In Space as on Earth: God, science and 'Star Trek'

The term science fiction is an oxymoron. Fiction is the stuff of imagination, where the human leaves the real, or breaks free of the present in order to picture the future. Science, however, is the domain of the fixed, realities rigidly determined by what we call the laws of nature. Strictly speaking there can be no fiction about science. Who would read a novel or short story about, say, cellular degeneration? What we call science fiction is a resetting of our own well known humanity in an imagined future. And that’s the wonder of our humanity. Imagining it anew has a way of broadening it. Humans deepen when they dream.

The “Star Trek” franchise, which began with Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 eponymous television show, explicitly envisions a future where the bright promise of human progress, premised upon modern science, is realized. It has come to include six television shows and twelve feature films. Although it imagines the future, it is contemporary fiction, so it’s intriguing to examine how it both reflects and re-envisions us, especially on the questions of God and religion.

We supposedly live in an era of conflict between science and religion, though the tension between the two is most pronounced for those who don’t know their science or their religion very well. Already in the 19th century, the First Vatican Council, in its document on revelation Dei Filius taught that “between faith and reason no true dissension can ever exist, since the same God, who reveals mysteries and infuses faith, has bestowed on the human soul the light of reason” (no. 4). Catholicism, like mainstream Judaism and Islam, sees all truth as rooted in God; therefore, any conflict between science and religion is either temporary or only apparent. It either arises out of a theological or a scientific approach that is destined to be supplanted or through the limited perspective of a given individual’s grasp of the two disciplines.

So, for example, in the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared to call into question God’s existence, because it challenged the biblical account of creation. Today it causes little difficulty for non-fundamentalist believers, because we no longer read Genesis as though it were written as a scientific communique from God.

Of course, there is always a distinction to be drawn between the leading insights of a society and the viewpoints of its denizens. Just as our medieval forebears thought faith answered every conceivable question, our contemporaries tend to presume that science now does the same. America recently ran a picture of a young atheist, sporting a t-shirt that read “Atheists: In Science We Trust.” Pardon my irreverence, but science is only a method. Science isn’t an agent at work within the world anymore than God is. To say that one trusts in science is to assert no more than confidence in collective human reasoning, the very stuff of "Star Trek."

The original series suffered from a similar, oft-repeated and really rather annoying misapprehension. Mr. Spock, the paragon of Vulcan enlightenment, would assert that an approach or understanding wasn’t “logical.” Logic deals with tautologies, self-evident truths that are known by virtue of the mind’s structure, whereas the questions at hand on the Enterprise dealt with an analysis of empirical evidence. What the authors of those early episodes meant was that something was irrational. It failed to use human reason effectively because of ignorance or emotional prejudice. Like so many naive enthusiasts for science today, a semester’s worth of philosophy would have done wonders in the writers’ room.

And maybe a little anthropology. In this summer’s “Star Trek into Darkness,” primitive aliens catch a glimpse of the Enterprise, and a throw-away shot that follows (I mean not only that it’s brief but also that it should have been thrown away) shows them worshiping an image of the spaceship. This doesn’t even correspond to contemporary anthropology on the origins of religion. The roots of humanity’s spiritual impulse run deeper than astonishment at the unexplained.

Most people today would be surprised to learn that contemporary theologians don’t approach God as simply one more agent—albeit one infinitely more powerful—who is active within the world. God typically doesn’t appear in today’s theology as a counter to intra-world, scientific explanation. As C. S. Lewis put it, this would be akin to looking for the novelist in the pages of the novel. Certainly the approach of contemporary theology is due in large measure to advances in scientific understanding, but, the shift having been made, modern theologians have been able to look back upon their own tradition, realizing that neither the Fathers of the Church nor the greatest of the medieval theologians typically approached God as a substitute for natural explanations.

Looking at the "Star Trek" franchise collectively, rather than at individual television episodes or movies, perhaps the most basic fact about the world that it envisions for the future is the absence of organized religion. No reference is made to any contemporary religions—not even the celebration of Christmas. What’s interesting, however, is that religion, or at the very least spirituality, is frequently depicted among alien races, and not always in a negative manner. There’s no better example than Vulcan mysticism. The Vulcans are a more advanced society, and yet they use meditation and ritual in order to purify the human psyche, even to reach beyond the confines of their own empiricism.

The word psyche is aptly chosen, because the Vulcan mind-meld—a Vulcan can achieve inter-conscious communication through physical touch—evidences our own unease with the notion that the mind can be reduced to physical components. “The Next Generation” accomplishes something similar with the introduction of a “Ship’s Counselor,” the empathic alien Deanna Troi, who enunciates perceptions and values that elude empirical methodology. Though the assertion is almost treated as blasphemy today, “Star Trek” does seem to recognize that “science doesn’t have all the answers.”

What should be noted about the world that “Star Trek” tells us to expect is that God, as ultimate moral arbitrator and vindicator, remains a lodestar of human striving. If Marx had been correct, a world without famine, disease, even economic want, should have no place for God. And yet, traveling into space, we seem to discover that we transport the human (or its converse reflection, the alien) with us. The men and women of the future still struggle against evil, especially the moral evil that they find within themselves. They still insist that right should triumph over wrong, that the good should win out in the end.

There are plenty of episodes in the long franchise history in which some figure appears as divine savior, only to be rebuffed, but if is this is anti-religion, then so is the Hebraic prophets’ rejection of idols. “Star Trek” certainly doesn’t affirm the Christian assertion of Christ as savior, yet these words from Gaudium et Spes are as trenchant in space as they are on earth. “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm our anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in our breasts” (no. 18). Human beings were seekers long before we entered space, and “Star Trek”’s ongoing search for new worlds suggests that the struggle for a life beyond evil remains the final frontier.

Tim O'Leary
3 years 10 months ago
Star Trek movies are more atheistic compared to the original TV series. In the second season episode, "Who mourns for Adonis" Kirk rebukes the Apollo character with "Mankind has no need for gods, we find the One quite sufficient." Also, in the second series, in the "Bread and Circuses" episode, there is this exchange at the end: SPOCK: I wish we could have examined that belief of his more closely. It seems illogical for a sun worshiper to develop a philosophy of total brotherhood. Sun worship is usually a primitive superstition religion. UHURA: I'm afraid you have it all wrong, Mister Spock, all of you. I've been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves, the empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion. But he couldn't. Don't you understand? It's not the sun up in the sky. It's the Son of God. KIRK: Caesar and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading only now. MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood. The best science today suggests that life beyond the unicellular will be a very rare thing in the Universe (see Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by geologist Peter D. Ward & astrobiologist Donald Brownlee) and the limit of light speed makes is highly unlikely that we would ever come into contact with rational extraterrestrial beings, even if they existed somewhere out there. Still, it would be very interesting for me to see a futuristic movie, say 200 years from now, where Jesuits were heading out to another planet to evangelize new peoples and contrast that with what happened in the past. Whether we are the only rational beings in the Universe, or not, is in either case, as Spock would say "fascinating."
3 years 10 months ago
Jesuits head to another planet to evangelize in Mary Doria Russel's "The Sparrow." Thoughtful and thought-provoking.
G Miller
3 years 10 months ago
I read "The Sparrow" and it sequel. I was unhappy with the lack of Jesuit spirituality. Did the protagonist ever pray the Examen? Nope! He never once asked where God was in all that he experienced. In fact, in a book populated by priests, no one ever celebrated mass. I would have thought the first thing after landing they would have done is celebrate mass.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 10 months ago
Not having read "The Sparrow" I think if G Miller's summary is right, I will give it a pass. A Catholic priest with no prayer and no Mass is worse than bad fiction - something Garry Wills would come up with.
Jonas Moses
3 years 9 months ago
"Capt. Kirk: Caesar - and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading... only now." "Dr. McCoy: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood." This is an oddity, coming from the pen of Gene Roddenberry, who was raised as a Jew and claimed to be an Atheist. Also a curiosity is that the conversation, at this point in the dialogue, includes Cpt. Kirk (William Shatner, who is Jewish) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy, also Jewish)! The most bizarre aspect of this exchange, however, is what was written by Roddenberry for McCoy to say, in summation, when referring to Christianity: "A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood." This completely ignores the inescapable realities of the history of Christianity: The Crusades - murder of hundreds of thousands The Inquisition - murder of hundreds of thousands Nazi Germany (in the name of eradicating the Jews, in favor of a global, Christian world) - murder of millions The above facts omit the other hundreds of thousands to millions of so-called "heathens" who died, in various nations, over the past two thousand years, in the course of forced conversion to Christianity. I cannot imagine how anyone could call this "a philosophy of total love and total brotherhood..." With utmost respect, for my Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and other brothers and sisters, Dr. Jonas Moses
Tim O'Leary
3 years 9 months ago
Gosh, Jonas - You really have the Nazi's wrong. Hitler was an atheist, and very anti-Christian. He blamed Christians for perpetuating the Jewish religion - and even worse in what he considered (following the other Darwinian atheist Nietzsche) bad for preaching charity and brotherly love to the poor and weak. Hitler said Christianity was the worst plague and every Catholic priest was "an abortion" of a man. he said he would eliminate the Vatican after he had finished the war. You are surprised by Jews like Roddenberry seeing the good in the teachings of Jesus? Isn't that a little anti-Semitic yourself?
Steven Walker
3 years 10 months ago
The "Deep Space Nine" franchise deals with religion as a fairly central plot element, as the Federation crew of teh station interact with the deeply religious Bajorn people. The hero, Captain Sisko (reluctantly) even assumes a role in the Bajorn religion as the chosen "Emissary" of the "Prophets."
Gregory Lynch
3 years 10 months ago
There are actually quite a few religious references in the various Star Trek series' despite the fact that Gene Roddenberry was an atheist. Tim O'Leary cites one of the strongest ones in his comments but here is blogpost that cites other articles and other religious themes in Star Trek: Peace, Greg
Robert Klahn
3 years 10 months ago
That is the best explanation of the error of considering science and religion antithetical I have ever seen. I still remember John Paul II saying, "Truth cannot contradict truth". Ok, he wasn't the first, but he was the first I heard say it. This commentary expands on that and explains in detail so well I cannot argue one point of it.
G Miller
3 years 10 months ago
Science fiction is not an oxymoron. It is the imagining of a time and place where technology has advanced beyond our current state. These imagined technological advances are the hallmarks of the genre. Star Trek is set in the 23rd and 24th centuries in the Milky Way galaxy. In that time, one can travel beyond the speed of light and move quickly from planet to planet. One can also disassemble and reassemble people and objects via a "transporter." We know (well, some know) the physics of these fictional features. Some know that they are in our day and time a conjecture based upon our current understanding of physics and the physical world. But the author is right, we live in a time when science and religion are in conflict. This article is a prime example. I would be willing to bet that Fr. Klein doesn't know the "Physics of Star Trek." I am sure others will point to myriad episodes of Star Trek that include religion. His lack of knowledge of science, and the franchise Star Trek is demonstrated amply here. I see this all the time in how the Church interprets the modern world. It's lack of science understanding is appalling. It seeks to critique what it does not deeply understand time and again.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 10 months ago
G - I think your post proves Fr. Klein's point that it is "naive enthusiasts for science" that could do with "a semester’s worth of philosophy" to avoid making silly mistakes. Having lived and worked in scientific research for many many years, I can attest that the conflict between science and religion among the college educated populace is primarily due to gaps in scientists' understanding of the limits of science, brought about by some basic philosophical mistakes. For example, most scientists do not seem to know that science is not a philosophy or a coherent explanatory theory (whereas materialism is closer to one, even though it has inherent contradictions). As Fr. Klein points out above, it is a method. It is marvelously effective at examining the quantifiable aspects of the material universe. But it has no competency in understanding goodness (morality) or beauty (esthetics) in their essence. It cannot deal at all with metaphysical questions (such as why things exist at all, or universals). It also is very limited in examining non-reproducible events (such as a miracle or singular event that occurred once somewhere) though it can provide supporting evidence. Many scientists neglect to take account of their inherent materialist biases in even generating hypotheses or forming generalizations from the results of scientific studies. But, their greatest weakness is to forget how much they rely on authority for nearly all the science they know, since they can't possibly have done the field research themselves. They blithely go about decrying arguments from authority while they are wholly dependent on it themselves. Fr. Klein is right in distinguishing science fiction from science fact. Science fiction includes many ineffective medical remedies, and theories long ago abandoned (such as the ether or phlogiston, or past scientific frauds such as Haeckel's Phylogeny or Piltdown Man). A better term for the literary genre would be Future fiction. Anyway, I have greatly enjoyed Star Trek in its various iterations, with its generally optimistic imagination of the future, creative examination of moral dilemmas, and generally good writing, as others have enjoyed Harry Potter or Dr. Who. But I do not confuse its "scientific magic" (teleportation, warp speed, time travel, telepathy, and general voodoo materialism) with science proper.

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