Star Trek: Discovery boldly goes where no Trek has gone before by saying religion is... OK, actually

Star Trek: Discovery boldly goes where no Trek has gone before by saying religion is... OK, actually

Star Trek’s future is a secular one. Franchise creator Gene Roddenberry was an avowed atheist, and the series and its spin-offs have routinely criticized organized religion as manipulative, illogical, and detrimental to the evolution of a society. Individual members of the human race may have an undefined spirituality, a curiosity about the afterlife, or a sense of wonder at the unknown or unknowable, but specific religious beliefs are typically reserved for alien cultures.

But, if Trek’s fervently pro-science and anti-superstition has remained constant, so have the attempts by different storytellers within the franchise to approach religion from other, more tolerant angles. And the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “Whistlespeak,” may present Trek’s most even-handed take on faith to date.

Religion as childhood fantasy

Somewhat restrained by the standards and practices of 1960s television, Star Trek: The Original Series used sci-fi allegories to criticize religion as an institution that stifled advancement and expression. In two episodes (“The Return of the Archons” and “The Apple”), Captain James T. Kirk and his Enterprise crew encountered a planet where a population was cowed into willful ignorance or repression by a deity that turned out to be a computer, which Kirk summarily destroyed.

In the 1980s, however, Star Trek’s writers were free to take the gloves off and criticize religion directly. In the 1989 Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard is mistaken for a god by a Bronze Age civilization for whom religion is already a thing of the past. Picard is mortified to be the catalyst for what he, in no uncertain terms, views as a societal regression, and steps in to reveal the truth to his new worshippers, even at the risk of his own life.

The position of “Who Watches the Watchers,” and of Star Trek at large, is that people turn to the supernatural when there are questions they can’t answer, but that the answers will always come, eventually. The willingness to pursue those answers and the patience to avoid drawing rash conclusions is a sign of maturity. By contrast, inventing digestible but unsupportable explanations for life’s mysteries is a sign of immaturity, a phase to be grown out of.

Other people’s gods

After Gene Roddenberry’s death in 1991, there was a gradual shift in the way Star Trek stories approached religion. The human species had still exited the evolutionary stage at which religion was practiced, but many of their peers in the galactic community — such as the Klingons and the Bajorans — held strong religious beliefs. And these beliefs began to be explored in much greater detail.

In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the human members of the command crew go to great lengths to not only respect but participate in the Klingon rituals of their comrade, Lt. Commander Worf. Ahead of Worf’s marriage to Jadzia Dax, his colleagues Captain Sisko, Chief O’Brien, and Dr. Bashir join him for four days of fasting and physical exhaustion (though not without complaint). When Jadzia is murdered and Worf fears her death has not earned her a place in the Klingon Valhalla of Sto-Vo-Kor, Bashir and O’Brien follow Worf on a potential suicide mission to win glory in her honor. Worf’s friends are content to take Klingon religion at face value, and the existence of Sto-Vo-Kor is never questioned.

Worf and two other Klingons scream at the sky, while one of them closes the eyes of a fourth, fallen Klingon in Star Trek: The Next Generation
Klingons participating in a traditional death howl, to warn Sto-Vo-Kor that a warrior’s soul is about to arrive.
Image: Paramount

During this era of Star Trek, alien religious beliefs were not merely tolerated, but validated. This is an important wrinkle in the case of the Bajoran religion on Deep Space Nine, whose worshiped Prophets are undeniably real: a species of non-corporeal beings who live outside of time and periodically intervene in the development of the nearby planet Bajor. Whether or not the Prophets have done the things the Bajorans worship them for is not up for debate, only whether or not they should be treated with religious reverence. Through DS9’s exploration of Bajoran politics, religious power is as dangerous as the person wielding desires it to be — not inherently malevolent or infantilizing towards its people. But, of course, since the existence of the Bajoran gods can be scientifically proven, their value as an analog to real-life religion is limited.

Discovery’s middle way

The streaming era of Star Trek under executive producer Alex Kurtzman, which began in 2017, has seen some new, minor references to religious practices in human society. For example, an unnamed background character serving aboard the USS Cerritos on Star Trek: Lower Decks can be seen wearing a hijab, indicating that some semblance of Islamic tradition is still observed in the 24th century. Not long after we meet Captain Christopher Pike during the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, we learn that his father taught both science and comparative religion.

But “Whistlespeak,” which comes midway through Discovery’s fifth and final season, returns fully to the Original Series’ territory of a classic “weird alien religion” episode, and with a much more multi-faceted approach. Captain Burnham and her crew visit the planet Halem’no. which is nigh-uninhabitable except within the radius of a tower-like device that was secretly installed by a Federation scientist centuries earlier. The planet’s surviving inhabitants are a peaceful and friendly pre-warp civilization who believe that the towers are temples built by their gods.

Disguised as locals, Burnham and her friend and shipmate Lt. Sylvia Tilly join the faithful Halem’nites for a ceremonial marathon up to the towers as tribute to their divine saviors. It’s a joyful ritual that brings the entire community together, but there’s a shocking twist the Starfleet visitors only learn after the race is finished. Tilly and the marathon’s other winner, a Halem’nite named Ravah, are locked inside the tower, where they will eventually asphyxiate; a sacred sacrifice to keep the planet’s terrible storms at bay.

Though Starfleet officers are forbidden to interfere in the development of pre-warp civilizations, Burnham isn’t about to let Tilly (or Ravah) die to satisfy some arcane ritual. However, rather than tearing the whole society down like Kirk might have done, Burnham appeals directly to the community’s leader — Ravah’s father, Ohvahz — and implores him to stop the sacrifices, explaining the tower will do its work whether or not his child gives their life. Ohvahz is, naturally, open to the idea of not killing his child, but fears that revealing that their temple is actually an alien artifact will shatter his community and lead to violent conflict. What is their civilization without their faith and traditions?

“Better off,” is how Picard would probably answer. But Burnham’s response is more measured.

L-R Alfredo Narciso as Ohvahz and Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. They are wearing hand-made alien garments, and conversing calmly while sitting on the floor in a stone room. Photo: Michael Gibson/Paramount Plus

“There is still what you believe. Nothing we’ve shown you means gods don’t exist… it’s just that you know that there’s also us… Beliefs can evolve. Denying that can cause almost as much chaos as the worst storm.”

It’s probably no accident that Ravah, the teenager who’s supposed to be sacrificed in this episode, is gender non-binary, a trait which is not controversial for the Halem’nites but is condemned by many conservative religious groups here on present-day Earth. There’s also a parallel to the climate crisis, as the Halem’nites will need to learn to maintain the alien weather tower in order to keep their world safe. Would Christianity collapse if their leaders recognized that some of their flock don’t fit into the gender identities described in their holy texts, or that human intervention is required to undo human-made damage to the Earth? Probably not, and their inflexibility is only doing harm to their community. It’s not necessary to hold onto harmful policies or practices, nor is it necessary to throw out an entire system of beliefs because of new, contradictory, or unanticipated information.

Meanwhile, aboard Discovery, Dr. Hugh Culber has been trying to make sense of his own spiritual awakening, a feeling of connection to a higher power that has lingered with him since an out-of-body experience on a recent away mission. As a scientist, Culber’s first instinct is to investigate, understand, and catalog this sensation, but the explanation eludes him. He seeks the advice of his friend Cleveland Booker, a non-human with his own spiritual life, who essentially asks him, “Why do you need to understand it?” With this guidance, Culber decides that the value of his new spirituality is in how it feels, not where it comes from.

The approach to religion in “Whistlespeak” does not broadly condemn religion like The Original Series or The Next Generation, or rationalize and tolerate faith as a quirk of the other, like Deep Space Nine. Instead, “Whistlespeak” questions why a philosophy that is rooted in the unknowable should be attached to absolutes. Spirituality is what you make of it, whether that’s on an individual or community level. Religion can do harm, but it doesn’t have to, so long as its leaders and its believers are willing to embrace uncertainty. In this way, at least, science and religion can find some common ground.