Star Trek Made Him an Atheist

I never got into the whole science-fiction genre.

Fell asleep through Lord of the Rings (friends made me watch the Extended Editions).

Never understood the appeal of Star Wars (the first one I saw was Episode 2… I went with friends to the theater against my will).

I have yet to see an episode of Doctor Who (sorry, Richard Dawkins).

And I’ve only seen one episode of Star Trek. It was on a first date. Her idea. It was also our last date. My idea.

But maybe I should’ve given that show another shot.

In the latest issue of The Humanist, Nick Farrantello writes about how “Star Trek Made Me an Atheist“:

And so as a boy I found it increasingly hard to understand why Christians weren’t acting the way Kirk and Spock were. If there was a God, some being causing earthquakes and hurling hurricanes, why wouldn’t Christians (or Jews or Muslims for that matter) fight against such a being? What I was learning on Star Trek seemed more moral to me than what I was learning in church. As I got older and learned more about suffering around the world, the more I wondered why religious people didn’t oppose such a cruel God. These holy men should be up in arms, I thought. If they were faithful Star Trek watchers, they would be trying to build some sort of giant phaser to take him out.

When you first watch Star Trek it’s this campy sci-fi show that occasionally takes some not-so-subtle potshots at religion. At a very young age it made me question the nature of God even to the point of questioning his (her or its) very existence. And it showed me that those questions were okay to pose, that there were other people out there like me, asking the same questions. But then Roddenberry’s campy little show goes so much farther. It explores what it means to be human. It is a message of hope for the future of our species and an expression of pride in all of humanity. Through it, I learned that although people aren’t perfect, it is that striving to be better (the voyage) that makes us special…

(via The Humanist)

  • Peregrine

    I recall sitting in church with my parents one Sunday, having been dragged from my warm bed against my will. As I sat there, bored out of my frakin’ tree, I had a very serous philosophical discussion with myself concerning the Next Generation episode Who Watches the Watchers. Brilliant episode. Changed my life. Literally.

    Star Trek played no small part in making me an atheist. It also had a role in shaping my attitude toward people of faith (the Prime Directive).

    And another very profound quote that I wish more people would notice from Rightful Heir: “Perhaps the teachings are more important than the man.” Brilliant!

  • http://www.gadflyofthenation.blogspot.com Leslee Love

    Oh, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan…see my group TARDIS on Atheist Nexus…

    I wish I could say that science fiction, which I adore, made me an atheist. Alas, it was the bible and all the stories that did me in.

    I do appreciate the episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” It proved that the idea of gods are ridiculous, that gods just want to be feared and worshiped, and are merely created by men, or are just men who think they are gods. I also appreciated how Spock, in one episode claims, after Scotty says thank heavens, that it was his own brilliance and action that saved the day…not the heavens. “Where no man has gone before” does a great job at showing how those with god-like powers become dangerous and must be destroyed. Forgive me if my Star Trek knowledge is shaky…it’s been about 12 hours since I’ve last seen an episode!
    Thanks for the post…made my day.

  • http://aclevererversion.blogspot.com EnsignRose

    I absolutely agree with this and write about it with some regularity. My deep and life-long love of Star Trek definitely helped feed the atheist inside me! These questions, what it means to be human, to be an individual, to have free will and the ability to make life altering choices, and all the things that come with that are what makes Star Trek, Star Trek! So if you (clears throat in direction of Hemant) had dismissed it as merely a campy sci-fi romp through space, then you (clears throat again) should go back and start watching the episodes. Or, at the very least, go see it in theatres before it’s finally gone.

  • Nancy

    Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was an atheist.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    star trek, primarily but not exclusively TOS, is an absolutely critical element in my atheist worldview.

  • Anish

    I had a similar experience growing up. The TV show Stargate SG-1 is what made me first question religion. For those who aren’t familiar, the show’s main bad guys were aliens that used various technology to portray Egyptian gods and enslave people on various planets. Seeing the various characters proclaim that bad guy X was their one, true god and knowing they were false got me thinking, ‘how are real followers of religion any different?’

  • Kiera

    Hemant, your lack of nerd cred is showing!

    I don’t know if I can read your blog anymore; I feel so betrayed! *sniff* *sniff* ;)

    Star Trek TNG is what I grew up on. You should give the franchise another shot. It’s really delicious.

  • Miko

    LotR and Star Wars are fantastic, but they’re more about political power than religion, unless you count religion as a particularly nasty form of political power. (Little known fact: Tolkien leaned towards anarchism with an unfortunate dash of conservatism thrown in; cf. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 63-64, to Christopher on 29 November 1943. This is why LotR is unique in the genre in advocating destroying the source of power rather than usurping it.)

    Star Trek is great atheistic propaganda (in addition to just being great), with a fairly broad subtext of religious tolerance thrown in (especially in DS9). It’s politics function rather smoothly in the series, but are utopian in the real world (without replicators).

    And Doctor Who inhabits a higher plane of perfection that’s all its own, but you’re not supposed to admit that you watch it. Doctor Who is there so that the Star Trek types can share in the fun of labeling other people as geeks. The time perspective possible via the TARDIS also helps present a view on religion and government; while the Doctor cooperates with both at times, his view seems to be that both are transient and lacking in moral authority and he’s certainly willing to ignore or subvert either when they get in the way.

  • Miko

    @Anish: And SG-1 doubled down with the Ori story line, although I think it probably just ended up offending Christians more than converting.

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org Pedro Timóteo

    Don’t agree about DS9 (it’s probably my favorite Trek series, and the Prophets are wormhole aliens), but otherwise the article is brilliant.

  • Greg B

    *ahem*

    “What does god need with a starship?”

  • Anish

    @Miko: Hah, yea the Ori storyline, while good, was pretty blatant…

  • Tony

    Hemant, the fact that you watched Episode 2 explains why you never got Star Wars. You have to watch the real trilogy, not the jumped up computer animated kid’s movies that apparently provides a prequel.

    I am a rationalist. Therefore when reality doesn’t agree with Star Wars it is reality that must be wrong!

  • Peregrine

    Greg B Says:
    “What does god need with a starship?”

    To get to the other side.

  • Claudia

    I grew up on Star Trek TNG. As a lifelong atheist I can’t say it really influenced my views on religion, since religion was totally absent from my life until I read Dawkins at about 20. However the show was dynamite; you could watch it as a good old adventure story sure, but many an episode led to long philosophical discussions within my family. The episode Ship in a Bottle where Moriarty is fooled into thinking he’s left the holodeck through a second illusion was the first time I asked real questions about what reality was, what it meant to be an observer and how true objectivity was impossible. Likewise the interactions with Q, the crystalline entity, the borg all led to questions and considerations about society, the mind and history. I think even my views on torture were affected: If more people had seen Picard tortured by the kardashians and less “24″, they might have a different view.

    And the Federation itself, looking back, was basically an ideal Humanist Society. The very few religions there were existed only in a vague spirit-energy sense, all organized religion appeared to be corrupt and Earth was entirely free from it’s influence, rules being based on stability and happiness.

  • http://agersomnia.blogspot.com Agersomnia

    It’s odd, but… certainly even if I did watch Star Trek as a young boy (since I was some 5-7 years old) the Sci-Fi that moved me came in written form: short tales. In particular, Isaac Asimov and his Robot tales.

    The way he showed how even in the most difficult times and under terrible duress it was possible to solve a problem with the right knowledge and resources, with no need for a miracle, stayed with me since then.

    That’s not to say that playing Dungeons and Dragons did not help: I learned how to improvise and use limited resources actively. Ultimately, everything follows a set of rules, it’s just a matter of learing them and knowing how to use them.

  • SarahH

    As I got older and learned more about suffering around the world, the more I wondered why religious people didn’t oppose such a cruel God. These holy men should be up in arms, I thought. If they were faithful Star Trek watchers, they would be trying to build some sort of giant phaser to take him out.

    I love that quote :-) It’s very His Dark Materials, actually, the idea that if a god like this *does* exist, we should start finding a way to destroy him.

    Also: Lord of the Rings is fantasy, not sci-fi. You don’t just have no sci-fi cred, you have negative sci-fi cred, Hemant! If you lived closer, we’d force you to watch Doctor Who and DS9, and you’d love it, because deep down, I think you have good taste. You’re just fighting it, lol.

  • Peregrine

    Are we going to pry his eyes open and play Beethoven’s Fifth too?

  • phoenixphire24

    Although I wasn’t raised with religion, Star Trek TNG definitely helped to shape my world view and philosophy of life.

    The closest thing to a god in that show is Q and the Q, and they’re all a-holes who use their power to either not do anything important or amuse themselves. There are also several episodes that deal with the idea that any person or race with superior technology might seem like a god to lesser beings. That doesn’t mean they are gods or should be worshiped.

  • Ty

    Well, Hemant. If you can tolerate sitting through just one episode of Star Trek check out “Who Watches the Watchers”, as Peregrine suggested. It’s pretty surprising that Roddenberry, in 1989, made the protagonists of this episode blatantly atheistic and got away with it.

    Unfortunately, a plot-line like that probably wouldn’t make it to air on US network TV today. Twenty years later. Now, that’s progress. *sigh*

    Great quote from Picard in this episode:
    “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!”

  • Ron in Houston

    Never understood the appeal of Star Wars…

    Gasp – gee let me catch my breath. You’re probably too young to have experienced the cultural phenomena that was the first Star Wars movie. I guess I could see your point depending on which movie was the first one you saw.

    Geez, I’m dating myself but I grew up with the Star Trek original TV series. I think it did stimulate the inborn atheist in me. I can’t say it MADE me an atheist, but it certainly did help.

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  • llewelly

    I never got into the whole science-fiction genre.

    Fell asleep through Lord of the Rings (friends made me watch the Extended Editions).

    FAIL

    Nobody who knows anything about SF thinks LOTR is science fiction. It’s like mistaking Indonesia for India.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-8947-LA-Atheism-Examinerhttp:// dfledermaus

    I also have an article published in the same issue of THE HUMANIST. It’s called “(Re)Moved By The Holy Spirit” wherein I describe all the fun I had as the only atheist volunteer at an Evangelist-run charity. It’s on page 38.
    :)

  • teammarty

    Part of what makes Dr. Who great is that they went out and hired writers and worked on scripts instead of the usual “It doesn’t matter as long as there’s a cute girl and lots of things blow up” TV sci-fi. ANd that you can occasionally (at least on the older 60′s-70′s shows) see hands holding up the scary alien monster.
    Oh, and the original Star Trek is still the best.

  • Mriana

    TOS influenced me to be a humanist, so I’m really not surprised others were influenced.

  • Justin

    I became a fan of Greek Mythology at the age of 9, when we read an age-appropriate version of The Odyssey in school. A few years later, I saw the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?”. That was when I realized that the gods in the Greek myths were not fictional literary characters to the people of Ancient Greece, that they were supernatural beings just as real to those believers as the god of the Bible was to members of my family. That implication was a powerful concept for a 12-year-old to grasp. My dwindling religious belief died off completely over the subsequent 3 years.

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  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/ keddaw

    Very true, but I feel Scooby Doo was the best show for this. No matter how scary the wrong-doer, they always unmasked the witch/ghosy/monster and it was a self-interested human.

  • Philosos

    One of the The Original Star Trek series episodes that was pretty awesome was the one that had the crew interacting with a greco-roman ‘god’ that seemed to have been one that had long visited earth long ago and DEMANDED praise and worship. He was the last of his kind that was in the vicinity. I think this episode showed me and others that I know that it was quite possible that what people called ‘gods’ God were just people that were more advanced than they were.

    DEFINITELY Hemant… watch some Sci-Fi… except Battlestar Galactica’s last episode lol :D

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Like any genre, there is good stuff and crap. Be sure the watch (read) the good stuff.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    I remember riding my bike to the movie theater (as a teenaged Mormon) to go see The Wrath of Khan — and how deliciously subversive it was to hear Bones call The Book of Genesis a “myth”. I was still a believer at the time, but Nick Farrantello is totally right about how it makes the question OK to pose.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Claudia, please, PLEASE, tell me you were making a joke when you wrote “kardashians.”

  • http://manyhats.com manyhats

    Science fiction and Fantasy can both be thought provoking in that they can both fall under the larger category, “speculative fiction”. And as we all know, thoughts turn against religion when provoked. On the other hand they can both be mindless fluff in as much as they fall under “escapist fiction”.

    Fantasy all too often though is trivial fluff and I haven’t gotten as much from it as sci fi. I’m surprised that we’ve had this much discussion of the topic address just TV and movies. How can you LotR fans in particular not present your guy’s best work in the field of religion, the creation myth in the Silmarillion?

    Sci fi has a far better record of addressing social issues than Fantasy. But you have to look beyond the superficial kids stuff put out by Hollywood today. BTW, Hemant, don’t feel bad that you don’t like Star Wars after only seeing Episode 2. Episodes 1, 2, and 3 are just about the worst science fiction of all time. Episodes 4, 5, and 6 are far better but they are still just “space opera”, which is the shallow end of the pool as far as provoking thought goes. Star Wars is escapist fiction with a dash of alarmism about the ability of a democracy to devolve into a totalitarian system. Star Trek, on the other hand, is speculative fiction. I hope you can see the difference.

    If you want to get a sense of the power of science fiction to explore the human condition and expand readers minds you should read the Grand Masters (Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, etc…). My particular favorite is Heinlein because I love his emphasis on self-reliance and his libertarian political ethic.

    Frankly, unless you’ve read classic science fiction from the likes of the Grand Masters you haven’t even experienced science fiction in my opinion. If you don’t have time or inclination to actually read a book the best material out there to see why thinking people value scifi is the original Star Trek TV series, with The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 tied for second. The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone are also good series that tried hard to push the envelope and question particular aspects of human morality.

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    Hemant, I lived, breathed, and slept Star Wars… and I actually walked out of the theater in disgust at Episode II. Please, do yourself a favor and watch the original series… though manyhats is right, Star Wars isn’t exactly on the thought provoking end of the scifi spectrum.

    For me, one of the biggest scifi influences on my atheism were the Dune books. Seeing Muad’dib build up his own messianic mystique, and then watching it grow out of control, really made me look at religion in a whole new light.

  • http://keenabean.blogspot.com Kaleena

    Star Trek certainly helped me to become an atheist, not to mention getting involved with social justice!

  • Tom N

    Another thing to keep in mind is the theory behind the transporters. A theist friend who respects my POV told me, after seeing the new Star Trek movie, that the ST universe can’t believe in a god since each time you are beamed somewhere in a transporter, your body is destroyed and a copy is made at the location where you materialize. This pretty much precludes the possibility of any soul.

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  • LMS

    I think Star Trek is the greatest sci-fi series of all time, but it’s never been a factor in shaping my religious views. I am amazed, however, by the many people who indicated that the series contributed to atheistic perspectives. I’ve seen every episode of all the series, from the original series to Enterprise. My faith in Jesus Christ has never been eroded the least bit by this fun fiction. In fact, while the characters were often atheistic; occasionally a Christian-friendly writer would insert a faith perspective into one of the characters, as demonstrated by Captain Kirk’s response to the alien Apollo (in Who Mourns for Adonais): “Mankind has no need for gods. We find the one quite adequate.” I’m with James Tiberius on that viewpoint. He apparently believed in God at least in that episode. For those who are interested in the faith perspectives of real scientists, check out the article, Scientists and their Gods, by Professor Henry F. (Fritz) Schaefer (http://www.leaderu.com/offices/schaefer/docs/scientists.html) or the book, The Fingerprint of God by Dr. Hugh Ross. And if you want more sci-fi, try C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. Live long and prosper.


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