Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Religion of Star Trek

As I did last year, I am commemorating today the anniversary of one of the most awesome human achievements, the first manned lunar landing. In that post, we saw the exploration of space is too often used as an anodyne for the infinite longings in the human heart. As far as cultural influence is concerned, Star Trek rivals the actual space program in cultural influence. What ideas lie behind the Trek universe and propagate through its popularity?

Salvation from Above

First let's examine the fictional origins of the Trek universe. In Star Trek: First Contact, the "next generation" crew of Enterprise is thrown back in time to the mid-21st century to witness an historic moment in the Star Trek mythology. In the (supposedly) semi-barbaric aftermath of "World War III," Zefram Cochrane1 invents the warp engine that will propel mankind to the stars. This first run coincides with a routine Vulcan mapping mission close enough to detect the "warp signature," thereby initiating humanity's first contact with extra-terrestrials.

As one fan site puts it

On that evening [sic] an alien ship from the planet Vulcan made first contact with humanity. This event over the course of the next fifty years saw an end to war, hunger, poverty and all the social ills that plagued society.

From this "first contact" mankind is able to found the United Federation of Planets. In some unexplained way, man's contact with supernal forces recreates his nature so that he no longer suffers the many moral limitations that presently plague us. (Exactly what primal hunger in man this visitation satisfies we are left to puzzle for ourselves; we return to this question shortly.) The Federation is a socialist utopia. As Jay Johansen puts it,

There is no money, for everyone simply works out of a desire to contribute to society and help his fellow man, and takes back only what he needs. Private enterprise is the enemy, at best an amusing throwback to less enlightened times, at worst a dangerous villain to be fought and defeated. There is no need for a multitude of competing organizations within society. Instead the people voluntarily cede all authority to a single organization controlling all aspects of life, for this promotes co-operation and efficiency.

The Anti-Religion

Again, Jay Johansen notes:

In the first episode [sic?] of Next Generation, "Q" puts humanity on trial. One of his accusations is that humans kill each other in "disputes over your tribal gods". Note Picard's reply. He doesn't say that some people have used religion for their own personal ends, or that religious freedom is something worth fighting for. No, he replies that humanity has "outgrown" that - in other words, he apologizes for the existence of religion in human history.

This approach reeks of John Lennon's unimaginative manifesto Imagine, about which I've written before. The underlying belief is that all our unhappiness and strife originates in the "superstitious prohibitions" of religion.2 Essentially, Lennon idolizes his own desires.

The Creator's Beliefs

Now we turn to the actual origin of the Trek universe. Its anti-religious philosophy originates in the personal beliefs of the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry. An extensive 1991 interview with Roddenberry in The Humanist reveals much about the personal credo out of which Star Trek sprang. The article notes Roddenberry's reception of the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association on May 10, 1991, and opens with some background on its subject:

Gene Roddenberry is one of the most influential yet unheralded humanists of the twentieth century. His two most famous creations, Star Trek and its successor Star Trek: The Next Generation, are solidly based upon humanistic principles and ideas. His creations have moved, inspired and sparked the imaginations of millions of people around the world. The basic massage of both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation is that human beings are capable of solving their own problems rationally and that, through critical thinking and cooperative effort, humanity will progress and evolve.3

Roddenberry clearly understands the profound cultural effect of his beliefs:

...Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the subjects they’ve covered.

The interview voices many typical humanist anti-religious prejudices as well as the cow-eyed utopianism so characteristic of the mid-20th century, but one statement of Roddenberry's in particular is worth discussion:

Censorship traveled a wide path. There was censorship about areas of skin that were left open. If a girl was in a light blouse and her nipples raised and showed through the blouse, you had to have band-aids over the nipples. You could not have visible nipples. How much skin was permitted to show used to be almost a matter of geometry and measurement. I remember doing shows that showed the inside of a woman’s leg. Those shows were turned down because, for some reason, the inside of the leg was considered vulgar.

Let's overlook the verbal imprecision: it is not so much the body-part that is considered vulgar, as showing the body-part. What is interesting here is how he sees something as potent in meaning as a woman's body to lack any special significance. To him the sacredness of sexuality—a proxy for the sacredness of the human person in whom sexuality resides and from whom every person issues—is just another thing in the world among so many equivalent things. (It is also interesting that he says "girl" instead of "woman"—like the show, he was an interesting mixture of the "progressive" and the "unenlightened" throw-back.)

All Being Equal

"All other things being equal" (Latin: ceteris paribus) is a common assumption of modern reductionist science. Understood as a methodology valid in a limited domain, there is nothing wrong with the assumption. The problem comes in extending the assumption beyond its domain of validity.

Such an extension of "all things being equal" allows me to look at my desire for sex, for example, as just another desire like filling my belly or emptying my bowels. But if the world has a structure outside my desires, then perhaps I cannot treat the object of my sexual desire as just another thing in the world, worthy of no more consideration or respect than a shrub or a grub or a goat. To Roddenberry and company, the enemy of desire is traditional religion, which "creates" the moral law. In reality, the moral law resides in the natures of created things themselves (including human nature). Because man has an unfortunate natural tendency to contract into himself and arrogate mastery to himself, traditional religious belief is necessarily to protect the moral law by opening its adherents to an Authority beyond themselves, an Authority that is the ultimate Source of the natures of things.

Another striking point is the presumption that basic moral norms will persist after the overthrow of traditional morality. Somehow in the Trek future, man has enough repect for "the given" to refrain from tampering with Jean-Luc Picard's male pattern baldness, for example, and to cast gratuitous melding of man with machine (viz., Borg) as evil. No pregnant men, children gestated in vitro, etc. (Or perhaps Roddenberry was keeping his true beliefs under wraps for fear of losing his audience, a fear he voices in the mentioned interview.) We will return to this point in a moment.

Blindness as religion

Now that we have explored the "all things being equal" reflex, we can understand the need fulfilled by a human encounter with intelligent extraterrestrial life: to strip man of his privileged place in creation. In a previous post I quoted Walker Percy's observation that, as a symbol-mongering animal, man is radically different from the other animals that only use signs. In lower animals, sensory information is either useful or ignored; the information begins in the world and the line of causality terminates in the world. Humans, on the other hand, transact with each other using symbols, sounds that aren't useful in any immediate way, but allow them to formulate a complete picture of the world. The justification for this picture of the world is not utility, e.g., whether the sun or the earth is stationary has practical usefulness to very few people's lives. The line of causality from space-time events that communicate symbols flows into the human person, and where it terminates is not in space-time events, understood in the usual way. E.g., how does the knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun affect your life? Directly speaking it doesn't, but indirectly it changes everything.

Man is not formless matter to be shaped at will by a cadre of self-annointed conditioners. Human life has a definite structure that will not suffer tampering, and the most distinctive aspect of that structure is man's awareness of the world and of his place in it.

Of course, humanists like Roddenberry and Sagan are mistaken in believing that man's privileged place in creation requires uniqueness. It's almost as if they believe they can shorten the tallest kid in school by observing that other people out in the world are just as tall.4 The discovery of other symbol-mongers will not make man any less of a symbol-monger.

The adherent of such beliefs tries to treat himself as a mere thing in a universe of mere things. There is evident in Roddenberry's beliefs a residual respect for the givenness of the world, and the "dignity" of the individual, but this respect is merely a cultural residuum of Christianity and has no real basis in Roddenberry's underlying philosophy5. Generations raised on such philosophy lack a moral cultural formation to fall back on; they, along with Bertrand Russell, will be unable to say that their belief that cruel torture is wrong has any higher moral standing than a preference for oysters. Like the students in Hitchcock's Rope, Roddenberry's disciples will take him at his word, with disasterous consequences.6

The exception implicit to "all things being equal" is the person advocating this idea: he thinks everything should be equal, reduced to a mere thing, except for himself. Unfortunatly such egoistic priviledge doesn't transport well to other people, especially when those people are egoists. In the end, such ideology demotes everyone to the status of thing. But by encouraging moral blindness, it primarily dehumanizes its devotees.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see....
Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (Ps 115:4-5,8; cf. Ps 135)

A Reposte to the Federation

For a refreshingly anti-utopian vision of the future, see Serenity. It is an entertaining film about a motley crew of rebels that strives to undermine a very Trek-like galactic federation by publishing the truth of its abuses of its citizenry. (Expect an interesting premise, a well-paced plot and good effects, but don't expect high drama or profound character studies.)

In this context, it would be a crime to neglect the masterful Trek parody Galaxy Quest.


1. Yeah, it wouldn't be sci-fi without a "Z" or "X" name somewhere.

2. Happiness here defined as momentary personal satisfaction, instead of the fulfillment of one's life as a whole.

3. The implication is that religious people are irrational and disbelieve in the efficacy of "critical thinking and cooperative effort" for worldly progress. It would be more accurate to say that religious people believe in the necessity of these things, but not their sufficiency. Only someone as credulous as a hard-core secularist could, ignoring the history of the 20th century, believe that these are all that are necessary.

4. The metaphor is imprefect, since, unlike height, which is a difference in degree, symbol-mongering is different in kind from sign-mongering.

5. See Percy quotation in Appendix.

6. The film was modelled after the real-life murder-conspiracy by Leopold and Loeb.

Jay Johansen, "The World View of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon 5" (24 Jun 1998), accessed November 27, 2005.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

David Alexander, " Interview of Gene Roddenberry: Writer, Producer, Philosopher, Humanist," The Humanist (March/April 1991)

John Lennon, "Imagine," Imagine (1971).

Opentopia entry for Gene Roddenberry.

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997).

Bertrand Russell, "Science and Ethics" Religion and Science (Oxford University Press, 1961).

Also interesting: Economics of Star Trek, Roddenberry Obituary


If asked to define the conventional wisom of the twnetieth century, that is to say, a kind of low common denominator of belief held more or less unconsciously by most denizens of the century, I would think it not unreasonable to state it in two propositions which represent its two major components, the one deriving from the profound impact of the scientific revolution, the other representing a kind of attenuated legacy of Christianity.

(1) Man can be understood as an organism in an environment, a sociological unit, an encultured creature, a psychological dynamism endowed genetically like other organisms with needs and drives, who through evolution has developed strategies for learning and surviving by means of certain adaptive transactions with the environment.

(2) Man is also understood to be somehow endowed with certain other unique properties which he does not share with other organisms—with certain inalienable rights, reason, freedom, and an intrinsic dignity—and as a consequence the highest value to which a democratic society can be committed is the respect of the sacredness and worth of the individual.

I make the assumption that most educated denizens of the Western world would subscribe in some sense or other to both propositions.

I make the second assumption that the conventional wisdom expressed by these two propositions, taken together, is radically incoherent and cannot be seriously professed without even more serious consequences.

(Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, 20)


Lawrence Gage said...

My friend Fred (who is at this moment attending a Trek convention is Nevada) says that I've painted with a rather broad brush: Deep Space 9, he observes, was very respectful of religion.


Sailorette said...

DS9 was respectful until the last few Alien Woman Pope Makes Deal With Demons And They Take Over The Evil Nazi Snake Guy seasons.

Lawrence Gage said...

In the May 2007 issue of First Things, "Lost and Saved on Television" by Ross Douthat features a rather unsentimental evaluation of Star Trek:

Consider recent developments in science fiction and fantasy. These are genres that have traditionally provided fertile ground for metaphysically inclined fiction, but for a long time their presence in the American mass media began with Star Trek and ended with Star Wars—fun but shallow entertainments whose take on religion mixed Daniel Dennett with Deepak Chopra, secular condescension with New Age mumbo-jumbo. As late as the early 1990s, the only sci-fi show of any merit on television was Star Trek: The Next Generation, a U.N. bureaucrat’s fantasy of the twenty-fourth century, in which a crew of asexual socialists in leotards kept the galaxy safe for cultural relativism and conflict resolution.

A decade later, the landscape looks very different. The cost of bringing what J.R.R. Tolkien called “a secondary world” to life has dropped, and the possibilities for creativity have widened....

The brainchild of a frustrated
Star Trek scribe named Ronald Moore, Galactica is deliberately designed to be the anti-Trek: Instead of a bloodless, hygienic future in which the human race seemed to have outgrown every recognizable human aspiration on its way to outer space, the show depicts a star-faring humanity driven by familiar motivations—religious faith chief among them.

Jay Johansen said...

You briefly allude to the idea found in a number of science fiction stories, such as Star Trek: First Contact and 2010, that contact with an alien civilization would instantly end all conflict on Earth as we joined in the great fellowship of life.

I presume this idea is drawn from historical parallels. Like, when Columbus discovered America and brought the Indians and Europeans into "first contact", suddenly all wars in Europe ceased as all the nations united together in their new found discovery of pan-world life. Or when Commodore Perry travelled to Japan, bringing Japan and Western Civilization into "first contact", and instantly war and crime throughout the world stopped.

Oh, wait, that never happened.

Why, exactly, would the discovery of alien life end war, crime, greed, religion, and all these other things that humanist science fiction writers suppose? The only explanations I've ever heard are vague platitudes like "We would know that we are not alone" and "We would have new insights into the nature of life and intelligence." To which I can only reply, "And ........"