This essay was used as an exemplar for the undergraduate course ENGLISH/CSCT 3D03: Science Fiction at McMaster University. I also presented this paper at the Religious Diversity in a Secular Age conference at McGill University on September 15, 2017.
Every episode of Star Trek begins with William Shatner’s sonorous baritone soaring triumphantly, intoning with all the bravado one expects of a starship captain: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship… Enterprise.” Between 1966 and 1969, those voyages were enjoyed by a veritable legion of loyal viewers, who recognized the show as more than mere prime-time sci-fi pap – as it was, and still is, too often dismissed. Indeed, Star Trek, as Robert Asa writes, can “disquiet, disturb, and deconstruct” (34); the themes, ideas, and technologies it explores bear relevance even today, fifty years after its production. Perhaps that accounts for its enduring legacy: “no other popular culture phenomenon has shown the depth and breadth of “creations” or “productions”… that Star Trek has, both officially and unofficially” (Jindra 28). Fandom runs so deep that, as Robert V. Kozinets argues, Star Trek is “a philosophy that almost approaches a religion” (67). Indeed, “one of Star Trek‘s great ironies may be that in rejecting traditional theism it has founded its own ‘religion’ with twin deities of science and humanism” (Asa 50). This is certainly a palpable paradox, for through its religious repudiation Star Trek extols a decidedly anti-theist view.
Anti-theism differs from traditional atheism in that while an atheist may very well wish for the existence of a celestial deity, an anti-theist regards the deity’s non-existence a relief. Perpetual invigilation by an omnipotent entity is, after all, hardly a soothing prospect. Christopher Hitchens defines the term most succinctly: “all religions are versions of the same untruth, [and] the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful” (55). Star Trek expresses this view repeatedly, as “in almost every Star Trek episode where religion exists in some form, it is represented as intolerant, anti-intellectual, subversive of progress, and inimical to a scientific view of the world” (Asa 48). Indeed, the series’ most common plot is one in which some sort of technologically advanced being harnesses scientific abilities to enslave a less-developed culture: the episodes “Return of the Archons”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, “Catspaw”, “The Apple”, “And the Children Shall Lead”, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, and “The Squire of Gothos” are some examples. However, no episode displays an anti-theist view more overtly than “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, the second episode of the second season, which initially aired on September 22, 1967. The episode posits the Olympian ‘Gods’ were actually alien beings who arrived and impressed ancient Greeks with scientific majesty, and the antagonist is Apollo, whose so-called ‘Godly’ abilities derive from an extra organ in his chest which harnesses the energy from an outside source: his temple. This ability to mobilize external power is similar to, as Chekov eagerly notes, an electric eel.
In other words, Apollo’s Godly capacity is rooted in science; as is, the show postulates, most everything. Indeed, Star Trek is unfailingly optimistic in science. In the midst of the Cold War, the Enterprise has a Russian helmsman, and in a period of racial divide the ship contains Asian, black, white, and even alien, crewmembers, male and female, working harmoniously – in the name of science. While this idealism is easily dismissible as naive, moist, and Bambi-like, there is room within such adulation for analysis. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of ‘science’ is especially salient. He writes: “the world is what I perceive, but as soon as we examine and express its absolute proximity, it also becomes, inexplicably, irremediable distance” (8). Mr. Ponty, while in a bout of irony unwittingly mirroring Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, is speaking to the subjectivity of science. He argues that the human conception of the “objective” does not consider our own “contact” (14-15), and thus ‘science’ is at best an approximation. “Science,” he writes, “began by excluding all the predicates that come to the things from our encounter with them… when the physicists speak of particles that exist for but a millionth of a second, their first movement is always to suppose that they exist in the same sense as directly observable particles, except for much shorter a time” (15-16). Science, then, is not the harbinger of objective truth as it is so often exalted. Rather, science can be considered a form of empiricist spirituality, attempting to elucidate truth through a posteriori evidence, or sensory data; at least, sensory data of the purest form human beings and technology can in union achieve. Star Trek’s positioning of religion and science on opposite sides of a proverbial battlefield, then, works to distinguish the spiritual and the religious. Although the show, in its endearing optimism, either did not realize or simply chose not to posit the subjectivity of science, through a re-interpretation of science à la Merleau-Ponty it can be read as emboldening the distinction, proving that the spiritual and the religious are indeed distinguishable.
This distinction is an important principle of anti-theism. While anti-theism necessarily opposes religion, it does not necessarily oppose spirituality. As Sam Harris, devout anti-theist, writes: “spirituality must be distinguished from religion – because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences” (8). Viz., there is a distinction between the numinous and the religious. This subverts, to a degree, the frequent but forgivable misinterpretation of anti-theism as advocating a frightening secular militancy. And indeed, separating the numinous and the religious is not a recent concept. In 1917’s Das Heliage, Rudolf Otto defined the numinous as Mysterium tremendum et fascinans – or, fearful and fascinating mystery – and asserted that “the feeling or emotion… is in its specific quality not a ‘feeling of dependence’ in the ‘natural’ sense of the word. As such, other domains of life and other regions of experience than the religious occasion the feeling” (9). C.S. Lewis elaborated upon Otto’s words in The Problem of Pain:
“Suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking — a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it — an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.” (Gaines and Merrill 53)
The scope and scale of scientific discoveries provide exactly that sense of inadequacy of which Lewis writes. Thereby, science incites the numinous, that fearful and fascinating mystery; it is the tool through which the numinous’ wonder and awe are instilled. Of course, Star Trek suggests that science is the magnifying glass through which these mysteries can be solved; as Kirk exclaims in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “there’s no such thing as the unknown — only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” However, though Star Trek posits, in this way, the comprehensive authority of science, through a reinterpretation of ‘science’ as a quasi-spiritual exercise the show’s adulation for it works to distinguish the numinous from the religious, and such a distinction is, again, a core tenant of anti-theism.
Gene Roddenberry himself embodied this distinction. Roddenberry, who was the show’s creator, one of its writers, and an infamous micromanager, used Star Trek to present his decidedly anti-theist utopian vision, which rejected the religious enterprise while leaving unblemished the separate sphere of spirituality. Indeed, he is quoted as condemning religion for “offering its adherents ready-made answers and claims to exclusive truth bolstered by a religious hierarchy wrapped in symbols of its own authority” (Darcee, et al 123-4), while simultaneously allowing his characters to impart spiritual insights to the audience. For example, in the aforementioned “The Corbomite Maneuver,” Kirk posits “a little suffering is good for the soul,” and in “A Taste of Armageddon,” the captain suggests: “sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.” “When Silence Has Lease,” from The Next Generation, is also pertinent. In the episode, the android Data asks Captain Picard: “what is death?” and Picard responds:
“Some see it as a changing into an indestructible form, forever unchanging. They believe that the purpose of the entire universe is to then maintain their form in an Earth-like God, which will give delight and pleasure through all eternity. On the other hand, there are those who hold to the idea of our blinking into nothingness, with all our experiences, hopes, and dreams merely a delusion. Considering the marvellous complexity of the universe… I believe that our existence must be more than either of these philosophies. Our existence is part of a reality beyond what we understand now.”
This comes from the same character who, in “Who Watches the Watchers?”, derides religious belief as “false” and “irrational,” and equates it to “the dark ages of ignorance, superstition, and fear.” Roddenberry’s utopian vision, then, remained consistent across the two series, and it was an anti-theist one, reinforcing Otto’s distinction between the numinous and religious.
Roddenberry’s intentions were frequently misunderstood, though, for Star Trek intentionally obfuscated its counter-cultural themes beneath blinking, twinkling control boards, tight, shimmering uniforms, and rubber alien masks. Perhaps, then, the disregard the show experienced was to be expected. Indeed, Roddenberry once remarked: “TV was so tightly censored that science fiction was the only way to escape the taboos in politics, religion, or anything else that was considered controversial… I talked about all the things you couldn’t talk about… it went right over the network’s heads. But all the 14 and 16-year-olds in the audience knew what I was talking about” (Pearson, Davies 36-37). Science fiction, then, was the only viable conduit through which Roddenberry could, in the conservative 1960’s, articulate his vision of an anti-theist utopia on mainstream American airwaves.
Of course, ‘utopia’ is a notoriously tricky concept to articulate. The term originated in Thomas More’s seminal Utopia, from 1516, and a precise definition has been under contention ever since. Ruth Levitas suggests “the content, form, and social role of utopia vary with the material conditions in which people live” (19). Darko Sauvin argues it is “a socio-economic sub-set of science fiction” (Kumar 550). Lyman Tower Sargent writes of the utopian concept becoming so muddled that “most utopias appearing in the twentieth century have been dystopias” (565). The most thorough definition comes from Cosimo Quarta and Daniele Procida:
“In the “u” of utopia More seems to have wanted to condense as much the negative particle “ou” (not) as the positive “eu” (good), so that utopia means both eu-topia (“the place of good” or “the good place”) and ou-topia (“non-place” or “the place which does not exist”). Utopia is construed thus as “the good society (that is to say free, just, virtuous, secure, peaceful) that “does not exist.” Even if it concerns a “non-existent” which is such only in fact and not in principle, in the sense that it is not a mere “non-existent,” it resolves, as Ernst Bloch has pointed out, in a “Not Yet,” and therefore in a window upon the future.” (155-56)
Utopia is a window upon the future, and thus natural fodder for science fiction, which acts in the same way. Star Trek, while like most utopias not allowing “for the possibility that people may opt out of the type of society envisioned by writers” (Jindra 32), displayed on the other side of its glass a uniquely interracial, interspecies planetary federation both science-centric and irreligious. As evidenced by the show’s popularity, this message was immensely appealing to a large portion of the decade’s youth, while being equal parts armpit moistening for advertiser-conscious, socially-bourgeois executives. The science fiction genre provided proverbial deodorant for the nervous directorate, allowing Roddenberry a platform for his anti-theist utopian vision.
It helped somewhat that conservatism’s antithesis, progressivism, was enjoying a boom at the time, though, which meant that the church was not quite as untouchable as in years previous. Indeed, the ’60s was a decade “dominated by the secular spirit” (Asa 39). Robin Perrin suggests irreligious youth counterculture meant a mass exodus from church (75), and notes that “when compared to youth of the 1950s, youth of the 1960s emphasized individual freedom, were less committed to traditional family life, experimented more with new family styles, and refused to accept military duty” (76). Robert Asa concurs: “many Americans remember the 1960s as ‘years of hope, days of rage’… traditional values, norms, mores, beliefs, and institutions were under attack by young minds… the church was assailed… for that matter, did God exist at all?” (39). Furthermore, the American religious right did not come to prominence until the late 1970s, “by campaigning on ‘social issues’ and encouraging many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to get involved in politics” (Freedman 231). Religious belief was a less pervasive political force, then.
However, despite this social trajectory, staunch television network execs were not enamored with groovy progressivism. This led to the aforementioned obfuscation in which Star Trek was frequently forced to take part. There are several examples of it – including, most famously, NBC executives’ fear of an interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura (Nichols 195) – but most pertinently here is the executives forcing into the “Who Mourns for Adonais?” script a line in which Kirk remarks: “Mankind has no need for Gods. We find the one quite adequate.” It is a piece of dialogue which Ross Kraemer correctly describes as throwaway, “designed to mollify American viewers [more] than [provide] any serious indication of Kirk’s offended or outraged monotheist beliefs” (15). Indeed, it is a bizarre, ill-fitting statement, one which blemishes the otherwise bold suggestions of the episode, but one that should be regarded as the product of skittish managerial interference, and not Roddenberry’s – or anyone else’s – artistry.
The remainder of the episode, though, is largely free of such blaring bureaucratic tampering. It begins with a, in Sulu’s words, “giant hand” – significantly, a giant human hand – reaching for the Enterprise, originating from a planet, Pollux IV, which Mr. Spock moments earlier claims has “no life on it.” The hand is a “field of energy” that, Uhura notes, “means to grab [the Enterprise].” Indeed, the hand grabs, and the Enterprise is stuck, in Sulu’s words: “dead still… we can’t move.” The hand, it is then revealed, belongs to Apollo, the self-proclaimed Olympian God, who inhabits Pollux IV. Thus, the symbolic hand of ‘God’ – which is merely a projection of energy, so even this ‘religious’ feat is rooted in science – forcibly stops in flight a spaceship designed for scientific discovery. And, the series suggests, this discovery is synonymous with human advancement; the Enterprise, after all, is designed to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Thus, the episode extols anti-theism from the beginning: religion, symbolised by the enormous hand, impedes human progress.
Apollo’s disembodied head then appears on the view-screen and begins waxing poetic the virtues of rest and worship. Kirk demands Apollo release the Enterprise, to which the ‘God’ angrily replies: “you will obey me, lest I close my hand thus.” Scotty quickly reports “external pressure building… becoming critical, Captain. We can’t handle it.” Forced by the prospect of death, Kirk retracts his demand, so the Olympian ceases crushing, then hollers: “that was your first lesson. Remember it.” This is a straightforward denunciation of the so-called ‘benevolence’ of God, as Apollo uses potentially fatal force to strong-arm the unwilling humans into subservience.
Apollo then demands a landing party beam down to the planet. However, he doesn’t want Spock to come, because Spock reminds him of Pan, God of shepherds and flocks, who “always bored him.” While Pan’s pointed ears and long, gaunt face resemble Spock’s, Pan was in actuality decidedly unlike the emotionless Vulcan; he was generally seen “merrily dancing with nymphs, perennially falling in love, and engaging in devilment” (Asa 43). Therefore, the episode suggests, ‘Gods’ are subject to the same follies as human beings, equally capable of erroneous judgement; here, manifested in Apollo’s deduction based on trivial appearance. He assumes that because the hyperlogical, emotionless Spock looks like Pan, he behaves like him, too.
Ultimately, this decision is his undoing, as Spock, aboard the Enterprise, destroys the Godly temple with the ship’s phasers, and rescues Kirk and the landing party. The lightning bolts that Apollo hurls at the Enterprise in retaliation ricochet pathetically off the vessel, and the God’s desperation rises as Spock remains level-headed. The episode posits, then, that when logic, embodied by Spock, meets religion, embodied by Apollo, logic is an unstoppable force. This showdown is symbolic of the aforementioned, prototypal science versus religion positioning in which Star Trek so frequently engages.
When the landing party arrives on Pollux IV, Apollo demands the group worship him, and blocks their transmission devices from contacting the ship. He then increases his stature to mammoth proportion. Even his intimidation is rooted in physicality, then, implying a crude, infantile propensity, akin to a bully on a playground. Further, Kirk orders his party to check their tricorders. Enlightenment attitude prevails as scepticism is embraced; all that can be observed is observed, privileged over the visceral pronouncements of a self-proclaimed ‘God’.
Several vitriolic scenes on the planet, including Apollo sending Scotty whirling and twirling pinwheel-like through the air, choking Kirk, and hiding Lieutenant Palamas from the rest of the group, follow, and are contrasted with scenes on the Enterprise, where camaraderie is high as the crew work diligently to rescue their shipmates. Spock tells Uhura he “can think of no one better equipped” to tackle a communications problem; Sulu searches the planet unfailingly despite the monotony of the task; Lieutenant Kyle feels no qualms taking criticism from his alien superior. This juxtaposition serves to paint religion as dividing, rather than the anti-theist act of repudiating religion – as the crew is working to destroy Apollo’s power – uniting not only humans, but beings of various races, Vulcan and otherwise.
Also contrasted is the love both Scotty and Apollo feel for Lieutenant Palamas. While Apollo commands the woman dictatorially, ordering her “to stay” and forcibly withholding her from her crewmates, Scotty does the opposite. He continually sacrifices his body for her, even disobeying his Captain in an attack on the God designed to protect the woman. He also insists on not destroying Apollo’s temple until the Lieutenant is found, for fear of harming her in the blast; thus, showing a willingness to compromise his own well-being for hers. The human capacity to love is precisely human, then, not rooted in religion. And, as evidenced by Apollo’s behaviour, religion clouds love under veils of entitlement and ownership.
And it is all religion that the episode implicates. Though it uses an Olympian as the antagonist, the episode’s suggestion is that all ‘Gods,’ including those of modern religions, are equally iniquitous. In an instance of Roddenberry and his team cleverly sneaking countercultural material past the executives, the episode paints Apollo as a ‘father’ dealing with ‘children,’ verbiage indicative of Judeo-Christian tradition. There is also Apollo’s derivation of power from a temple, which is symbolic for Gods gathering power from human-constructed idols. This serves as a commentary on religions as manifestations of humanity’s slave impulse – that frightening willingness to subserviate oneself – and how it is only through physical constructions of this impulse that the abstract ‘religion’ holds power at all. Apollo represents all religion, and in repudiating his advances Star Trek asserts a future whereby not only does humanity not believe in any God, but doesn’t desire one, and finds comfort in His non-existence.
Kirk is especially hostile. He remarks to Apollo: “you know nothing about our kind. You know only our remote ancestors who trembled before your tricks… we’ve come a long way in 5,000 years.” The equation of religious belief with humankind’s infancy is one which Richard Dawkins echoes in his anti-theist work The God Delusion: “there is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… the truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it” (360). This sentiment is also extolled at the beginning of the episode, when Lieutenant Palamas remarks that there is a “curious lack of intelligent life on all planets” in the Pollux system. Of course Apollo, a relatively scientifically-advanced being, would choose to inhabit a planet in a system full of ‘unintelligent’ life. He certainly could not hope to trick a planet of intelligent life-forms into worshipping him. This so-called ‘God’ is devious, preying on the galaxy’s primitive, vulnerable, infantile beings. Evidenced here, again, is Star Trek‘s equation of scientific literacy with intelligence, and its placement of science and religion on opposite sides of a proverbial battlefield.
The episode’s title furthers this theme. Derived from Percy Shelley’s “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats,” it alludes to the Syrian God Adonis who, after dying tragically, was mourned by both his divine lover and human women in extravagant festivals (Kraemer 14). Who mourns for Adonais in the 23rd century, though? The title leaves the question open, unanswered, implying no one does. Cryptically, then, viewers are told that Godly worship is a thing of the past; a primitive, babyish exercise in which humans of the future choose not to engage.
Clearly, then, Star Trek is critical of religion, taking an anti-theist view, arguing that not only is there not a God, but that it is a good thing there isn’t. It distinguishes the numinous from the religious and does not deride the former as it does the latter, while its utopia posits an irreligious, interracial, interplanetary crew united under the banner of science. Through a re-evaluation of science as less unequivocally objective truth and more attempt at objective understanding through inherently subjective senses, it can be said to advocate a sort of empiricist spirituality. And the only genre in which Roddenberry could suggest this irreligious utopia in the conservative 1960’s television environment was science fiction. This speaks to the power of the science fiction utopia, as a conduit through which counter-cultural views can be rendered socially ‘acceptable.’ “Who Mourns for Adonais?” is the most blatant example of the series’ anti-theism, and is a testament to the shrewd intrepidity of Roddenberry and company. The final frontier will remain frontier forever, the show suggests, so long as human beings forget that they are, in Kirk’s words, but “bits of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end.”
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