Captain Picard on Religion: Star Trek TNG Criticizes Belief in the Supernatural

Captain Jean-Luc Picard is an atheist. The captain of the starship Enterprise featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and played by Patrick Stewart, considers belief in the supernatural to be both primitive and dangerous. As such, he takes his place among the atheists of today, including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

This should come as no surprise to those of us who watched (and enjoyed) Star Trek: The Next Generation. The philosophical basis of Star Trek, after all, is sheer humanistic hubris. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s dream was that mankind will progress beyond conflict, greed, selfishness, and primitive beliefs and realize a utopian future defined by peace, science, socialism, and space exploration. While Star Trek: The Original Series only touched on these themes (never quite embracing full-on atheism, while at the same time never acknowledging any of the world’s religions at the time of its airing in the 1960s), Star Trek: TNG made no bones about its leanings. Star Trek: TNG routinely portrayed religion as either the superstitious yearnings of primitive cultures or mischief and mayhem unleashed by super powerful beings, such as the recurring character Q. Either way, it was something that had to be left behind in favor of the future envisioned by Roddenberry’s dreams and Star Trek’s legacy.

Nowhere is Star Trek‘s attitude toward religion better expressed than in Season 3, Episode 4 of The Next Generation. This episode, titled “Who Watches The Watchers,” features a proto-Vulcan culture on the planet Mintaka III. Due to a Federation mishap, the people of that planet mistake Captain Picard for an ancient deity and begin to worship him. Rather than simply correct the culture, a Federation adviser recommends that Picard impersonate the deity in order to contain the damage and properly guide the people away from the violence and savagery often associated with religious belief. Here is a clip from that scene…

Picard refers approvingly to how the people long ago “abandoned their belief in the supernatural.” To him, this was a sign of progress. He angrily refuses to “sabotage that achievement” or to (as he puts it) “send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear.” That is Star Trek‘s view of religion.

Note that this view was softer in Star Trek: TOS. In one of its episodes “Who Mourns for Adonis?”, Captain Kirk and company meet the Greek god Apollo, an alien who (according to the story) masqueraded as a god in ancient Earth history and who welcomes the opportunity to reassert his divine perogatives now that humans have stumbled across his current abode. At one point in the episode, Kirk declares: “Mankind has no need for gods.” And then adds: “We find the one quite adequate.” In some airings of this episode, that second part of the line is edited out, but it’s there in the original. And it reflects Star Trek‘s only nod to monotheism – one that no longer exists in the Star Trek universe.

Let me say that I enjoy Star Trek. I’ve watched every episode of Star Trek: TOS numerous times, and I’ve seen just about every episode of Star Trek: TNG. I’ve also watched much of Star Trek: Voyager, some of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and all of Star Trek: Enterprise. I love Star Trek. But….

When it comes to religion, I couldn’t disagree with Star Trek more.

Something isn’t primitive or superstitious just because a TV show says so. In this scene, Captain Picard makes several declarations that go unchallenged. It’s a powerful scene, but when you analyze it logically, his premise that belief in the supernatural is unfounded and dangerous is merely an assertion. And it’s an unproven one at that.

First, belief in the supernatural is not a requirement for scientific or social progress. The human race has enjoyed immense progress (in many ways – including in science, technology, civil rights, health, and more) and has done so with most people (in the past as well as today) believing in the supernatural. Most people are religious. They always have been, and (with all due respect to Mr. Roddenberry and Captain Picard) there’s no reason to suggest that this will change.

The vast majority of history’s great scientists believed in God. This includes Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Galileo, Kepler, and many more. It even includes some incredible scientists of today, such as Francis Collins, noted for his leadership in the Human Genome Project. The same is true with the greatest revolutionaries, statesmen, and civil rights leaders in our history, including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

Those arguing that atheism or agnosticism inherently leads to better and more peaceful societies have to explain how atheist regimes caused more death and suffering in the 20th century than what took place in all previous centuries combined.

Not only that, but there is good reason to believe in the supernatural. There is, in fact, more evidence supporting belief in God than there is for the reverse claim. Atheists and agnostics may challenge the various arguments for God, such as the classic Cosmological Case for God, but they are foolish to dismiss these arguments as unreasonable. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that, since time, space, matter, and energy all had a beginning, it makes sense that something (or someone) outside of those elements brought them into existence. Otherwise, you’re left with something coming from nothing – which, by the Law of Causality, is impossible.

You have (and should have) the political and legal right to dismiss or ignore the Law of Causality and believe that the universe came into existence on its own and out of nothingness, but please don’t claim that such a belief is more logical or more reasonable than citing a supernatural cause. (Interestingly enough, an episode of Star Trek: Voyager challenges the concept of cause-and-effect, but this blog post is already too long to dissect that episode. Suffice it to say, it’s no surprise the makers of Star Trek are targeting the one law of logic that most undermines atheism).

I once had a discussion with a friend regarding the issue of origin. She claimed that it makes as much sense to believe that “science” created the universe than it is to say God did it. This is absurd, however, since science is not a thing. It has no inherent substance or properties. Science is a field of study. It is incapable of creating anything, including itself! Saying that science can create the universe is like saying history or geography can create the universe. It’s ludicrous.

The bottom line is belief in the supernatural is rational. And such a belief, contrary to Captain Picard’s claim, poses no obstacle (in and of itself) to progress or achievement.

Captain Picard has every right to be an atheist. I believe in religious freedom. And that means I believe every person should be allowed to worship as he or she desires OR not worship if that is their choice. No society or government should force individuals to embrace a religious belief. However, to declare all those who have chosen to embrace a religious faith as being primitive or dangerous is egregiously unfair and completely inaccurate.

The Star Trek universe prides itself on embracing diversity. It’s a shame that this diversity does not, at least not at this time, extend to those who (for sound reasons) choose to believe that God created the very heavens the characters of Star Trek spend their time exploring.

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You may want to check out “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Christianity: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Books and Stories?”