Boldly go where no God has gone before

Star Trek: The Religion

(September 23, 1999, Gazette)

By Karen Shewbridge

Smoke tendrils waft in and out in a sinuous dance across the dark mask-like features. The guttural chant to his warrior god strokes a mystical chord of ancient memory in the watchers.

It may only be an episode of Star Trek, but the Klingon Worf's search for meaning and spirituality in his life speaks to the people at home watching.

Dr. Jennifer Porter, Religious Studies, has explored Star Trek as a religion and collaborated with other researchers, including Dr. Darcee McLaren, to write a book about the portrayal of religion in the show. The title of the book is Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion and American Culture.

Dr. Porter said she wrote the book because Star Trek can be both reflective of and also informative of cultural attitudes.

"You look in the mirror and you see yourself but at the same if you turn the mirror around perhaps it becomes a window to a new place. Religion is one of the many issues Star Trek deals with," said Dr. Porter, "but it is an issue that has gained prominence in Star Trek as the franchise has spanned 30 years."

During these years, nine Star Trek motion pictures and four television series have been produced. One of these series – Star Trek: Voyager – is still in production.

Dr. Porter said although many of the episodes have dealt with religion, these episodes are often not fan favourites.

"In the classic Star Trek series Captain Kirk and the crew are in an episode called the Apple about a peaceful people who are controlled by a serpent god which is actually a computer. Kirk destroys Vaal, the computer god, freeing the people, so they can explore their individuality and their sexuality."

She said this episode was an interesting story where the serpent was already in the Garden of Eden. Dr. Porter points out that when creator Gene Roddenberry controlled the show in its early years, if gods were shown to exist, they always turned out to be aliens or computers, not real gods.

"In the classic Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonis, they find the Greek god Apollo who is really an alien or more evolved form of life, an implicit message that god doesn't exist, which appears in both the classic and the Next Generation version of Star Trek with the immortal, capricious character Q."

Dr. Porter said Star Trek Deep Space Nine producer Rick Berman sent a different message. He introduced a spirituality based on the alien Bajoran culture, but with a human emissary, Captain Sisko. In the final episode of the series, Sisko appears to have sacrificed his life to save the universe, just as Christ did to save humanity.

In the series Star Trek: Voyager, spirituality is also portrayed positively. The native American character Chakotay practises his family's ancestral religion first as a tribute to his father's memory.

"But," said Dr. Porter, "he comes to have a greater appreciation for his spiritual traditions throughout the course of the show. We see him practise medicine wheel rituals, go on vision quests, and perform astral travel in a disembodied form."

There is no chaplain on board any of the starships. Dr. Porter said that the company which originally sponsored the classic Star Trek series requested a chaplain be added, but Gene Roddenberry refused.

Dr. Porter said there has been a great misconception about Star Trek fans ever since William Shatner (Captain Kirk) told them "to get a life"on Saturday Night Live. She said at conventions many fans will begin a conversation by saying they do have a life, a job and family, and then go on to describe them.

As for Star Trek as a religion, a certain percentage of fans have adopted two of Star Trek's ideologies, the most prominent being the Prime Directive. This means simply that if someone else's culture is healthy and works for them then you should not interfere with it.

The second is a doctrine called IDIC or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination introduced in classic Star Trek, which calls for the understanding that not everyone sees the world the same way, so you should be tolerant of other people's ways and values.

Dr. Porter said those who adopt these Star Trek philosophies and follow them as a way of life do not form a religion in the structured sense, but the effect on them approaches the ‘religious.'

Some may resist the call to "explore new worlds and boldly go where no one has gone before" but the truth is that "resistance is futile." Star Trek fans come in all ages and sizes and appreciate the show on many different levels.

"As a mirror I think Star Trek says something about society's changing attitudes towards religion over the last 30 years," said Dr. Porter, "and as a window perhaps it points to where we are going. In the 1960s there was a move towards a secular society. Today if we look through that window of Star Trek we see that this is not the case, that people are genuinely spiritual. We ask existential questions, wonder where we're going and what it all means."