Apr 2, 2020
Exploring Star Trek's spiritual side
Star Trek’s relationship to the subjects of religion or spirituality has been complicated. Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was known for being a secular humanist with a skeptical attitude toward religion, and few of Star Trek’s main human characters delve into the areas of belief and faith, except in fairly broad and generic ways. It often falls to a guest alien society or the non-human members of the crews of the various shows to bring up the subject and to demonstrate religious beliefs and rituals. This makes sense for obvious reasons, since the subject can be a sensitive one with potential to offend audiences, and so a way to deal with the concepts in a thoughtful way is to use a made-up religion to do commentary in a safer way. A fictional religion has no adherents in the audience who will write nasty letters to networks, after all. And so this might explain why it is that Star Trek’s best and most interesting stories dealing with religion and spirituality involve the religious beliefs of Klingon or Bajoran characters or alien demigods. In this article, I’ll be looking at the Star Trek characters who show the most interest in religion, spirituality, and mysticism.
Although the original Star Trek series had a ton of episodes that dealt with advanced alien beings who either posed as, or could be mistaken for gods, insights into the beliefs of the main characters themselves were rare. Two of the movies dealt overtly with religious themes, as the premise of Star Trek: The Motion Picture involved an advanced artificial intelligence searching for its creator (and the episode that formed the basis for its plot was titled “In Thy Image”), and the premise of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier involved Sybok’s quest to find the Vulcan equivalent of the Garden of Eden. The movies provide more of a glimpse into character attitudes than many of the episodes do, and from them, I would say that Dr. McCoy is the regular from the original cast most likely to be religious in a traditional sense. There’s not a lot of onscreen evidence for it, but he seems most open to it in Star Trek V, while they’re on the planet beyond the Great Barrier and he engages in a discussion with Spock about it after the experience. On the other hand, it could be Spock, seeing as how the Vulcan philosophy and path of logic have brought him such structure and serenity, and how some of the practices and rituals of Vulcan culture seen have religious elements. Further, his experiences in returning from death at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as well as the ritual of rejoining soul with body would likely have led him to some spiritual searching as well.
Unlike with TOS, I think it is fairly clear that in The Next Generation, Worf is the character among the regular cast who’s most traditionally religious, as he’s shown to be observant of the religious customs of the Klingons. He’s seen throughout the series to be very respectful of tradition, even when it causes him to butt heads with K’ehleyr or his son, Alexander. When circumstances cause him to potentially miss a significant cultural milestone, as in “The Icarus Factor”, it’s seen as a source of regret for him. Since he was raised by humans, it’s sometimes observed by other characters that he goes a step beyond in his adherence to Klingon beliefs and customs, perhaps to compensate for any perception that his “Klingon-ness” is somehow less than one who was raised within the culture. He’s also often shown as somewhat of an outsider among the crew, and he apparently views ritual or faith as a source of support to depend on in times of crisis. He goes to a monastery in “Rightful Heir” after a personal crisis in the “Birthright” two-parter, a choice that doesn’t seem like it would be a natural fit for other regulars of the crew. However, it fits with Worf’s austere and disciplined ways. He turns to a quest to help Jadzia into Sto’Vo’Kor as a way of dealing with his grief. Other than perhaps the Bajorans, Star Trek gives its most in-depth look at the spiritual beliefs of an alien culture to the Klingons, and those beliefs, like those of their culture, are very much oriented around honor, duty, and combat.
Like some of the more advanced alien races of the show, Guinan seemed to possess an extrasensory grasp of time and other dimensions, yet she also exuded a sense of empathy and humility that those other beings would sometimes lack. Since they deliberately and wisely chose to keep much of her background story fairly mysterious, the audience doesn’t know the extent of her powers or what the exact nature is of certain “dealings” that she had with beings such as the Q. From what we see of the character though, she seems to possess a strong spiritual sense that she uses to advise members of the crew and to help them solve personal and professional problems.
Deep Space Nine dealt with issues of religion more than any Star Trek series. The show’s take on it was impressively nuanced and sympathetic compared to other moments in the earlier series. It was woven into the very fabric of the premise, as the wormhole that gave the station so much of its importance was inhabited by beings that the Bajorans regarded as Prophets, but were regarded by most others as powerful incorporeal aliens with a non-linear perspective of time. The show played cleverly with the idea of point of view when it came to whether something could be seen as the work of “gods” or not. It brings to mind Obi-Wan Kenobi’s line from Star Wars that many of the Jedi “truths” depended on one’s point of view. Certainly, the intervention of the wormhole aliens in the season 6 episode “Sacrifice of Angels” on behalf of the Federation could be seen as a deus ex machina, both as a writing device from the viewer’s perspective, but would have looked much like “divine intervention” to many of the players in the conflict.
Capt. Benjamin Sisko underwent a spiritual journey throughout the show’s run, as his relationship both to Bajor and to the Prophets within the wormhole changed from an outsider to a role that he embraced as he gradually grew into his role as Emissary to the Prophets. He comes to them as an ambassador of sorts in the show’s pilot, explaining to them the differences in perceptions of time between the Prophets and humanoid species in the Alpha Quadrant. I didn’t like the awkward retcon of season 7, in which it was revealed that Sisko’s birth had been engineered by the Prophets, as it seemed to add a needless layer of confusion to earlier interactions between he and them, and also sabotaged the more organic development of his relationship to them. It’s unclear what the “predestined” angle of it added that couldn’t have just been present in their interactions from the start of the show. In addition to the way the show used the role of the Prophets to look at the way that perspective influences belief, they did this with the Founders of the Dominion, and how the Founders had deliberately designed their servants to view them as gods.
In Voyager, Chakotay’s specific religious or spiritual practices were sometimes criticized for being a mishmash of various trendy ideas rather than representing a belief system more consistent with the character’s background, but I found his own spirit quests and those he helped others with to be some of the more interesting parts of that series. The contrast between the violent path he feels himself reluctantly forced into as a Maquis and his personal belief in the importance of peace could have made him troubled and conflicted, but instead he was often the serene mentor of other members of the senior staff as they dealt with their own personal problems. One of the best uses of his calm demeanor and spiritual background was in the episode “Mortal Coil”, where he’s able to talk Neelix through a crisis that of faith resulting from a Star Trek equivalent of a near-death experience.
Ironically, despite Enterprise having the song “Faith of the Heart” in the opening credits, I couldn’t find a specific character among the regular cast or the frequently recurring characters to include in this article. To me, there just wasn’t a character who stood out as having a memorably spiritual or religious side, at least not to the extent of those included above.
Looking over this list, I see a few trends and conclusions to draw from it. One is that many of these characters serve as advisers and mentors to other members of the crew. Obviously, since the regulars of the shows tend to be senior officers in leadership positions that’s going to be the case, but I mean this in more of an unofficial way, where these characters are sought out for advice and guidance apart from in professional ways. This is clear in the way that others go to Guinan in Ten-Forward when dealing with a problem, or the way that characters go to Chakotay for guidance on spiritual matters, as Janeway does, even though she outranks him. Also, as far as personalities go, many of the characters who are the most religious or spiritual tend to possess both an inner serenity, and if not an outer calm, at least an outer stoicism. This is the case even with a character like Guinan, whose race endured near annihilation and subsequent scattering at the hands of the Borg, and with Worf, who’s endured a series of personal tragedies. It may be that they have the sort of faith that Spock refers to in Star Trek VI that, as he puts it, “the universe will unfold as it should.”