What 'Star Trek' teaches us about faith 50 years later
Posted September 30, 2016
In 2008, author Kevin C. Neece found God in the most unusual of places — not in a church or in a life-changing experience, but on his TV.
It had been years since Neece, a lifelong Christian, had watched “Star Trek,” and seeing it as an adult gave him a new perspective on the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise: His favorite show as a child, he realized, was thick with religious meaning. That revelation became his new book, "The Gospel According to Star Trek," which will be published this fall.
“It was a surprisingly sacred moment in my life that made me think, maybe the gospel really is everywhere. Maybe God really is telling his story in all our human endeavors,” Neece said. “For me, as a natural skeptic and doubter, those are the kinds of things that keep me alive as a person of faith.”
“Star Trek” has held a prominent place in pop culture since it first debuted on American TV screens 50 years ago this year — known for its message of tolerance, inclusion and predicting many technologies used today.
It certainly isn’t a show designed to attract Christians — creator Gene Roddenberry was a humanist known to sometimes exhibit contentious views of organized religion — but five decades and as many TV franchises later, theologians and fans assert that “Star Trek” is one of the most pro-Christian shows ever to air.
“Most shows talk about morality as being all about power or control or oppression. But Star Trek embodies, without apology, the stance that morality is the best characteristic of humanity,” theologian and actor Cole Matson said. “There is no ‘the ends justify the means’ — that’s anathema to everything Star Trek stands for.”
That might seem far-fetched to Trek fans who love the show’s hard-science backdrop, yet science fiction, fantasy and space exploration dramas are shot through with religious themes, from “Battlestar Galactica” to “Firefly.”
“Good sci-fi has nothing to do with aliens in bad prosthetic masks with multiple arms and antennae — that’s just the fun stuff,” Trek fan and National Catholic Register writer Angelo Stagnaro said. “Good sci-fi is a reflection of human society, including religion.”
What makes Star Trek work from a Christian perspective is that its religious themes work subtly, Neece said — woven into the show's core theme of celebrating what it means to be human.
“Star Trek is more open and affirming toward religion, specifically Christianity, than a lot of people give it credit for,” Neece said. “It’s about learning to be human and until we do that, we won’t understand what it means to be fully human toward the greatness of God.”
To understand why space exploration dramas so often explore faith, consider the night sky. Some look at the expanse of stars and think their existence is more a coincidence than anything. Others look and argue that life in such vastness must be significant. But everyone, regardless of the conclusion, looks up and asks, “Why am I here?”
It’s that question, that search for truth that makes science-heavy space exploration shows like Star Trek the perfect vehicle to delve into religion — not to answer the question so much as explore how humanity answers it for itself.
“Sci-fi stories tap into our search for wonder and that’s what Christianity is all about,” Patheos writer Paul Asay said. “It’s about always growing in our sense of amazement and understanding as much as we can the inherent mystery of God, even as we’re called to know him.”
It’s understandable that space travel could raise spiritual doubt in some people.
“We’ve always been earthbound until the last 50 years or so. We’ve broken that boundary of the heavens and found it’s changeable,” Matson said. “That can create a lot of anxiety. Where do you find God now? How do you connect?”
Yet some argue that space exploration is itself an act of faith. In his 1985 novel, “Contact,” astrophysicist Carl Sagan demonstrated that space exploration is an attempt to understand God and creation.
“Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God,” Sagan wrote, “must be brave enough to accommodate the universe.”
An open mind, Sagan argues, is the most valuable tool a space explorer can have. Even for staunch skeptics like Capts. Kirk or Picard, exploring space is to accept that there are questions that humans cannot answer — a theme that permeated Star Trek from the beginning. That makes it difficult for space exploration dramas to eschew faith entirely.
“Risk is our business,” Kirk says in the original series’ second season. “That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”
Star Trek’s mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before” naturally lends itself to an inner voyage of discovery for its characters.
“When we’re exploring the vast, empty coldness of space, we’re coming face to face with how small we are. That’s got to make us think,” Neece said. “In order for us to explore space in fiction and have it mean anything, it has to be about an exploration of ourselves.“
That voyage makes us better humans, experts say, and that brings us closer to God.
“In Star Trek we’re reminded that as we leave our earth, we still take our humanity with us,” Stagnaro said. “As we explore, what do we take with us? How do we define ourselves?”
Modeling Christian values
Aside from the metaphor of space exploration as self-exploration, Star Trek constantly reinforces the idea that its characters are more than mere humans or good soldiers. Rather, the actions and rules that govern every aspect of their lives as Starfleet officers are inherently Christian values.
“Data especially is a great example because he’s really trying to understand the world around him and who he is in it,” Asay said. “He still has questions all his knowledge can’t answer. It recognizes that there’s a wisdom that goes beyond intellect.”
As an android, Data spends much of the series trying to understand and emulate human behavior. Data’s sentience soon runs afoul of his creator’s cynical view that he was merely an expendable robot, which Data struggles to accept. Yearning for meaning, Data opts for a life of meaning and service in Starfleet, speaking to the show’s recurring theme of the sanctity of life in all forms.
“I chose to believe that I was a person, that I had the potential to be more than a collection of circuits and sub-processors,” Data says in season 6. “I made a leap of faith.”
“It challenges the assumption that in the future, there’s no room for faith, that if humans became advanced enough, we’d lose religion,” Neece said. “Star Trek respects inquiry, for certain, but it still arrives at a place where it’s a show about faith rather than science.”
Neece and Asay see Spock is a full-on Christ figure, and not just because he resurrects from the dead in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” While there are myriad references to Spock’s self-sacrifice, Neece and Asay say Spock’s most Christ-like qualities boil down to who he is.
“Spock has a dual nature,” Neece said. “He’s both human and superhuman, just as Christ is human and divine.”
“In the age we’re living in, some people say that religion isn’t reasonable, that people who are afraid to think lean on faith,” Asay said. “When you see Spock, you see someone who sees the whole universe for what it is: It operates by a set of rules, but at the same time, he doesn’t shut out the possibility of remarkable things happening.”
It’s just one example of how Star Trek gives Christians a model to live by in an increasingly scientific, secular world.
“Spock’s mind is open to the amazing and when you approach life from a position of faith, that’s what’s required,” Asay said. “You don’t turn of your brain, but you remain open to the possibility of the miraculous.”