The Contributions of Freethinkers: Gene Roddenberry

As a wedding present to ourselves, my wife and I bought the DVDs of the original Star Trek, and these past few months, we’ve been working our way through them. For myself, it was a test: I hadn’t seen most of these episodes since my childhood, and I was curious to see if they held up. I’m pleased to say that, for the most part, they more than hold their own. There’s plenty to criticize, but after all this time, it hasn’t lost its charm.

Despite everything that makes me roll my eyes about Star Trek – the dated special effects, the hammy acting, the hackneyed plots, the ludicrous science – there’s a powerful heart of optimism beating beneath the surface of the show. The idea that human beings have conquered our own divisions and become united as a species, that we’re setting out to explore the universe purely for the sake of exploration, that we’ve become members of a galactic civilization of intelligent life – for all these reasons, the world of Trek could be fairly described as a utopian vision of humanist philosophy. And that’s why it’s no surprise that Star Trek‘s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was himself a humanist and a nonbeliever.

As Susan Sackett, Roddenberry’s longtime personal assistant, put it to a humanist group in Massachusetts:

Ms. Sackett said that Star Trek, like humanism, promoted ethics, social justice and reason, and rejected religious dogma and the supernatural…. She said Mr. Roddenberry, who lectured in Worcester in the 1990s, strived in his Star Trek ventures to affirm the dignity of all people.

“Rationality was the key… There was no recourse to the supernatural,” she said.

Ms. Sackett said Roddenberry was so resolute about religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the starship Enterprise.

And Roddenberry himself said:

“I have always been reasonably leery of religion because there are so many edicts in religion, ‘thou shalt not,’ or ‘thou shalt.’ I wanted my world of the future to be clear of that.” (source)

Brannon Braga, one of the original writers and producers, expressed similar thoughts at a 2006 atheist conference in Iceland:

STAR TREK, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity’s exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of STAR TREK is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry’s imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, 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.

Star Trek‘s humanist ethic comes through clearly in several classic episodes, including “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, in which the crew of the Enterprise is confronted by an alien being who claims to be the god Apollo and demands their worship; or the Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers?”, in which the crew’s existence accidentally becomes known to a primitive society, and they must convince those people that they are not gods.

With all that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Star Trek has spawned its own devotees who follow and imitate the show with an almost religious fervor. But even this, I think, is testimony to the hunger for an optimistic, humanist vision of the future, one not based on the supernatural, and that’s the kind of thing that all atheists should be doing our utmost to provide.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    “The idea that human beings have conquered our own divisions and become united as a species, that we’re setting out to explore the universe purely for the sake of exploration, that we’ve become members of a galactic civilization of intelligent life – for all these reasons, the world of Trek could be fairly described as a utopian vision of humanist philosophy.”

    And yet, my fundamentalist stepfather loves this show. Go figure :)

  • Darth Cynic

    “…that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe.”

    Alas that outlook was dumped for later spin-offs such as DS9 where we get a generous helpin of religion.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Yay Star Trek! As one of the people who is religious about Star Trek, I must say that there is an important different. Unlike followers of Christian mythos, even the most fundamental of us understand that the show is created by people, that Captain Kirk is a fictional character, and that bits of the Enterprise are not to be found at the top of Mount Sinai.

    Also the characters in the show are not without religion. In the episode you mentioned, Captain Kirk states: “Mankind has no need for Gods, we find the one quite adequate.” Though the last part of that line always makes me cringe.

  • Eurekus

    When I was a fundie I loved Star Trek, as an atheist I love Star Trek. One thing that annoyed me though in the very final episode of Star Trek Voyager, the engineer Belana Torres techno babbled about, of all things, inductor capacitance. If you understand even a little on electrical theory you’d know how ridiculous that comment was. But unlike those whom are even more ridiculous by their bible babble about the 2nd coming of Christ, at least Star Trek deals with a possible future scenario for the human race.

  • jack

    we find the one quite adequate

    There was at least one other religious moment in Star Trek that I can remember. It’s set on a planet where everyone is dressed in robes and the heroes are a band of dissident, downtrodden and oppressed pacifists who, we are led to believe, worship the sun. Only at the end of the episode do we learn from Uhura, who has been eavesdropping on their religious broadcasts, that “It’s not the sun in the sky, it’s the Son of God!”

    Still, considering the times (mid sixties) and Hollywood’s mindset, it’s remarkable that so little of religion leaked into the series.

  • Valhar2000

    “Who watches the Watchers” was an excellent episode, not least because of the casual but very scathing dismissal of religion made by Picard when discussing courses of action with the rescued scientists.

    The speech that Picard gives Nuria to explain to her the difference between the technology humanity has and the magical powers she attributes to it was also superb.

  • Valhar2000

    Here’s the relevant quote:

    Horrifying… Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. 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!

    Can you believe that something like this was aired in the USA? I can only assume that many viewers thought he was talking about fundamentalist kooks, and not their own brand of “enlightened” worship, or maybe they are the kind of people who claim that their god is not supernatural.

  • Quath

    I remember back in the 90′s when Babylon 5 came out. It’s creator (JMS) was also an atheist. However, he wrote religion into the show because he didn’t think people would ever let go of it. This was one of the many issues in the Star Trek vs Babylon 5 debates. Luckily, it never reached the heights of the Picard vs Kirk debate due to people pushing the idea that both shows could be enjoyed.

    Personally, I think religion will lessen and become less dogmatic over time. But it is such an easy answer to all questions, that it is hard to see it ever fully going away.

  • AnonaMiss

    I think Star Trek V is worth mentioning in this context, if we can suspend for a moment the understandable pretense that it never existed. I think the religious underpinnings of that plot doomed it from the very beginning. Sure, mobilizing the desert people via religion is reasonable, but converting the ambassadors (iirc) of secular states with just a “I feel your pain!” gambit does not fly – and it just goes downhill from there. Don’t the main characters even have a short conversation on the nature of god at the end? Ugh.

    Talk about breaking your universe.

  • http://prenerk.wordpress.com AndrewK

    I am a huge trekker myself, precisely because of the deep resonance with humanist philosophy. If you don’t mind the blogspam, I reflected on the two in my post, Star Trek and My Humanism

    AnonaMiss : IMHO, ST5 is best left ignored and forgotten. Every series has unfortunate flops, and ST5 was directed by the Shat. That man is many things, but a director he is not. But still… What does god need with a spaceship?

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Star Trek V quote: “What does God need with a starship?”

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen
  • exrelayman

    Actually there is a religious component to star trek. Clearly “Beam us up Scotty” derives from the children’s song “Jesus wants me for a sun beam”. Subtly hidden, of course. The logic here is the equal of many apologetic contortions.

  • Demonhype

    “Oh, why did the world turn its back on our obvious greatness?”

    :D

    I was never really a fan, but both my parents were fans of the original series and my two best friends in HS were fans of Next Generation–I went with them to see Insurrection, but mostly because all three of us had a thing for Data. :)

    I respect the premise of the original series though, and to an extent the NG. It’s too bad the whole thing went wacky with the never-ending spinoffs and remakes.

  • Kennypo65

    Star Trek was a gem. It proved that television can be uplifting and positive. The original show was way ahead of its time(which is why it was cancelled). Roddenberry was very optimistic about human potential, especially if we dropped the shackles of religion. I hope he was right because as I see it the world is divided into armed camps because we can’t agree on which fairy tale to believe.
    I know that people are going to disagree with me, but I liked the original, TNG, and I really liked Enterprise(Jolene Bialock is SMOKING hot).

    Unfortunately, TV now is all garbage. Reality TV is an oxymoron. You want reality? Turn off the TV and get the hell out of the house.

  • Robert

    In contrast, Star Wars was saturated with superstition; that’s why Star Trek is way better than Star Wars.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    Interestingly enough, the “Ask an Atheist” vidcast did a show on Star Trek and atheism recently. It’s up on Youtube.

  • lpetrich

    I’ve seen him called

    Goddenberry

    Which was appropriate in a certain way – he created a science-fiction universe.

  • lpetrich

    Grading Science Fiction for Realism places many well-known science-fiction works on a scale from super hard to mushy soft. Star Trek is clearly on the soft end of the spectrum, though not mushy soft. It’s hard to find a SF movie that’s well on the hard end, but 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly qualifies, aside from those enigmatic monoliths.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Overall, I like the Star Trek TV series and movies. A number of my evangelical Christian relatives like it too. I think the reason for this is that the franchise doesn’t beat religion on the head – its religious critiques are often quite subtle. The episodes that deal with religion at all are built around one or two questions, so even religious viewers don’t feel like their particular beliefs are being attacked.

    The TV series that began with a lot of promise was Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the campy 1980s series). Unfortunately, the final season of that one was overwhelmed with a lot of goofy religious nonsense that made it difficult to watch the final episodes at all. The Star Trek franchise has managed, for the most part, to avoid that pitfall.

  • Fred Hall IV

    I rather much enjoyed this article and the associated comments. At some later point, I would like to take some time and compose something somewhat more thoughtful. But I thought that I would go ahead and write a few things now, just after reading the article and comments.

    Since I was born in December 1969, I missed the first run of the Original Series. Although I watched a few re-runs with my father when I was young, I really became a Trekker after a substitute teacher introduced me to the Star Trek novels. Then, for some time, I could not find re-runs for a while. But I eventually read several more novels and saw nearly all of the episodes of all of the Star Trek series — many of them several times. I have also seen all of the movies multiple times — except for Star Trek V, which I consider … most unfortunate.

    I agree with the general sense that secular humanist lessons and philosophies pervade Star Trek. The Original Series, under much more direct control of Roddenberry and communicating his philosophy had appreciable nuance for its time. But later series often demonstrated even greater subtlety and nuance in their treatment of issues; that includes their treatment of religion. I believe that the occasional exploration of religion — often through the lens of alien cultures and characters — represents a more sophisticated treatment of these topics. Darth Cynic argues that Roddenberry’s outlook on this matter was “dumped” on later series like DS9. Indeed, the creators of that series took a slightly different tack on that matter. But they did the same in a great many other ways. I remember Deanna Troi telling a character (perhaps one of the people preserved from just a bit in our future in an early episode) that there was no need for money in that time. Yet later in DS9 we learn about “gold-pressed latinum” — and its particular appreciation by the Ferengi. Roddenberry might not have been entirely happy with this somewhat less shiny take on his vision.

    Quath mentioned Babylon 5. After reading through the comments of its creator (JMS) on “The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5″ and elsewhere, I have come to appreciate some of the subtleties of that atheist’s take on religion. Quath argues that JMS “… wrote religion into the show because he didn’t think people would ever let go of it.” Hmm … I suppose that I agree in the sense that JMS appreciates the possibility that religions will still exist in some forms even in the future. It is interesting to watch Babylon 5 episodes in which the manner in which institutions like the Catholic Church had adapted themselves to take into account further developments in technology and its interaction with alien philosophies and religions.

    I believe that I could continue in this vein for a while yet, but I suspect that I should wrap this comment up before it becomes too long. I will consider writing at greater length in the future. For now, I would like to thank you for your time and consideration.

    Live long and prosper.

    P.S.

    I certainly agree with Kennypo65 in that Jolene Blalock is, as he noted, “SMOKING hot.” Yes indeed she is.

  • http://cgranade.blogspot.com/ Chris Granade

    Since by nature I am somewhat contrarian, I have to say that I see Deep Space 9 a bit differently than some others here. I don’t think it dumped the optimistic secular humanism evident in other Star Trek series, so much as it put it in crisis by placing it in a context where many Federation values and ideals were not universally shared by all of their neighbors. In that way, I think that DS9 was able to explore the implications of a humanist (or should that be humanoidist?) society in ways that the other series did not. Indeed, it was with Deep Space 9 that I think many of the ideals of Star Trek shone through most clearly.

    On a slightly tangential note, I thought that the Bajoran religion in DS9 was rather notable amongst sci-fi religions for being based on something physically observable: the wormhole. While they added much of the typical dogma on top of that, the Bajorans took an interesting direction with their religiosity by worshiping beings that unarguably existed and had an impact on their world. Would that real religions demanded similar levels of reality from their claims!

    All else aside, though, this is a wonderful article, and I love the quality of discussion it has started! Thank you!

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    I’m not sure that you can say much about TOS having a non-religious message, even as indicated from the quotes from some people here. About the best you can say about it is that maybe it didn’t focus on religion more than other things in that era did, but I can think of two series that I have on DVD from similar timeframes (Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes) that did it even less. Even though, I guess, you can say that sitcoms are different, we don’t even KNOW what religion most of those people in shows like that were, and Star Trek isn’t all that different. TOS has the optimism, but it doesn’t really have all that much of the humanism, as far as I can tell. Even the “Who Mourns for Adonis?” episode mentioned doesn’t in any way deny gods at all; it would be reasonable to interpret Adonis as exactly who he says he is.

    TNG is more humanist, but then again it also has an actual god: Q. A trickster, to be sure, but one that fits all the definitions. And it’s odd that Roddenberry didn’t like “Thou shalt nots” when TNG codifies an amazingly large “Thou shalt not” … the Prime Directive, which in Enterprise and Voyager grows into something that allows a Captain to stand by and watch entire civilizations die (see the commentaries at SF Debris for more on that.)

    DS9, I think, did religion pretty well. The Bajorans believed when they had no more reason to believe than we do for God now, but the wormhole made it far more reasonable, as Sisko himself points out by saying that it’s not all that absurd to beleive in prophecies when you’re dealing with an alien race that has no concept of time. So, there’s that. But ultimately religion was in play, but it was portrayed realistically. There were some people who did seem guided by their faith (Bereil, Oppaca) and some who probably only used it to get power for themselves (Wynn). And there were problems arising from that and people were reasonably impacted and torn by it. It’s a pretty realistic portrayal, and should have done more to raise questions and issues about religion and encourage thinking about it than the more heavy-handed approaches in TNG.

    Finally, I never really watched Enterprise, but on the Jolene Blaylock issue I just have to say … I preferred Linda Park. And at least Albert at Agony Booth agrees with me.

  • Alt3

    My favorite characters from the Trek universe (behind, obviously, Data, Picard, and Seven of Nine (in the earlier seasons, she got too mushy-gushy human later on for my tastes)) are the Q, a race of what are essentially gods, one of whom has taken an interest in pestering Star Fleet captains. They were used to illustrate in one episode the point that eternity, even as a god, would become it’s own form of torture. I agreed with the face value point of that episode (eternity would suck) and the underlying message (euthanasia). What I like most about the Q is that even though they are gods that manifest demonstrably for the crew and show off their awesome power all the time neither Picard nor Janeway particularily care for them. Every time Q shows up it always goes along the same lines:
    Q: Hey, I’m god, look at my awesome power. Aren’t I splendidly omnipotent?
    Captain: Fuck off Q.
    Q: Anyway, I’m going to involve you in my crazy dealings with my race of omnipotent super-beings.
    Captain: No. I don’t care about you. You’re omnipotent, you can solve your own problems.
    Q: I’m going to make you do what I want anyway.
    Captain: Fine. But then you have to fuck off.

    Despite being gods and despite the crews of the Enterprise and Voyager knowing (in any meaningful sense of the word “know”) that they exist and have the power they claim to have, they don’t bow down and worship. They don’t even like them. They politely disagree and try to leave. I think it’s a good illustration that even if various religions could prove that their god existed and even if they could show that their god didn’t have major moral failings there still wouldn’t be any reason to worship said god(s).

    However, in my opinion, Janeway should have allowed herself to become the mother of Q’s child. Having a deity in your debt would be too actionable a position to pass up. Also, think of the birthday gifts an omnipotent son could offer.

  • Zietlos

    We are the borg, you will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

    TNG, and some of Voyager, had literal GodS, plural, but their interactions were written more in a hubristic Frankensteinian sense. Q made borg. Why? That one was bored. Q did not, however, make humans. That is explicit. The Q collective has the power to destroy all humans, but it did not make them. Likewise, they are portrayed as VERY mortal creatures: They bore easily, suffer from ennui, and have strict sets of laws and procedures they must follow, under penalty of death (or de-Q-ification, basically the same for the universe’s biggest jerks). Q can die. They can kill themselves, and others can kill them. The borg refer to them as Species 0, and they can in theory be assimilated.

    The power to create a series of machines is already in our hands. We have laws we made ourselves, and enforce them on others of our species. Q are portrayed, really, as humans who have a bit more power than humans normally do, typically in the fantasy style (don’t age, and cast magic). Not gods so much as supra-humans. Klingons can fade from sight and Troi’s species can communicate telepathically. So can Vulcans, to an extent. The ability to create holodecks where there prior wasn’t any is not really such an expansion of power upon the other aliens that it makes them gods.

  • Kennypo65

    The episode “For the World Is Hollow, And I Have Touched the Sky” from the original series is another example of religious themes. In it this race of aliens worship a computer they call “The Oracle”. Kirk and Spock debunk their “god” as being simply a machine. The next gen episode where Kayless returns is an obvious reference to the “second coming” of Jebus, but for klingons. Sorry, my inner geek is showing.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Alt3,

    Those reactions are precisely what we’d expect — and saw — applied to trickster gods. You’d expect the same reaction to Loki. It’s not really a good claim for an atheistic approach to say that they don’t talk about the Judeo-Christian God much, but have explicit god references. And I think you’re reading far too much into that.

    That being said, the episode where Picard almost dies and Q sends him back to learn a lesson could also be interpreted as making Q benevolent, trying to push Picard — and the humans — into learning and growing instead of just stagnating as they are. That’s reading less in, and the ambiguity of Q in that sense is probably intentional.

    Zietlos,

    Finding out those things doesn’t happen in TNG; it happens in Voyager. And Voyager was clearly not atheistic, as it made several strong references to religion and the clash therein.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mathew Wilder

    OT, but Q or THE Q didn’t create the Borg. Q just showed the Borg to Picard/the Enterprise.

  • lpetrich

    I must say that I like a certain Q-like individual in ST:TOS: Trelane, the Squire of Gothos. That gentleman teases and torments Our Heroes until his parents show up and tell him that it’s time to come in.

    Also rather interesting is when Kirk tried to get the leaders of a planet conquered by the Klingons to get on his side in TOS:”Errand of Mercy”. They then reveal themselves to be superpowerful — and pissed off at both the Federation and the Klingons.

    ST:TOS had the Prime Directive in its 2nd season, though not in its 1st or 3rd ones.