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Religion in Trek

This is another of those rambling editorial style articles. It's about half me summing up Star Trek's attitude towards religion, and half me talking about what I do and don't like about that attitude. Since it relates to religion, which is not exactly the most uncontroversial of topics, I'm going to put my own personal cards on the table up front so we all know where I'm coming from.

I am an atheist. This simply means that I lack belief in god. Any god. I have not "lost my faith", I am not rejecting god because I am angry with him/her/it, nor am I an evil satan-worshipper, because (respectively) I never had any faith, don't believe that there is a god to be angry with, and don't believe that satan exists either.

I think the world would be better off if there were no organised religions and nobody believed in god, though I don't generally go around trying to turn believers into atheists.

So, now that we know where I am coming from, let's talk about Roddenberry. Like me, he was an atheist. As he said himself :

Roddenberry :

"I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will--and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. 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."

"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." (in Free Inquiry, autumn, 1992)

"I've always thought that, if we did not have supernatural explanations for all the things we might not understand right away, this is the way we would be, like the people on that planet. [ST:TNG Who Watches the Watchers] I was born into a supernatural world in which all my people -my family- usually said That is because God willed it, or gave other supernatural explanations for whatever happened. When you confront those statements on their own, they just don't make sense. They are clearly wrong. You need a certain amount of proof to accept anything, and that proof was not forthcoming to support those statements."

Purposely or otherwise, Roddenberry's atheism was reflected to some degree in The Original Series. Star Trek never once flat out stated that there was no god - this was sixties US television, after all! But TOS several times set up a "god" figure of one sort or another, only to then have our heroes destroy or discredit said god during the course of the show.

Let's take "The Apple" as an example. Kirk and a landing party beam down to the planet Gamma Trianguli VI. The planet turns out to be quite hostile with poisonous plants, exploding rocks, etc. The Enterprise up in orbit is also losing power and being dragged into the atmosphere, threatening its destruction. Kirk soon locates a group of locals; these are simple primitives, living out their lives without ever questioning anything around them. They mindlessly worship "Vaal", a lizard-like rock face containing a powerful computer. The natives give food to Vaal, and in exchange it protects them from any danger. Unfortunately for Kirk, Vaal has identified his landing party and his ship as a threat and is trying to kill them. Vaal is protected by a powerful energy field which prevents Kirk from doing his usual talking-it-to-death routine.

Spock points out that the locals and Vaal live in a near-perfect relationship, and that doing anything to destroy the machine would constitute considerable interference in their culture. Kirk disagrees, pointing out that Starfleet's famed Prime Directive forbids its officers from interfering in the normal development of a culture, but that the locals are not developing because they have no challenges to overcome.

Eventually Kirk subdues the locals and starves Vaal of food, weakening the energy field. The Enterprise then fires on the machine, rendering it inoperable. Freed of Vaal's influence, the locals begin to come out of their zombie-like mental state.

The message in all this is pretty obvious - the believers are all dependant on what they see as an all-powerful god, utterly unable to think for themselves. But the much more sophisticated Starfleet officers see the religion and the god for the fraud that it is and using their intellect are able to overcome it. Once the natives see that their god was not so powerful after all they too begin to think for themselves, and begin the long road to becoming a proper civilisation themselves.

Put simply, religion/god is false and bad, thinking is good.

Other episodes repeated this theme; "Return of the Archons", "Who Mourns for Adonais?", "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky", "The Way to Eden", and "Star Trek V : The Final Frontier" all play out variations of the same story, differing in the details but with the same basic message.

One character did actually declare a solid position in relation to religion. In "Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan", McCoy, Kirk and Spock are discussing the Genesis device, a machine which can create whole planets. McCoy says that "according to myth the Earth was created in six days - now watch out! Here comes Genesis, we'll do it for you in six minutes!" So McCoy regards the Christian bible's version of creation as a myth, which means that while it's possible that he is a Christian it's unlikely.

TOS was also quite atheistic in its general tone. Nobody ever directly states that he or she is a believer. All problems are approached from a strictly rational basis - we never once see anybody praying for a solution. To be fair, though, there are some counterexamples.

For instance the Enterprise has a chapel, which has been seen used for a wedding and a memorial ceremony. In the former Kirk declared that he was uniting these people "in accordance with our laws and our many beliefs". Those beliefs are not specifically stated as religious ones, however, and the place seems pretty nondenominational. The memorial service was also free of any religious elements.

In the abovementioned "Who Mourns for Adonais?" an alien who played the part of Apollo to the ancient Greeks asks if the Enterprise crew members no longer have room for gods in their lives. Kirk replies that "we find the one sufficient." This could be taken to indicate that at least polytheistic religion has no place in the future, but that monotheistic religions do.

In "Errand of Mercy", Spock comments on the relative primitiveness of Humans and Vulcans compared to Organians by declaring "Captain, it took millions of years for the Organians to develop into what they are. Even the gods did not spring up overnight. You and I have no reason to be embarrassed." It may be that Spock is religious, though I tend to think that he is just using a figure of speech.

Perhaps most notably, in the episode "Bread and Circuses" Kirk and company visit a planet which is very similar to Earth, with one exception - the Roman Empire never fell. All through the episode there is mention of a band of rebels who worship the sun - yet when Spock notes that sun worship is a primitive form of religion, Uhura chimes in that she has been monitoring the local radio broadcasts and that he has it all wrong. The locals do not worship the sun in the sky, but the son - the son of god. Kirk responds that it would be quite something to see the spread of a new religion down there.

Perhaps Gene encouraged these references out of a desire for balance, or people over his head forced them in, or writers got them in without him noticing. Perhaps it was something else entirely. Now that the man has passed away, we can't ever really know.

It does seem to me, though, that despite some positive references to god and religion The Original Series was, all in all, a pretty secular show.

When TNG arrived Gene cast Humans as having "evolved" to an even higher level of civilisation. Amongst Humans there was no money (except when there was; see my article on that particular hot potato), no hopelessness, no despair, no cruelty... basically for most people everything was fun and fluffy bunnies all day long.

And there was, it seems, even less religion than before. "Justice" gave us an early peek at TNG's attitude to god. Again we had the primitive locals who worshipped a god and didn't think a whole lot about it - though they did a little better than their TOS counterparts in this respect. Again the god turned out to be a machine-entity of some sort, although it's precise nature remained mysterious throughout the episode. The big difference was that this machine was so advanced that Picard couldn't blast it with phasers, rather he talked his way out of trouble and left the machine alive and well. This could be looked at as a more positive attitude to religion, but I don't really think so - surviving or not, the Edo god was still a false one and I think that the resolution says more about TNG's attitude to violence as a way of resolving problems than it says about its attitude to religion.

The later "Devil's Due" was a more classic Trek false-god story, but this time with a twist; Picard battled not a false god, but a false devil. An unscrupulous woman used technology to trick a bunch of locals into believing that Ardra, their version of the devil, had arrived to take possession of their planet in order to fulfil an ancient agreement. This time the locals were even more sophisticated, at least up to our own current level of technology. Nevertheless, they are suckers for that old time religion once a few tractor beam induced earthquakes and holographic visions make them think that the devil is coming for them. Ardra is defeated this time, though again it is through peaceful means rather than Kirkian phaser blasting. These differences are purely cosmetic, though - in all details the message of "Devil's Due" is exactly the same as that of "The Apple".

Perhaps the definitive TNG attitude to religion was established in the episode "Who Watches the Watchers". Here a Federation team is studying a group of primitive Vulcanoids called Mintakans from inside a research station hidden behind a hologram. An accident reveals the station to a Mintakan, who is injured attempting to enter it. He is beamed up to the ship for treatment, and although the crew tries to block his memory he remembers enough to think he has visited heaven and seen "The Overseer" - the Mintakan's term for god - in the form of "The Picard". Returning to the surface he convinces the others that the Picard is real. Meanwhile in orbit, the team leader and Picard discuss the situation :

Barron :

"The mintakans which to please the overseer, but they can only guess what he wants. They need a sign."

Picard :

"Are you suggesting..."

Barron :

"You must go down to Mintaka III."

Riker :

"Masquerading as a god?"

Picard :

"Out of the question. The Prime Directive-"

Barron :

"Has already been violated. The damage is done; all we can do now is minimize it."

Picard :

"By sanctioning their false beliefs?"

Barron :

"By giving them guidelines... letting them know what the overseer expects of them."

Picard :

"I cannot - I will not impose a set of commandments on these people. To do so violates the essence of the Prime Directive."

Barron :

"Like it or not, we've rekindled the Mintakans' belief in the overseer."

Riker :

"And you're saying that belief will eventually develop into a religion?"

Barron :

"It's inevitable. And without guidance, that religion could degenerate into inquisitions... holy wars... chaos."

Picard :

"Your own reports describe how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned all belief in the supernatural. And now you're asking me to sabotage that achievement... send them back into the dark ages of fear and superstition. (adamant) No. We must undo the damage we've caused."

(NOTE : This exchange has been taken from the shooting script. The actual episode dialogue follows these lines, but may differ in detail. All emphasis is as in the script.)

So, the message here is that abandoning all belief in the supernatural is a Good Thing. That accepting a religion would send the Mintakans into "the dark ages of fear and superstition." This is the most outspoken condemnation of religion in any incarnation of Trek - no subtle message in the plot here, the very central character of TNG is blatantly condeming religion as ignorant superstition.

Given my previously discussed bias, I naturally cheered all this on and gave the episode an extra point on my six point scale for having the courage to tackle the issue head on for once.

Picard's own religious belief is addressed definitively in the episode "Where Silence Has Lease". An alien entity is threatening to kill a significant portion of the crew, and Picard decides to destroy the ship to prevent this (not great logic perhaps, but that's beside the point). At one point an alien-created imitation of Data questions Picard about the nature of death. Picard has this to say :

Picard :

"Some see it as a changing into an indestructible form, forever unchanging. They believe that the purpose of the entire universe is to then maintain that form in an Earth-like garden which will give delight and pleasure through all eternity. On the other hand there are those who hold to the idea of our blinking into nothingness with all of our experiences and hopes and dreams merely a delusion."

Fake Data :
"Which do you believe sir?"
Picard :
"Considering the marvelous complexity of the universe, its clockwork perfection, its balances of this against that... matter, energy, gravitation, time, dimension, I believe that our existence must be more than either of these philosophies. That what we are goes beyond euclidian or other 'practical' measuring systems... and that our existence is part of a reality beyond what we understand now as reality."

The first position is a pretty good summation of some of the major religions today, though interestingly Picard doesn't ascribe anything to a god figure amongst this philosophy. The second one is a pretty good summation of what most atheists believe, including myself. The third is pretty interesting - it sounds like new age drivel, and not at all a Picard-like attitude to take. The idea that the complexity of the universe indicates that there must be some supernatural aspect to it is a variation on a common theistic position known as the "Argument from Design". It's a fundamentally flawed reason for believing in a creator or afterlife, which is odd because Picard is a pretty logical person most of the time.

One might suggest that in the future there is some solid scientific basis for believing in a soul of sorts, so justifying Picard's belief. We know that a person's personality can exist separately from their physical body in TNG - Dr. Ira Graves transferred his personality into Data, and the Vulcan katra can be moved from person to person. But the proven existence of a Human soul would seem to be ruled out by the episode "The Measure of a Man". In that Captain Louvoir declares regarding Data : "Does Data have a soul? I donÌt know that he has. I donÌt know that I have!" If Louvoir doesn't know if she has a soul, then it would appear that there can have been no great scientific revelation regarding the existence of souls, at least amongst Humans.

At best, the above quote means that whilst Picard definitely doesn't believe in a conventional version of heaven, he does seem to believe that there is an afterlife of some sort.

Interestingly, the above dialogue is one case where the script differs substantially from the aired episode. According to the script the exchange goes like this :

Picard :

"Some explain it away by inventing gods wearing their own form... and argue that the purpose of the entire universe is to maintain themselves in their present form in an Earth-like garden which will give them pleasure through all eternity. And at the other extreme, assuming that it is an "extreme", there are those who prefer the idea of our blinking out into nothingness with all our experiences, hopes and dreams only an illusion."

Fake Data :
"Which do you believe?"
Picard :
"Considering the marvelous complexity of the universe, its clockwork perfection, its balances of this against that... matter, energy, gravitation, time, dimension, pattern, I believe our existence must mean more than a meaningless illusion. I prefer to believe that my and your existence goes beyond euclidian and other 'practical' measuring systems... and that, in ways we cannot yet fathom, or existence is part of a reality beyond what we now understand as reality."

The scripted version was somewhat harsher to religion. Note that Picard says that some explain death by inventing gods. He is essentially saying that belief in god is invalid, a mere invention created to explain away death. Atheism, on the other hand, is treated quite lightly - Picard questions whether it can be viewed as an extreme viewpoint, and although he still takes the hippie route for his own beliefs he isn't at all negative about those of us who are in the blinking into nothingness camp. I have to wonder where the episode writer's own views on this subject fall, and how and why the changes came about.

Against this, TNG contains very little which actually pushes the idea that religions still flourish in the future. This show has been described as the Trek that Roddenberry always wanted to make, with the freedom and the budget and the technology that he lacked back in the sixties. Perhaps the fact that TNG is the most atheistic of any Trek incarnation is a reflection of this?

Moving on, DS9 put me very much in two minds about this issue. Although it is seldom realised, the initial episode "The Emissary" is actually a classic false-god Trek episode reminiscent of TOS and TNG. The Bajorans are the primitive locals - although this time they are even more advanced than those seen in "Devil's Due" and Major Kira reacts quite negatively to Bashir's characterisation of her people as frontier folk, even she must eventually eat some crow and admit that her people need Federation help to make anything of themselves. In this case the Bajoran gods - who are confusingly named The Prophets - are a bunch of aliens living within a nearby wormhole. Once again the sophisticated Federation folk solve this mystery, which has created a religion on Bajor that has lasted at least ten thousand years, with a mere day or two of investigation. This time the aliens are not defeated or banished in any way, but rather they and we come to a mutual understanding which allows us to use the wormhole to travel across the galaxy. The Bajorans keep on believing in their gods, even elevating Sisko to a religious icon because he went and talked to them.

Although many elements of the false-god story are in place, DS9 does stop short of condemning the Bajorans outright for their false beliefs. In fact we get three distinct strands of belief in the prophets over future episodes and years. These are made clear early on in the season one finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets". In this episode Keiko is teaching the science behind the wormhole to her school kids, when a Bajoran Vedek (religious leader) named Winn shows up to challenge her right to teach blasphemy. Keiko sticks to her guns, saying that she is teaching the theories that are supported by evidence and as a teacher should do nothing else. Analogies with the current arguments about creationism in the classroom abound, obviously. Keiko is taking the strictly rationalist view - the wormhole aliens are just that, and the Bajorans are incorrect in their beliefs.

Winn represents the other extreme. She is the fanatical believer, one who not only has a set of beliefs herself but is determined to see those beliefs foisted on others, or at least determined to prevent others from being taught anything contradictory so that hers will be the only voice they hear.

This is nothing unusual. The locals are as dumb as ever, the Federation as enlightened as ever. What is surprising is the "middle ground" attitude that Sisko takes. When Jake claims that the Bajoran's belief in the prophets is "dumb", Sisko responds with :

Ben Sisko :

"No, it's not. You've got to understand something, Jake. For over fifty years, the one thing that allowed the Bajorans to survive the Cardassian occupation was their faith. The prophets were their only source of hope and courage."

Jake Sisko :
"But they weren't prophets. They were just some aliens that you found in the wormhole."
Ben Sisko :
"To those aliens, the future is no more difficult to see than the past. So why shouldn't they be considered prophets?"
Jake Sisko :
"Are you serious?"
Ben Sisko :
"My point is it's a matter of interpretation. It may not be what you believe, but that doesn't make it wrong. If you start to think that way, you'll be acting just like Vedek Winn. Only from the other side. We can't afford to be that way, jake. We'd lose everything we've worked for here."

(NOTE : This exchange has been taken from the shooting script. The actual episode dialogue follows these lines, but may differ in detail. All emphasis is as in the script.)

This is total claptrap. Sisko's little speech depends on the fact that he's taking the name Prophets literally as just being people who see the future. But the Prophets are gods to the Bajorans. The simple ability to see into the future doesn't class them as gods. At least not to most people; the precise nature of god is a very big topic in its own right! But future episodes show the Bajorans and Sisko putting all kinds of godlike attributes to the Prophets, promoting the idea that everything which happens in the series will turn out all according to their grand plan. This actually does appear to happen eventually, but Sisko certainly doesn't know that in this episode!

Sisko is arguing that all viewpoints are intrinsically of equal value, and that which one you should place your belief in should purely depend on your personal interpretation of the evidence. This is rubbish - a five year old child might believe in Santa or the tooth fairy while I do not. Are these beliefs of equal validity? Of course not! My belief is backed up by a colossal amount of evidence, while the child's is not. Clearly my belief is superior.

Similarly, Sisko has very little evidence that the Prophets are gods. They do apparently have the ability to see the future, but in a universe where time travel is possible this is hardly a godlike ability. On the other hand he has plenty of evidence that they are limited in many ways - in the pilot episode they had no idea that beings could even exist in linear time and were apparently unaware of how the Bajorans regarded them. Yet Keiko was able to give her students considerable scientific detail about how the wormhole functions. The Federation is even able to generate artificial wormholes themselves around this time. So there is plenty of evidence that the Prophets are indeed nothing more than wormhole aliens with a peculiar grip on time.

While DS9's initial take on the Prophets doesn't make a lot of sense, they certainly stuck with it. The Prophets get more and more godlike over time, and Sisko gets more and more sucked into buying their god line hook line and sinker. In this particular story line, DS9 has certainly swerved away from the much more atheistic TOS and TNG. A reflection of the fact that Roddenberry had little connection with the series, perhaps?

Strangely, then, it is DS9 which then gives us perhaps the single best and certainly the longest running example of the false god story in the form of the Founders and their relationship with the Jem'Hadar.

The Founders are the bad guys of the later DS9 seasons, shape-changing liquid lifeforms who basically want to enslave everybody who isn't also a liquid shape-changing lifeform. The Jem'Hadar are a species which the Founders genetically modified to be the perfect soldiers. The Founders keep control of the very violent Jem'Hadar by a combination of factors - firstly all Jem'Hadar are addicted to Ketracel White, a drug which only the Founders can supply. Secondly, the Jem'Hadar believe that the Founders are gods.

Or most of them do, anyway. There have been a few rebel Jem'Hadar, but for the most part they are exemplary Trek-style religious types - they don't eat, drink, have sex, or even sit down. They certainly don't put a lot of thought into anything but fighting or training to fight for their gods.

Strangely, neither Sisko nor rebel Founder Odo ever makes any worthy speeches about how the Jem'Hadar have every right to their beliefs, how it's all just a matter of interpretation and maybe the Founders actually are gods. Instead the Founders are simply condemned and fought against. It seems that as far as the DS9 writers are concerned, it's only a matter of interpretation if the gods in question are good gods...

If DS9 was wishy-washy on the religious issue, Voyager veered firmly towards the religious side. Firstly they gave us our first confirmed Federation religious believer. Commander Chakotay practiced some kind of native American religious belief which involved a "great spirit" and going on "vision quests" to talk to imaginary animals. The great spirit seems in at least one episode to be a personification of nature itself, sort of like the more far out interpretations of the Gaia idea.

Captain Janeway tried an experiment with her own imaginary animal, but didn't really pursue it that we know of. She had a more solid religious experience in "Sacred Ground". In this episode Kes trespasses in a local religious shrine and is badly injured by some sort of energy field. Janeway must go through various rituals to talk to the local religious types. The episode is deliberately muddled in exactly what is happening, but the gist of it is that Janeway has to finally abandon her scientific beliefs and act on instinct to save Kes. And although a rational reason is then presented for why her action turned out to be correct, Janeway clearly feels that her leap of faith was probably the real answer. It's the very antithesis of the Trek ethos that all problems are ultimately solved through a rational, reasoned approach. Do I need to say that I hated this episode?

In "Mortal Coil", Neelix has the exact opposite of a religious experience. Killed by an energy discharge, he is revived many hours later by Seven of Nine's nanoprobes. Neelix is very upset that he didn't get to experience the afterlife that he was expecting, and doubts his faith. These doubts are so strong and disturbing that Neelix actually attempts suicide. Chakotay tries to talk him down not by assuring him that you can live without faith in the afterlife, but only by assuring him that he can retain his faith despite his experiences. The message is clear - without faith, life isn't worth living.

If TOS and TNG repeated the false god story, Voyager certainly airs out this kind of "faith is vital" story a few times. B'Elanna goes through it in "Barge of the Dead", where she has some kind of near-death hallucination about her mother, and goes to great lengths to re-create it so that she can sort out her issues and get mommy into heaven. "Natural Law" also treads some of the same ground with Chakotay.

Although to be fair, Voyager also does a few false-god style stories - "Blink of an Eye" has aliens mistaking Voyager itself for a god, "Muse" has B'Elanna mistaken for a god-like being by some primitives, "Coda" plays with near death hallucinations and offers a somewhat rational explanation for them, "Prophecy" had B'Elanna playing the role of Prophet for some Klingons. But it always seems to me that Voyager writers don't really have their heart in it in these kind of episodes, that they are saying that this particular faith may be silly, but faith in something supernatural is pretty damned important.

One strange entry in Voyager's religious attitude file is "Emanations". In this Voyager is investigating a planetary ring system when bodies start appearing out of some sort of anomaly. Harry Kim is sucked into one and finds himself somewhere else - we don't know if it's another planet, another galaxy, another universe. He finds that the locals place the dying into coffin-like boxes where the anomalies appear so that they will be killed and taken off into the afterlife. They expect all their friends to be there waiting for them when they arrive. Harry knows better of course, and his appearance sparks something of a religious crisis.

Janeway, meanwhile, has one of the recently appeared bodies resuscitated. The woman is terribly upset to find that she wasn't in the afterlife she expected. Voyager tries to return her to where she came from, but the woman dies (again) in the attempt.

Finally Harry uses the anomalies to return, and Voyager heads out. Harry confesses that his own faith has been shaken by events, and how the aliens were so wrong about their afterlife. Janeway tells him not to be so sure - neural energy is released from the bodies as they arrive, and it interacts with the planets rings in strange ways. Perhaps the alien souls really are living on after all. Harry and Janeway seem to find that a comfort, and we end on that note.

This episode plays many of the false-god points; locals who have never really questioned their beliefs, Federation types who know better. Like TNG they don't want to wade in there blasting away to get rid of the false religion. Had it left off before those final few minutes it would have been a near-perfect TNG style false-god episode.

But those final minutes... they simultaneously ruin the false-god ethos and miss the point that the locals have been making. On the one hand Janeway seems to think that all is well so long as the locals get some kind of afterlife. But it's very clearly stated that the aliens did not expect to spend eternity as an energy pattern, they were going to be corporeal beings talking to their dead relatives on that basis in a typically paradisiacal setting. So whatever satisfaction Janeway and Kim might get from the ending, the truth would still shatter the alien's religious system utterly.

At the same time, the ending is giving us the usual Voyager line - this particular faith in the supernatural might be silly, but that doesn't really matter so long as you have some kind of faith in the supernatural.

Where Enterprise will end up on this issue is yet to be seen. We haven't really touched on religion in that series at the time of writing, with one exception - Doctor Phlox commented in "Cold Front" that he had learned about Human religions, establishing that these still exist as of 2151. This isn't at all problematic from a continuity point of view, but for us godless heathens it's a worrying foretaste of what might be on the horizon for Enterprise.

Well, there it stands. I always looked to Trek as one of the few programs in which I could be sure of seeing a rationalist viewpoint saving the day. After TNG Trek has veered away from that, much to my dismay, though it has never abandoned this aspect of its roots altogether. I can only hope that Voyager marked a low point and Enterprise will return us to the heights of TNG but if I may be pardoned the pun, it's something I don't have a lot of faith in...

UPDATE :

Now that Enterprise has run for a few seasons, we have a good idea of how religion is being treated there. I must confess, I originally thought that Enterprise would make religion far more prominent than previous Trek series, and that this would be done with a fairly consistent "religious belief is good" message. In fact, though, Enterprise has been much more TNG-like with religion that I had feared.

On the one hand, it has been confirmed that Humans of this period do still subscribe to religions. For instance, in "Cold Front" Phlox talks of his experiences on Earth :

Alien : "It represents the continuing cycle of creation."
Phlox : "It's not unlike the Hindu faith, Commander. They also believe that the universe goes through repeated cycles of rebirth."
T'Pol : "I didn't realize you were familiar with Earth religions, Doctor."
Phlox : "Oh, yes. In fact, while I was there I made it a point to study a number of them. I spent two weeks at a Tibetan monastery where I learned to sing chords with the high lamas. I attended mass at Saint Peter's Square. And I was even allowed to observe the Tal-Shanar at the Vulcan Consulate."
Alien : "I understand Vulcans are a deeply spiritual people."
T'Pol : "Our beliefs are based on logic and the pursuit of clarity."
Phlox : "Do you follow a particular faith, Captain?"
Archer : "I guess you could say I... try to keep an open mind."

This exchange is full of fascinating details. First, it confirms that several Human religions still exist; Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism at the very least. Then it goes on to indicate some form of Vulcan religion, though it is highly circumspect about this. Note that the Vulcans are not described as "religious" people, but by the much more vague word "spiritual". T'Pol then states that Vulcan beliefs are based on logic. That doesn't tell us a great deal, because logic doesn't make value judgements as such; any belief can be justified by logic if you assume the right premises. For instance - assume that your favoured holy book tells you to kill the unbeliever. Assume that this book is the inerrant word of god. Assume that performing god's will is the major purpose of your existence. Logical conclusion : you should kill the unbeliever. Which is of course very probably nonsense because the premises are very probably false... but certain segments of Humanity are more than willing to go around crusading across the Holy Land or flying aeroplanes into buildings on the basis of this kind of logic.

In Star Trek Vulcan logic is frequently depicted as being able to make these kinds of value judgements, but even given that it's impossible to seriously assess Vulcan beliefs because we simply don't have enough information about them. We don't know what is meant by "spiritual", or on what basis these spiritual beliefs are considered logical. Nevertheless, given the context here the episode certainly seems to be saying that Vulcans have something at least in the same ballpark as Human religion.

Finally, the exchange gives us a bit of a hint about Archer. It's hard to judge exactly what he means by "I try to keep an open mind." It could mean anything from "I'm an atheist but I don't want to say it in case it upsets you", all the way through to "I'm a fundamentalist Christian and you're going to hell because you aren't, but I don't want to say it in case it upsets you." However, there's really nothing to support either conclusion.

Taken at face value, a statement of open mindedness doesn't mean a great deal - for instance despite my opening statements, in my own way I am also open-minded on the subject of religion. I'm more than willing to believe that god might exist; I simply need to see proof, or at least some good evidence. I've even spent some twenty odd years looking for that evidence, and come up blank so far, but I freely conceed that it could come tomorrow.

If you simply have to ascribe a present day label to Archer, the one that would be most justifiable would be "empirical agnosticism" - which would mean that he would believe that it was possible to prove whether god existed or not, but that the evidence so far did not support either conclusion. Be careful, though, because even this is a good sized leap.

Continuity wise, there's nothing at all wrong with having Human religion at this point in history. Even assuming that religion has gone the way of the Dodo by the time of TNG, or even of TOS, Enterprise is set more than a century before Kirk's time. There's still plenty of room for the theists here. And actually, though I expected to dislike this aspect of Enterprise, I find myself remarkably unconcerned by it. Perhaps my not-so-rabid atheism is mellowing in my not-so-old age...

Enterprise didn't really tackle religion in a major A-story way for another two seasons but when it did, boy did we get a doozy. I refer, of course, to "Chosen Realm".

Here Enterprise is investigating the Delphic Expanse, a region of space which is filled with dangerous anomalies which are created by giant artificial spheres. They come across a badly damaged ship filled with Triannons, an alien species who believe that the Spheres are holy artefacts created by god. The Triannon sieze control of Enterprise in a most novel fashion - each one has a chemical explosive in their bodies which they can detonate by stabbing themselves with a needle-like device. Their leader demands that Archer hand over control of the ship or his people will literally blow themselves apart and take Enterprise with them.

It transpires that the Triannon have been locked in a civil war for generations. The war rages because one faction believes that their gods made the spheres in ten days, whilst the other believe that it took nine. Ultimately Archer manages to overcome the Triannon and regain control of his ship. The sting in the tail comes when he takes their leader back to his planet to show him that virtually the entire civilisation has been devastated by the war.

"Oh boy", as Archer might say in a former life, where to start with this one! First off, the Triannon are very clearly designed to be a parallel to the modern wave of suicide bombers. This is a crime that many in the west find particularly difficult to understand these days, though if you are a fan of World War II movies you won't have to go far to find the western pilot who directs his damaged plane onto the enemy base to win one last victory for his own side - something that is generally depicted as being very heroic and manly. Indeed, you can see this even today on occasion - have a look at Babylon 5's "Severed Dreams" for an example. Of course, it's a different matter when it's being done to you and yours, and it's certainly a different matter when it's done by somebody who sneaks up on you in civilian garb rather than coming in guns blazing in a clearly marked uniform.

Anyhoo, the use of the suicide bomber is an interesting feature of the episode which clearly signposts the Triannon as a parallel to the present Muslim fundamentalist mentality. Condemning this kind of thing is pretty easy nowdays, of course.

The second interesting point is just how trivial the Triannon's war is. A massive war, fought over a century to the virtual mutual destruction of both sides... over the burning issue of whether it took nine or ten days for god to make his Christmas tree ornaments. The message seems to be that religions should find a workable compromise which lets them live and let live. It's a nice message, but it kinda misses one of the defining points of religion. The very bedrock of much religion is that your beliefs are the Truth; beyond evidence, beyond logic. Choosing a religion is a matter of faith, not the grimy day to day rationality that you use to decide which type of new car to buy.

If your religious beliefs compel you to believe that accepting Jesus as your personal saviour is the One True Way into heaven, then there can be no possible compromise with other religions. It is simply unconscionable to live and let live, because by allowing others their false beliefs, you are allowing them to choose a future of eternal hellfire. Converting the unbeliever is vitally important, not because it does anything for you, but because it helps them.

There's an old story/joke about a group of religious leaders who are discussing their beliefs. The Bhuddist gets up and talks about enlightenment and reincarnation, and they all nod and say "yeah, okay, if that's what you believe then that's great." Then the orthodox Jew gets up and talks about the sabbath and the diet restrictions and such, and they all nod and say "yeah, okay, if that's what you believe then that's great." Then the born again fundamentalist Christian stands up and says that the only way to heaven is by accpeting Jesus Christ as your personal saviour, and they all nod and say "yeah, okay, if that's what you believe then that's great." And he thunders "NO!!! It is NOT 'my thing', it is the INERRANT WORD OF GOD, and anybody who doubts it in the slightest will BURN in HELL!" - to which eveybody nods and says "yeah, okay, if that's what you believe then that's great."

I'm not by any stretch of the imagination saying that all religious people are like this - though from my admittedly biased standpoint it often seems like most of them should be, if they really do believe what they say they do. But "Chosen Realm" brought this story to mind for me, because this is the kind of belief that many of the Triannon do have. You can see the episode is saying "hey, we should all learn to co-exist," which is a fine and noble thing to say. But that's a message that simply cannot work on the fundamentalist mindset.

Incidentally, if I may be allowed a small non-Trek aside, the best example I've ever seen of this point is the Babylon 5 episode "Soul Hunter". The Soul Hunter and Minbari religions are utterly incompatible; there literally cannot be any compromise between them, nor can they simply agree to leave one another alone. They have to either abandon their own beliefs, or fight.

Chosen Realm also gives a somewhat murkier ending than many classic false-god stories. Rather than having Archer destroy the Triannon religion - which could have been done by demonstrating that the spheres were not holy in some fashion - the episode lets the false religion run its course and shows us the awful consequences. We're left with D'Jamat grimly looking at the world he helped destroy... but even then, the episode does not show him changing his opinion. We simply fade out and are left to wonder what happened next.

One last point concerning "Chosen Realm"; in a sense this episode can't be called a false-god story, because in a sense the Triannon religion is perfectly true.

Let's look at the main points of their belief; the spheres were built by god in the distant past. They create the "breath of the makers", aka the anomalies. One day the makers will return to rule over the chosen realm. This is, to the last detail, exactly what we eventually learn did happen. The spheres were indeed built in the distant past by "makers", they do indeed create the anomalies, and the Builders do indeed plan to return and take over one day. The Triannon are absolutely correct... except of course about the tricky question of whether the builders are gods or not.

DS9 might have Captain Sisko go the route he took with the Prophets and comment that it's all a matter of interpretation, that their beliefs give them comfort and that to the Triannon the Sphere Builders are gods. Then again probably not; since the Builders are anti-Federation like the Founders, he'd probably just condem them out of hand. Personally, I take it as self-evident that the Builders aren't gods in any way shape or form, so whilst the Triannon had all the pieces of the puzzle, they put them together in the wrong order.

Wow, this one really turned into a marathon! Sorry to run on like this (does anybody even read the more self-indulgent articles? Enquiring minds want to know!), but I found Chosen Realm to be one of the more intriguing false-god stories and I wanted to vent.

Overall, then, Enterprise has been quite TOS-like in their approach to religion. I was wrong to be so judgemental in advance - "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa", as I might say were I religious!


Yellow text = Canon source Green text = Backstage source Cyan text = Novel White text = DITL speculation


Copyright Graham Kennedy Page views : 5,754 Last updated : 1 Jan 1970