Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Star Trek, Faith and Conservatism

Yes, I'm a Trekkie. At least, sometimes I am. I binge on The Next Generation and (to a lesser extent) Voyager every few months. The show has happy associations from my adolescence. The Next Generation was a fairly new show back then and I used to watch it every weekday, at five p.m. on the Sky One channel, with my three brothers. It's pretty much the only thing we ever did together and we had a bit of a peanut gallery going.

Deep Space Nine was shown when they'd run out of The Next Generation, and though I enjoyed it at the time-- I even convinced myself I preferred it, because it seemed more sophisticated than TNG-- I wouldn't watch it now. It lacks the very thing which made Star Trek almost unique amongst TV shows-- its galloping optimism and idealism. As for the original series, I tried to watch a few episodes and found it tedious beyond words.

Is it strange for a conservative Catholic to enjoy a show like Star Trek, which is unabashedly secular, humanist and futurist in tone? On the surface, I agree that it seems strange. And not only do I enjoy the show, but-- and this is mildly embarrassing-- The Next Generation was important to me when I was finding my way back to faith. I took genuine spiritual comfort and inspiration from it, ridiculous though that may sound.

Star Trek's relation to Christianity, Catholicism and conservatism is not an original subject. A chap called Kevin Neece runs a blog called The Undiscovered Country Project , which looks at the show from a Christian perspective. And the ever-reliable Catholic text-miner (and all-round smart fellow) Jimmy Akin has a very comprehensive and balanced post on the same subject here. That post goes into far more detail about particular episodes than I'm going to do here.

I'm not going to claim that Star Trek is either a conservative or a Christian show. That would be ridiculous. The show was conceived by Gene Rodenberry, who was an ardent secular humanist. As a later writer of the show put it (I take the quote from the Star Trek website Memory Alpha):

"In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future [...] religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry's mythology. He, himself, was a secular, humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it."

So, while the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise may run into alien religion, they themselves are long past this stage of development. When the major character Tasha Yar dies, in the first series of TNG, her memorial service contains no mention of an afterlife or a soul. In another episode, Captain Picard tells the android Data: "We too are machines, just machines of a different type." And in the episode "Who Watches the Watchers?", where Picard is mistake to be a Deity himself, the estimable Captain is given this speech:

"Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!"

So Trek seems pretty clearly anti-religion. As for the conservatism, the very fact that the Enterprise is constantly encountering weird alien species, with the broadest range of values and customs and taboos, would seem to reflect a certain cultural relativism. For instance, in the episode "Half a Life", a scientist who has reached the age of sixty is expected, by his peoples' custom, to commit suicide, and the episode presents this as a valid practice to be respected.

So, what is there for a Christian or a conservative to approve of in Star Trek?

Plenty, I think.

First off, I have to admit that I actually like the bright rationalism of the series. It tends to avoid the grotesque, the morbid, and the surreal and to concentrate upon well-adjusted, psychologically healthy people who seek to solve concrete problems through the use of reason and ingenuity.

This, I think, is quite amenable to the Catholic temperament, which is usually one of philosophical realism-- a realism that is rather more problematic for materialists than for us, since we believe in such immaterial realities as essences and universals and teleology-- without which philosophical realism tends to collapse.

(You may legitimately ask what philosophical realism has to do with "bright rationalism" in drama. I would answer that it has everything to do with it. It's hard to have a spiffing space adventure if you question the very existence of morality, or the self, or the reliability of empirical knowledge. And these are real differences-- they take us from the cool objective atmosphere of Star Trek to the fever-dreams of Blade Runner or The Twilight Zone.)

To quote Chesterton, from his book about St. Thomas Aquinas:

"The philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God."

So I think Star Trek's cheerful realism might be closer to a Catholic outlook than a sceptic might suppose, for all the absence of angels.

Another reason I think Star Trek is religion-friendly is that it is such an unabashedly optimistic show. The universe is seen to be not only a good place, but one swimming with life and wonder and marvels. Conflict is often resolved through greater knowledge and mutual understanding. Star Trek inhabits a Socratic universe where virtue is knowledge, where few men (or should I say humanoids?) would willingly do evil, and where it is better to suffer harm than to commit it. Socrates may not have been a Christian, but the Christian tradition has always seen him as an enlightened pagan who had glimmerings of the Truth. And really, doesn't such a fundamentally benevolent universe hint at a Providence?

The intrepid heroes and heroines of Star Trek are often seen to struggle on even in the direst circumstances, to trust in the intrinsic goodness of their friends and even their enemies, and to make allowances for those who are hostile to them-- for instance, in the episode "The Enemy", where Geordi La Forge teaches an antagonistic Romulan to trust him when they are both marooned on a barren planet. In this way, I think Star Trek actually often draws on the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. And what are those virtues doing in a purely rationalistic universe?

When it comes to conservative aspects of the show, one thing that really jumps out at me is the importance the Star Trek universe assigns to heritage, tradition, custom and ritual. A character such as the Klingon Worf is seen to place enormous importance on his Klingon identity, and the way of life attendant upon it. Star Trek may be a liberal show, but it is not an individualistic one. Not only Worf, but many other characters (such as the Bejoran Ro Laren, upon whom I had a huge crush as a boy) are seen to identify very strongly with some historical and cultural identity, and to sicken psychologically in its absence.

Also, when it comes to collective identities, it would seem that the national cultures of Earth remain vibrant in the twenty-fourth century. Our own Colm Meaney stars as Miles O'Brien, who sings The Minstrel Boy in one particular episode and is, all in all, every inch the Irishman. I find this rather reassuring.

Community is an enormous theme in Star Trek. The Enterprise and Voyager starships are like small towns; everybody works together, socialises together and even pursues a cultural life together. (I love that they have art classes, poetry recitals, and amateur dramatics on the Enterprise.) Characters come into conflict, overcome conflict, and grow together, as though they are part of one extended family. Of course, both liberals and conservatives value community, but it seems to me that there are more "conservative" types of community (nation, family, small town) and "liberal" types (sub-culture, commune, interest group). The more "conservative" types tend to be more rigid and involuntary. And the spaceships in Star Trek, where everyone is more or less stuck with each other, seem closer to a family than a kibbutz or a crash pad.

Finally, physical, technological and scientific reductionism are regularly shown to be inadequate in Star Trek. The ships' replicating machines can make pretty much anything, but characters are repeatedly portrayed as longing for home-made food and to engange in handicrafts instead. The android Data is intrigued by concepts-- humour, imagination, love-- that evade the computations of his ultra-sophisticated positronic brain.

In one of his my favourite moments, Captain Picard-- who is something of a renaissance man-- tells the young Wesley Crusher: "Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship. It takes more. Open your mind to the past. Art, history, philosophy. And all this may mean something.”

And, in another exchange that I cherish, when Picard's stuck-in-the-mud brother says, "You always reached for the future, your brother for the past", Picard (who is an amateur archaeologist as well as a starship captain) says; "There should be room for both in this life."

In short, I think that the humanism of Star Trek is not-- except in its most egregious moments-- a shallow, scientistic humanism, but a deeper and more spiritual variety that isn't a million miles (or light years) from Christian humanism-- and one that isn't really evident in many other TV shows, especially science fiction ones. Ironically, the grungy and bleak Battlestar Galactica, which quite deliberately took a more mystical and less utopian approach than Star Trek, seems to me much less likely to appeal to a Christian or a conservative viewer.

And now the twenty-fourth century is calling me again....

(P.S.: Another difference between Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica is that, as far as I know, you never even see a bathroom in Star Trek, while the latter show features unisex toilets and at least one scene where one character talks to another while sitting on the lavatory. Probably I am lamentably repressed, but I much prefer Star Trek's old-fashioned atttitude that our eliminative functions are best left outside drama.)


  1. Yes, we spent every evening hogging the telly too! I think that Buffy came on after that or perhaps when that series finished? Seven of Nine, Captain Janeway, Picard's handsome deputy and his love the Nigella lookalike. I remember watching that suicide episode with horror, I was only an innocent and it frightened me. I didn't believe they'd not kick up a fuss though. Wasn't it the Nigella lookalike's mother he was marrying? Lawks I'm such a nerd.

    I have a head like a sieve and my nephew asked me once what I wanted for Christmas while I was in one of my eternal searches for something I'd put down. We looked at one another and both shouted, "A tricorder!" That would solve all my problems.

    My crush was Tom Paris. I also had a secret girl crush on the fiesty B'Elanna and wanted her mad maths skills and courage. Plus my Trekkie hero Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is in real life an outspoken prolifer. I knew I liked her for a reason. I have to go now before I find myself hunting on amazon for a box set!

  2. One thing I really like about Captain Janeway is that she is such a womanly woman. I didn't get around to seeing Voyager for ages and I assumed that the first female captain would be a ballsy, hard-as-nails, Iron Lady kind of Captain in order to avoid female stereotypes. But while she CAN be hard as nails she is quite maternal towards her crew and very feminine.

    There is another episode where Worf is contemplating euthanasia and Riker (the handsome deputy) is asked to assist but is horrified and disgusted. That to me shows how even a very politically correct show like The Next Generation has been left behind by "progress"-- that attitude would now be "reactionary", no doubt, but the episode presents it as healthy. Another way TNG has already been left behind by the march of liberal orthodoxy is that the young guy, Wesley Crusher, is seen to idolize Captain Picard because he lost his own father and is seeking a father figure. Really, to suggest a boy needs a parent of both sexes-- pure heterosexist fascism really!

    I love Tom Paris too. I'd like to be his friend because I imagine it would always be fun to be around him.

    P.S. Buy the box-set...buy the box-set...buy the box-set!!