Star Trek Voyager: Lower Decks

Religion on Star Trek

Or, Why is there religion in Trek fanfic,
but little or no religion in Trek itself?

by LJC

Not too long ago, a confused fanfic reader sent a letter to one of the AOL boards asking why, in so many stories, the characters appealed to "gods," small-g-plural when they had never done so on the show.

The letter got me thinking. This is, as any one of my friends can tell you, a dangerous thing.

Okay, my first reaction to the note was "Is this person asking if Tom Paris is pagan?" because, generally, people equate pantheism with paganism (usually because the double or triple nature of deity in paganism is interpreted by some as pantheism), and paganism is equated with "Anything that is Not Christianity/Islam/Judaism." (I feel I should also point out that a great many pagans are in fact monotheist animists —who believe in One God with many aspects, and all living things having a spirit or soul—The Mother, Maiden, and Crone being a One God with Three Faces in the manner of the later the Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... but that's another essay entirely.)

And my second reaction was to sit back and think about it. Hard. And here's what I came up with...

Gene Roddenberry said, once or twice in interviews and the like, that by the 23rd Century Religion will no longer be an issue. He hoped that people would be open minded enough that all forms of religious persecution and bigotry would have been completely worked through and left behind, as humanity "grew up." Now, whether this was Gene simply trying to avoid dealing with religion directly on Star Trek (any of its incarnations), or a truly idealistic hope on Roddenberry's part, I can't say. But I can say that that idea has been, in many people's eyes, twisted into "Humanity will grow out of the need for religion." implying that faith is somehow a childish thing, something that can be—and should be—outgrown.

Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't see humans ever "growing out of" Faith. Organised religion—Churches, doctrine— perhaps, though I find it more likely that organised religions will either have adapted, or died by the 24th century. After all, that's how Christianity spread and survived the last 2000 years in the first place—by being flexible. It may not seem that way today, but flexibility is always easier to see given the telescope of a few hundred years than decades. People need faith.

Back to the original question—why, in a universe almost completely devoid of religion except for "alien" faiths such as the Bajoran belief system, and Klingons' legends of Kahless, does the fanfic have Terrans (i.e. Americans In Space) calling on small-g-plural gods?

Easy—fanfic overcompensates. In the same way that the Trek universe overcompensates by staying away from individuals faith unless they're "alien", it's a way of saying "Not only do I believe that religion is alive and well in the 24th century, but I'm going so far (left) as to say that there's more out there than just the Big Three!" Or that somehow, the Big Three—the afore-mentioned Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—aren't good enough to survive until the 24th century, and humans will find/create new ones...

More often, I believe, it's just people trying to add an "alien/futuristic" touch to a story. And a lot of times, it's just a little subversive gesture on the part of the author—tweaking the beliefs of the generation that came before us in an almost passive aggressive way—a little petty rebellion against what is perceived as the "norm." A giggle at 2am. A smile on the train to work, not meant to Say Anything Hugely Important, or Change The World.

Personally, I'd love to believe that paganism—after being persecuted to near extinction—has finally been allowed to not only survive, but flourish in an atmosphere of religious tolerance. However, I am sure almost to my toenails that even if Gene Roddenberry actually knew anything about modern Paganism, he wasn't thinking about it when he designed the Alpha Quadrant we all know and love back in the 60's.

The Star Trek universe in many ways—despite the (welcome!) interjection of realities such as how slowly human nature does change and how people are still, even hundreds of years from now, ultimately people—is still an utopian vision, and each of us chooses our own utopia. Which means Trek fans—especially those who choose to play in Gene's sandbox professionally or otherwise— choose to believe that humanity will grow up; humanity will leave behind prejudice, that someday Terrans will no longer kill and die over race, creed, or religion.

But that doesn't mean abandoning your heritage, beliefs, or faith. That's what hope in the future and utopias are all about. In a universe founded on the principle of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination" you simply take for granted that religious tolerance is the rule and not the exception.

Reality check... it's not as if the shows themselves have at least once or twice portrayed religion in a patronising manner, implying that it is "backward" and "primitive"—TOS's "The Apple" TNG's "Justice", and VOY's "Tatoo" and "False Profits" for example, where the people's "God" has been proven to be a computer or any significantly advanced science that has been mistaken for God— implying that having a God is a mistake that will be "corrected" by a more technologically advanced species someday (Q for example).

So... back to the original question...

Do I think Tom Paris is pagan?

Hell no.

Does that mean I think no one celebrates Samhain on Enterprise? Easter Mass on Deep Space Nine? Passover on Voyager? Nope. In fact, I'm sure in more than one version of Gene's original vision, it happens all the time. But fanfic has the balls to discuss today's living religions and speculate about their place in the 24th century, whereas the shows—and yes, this is a bit of a generalisation— substitute the Bajoran religion when they want to make a point about religion—because it's safe. Because the Bajorans aren't real, won't send them hate mail or boycott their advertisers. In this humble (or not so humble, if you've ever actually met me) author's opinion, that's the practical reason why we don't see Religion on Trek.

Incidentially, I've always seen Tom as some kind of 24th century Methodist. But that's just me.

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