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Andrew Brown: Star Trek provides a guide to a godless future

11 August 2017


Godless: the cast and producers of Star Trek Discovery, a new TV spin-off from the film series, during a press event earlier this month in California

Godless: the cast and producers of Star Trek Discovery, a new TV spin-off from the film series, during a press event earlier this month in California

NOTHING preserves some aspects of the past so well as science fiction. This is related to the way in which you can’t understand history — what actually happened — unless you also know what didn’t happen, because it was in the light of those unfulfilled expectations that the decisions that got us here were made.

So, if you want to understand how Richard Dawkins once flourished, you need to go back to the idealistic science fiction of the ’60s. In particular, you need to look at the works of Harry Harrison, a very enter­taining science-fiction author from the United States, and the first series of Star Trek.

Harrison once wrote a book that distilled all of the tropes of Protestant atheism. In it, a rather Aztec people farmed maize and were overlooked by benevolent priests, until the hero, inspired by love, broke out, literally, through a mysterious hatch in the jungle floor, and discovered that behind, above, and all around the peasants’ world were shining steel corridors patrolled by men in futuristic uniforms. The whole thing was actually a spaceship, and the priests were not benevolent at all.

In the book, they are, of course, overthrown by the brawny common sense of our hero, and this is presented as a triumph for rationalism; but from today’s perspective it looks like a foreboding of universal conspiracy theories.


THE Financial Times, however, went back to Star Trek this week, with an essay on the godless future that it foresaw: an actor had apparently been told he couldn’t ad lib the words “For God’s sake”.

“The episode’s writer, Kirsten Beyer, ex­­plained that Star Trek was set in a post-religion, post-God 23rd-century future. The line had to go.

“Star Trek’s godless future was a default setting. Captain Kirk, Uhura, Scotty, Spock and the rest are preoccupied with exploring space and carrying back tales from other sentient beings, not investigating the existence of God. The views of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, were more complicated than those who claim him as an atheist might imagine. Today, he would be classified as religiously unaffiliated, or a religious ‘none’ — a category that includes atheists, agnostics, but also those who don’t identify with any branch of organised religion.

“In his book, The Last Conversation, Rodden­berry said there were ‘degrees of idiocy’ among religions and that some were less culpable than others. ‘But I reject them all, because for most people . . . it’s a substitute brain. And a very malfunctioning one.’ Star Trek episodes often reflected his struggles with the idea of divinity. As the screenwriter David Gerold said, ‘When in doubt, Gene just had Kirk get into a fight with God.’”

This, of course, he always won. But the part of the story which now seems most revealing is the discussion of a later show: “In ‘Who Watches The Watchers’, a lovely shaggy-dog episode where a Federation obser­vation team are mistaken for divinities by the members of a primitive civilisation under obser­vation, a character called Liko decides that Captain Picard is a god. . . .

“Barron, a crew member, is asked whether he thinks that, if allowed to persist, Liko’s belief will eventually develop into a religion. ‘It’s inevitable,’ he says. ‘And, without gui­dance, that religion could degenerate into in­­quisitions . . . holy wars . . . chaos’.”

This conception of “religion” as essentially manipulative seems to go very deep into the English psyche. It reaches back to the Refor­mation’s suspicion of “priestcraft”, and for­­ward into American conspiracy theories. But — as with conspiracy theories — the truth is always available to the pure in heart, while the believers, and even the priests, are es­­­sentially childlike and in need of guidance. This latter attitude can also be found in parts of the Established Church.


TWO US stories illustrate some of the reasons for the Trump Presidency. The first is a Washington Post report that Christians — and es­pecially white Evangelical Christians — are much more likely to regard poverty as the fault of the poor than are unbelievers. Fifty-three per cent of white Evangelicals thought that poverty was primarily the fault of the poor, while only 41 per cent thought that it was the result of circumstances outside their control.

This is a country where the largest single cause of bankruptcy is medical bills, and where the way to run for President is to blame everything wrong in voters’ lives on a remote cabal in Washington.


THEN there was a thoughtful and sym­pathetic piece in The Atlantic about Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. Apparently, she wants to become a preacher. During the presidential campaign, she had a daily devotional sent to her by a New York Methodist pastor, and more than 100 women clergy formed groups called “We pray with her”.

None the less, she has been historically very reluctant to talk about her faith in public. Part of this is because she gets mocked by the metropolitan elites, who think it ridiculous that anyone should be a Christian at all; part of it that she is simultaneously vilified by the Republicans, who regard her as a monster of treachery and insincerity. Then they go and vote for Donald Trump instead.

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