many people do you intend to kill with my ship?
D’Jamat: [laughs] Your species is obsessed.. with numbers. A characteristic of your misguided belief that the secrets of the universe can be revealed through science. This may sound barbaric to you, but it doesn’t matter how many heretics die. When the Makers return, only the faithful will survive. Nonbelievers will be swept away. Not only Triannons, but every race within the Chosen Realm.
Archer: Doctrines like that make it real easy to wipe out everyone who doesn’t agree with you.
D’Jamat: You’re wrong. It’s not easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be dreading what I have to do next.

It’s a disturbingly accurate depiction of religious fanaticism. The words D’Jamat speaks over the course of the episode are those out of the mouths of real life evangelists and extremists. And in turn, Archer and the crew’s words portray their true feelings about irrational and blind faith.

I think Gene Roddenberry would have approved of this episode. It represents precisely the sort of harm he believed religion tends to lead to, and why he felt it would be in the best interest to our future as a species to do away with it.

Conclusion

I’ll remind you of what I stated up-front.. there’s a lot I’ll have missed. With over 700 hours between the five series and the films, I knew that going in. I understand also that I’ve glossed over certain things, and oversimplified some of the things I’ve mentioned. But this was intended as a general overview, with my own selections of mentionable content.

Star Trek certainly started out more atheistic than it ended up, particularly after Gene Roddenberry’s death. However, as with in other ways, it mostly stayed true to his ideals and the philosophy he built into it. Mostly, the people behind it just took the opportunity to explore some of the aspects of humanity Gene preferred to be left out, but they never strayed too far. Sure, there are some episodes which honestly did show religion in a positive light, or as potentially being true. But those storylines are mostly self-contained within the episodes the appear. Overall though, Star Trek’s perspective on religion remains Gene’s.

But even where Star Trek isn’t entirely atheistic or against religion, the general message regarding it seems to be that it’s fine, if used correctly. Don’t believe because it’s what everyone tells you is true. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to explore the truth. Don’t look at any faith or philosophy as though you have all the answers. I think Gene would be okay with that. I am too.

13 thoughts on “A Guide to Atheism in Star Trek

  1. Long, but nicely written, However, the over-abundance of apostrophes was a distraction: there is no apostrophe in the possessive ‘its’ and, since every possessive ‘its’ in this piece has one, I guess you’ve just learned something:-)

  2. Grammatical criticism aside, I was surprised you didn’t mention TOS episode “Bread and Circuses”, where at the very end they basically confirm that 23rd-century culture is Christian, in a very 1960s generic Christianity way. I was disgusted, even as a child.

    • Well that certainly wouldn’t be an example of atheism in Star Trek. The broader “Religion in Star Trek” would be a much longer piece. I tried to mention only what I needed to for the atheistic plots I chose to elaborate on.

  3. Thanks for this. I did my dissertation at university on the utopian and dystopian visions of the future as presented by Roddenberry and Ridley Scott (in his first two sci fi classics). I learned a lot about roddenberry in the process and have been a long time admirer since. I’ve not seen many of the more recent spin offs but have always hoped the producers would keep Roddenberry’s vision central to the human side of plots.
    Cheers!

  4. A bunch of soon to be roasting your nether regions in hell Heathens…
    Follow the prophets, and believe in the Sisko! lol

  5. Picard does mention in an episode that he believe there is something unexplainable that he believes in. Sorry I don’t remember the episode. In the episode of Metamorphosis, the Entity after possessing the human girl, speaks of a power greater than hers, or the creator of everthing only has a power greater than hers.

  6. THEY AREN’T ATHEISTS or RELIGIOUS they will believe what ever is presented to them as fact/reality based on information made available to them, and I beleive that if they met a creature or being/entity that could prove to them that it had created the universe and all things within they would accept that given the appropriate facts!!! Because THEY ARE OPEN MINDED, They (Starfleet personnel) are trained to be, and generally are nice, fair, friendly, respectful, polite, caring, empathic, tolerant, patient and helpful, they have good morals, high integrity etc etc etc including ALL the other things you wish non-fictional people were more like!
    So stop labelling things with atheism and/or religion because like the Starfleet personnel have realised, ANY segregation leads to narrow mindedness, thus differing beliefs leading to anger and hate and all the other bad thing that go with the bad feelings (Star Wars “the dark side”)

    In summary Star Trek says everyone should keep an open mind don’t form an absolute opinion because anything is possible there is no message in Star Trek to say go be an atheist or go get a religion or go live your life by some set of rules that is exactly what they go against!

    So are they agnostic or communist ???? LOL!

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