The Religions Of Star Trek


By Ross Kraemer

By William Cassidy

By Susan L Schwartz

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Is there a God? What evil lurks beyond the stars? Can science save one’s soul? Profound questions like these have consumed human thought over the ages; they also inspired the original creators of the Star Trek canon of TV series and films. Religions of Star Trek tackles these challenging questions head-on in a remarkable look at one of sci-fi’s great success stories. Analyzing more than three decades of screen adventure, the authors depict a Star Trek transformed, corresponding to the resurgence of religion in American public discourse. The authors identify the many religious characters in Star Trek, tracing the roots of scientific humanism to more contemporary aspects of religion and spirituality. Through it all, the creators’ visionary outlook remains constant: a humanistic faith in free will and the salvific nature of dispassionate scientific inquiry. This book was not prepared, licensed, approved, or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the Star Trek television series or films.


One of life's interesting little moments became the genesis for this book. In the fall of 1994, Susan Schwartz, a professor of Asian religions at Muhlenberg College, and Bill Cassidy, a specialist in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean at Alfred University, were in need of a third paper for a panel on Star Trek and the teaching of religion to be held at a regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston. Ross Kraemer, also a scholar of religions of the ancient Mediterranean who was then teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, shared Susan and Bill's fascination with Star Trek and its many explorations of intergalactic religions and religious themes. With a small amount of arm-twisting, Susan prevailed upon Ross to join the panel.
We first explored some of the uses of Star Trek in the teaching of religious studies, knowing that many of our students thought Star Trek was a productive vehicle for studying religion. To our surprise and delight, the room was soon packed with a diverse group of religion professors fired up about the prospect of an academic session on Star Trek and the study of religion. Afterward we were approached by one of the many editors who attend such meetings in search of new projects; with her encouragement, we began to envision a book on Star Trek and religion.
Writing it required some difficult choices. Star Trek's longevity and appeal over thirty-plus years have resulted in an extraordinary amount of material. There is now something approximating an "orthodox" canon: the TV episodes from the original Star Trek series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, the nine feature films, and a library of authorized commentary (including novels, audio materials, and survey volumes with the Paramount imprimatur). There is also a huge amount of unauthorized commentary by fans and enemies in many media, as well as an electronic database almost too vast to be explored in one lifetime. Faced with this body of information, we have chosen to limit our analyses to the four TV series and the nine feature films. We did resort, occasionally, to the use of "unauthorized" episode guides. We also decided to set aside the fascinating question of fans who treat Star Trek as a religion of sorts.
Even within these limited parameters, however, there are inconsistencies on many issues, including religion. In fact, as we have discovered, there are sometimes inconsistencies between the episodes available on tape and official Paramount materials (such as differences in script). Recent Paramount publications provide data about events and characters that seem missing from the episodes themselves.
As we compiled sections of this book, swapped files and hard copy, ran up our phone bills on conference calls, and spent occasional weekends together rethinking and revising, we engaged the same issues time and again. A threshold issue was the appropriateness of writing a book about religion and Star Trek that treats more or less as a coherent whole the TV series and feature films, which were written, directed, produced, and acted by diverse persons over a period of thirty years. We knew that creator Gene Roddenberry and his successors at Paramount had envisioned Star Trek as cohesive and consistent, yet we easily identified inconsistencies and differences that intrigued us even as we struggled with our interpretations and analyses.
Ultimately, we reached a comfort level with this dilemma, as we face such challenges all the time in our profession. Like the diverse religions we study and teach, the Star Trek universe has changed over time and revealed glimpses of itself: new characters, newly divulged history, deities formerly untold, truths revealed, practices altered, and beliefs revised. All this is true of Earth-bound religions as well. Incredible richness and inconsistency go hand in hand along with the natural desire for uniformity underlying the vast diversity. Perhaps writing about Star Trek and religion appeals to us because the questions the series poses are so familiar.
As we began to develop this book, we knew we were not alone. Scholars in many fields—from physics to philosophy to psychology to literature—also use Star Trek as a vehicle to explore concepts, issues, and theories. Given that Star Trek is so enormously useful in teaching undergraduates, it's no surprise that others have written books on the phenomenon to make their disciplines more accessible.
Yet when we convened that first panel, the professional literature on our specific theme—Star Trek and religion—was almost nonexistent. During the intervening years, it has not exactly burgeoned, but it has grown little. And even though our analyses and interpretations were developed independently and thus do not engage others' views directly, some of our conclusions are consistent with the views of others, although our primary focus on the representation of religion has led us to devote entire chapters to topics others less fully consider, such as religious devotion and the existence of gods.
We hope that the results of our work will engage many fans of Star Trek. We have, for the most part, enjoyed it immensely. Our individual views about Star Trek and religion are generally in accord, but there are differences in our thinking and approaches. Chapters 1 and 5 are largely Ross Kraemer's work; Chapters 2 and 6, largely Bill Cassidy's; Chapters 3 and 4, largely Susan Schwartz's. The remainder was written by committee.
We would like to acknowledge Susan Worst for setting this process in motion. We would also like to thank Laura Parsons of Westview Press for her initial enthusiastic support of the project, as well as Sarah Warner for seeing it through to completion. Numerous academic departments dedicated to the study of religion provided opportunities to share ideas, both in the classroom and through public lectures, including Alfred University, Lehigh University, Muhlenburg College, Macalester College, Wesleyan University, Williams College, and the University of Pennsylvania; we thank them all.
We would also like to acknowledge a small but growing group of religious studies scholars who have come to view Star Trek as a fruitful area of inquiry and an instructive vehicle for teaching students about real, as well as imaginary, religion. We are particularly thankful to Julia Hardy, Brad Verter, and Sarah Schwarz for their critical readings of drafts along the way.
Finally, we thank our families, especially our children, for watching many Star Trek episodes with us all these years and for tolerating our insistence that in religion, as well as in many things, Star Trek is not just another TV series.

The Religions of Star Trek
In the classic episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?" from the original Star Trek series, Captain James T. Kirk, the charming, youthful-looking leader of the Starship Enterprise, stands before an artificially fabricated Greek temple on some M-class planet in the middle of the galaxy. There, he tells the real (and not very amused) Greek god Apollo: "Mankind has no need for gods. We find the one quite adequate." By the end of the episode, it was all clear: Apollo, Athena, Zeus, and the rest of the ancient Greek pantheon were powerful interstellar travelers who merely took advantage of the ignorance of the inhabitants of a relatively primitive planet several thousand years earlier to set themselves up as the objects of adoration. Only when those inhabitants evolved somewhat did they abandon their worship of those false gods, who then departed, dejected and starved for affection, to other realms of the universe. It was corny, but the point was hard to miss: Ancient Greek religion was based on the real experiences of humans who lacked sufficient knowledge to interpret them. And what of the casual reference to the adequate "one?" Have Terrans in the twenty-third century abandoned their ancient polytheism for a true (or at least truer?) monotheism?
In the collective imagination of Star Trek, the religious landscape of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries is characterized by abundant and diverse forms of extraterrestrial piety. Vulcans, Klingons, Bajorans, Ferengi, and myriad other galactic civilizations cherish and practice their indigenous religious traditions. Among humans (referred to as Terrans in this book), however, religion appears conspicuous by its absence. Still, in the fourth Star Trek TV series—Voyager—one Terran, Commander Chakotay, continues to adhere to twenty-fourth-century forms of the spiritual practices of his Native American ancestors. On the whole, however, there is little evidence of late-twentieth-century religions in the third millenium, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age spirituality, or anything else.
Gene Roddenberry's original series, which was broadcast for three seasons (fall 1967 through spring 1970), had little positive to say about religion. Isolated exceptions can be noted: The origins of Christianity received relatively gentle treatment in "Bread and Circuses" (aired March 1968), a second-season show re-creating the emergence of Christianity in a technologically advanced version of ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial contests on television. Thus, the fleeting allusion to Terran monotheism in "Who Mourns for Adonais?" (aired September 1967) should hardly be taken as an indicator of the Enterprise's piety, any more than Uhura's wonderment in "Bread and Circuses" that the "sun" worshipped is really the "son" should be taken as evidence for crypto-Christians among the crew. In the Original Series, religion appears almost exclusively as an aspect of "the Other"—and usually the "primitive Other" at that.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted twenty years after the Original Series (September 1987), religion and its themes became subtler and more complex. Beliefs and practices weren't only for caricatured primitives like the people of Vaal in "The Apple" but also for advanced cultures. Klingons, we found out, believe in everything from a dead warrior-king who will return someday (Kahless the Unforgettable) to two realms of the dead, Sto-Vo-Kor (for the honored dead) and Gre'thor (for the dishonored). The profit-obsessed Ferengi believe that after their bodies have been cremated and sold to the highest bidders their souls go to a Divine Treasury where they will be held accountable for their practice of the 285 Rules of Acquisition. A virtual parody, maybe, yet even in these brief glimpses, it demonstrates a coherence of social structures and religious beliefs and practices strikingly familiar to contemporary students of religion.
Many Next Generation episodes were concerned, at least implicitly, with religious themes. There were ongoing encounters—from the inaugural episode "Encounter at Farpoint" (aired September 1987) to the final episode "All Good Things. . . " (May 1994)—between the crew and the perplexing character known only as Q (part of the enigmatic Q Continuum), who possesses the critical Western divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence yet receives none of the reverence and awe traditionally accorded the deity in Terran societies. There was the time Captain Jean-Luc Picard had to outwit a female figure claiming to be the demonic Ardra, who demanded payment in a Faustian bargain with the people of Ventax II in "Devil's Due" (aired February 1991). The prodigy Ensign Wesley Crusher, considered by many fans as an irritating boy-wonder, became the disciple of a being known only as the Traveler. In a first-season Next Generation episode ("Where No One Has Gone Before," airdate October 26, 1987), this enigmatic figure saves the Enterprise from destruction at the cost of great personal suffering, almost unto death, evoking allusions to suffering saviors such as Jesus. In the final season, in "Journey's End" (aired March 1994) the Traveler returns to guide Wesley in a spiritual and bodily transformation that culminates in Wesley's departure from the Enterprise to attain new levels of existence and self-understanding. Although religious experiences seemed to be everywhere, Terran crew members of the Enterprise appear largely devoid of any connection to Terran religion.
Several Star Trek films, the first (Star Trek The Motion Picture) being produced in 1979, explicitly addressed religious themes: creation, death, and resurrection (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [1982] and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock [1984]), the existence of God (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier [1989]), and tantalizing allusions to heaven and immortality (Generations [1994]). The 1999 film Insurrection took the stance that excessive technology is dangerous to the fabric of communal life and to the inner peace of individuals. The Ba'ku seem to evoke a kind of spirituality adapted from Eastern models. But because the majority of Star Trek films appeared largely in the years before the debut of Next Generation, the representations of religion in many of these films tended to fit more closely with the Original Series.
The two Star Trek spin-off series produced after Roddenberry's death at age 70 on October 24, 1991—Deep Space Nine (January 1993 to spring 1999) and Voyager (1995 to 2001)—paid direct attention to religion, beginning with the inaugural episodes. The very first episode of Deep Space Nine, "Emissary" (aired January 1993), centered on the complex religion of the inhabitants of the planet Bajor, around which Space Station Deep Space Nine orbits. Indeed, as we will explore at great length in several chapters of this book, Deep Space Nine ultimately became a startlingly intense religious drama centered around the role of the space station's commander (later captain), Benjamin Sisko, as the preordained emissary of Bajoran deities, known as the Prophets.
In its early episodes Voyager, too, directly engaged religious issues. The inaugural two-part episode, "Caretaker" (aired January 1995), dealt with a powerful being facing an extraordinary dilemma when his own impending death forces him to make provisions for a people, the Ocampa, he has cared for over many centuries and with whom he clearly has a godlike relationship. Subsequent episodes looked favorably upon the ancient Native American beliefs of Commander Chakotay, including the belief in animal guides, as evidenced by Captain Kathryn Janeway's enthusiastic embracing of such techniques and her pursuit of such a guide for herself and her crew. After a tantalizing start that included a brilliant exploration of questions about resurrection and life after death (see the episode "Emanations," aired March 1995), Voyager largely retreated from intense religious themes, whereas Deep Space Nine continued to elaborate upon them.
The differences among the series are best understood as the consequences of several factors. Roddenberry's well-documented views on religion played a major role in the representation of religion in the Original Series, Next Generation, and the early films. Yet he was keenly sensitive to the religious proclivities of the American audience, and he was not above pandering so as not to offend viewers, sponsors, and the network. The Original Series and Next Generation reflect not only the views of Roddenberry and his many writers but also the complex and changing role of religion in American life. Thus, the extrusion of deeply religious themes into Deep Space Nine can be partly understood as a reflection of an increasing public discourse regarding religion.
In America, terms like "religion," "religions," and "religious" are used so frequently and ordinarily that few people would think them vague or imprecise. Most of us think we know what we mean when we call something a "religion" or identify some practices, beliefs, institutions, or persons as "religious." Yet many languages do not have closely corresponding terms, and some recent theorists of religion have suggested that religion is a relatively modern concept invented by Western culture rather than just a convenient label for a universal human phenomenon.
Although we are well aware of the methodological difficulties in using terms like "religion" and "religious," we have written this book with a specific audience in mind and intentionally use ordinary language to make our points. In this regard, our approach is similar to that of the Star Trek writers, who crafted TV scripts and screenplays that are sophisticated yet use common language and imagery to depict religion.
The religion they depict is usually the creation of those writers, including Gene Roddenberry. These are remarkably good facsimiles of Terran religions, whether intentionally or not; they can be parodies that function within a single episode or film; they can also be a pastiche of actual religions that we would never expect to find in a single coherent system. They may, at times, offer a transparent parallel to religions or religious conflicts of our own time. Viewed in this context, the religions of Star Trek say more about the writers than about anyone who might participate in them.
Regardless of the varied religious aspects depicted in Star Trek, there is no question as to the suspicion of organized, didactic forms of religion and the relatively liberal, humanistic leanings of the entire series. Despite the more serious treatment of religion in Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager , Trek scrupulously avoids endorsing any religious claim in particular or religious sensibility in general, apparently preferring to keep its options open. The survival of Roddenberry's skepticism is, in the end, never at risk.
Insofar as Star Trek gives us imaginal religion (including, occasionally, imaginal rites), we are mostly interested in those imaginings and how they change over time—in representations of religion, that is. And because religion in Trek is never an accurate representation of Terran religion, we have decided to abstain from engaging in extensive debates about theories of religion and ritual. We do call attention to the ways in which Star Trek's representations of religion share and illustrate the same views as any number of theorists of religion. For the most part, however, we illuminate how Star Trek represents religion, considering more why it might do so in the ways that it does, and less on analyzing the religions as religions or rituals as rituals.
Part of what makes Star Trek so attractive for religion scholars is its diversity of opinions and perspectives. Because many writers, directors, actors, and others have played such an essential role in each chapter of the Star Trek canon, there is both richness and inconsistency. Indeed, it seems like you can't have one without the other. The fact that this is so often true of actual religions makes the issue familiar, if not altogether agreeable, to us as scholars. The fact that Star Trek is cumulative—that is, it constantly refers to itself and develops its canon by adding and deepening plot lines, characters, and worldview—is similarly familiar to us.
Although we gained some access to the intentions of Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, our reluctance to pursue the intentions of the writers was more theoretical and ideological. People's expressions of their own intentions are simply one more piece in a rich mosaic of analysis. Certainly, what authors say about their own writing should not be discounted, but practitioners offer wildly different explanations for why they practice some particular ritual or observance. There is no definitive explanation for why peoples undertake particular ceremonies and actions, and the accepted explanations change over time from community to community. Accordingly, we contend that some consistency in the representation of religion emerges in Star Trek despite the diversity of its authors. It is far from complete, pervasive, and total, but it nevertheless offers an intriguing coherence.1
Roddenberry once admitted that he pulled his punches when it came to the subject of religion. He felt it was not his place to vent his feelings on God and religion to the point that it became hurtful to people or their feelings. A story he tells of an episode he wrote for Have Gun Will Travel, a popular TV series in the 1960s, suggests that the occasional and seemingly inconsistent religious observance or idea in Star Trek was largely arbitrary and more of a sop to his audiences than anything else.
Once in a penitentiary where a pastor was trying to keep a fellow from being hung, I wrote that the pastor grabbed a hack-saw blade, was cut by it, and was bleeding. I had him make some comment about blood and salvation. It's not that I actually believed in blood and salvation being connected, but that was the way the audience believed (Humanist 1991:7).
Here we may have a viable explanation of everything from the positive retelling of the emergence of Christianity in "Bread and Circuses" to Kirk's remark to Apollo that humans find "the One [God]" quite adequate. Yet Roddenberry also conceded that in his vision of the future religious belief and practice does not so much disappear as retire to the private realm. It was pointed out to him that the basic outlook of the Enterprise crew seemed to be humanistic. He replied:
Oh, yes. They have their own beliefs, which are private to them, and they don't evangelize or go around discussing them with other people. I've always assumed that by this time [the twenty-fourth century] there is a belief that is common to people in Star Trek that yes, there is something out there. There is, perhaps, something that guides our lives but we don't know what it is and we don't know if it is (Humanist 1991:28).
This view of the future—in which religious beliefs persist as a private matter yet whose competing claims provoke no conflict—is perplexing. At the very least, it suggests a view of religion as personal and private. In modern America, where the rights and needs of individuals have acquired a privilege virtually unknown in other cultures, such an imagining of the future is perhaps understandable. Still, it flies in the face of much religion scholarship that recognizes the strong degree to which religion is almost always deeply implicated in social, communal, and public life. Shared rites and beliefs create and reflect an understanding of how the universe is, which makes social life possible: A society full of people with vastly differing, conflicting beliefs is one whose potential for dysfunction is enormous, something Roddenberry seems not to understand.
Although Roddenberry's views permeate Star Trek, the absence of religion—or at least any public, communal Terran religion in the third millenium—also fits well with Star Trek's generally optimistic, almost utopian view of the future, in which all the concerns addressed by religions—poverty, illness, social inequity, injustice, ecological crises—have been solved (obliterating or altering the traditional functions of much modern religious belief, if not practice). Roddenberry may not have been aware of this inconsistency.
But modern American politics makes it difficult to present a future in which one religious tradition emerges triumphant. Roddenberry related an interesting story regarding this very issue in the Original Series. The network, it seems, wanted a chaplain on the Enterprise. This struck him as absurd: "Presumably, each one of the worlds we were dealing with was very much like Earth in that several religions must have arisen over time. Contending religions. How could you have a chaplain if you've got that many people of different and alien beliefs on your ship?" (Humanist 1991:6).
Equally absurd to him was the time that writers and producers wanted to conduct a Christian funeral ceremony for a temporarily deceased Spock, the science officer. In Roddenberry's view, his writers had failed to understand that one wouldn't conduct a Christian burial for a Vulcan—or that Christian funerals were conducted in the first place given the diversity of traditions. Instead, Roddenberry envisioned the kinds of neutral, generic, civil ceremonies that we see occasionally for Star Trek funerals and weddings, including the real funeral of Spock in Search for Spock. Roddenberry, of course, failed to see that the private beliefs of future peoples would make such civil ceremonies insufficient, if not dangerously inadequate. Subsequent writers seem to understand this better.
After Roddenberry's death in 1991, the producers and writers began to offer richer and more complex representations of religious practices, beliefs, and worldviews, most extensively in the cosmic religious drama that Deep Space Nine became. Whereas Roddenberry and the Original Series writers envisioned the United Federation of Planets as largely devoid of religion—religion being an attribute of primitive, prescientific "others"—the writers and producers of Deep Space Nine and Voyager seem to kindle a kind of religious revival. In the twenty-fourth century of the latter two series, religion can still be the province of the "Other," but they have begun to encroach much more upon the "us" of Starfleet. Yet even the later shows never stray too far from Roddenberry's humanistic faith in human free will and the salvific nature of dispassionate scientific inquiry.
This change over the thirty years of Star Trek corresponds to the changing place of religion in American public discourse and to the resurgence of religion in America. As the twenty-third century reflects the 1960s, the twenty-fourth century reflects the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, Star Trek is not a simple mirror of debates about religion in America: It is still a TV show that reflects the skepticism and profound humanism of its creator as well as the practical constraints of consumer television. Those constraints meant that Star Trek could not represent any modern religion as triumphant, and presenting them all as surviving into the twenty-fourth century presented a problem in and of itself. Given the recent divisiveness associated with religious differences in the world, how could the writers of Star Trek present the Federation as united and above such petty divisiveness yet imagine that the religious traditions that undergird our contemporary cultural and political conflicts still exist? Then there is the real problem of setting the cosmos of the twenty-fourth century, with its multiplicity of beings and cultures, within the limited framework of current religions, a cosmos that seems to contradict many tenets of those same traditions. Such a task is not inherently impossible, of course. But one can easily understand why Star Trek's writers, Roddenberry included, would rather avoid the whole messy issue.
In the twenty-fourth century, then, Terrans may be spiritual, but they are certainly not adherents of twenty-fourth-century versions of twentieth-century religions. If, as Roddenberry claimed, Terrans have their own "indigenous" religious lives, neither he nor his successors show them to us. (Voyager


On Sale
Aug 14, 2003
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Ross Kraemer

About the Author

Ross S. Kraemer is professor of religious studies at Brown University, and she has a Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University.

William Cassidy is professor on human studies at Alfred University.

Susan L. Schwartz is associate professor of religion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

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