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Three Episodes about Religion

Star Trek is usually described as portraying a non-religious future, at least for humanity. This does seem to have been Gene Roddenberry's idea. However, what actually appears in Star Trek (especially in the post-TNG period) is rather more complex. I'd like to look at three episodes dealing with religion, which show both different attitudes and different degrees of sophistication.

"Who Watches the Watchers?" (TNG)

The Enterprise visits some anthropologists observing a pre-contact culture from a hidden post (using holographic projectors). This seems rather arrogant but hey, they're pre-warp. The Mintakans are "proto-Vulcans" at a Bronxe Age level. Since they parallel Vulcans, they are highly rational, and have incidentally given up religion. This will bug those fans who like consistency, since the actual Vulcans at the stage—long before Surak—were highly emotional, irrational, and violent. An accident leads to exposure, and Troi and Riker go down in disguise to rescue one of the anthropologists. But the Mintakans, on the basis of what they see, decide that "the Picard" is a god after all. One of the anthropologists tells Picard that since the contamination is irreversible, his best course is to accept the role and minimize the damage so that the (now inevitable) religion does not become one of holy wars and inquisitions.

Captain Picard however rejects this, saying he will not destroy their "achievement" and return them to "Dark Ages". One of the Mintakans is brought onboard and persuaded that Picard is not a god: what really persuades her is seeing that he can't stop someone dying. Meanwhile, back on the planet, Troi has helped the missing anthropologist escape, and the Mintakans debate whether they should kill her to appease the Picard. Luckily Picard and the Mintakan who went to the Enterprise return and save the day.

Apart from the slightly memorable bit about the Captain being "the Picard", this is a fairly bad episode, coming close to agitprop. It's presumably supposed to be a demonstration of the Prime Directive, and is OK as such as long as you take the interactions as symbolic. (If you take the story literally, then surely one small group's unusual views would not "inevitably" change a whole planet, but Star Trek often uses an interaction with a small group as a shorthand for discussing a whole society—see page on the conventions of Star Trek stories.) But the episode is primarily a critique of religion.

The trouble is that it has very little to say on the subject except "Atheism good, religion bad." Religion appears to consist simply of belief in superhuman figures of supernatural power, and abandoning this is a positive achievement. But why? The only real argument is that religious belief leads the Mintakans rather hastily to human (or in this case Betazoid) sacrifice. Troi protests that the problem with belief in a supernatural being is knowing what he wants. While interesting, this does not seem to match the experience of Earth up to this point, which has been that the problematic sort of believers are usually pretty sure what is wanted.

Picard's demonstration that he is not a god is quite well done, and is valid whether or not the Mintakans do, or should, have a religion. But it proves nothing as to religion itself. One might question why Picard knows better than the professional anthropologist, but (i) Picard does have some qualifications in the field (ii) Picard always knows better.

So in the end, there isn't a critique here; just some assertions for Picard to say loudly.[1]

"Mortal Coil" (VOY)

Neelix is accidentally killed, but Seven of Nine uses Borg technology to revive him eighteen hours later. However, after the shock wears off, he starts reflecting on the fact that he was not conscious of anything while dead. It seems that his people have a belief in an afterlife where they all go to a Great Forest where they will meet, by the Guiding Tree, those who have died before. Why didn't he see any of this? Instead of a near-death experience, he had a non-experience. This causes him to lose his faith.

However, unlike "Who Watches the Watchers?", the issues are now explored a bit. Chakotay, who has some sort of traditional Native American beliefs to some extent, plays an important role in putting the alternative case. He suggests to Neelix that he might have been brought back before anything happened, he questions whether he should abandon a lifetime of faith because of one strange incident, and he comments that death is the great mystery. (Neelix rejects the possibility that he returned too soon on the basis that surely eighteen hours is enough.) Neelix asks for his help in undertaking a vision quest, but the results are disturbing: the people he sees tell him it is all lies and that he should kill himself. He attempts to do so but is talked down by Chakotay: it seems that his responsibility to Naomi Wildman may be the crucial factor.

It is not made clear, but the impression of the ending is that Neelix has lost his faith in the Great Forest but that he realizes his life on Voyager has value. However, unlike the crude propaganda of "Who Watches the Watchers?", the episode does not make Neelix's conclusion the official truth. Neelix came to a particular conclusion, and you can certainly see why he would do so. But some of his arguments are more emotional than rational. For example, he thinks it's implausible that after eighteen hours he still hadn't gone to the Great Forest. That makes sense psychologically but it's hard to see the logical or theological justification. The vision quest ended his hopes, but surely the vision of being told to kill himself was delusional rather than insight. Chakotay puts forward alternative ideas: they may not convince, but they show that there are other options.

Overall this episode is a reflection on one person's religious experience, with less emphasis on religion in general.

We don't learn much about Talaxian beliefs in general. Neelix thinks of the Great Forest mainly in terms of being reunited with his loved ones, which is understandable when you consider how many people he has lost. However, in real-world religious traditions the afterlife is not necessarily just about being in a nice place. In Christian belief, the point of heaven is being united with God. Perhaps the "Guiding Tree" has some function in creating meaning. The question of whether Talaxian religion is theistic has some relevance to Neelix's argument that after eighteen hours he should have arrived in the afterlife. Since God is outside time, or at least knows everything, he would know that Neelix's death here is actually only temporary, and from the point of view of God and the afterlife only Neelix's final death, some time in the future, is relevant. However, this is a bit technical (not to mention the fact that God isn't mentioned), and can be loosely regarded as part of Chakotay's argument that Neelix simply came back too soon.

"Sacred Ground" (VOY)

Visiting a religious site, Kes strays off the path and gets zapped by an energy field. She's badly injured and the doctor doesn't know how to help. The authorities won't let Voyager do all the tests they want, but Captain Janeway discovers that she can be initiated into the religious order, and hopefully get information in the process. She doesn't believe in the religion, of course, but it could save Kes, and the monks seem quite happy about the idea.

She meets a guide, who takes her on an arduous initiation, after giving her the curious warning that all of it is meaningless—only her connexion to the spirits matters. After some interesting experiences and a bit of suffering the Captain returns to the ship with what she thinks is the necessary data. The doctor is pleased, but it doesn't work. It seems that all that was meaningless, he comments.

Musing on this, Janeway goes back. The guide asks if she is seeking the spirits, and Janeway replies that she doesn't know what she is seeking. In that case, says the guide, she's ready to begin. This time the Captain talks to some old people she had ignored before who tell her it is a matter of faith. She must carry Kes back into the force field, believing that it will cure her. To the horror of her shipmates she does so, and Kes wakes up.

But now the ending. Kes and the doctor are discussing the events and the doctor produces a long and complicated piece of medical technobabble about why the force field had this effect. They're both delighted. But the Captain looks far away, and the doctor is puzzled. She says, "It's a perfectly sound explanation, doctor. Very scientific." And leaves, still looking far away.

What makes this episode unusual is not so much the sympathetic view of religion, but the unusually sophisticated understanding of it. The guide and Janeway are able to co-operate, but rather than the rational human tolerating the other, it is the guide who seems to be giving a slightly amused tolerance to Janeway's limited understanding. The attitude to ritual is that of the mystic. "Mysticism" is a word often used very loosely, but as a technical term it refers to the attempt to achieve direct knowledge of God or the ultimate reality, as opposed to relating through ritual, religious bodies, or rules. The guide is happy for Janeway to indulge in ritual, but, as she eventually tells her, it is her own need that creates it, and it is meaningless in terms of getting to the ultimate realities.

Throughout her encounters, the guide (and later the group of old people) note how Janeway trusts in science as giving order and meaning. To a large extent they are in fact encouraging about this. But, they point out, she has come to a point where it doesn't seem to be giving her what she needs.

The ending makes it point by its very ambiguity. Kes's cure is not an inexplicable miracle proving the beliefs of the monks—the doctor can now offer what used to be called a "simple scientific explanation", though simple is hardly the word here. So, for the doctor, it is just a strange though very fortunate coincidence that the Captain was led to do the right thing by a temporary mental aberration. Captain Janeway, however, has seen something else, and although she is returning to her normal world-view it will remain with her, unsettling and probably unintegrated.

The scene opens straight into the doctor's rapid-fire technobabble, a sort of background to Janeway's musings, seeming oddly irrelevant. Because it is. If you think that the presence of realities beyond this one are going to be either proved or disproved, you're going to be disappointed.

[1] There is an interesting, if somewhat offensive, bit at the start of "Sub Rosa" (TNG) where a funeral uses the words of the Anglican burial service, but substitutes "in sure and certain hope that her memory will be kept alive within us all" for the original "in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life". This suggests religious ceremonies have been turned into secular ones by judicious bowdlerization. However, "Sub Rosa" is set in a colony where the inhabitants apparently play-act at what might be called Scotlandland, so perhaps this is a local peculiarity. "Sub Rosa" is, in my view, a pretty bad episode, but that's another issue. [Return]

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