What does a starship need with God?

Star Trek: Discovery and the Trek franchise’s complicated relationship with religion

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

“What does God need with a starship?”

That line, uttered by William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk in the much-derided Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) — co-written and directed by Shatner himself — is probably that film’s most famous (or infamous) moment.

In the weeks building up to the recent debut of CBS’s new series Star Trek: Discovery, buzz around the franchise has raised a different question: What does a starship need with God?

The topic was raised several weeks ago when a news story spelled out that — in keeping with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s secular-humanist brand of sci-fi utopianism — the word “God” will not be uttered on the new series, even in casual profanities like “for God’s sake.”

Since many Christians object to profanity in entertainment, this proscription would seem to be welcome news for faith audiences. The context and motivation, though, elicited concern from Star Trek fans who are believers.

Other ideas included an extraterrestrial entity who appears as various divine beings, including Jesus Christ, the implication being that Jesus was just one more godlike alien. Perhaps most bizarrely, there was even a planned fistfight on the bridge of the Enterprise between Kirk and Jesus!

One common response has been to rattle off examples of positive religious references and images from The Original Series (TOS) onward, from scenes set in the original Enterprise’s interfaith chapel to the episode “Bread and Circuses,” which depicted an Earth-like planet with a parallel Roman Empire persecuting an underground faith originally thought to be sun worshippers, but whose deity Uhura ultimately says isn’t “the sun in the sky; it’s the Son of God.”

Roddenberry’s anti-God thing

Despite such moments, though, it must be acknowledged frankly that the overarching vision of human progress shaping Roddenberry’s creative vision for Star Trek was from the outset a secular one. Roddenberry’s visionary idealism had much to commend it, but part and parcel of his vision was the notion that religion, like racism and poverty, was something mankind ought to outgrow.

This is evident, not only from the general absence of religious themes, but from the pointed critiques of religious ideas and themes in TOS episodes such as “Return of the Archons” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Over and over in these stories, seemingly divine entities are debunked and rejected — a motif revisited in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

Religious Themes, Science Fiction, Star Trek