Son: Dad, why are there no Christians, Jews or Muslims on Star Trek?
Dad: Because it’s the future son!
In the Star Trek universe, then, there are planets like Earth across the universe, and Jesus comes to those planets too. So there are a lot of Christians on Star Trek. Nice try, atheist memers!
But in fact, this is doubly ironic coming from the same camp which accuses non-Christians of being unable to “account for” induction, for here we have what seems to be more than a meager over-generalization. Wood seems entirely too keen to read more into the details of this one episode than they might imply even on the best of days.
In fact, I remember this episode, having seen it whenever, just as I remember many other mighty things I’ve witnessed in life. In examining the details of the episode, Wood does not seem to be mounting the case that Christians will exist in the year 2327 because a Star Trek episode features what for all intents and purposes resemble Christians (they worship “the son,” which throughout the episode is clearly to be understood to viewers as “the sun”; the name Jesus nowhere appears in the episode – here’s the transcript), but rather to say that here we have a counter-example to the meme: in this episode Star Trek does in fact feature Christians. So there!
It’s true that this episode does contain references to Christianity – which the viewer will realizes only at the very end of the episode (curiously, the “cult of son worshipers,” as Wood himself puts it, never attempted to teach Kirk, Spock and McCoy about their beliefs when they were among them). What’s interesting is that its references to Christianity are predominantly historical rather than doctrinal: the screenplay has the galaxy-hopping trio visit a planet where a modern facsimile of the Roman Empire preoccupies itself with bloodsport and persecution of a religious minority. The story line says nothing about virgin births, miraculous healings, turning water into wine, or even resurrection.
Moreover, it would be quite a stretch, to put it mildly, to infer – contra the meme which annoys Wood so much – from this scant example that the future which Star Trek depicts is teeming with Christians, Jews and Muslims. If the family at the dinner table in the meme missed this one episode, they may very well suppose that the future which Star Trek portrays is pretty secular. After all, in most episodes I remember Kirk being quite the ladies’ man, demonstrating his irresistible charm and lustful moves in single bounds as the sumptuous score enriches the suggestion consummated by a disarming embrace of the shapely guest star. That doesn’t exactly strike me as model Christian behavior. Nor do we ever see Kirk, Spock and McCoy, for example, bowing their heads in prayer asking for the Lord’s guidance when they need it most, such as when they’re trying to decide whether or not to beam down to a hostile planet or intervene in the affairs of some far away civilization. Nor does a ship’s chaplain number among the crew; there’s no Father Mulcahy accompanying Kirk and Co. to alien planets or blessing them before they leave the vessel. Scenes in Star Trek episodes are not punctuated with scripture citations, nor are biblical heroes like Abraham, Moses or Solomon cited for their models of piety and wisdom. When Dr. McCoy treats a patient, he relies on sophisticated hardware with computers, information readouts, blinking lights and pinging sounds rather than on laying on of hands, recited supplications and splashes of holy water. And when the Star Trek crew encounter alien personalities, no effort is ever made to spread the Gospel. So if Star Trek is supposed to depict a future populated with Christians, the main characters sure don’t seem to know it, and it’s not communicated to audiences.
But apparently for Wood the Christian content is nevertheless unmistakable in Star Trek. To recognize this, he seizes on the reaction which one Enterprise crewmember evinces when a televised broadcast from the planet, which is ruled by an empire resembling ancient Rome, shows one gladiator killing another gladiator in a bloody sporting match. Why would the crewmember wince at this? I quote Wood at length to let him make his point in his own words:
Remember when Uhura winced as one gladiator stabbed another? That was good writing. Why would one human being slaughtering another human being, for entertainment, bother her? She’s a seasoned Starfleet officer. Why would that bother her?
Here’s where a Dawkins fan would jump in and say, ‘Because people just know that it’s wrong to kill other people like this. We just know it. We seek the good of other people by nature. We just do!’
Really? Because back in the first century, and the second century, and the third century, the favorite form of entertainment among the Romans was the gladiatorial games. The crowd would cheer with glee as slaves and prisoners were forced to hack each other to pieces. One of the most beloved spectacles was starving a large animal, like a bear, and then having it kill and eat people, and then cutting open the bear to see the undigested body parts of the humans that it had eaten during the games. How did people react to that two thousand years ago? With rapturous cheers of delight.
If we’re all just naturally horrified at the thought of such grotesque violence, why was this the favorite form of entertainment for an entire population? And if that was the favorite form of entertainment for an entire population, why was it eventually abolished?
We know exactly why: Christianity began to spread in the first century, and Christians were horrified at the bloodshed of the gladiator games. Because they believed that human beings are created in the image of God. So they boycotted the games, and this was a popular complaint against Christians. Marcus Minucius Felix recorded an early Roman condemnation of the Christian community as follows: “You do not attend our shows; you take no part in the processions; you are not present at our public banquets; you abhor the sacred games.” Christians didn’t want to watch human beings hacking each other to pieces.
Within a century of Christianity becoming a legal religion, the gladiatorial games were abolished throughout the empire. The British historian William Lecky comments: “There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian church.”
Here’s the point: Uhura winces as other people cheer because she has absorbed some ideas about the significance and dignity and worth of all human beings. Those ideas were introduced in the Jewish scriptures, expanded upon in the Christian scriptures, then spread by Christians. But Captain Kirk and the rest of the crew all have the same ideas about the universal brotherhood of all men. Everyone on the Enterprise has absorbed Christian ideas about our nature and status in addition to a ton of other Christian ideas they’ve absorbed without realizing where the ideas came from. Which means that, in a sense, they’re all Christians.
But you’ve also absorbed these ideas. So, in a sense, you’re a Christian too regardless of what else you happen to believe. You may reject the core teachings of the gospel. You may even reject the existence of God. But that would just mean that you’re a heretical Christian.
And I agree: I find it abhorrent to contemplate people “cheering with glee” at the sight of a bear being eviscerated to expose recently devoured human body parts pouring out of its gut. But is that because I’m really “a heretical Christian”? The argument for this hinges on a premise which I don’t think is very tenable, namely that the operative psychological condition in play here, namely empathy, is an “idea” per se. Rather, it’s an emotional capacity. And it’s not a capacity that everyone possesses in equal measure. I remember an instance from my youth when a friend of mine and I were walking downtown one early evening and we came upon the scene of an accident. We did not witness the accident, but there was a crowd of people helping a young man who apparently had been hit by a car. It was oddly quiet until he started moaning in gut-wrenching pain, and I was overcome with dreadful grief for the guy. I didn’t know him, but I wanted his pain to stop more than anything in the world. Meanwhile, my friend started chuckling and making jokes about the accident victim. I was doubly abhorred! And he was a church-going Christian while I was a Black Sabbath-loving metal head. Stereotypes would have us all suppose our reactions were reversed. But sometimes it’s stereotypes that prevail unquestioned in people’s minds when in fact those stereotypes get a lot of things completely backwards. Perhaps there’s some of this in David Wood’s thinking here, maybe to some degree.
Since I was very young, I have always been highly predisposed to rather acute pangs of empathy, in particular for those people whom I know personally, whether family members or otherwise, but also very much for strangers. Even for pets. I even have empathy for David Wood’s father, whom I’ve never met – clearly more empathy than David himself had for his own father. What I’ve observed in myself is that my empathy for others is not based on some idea I held or accepted. Empathy involves a category of emotional reactions, and does not rest directly on any one particular idea or belief. I don’t suppose that I’m unique in this way; I suspect that other people who are prone to empathetic feelings are so inclined naturally, independent of what they consciously think. Sometimes I’ve wished that I were not so empathetic, as it has gotten me into some difficult tangles in life that I would have rather avoided. But empathy is not something I can simply shut off, though I have found the need to temper it and apply it more discriminatingly. That has been challenging in itself. And though my ideas and beliefs have changed significantly over my lifetime, my inclination towards empathy is still as strong as when I was a child.
But I have also observed that not everyone has a lot of empathy. The friend I mentioned in my anecdote above, for example; maybe he was empathetic, but humor was just his juvenile way of dealing with it in a social setting. It’s hard to say. But some people seem extremely cold, apparently lacking all capacity for empathy, and yet others seem to be only marginally empathetic. Thus, contrary to what Wood might ascribe to me as an atheist (and no, I’m no “Dawkins fan”), I don’t find that it is a universal trait. Rather, it seems to be in the same category as other personality traits, such as openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, etc., and some have argued that our predisposition towards one or another of these traits has a biological basis, albeit they can be shaped to one degree or another by experiences and events one goes through in life. One could be highly empathetic in his childhood only to go through some terrifically difficult experiences later in life which harden him. The world is a difficult place, and while human beings are generally very resilient, some broken pieces never get fully repaired back to normal.
I don’t suspect people were fundamentally different in this respect back in the Roman times: some people were naturally more empathetic than others back then just as they are now. I’m highly doubtful that the gladiatorial games were the favorite pastime among everyone in the Roman empire. Even David Wood apparently agrees with this, though it appears he’s inclined to assume that anyone who was empathetic – anyone who would wince at brutality like Lt. Uhura – must have been a Christian and wincing only because he had this idea that human beings were “created in the image of God.” On the contrary, I’d say that the notion that human beings were created in the image of a supernatural being – i.e., one which is available to the human mind exclusively by means of imagining - very well came into circulation as a means of filling a gap of ignorance on the nature of human psychology, itself a very young science as it is. It may be the case that those who are more inclined towards empathetic reactions to other people’s suffering are likewise more inclined towards worldviews which put a greater emphasis on virtue, as some forms of Christianity at least outwardly tend to do. No appeals to imaginative explanations like supernaturalism are needed to “make sense”of any of this. After all, I suspect this was a factor in my case. Then again, many Christians throughout history have shown themselves to be quite antipathetic towards the suffering of others (it’s all “the Lord’s will,” right?), which again suggests that one’s degree of empathy or lack thereof is not dependent on his stated beliefs.
Another point that we should try to keep in mind when evaluating Christianity throughout its history is the fact that Christianity went through a Reformation some five centuries ago, well after the Roman period in view here. So if we’re not careful, the impressions we have of Christianity today may be discoloring our understanding of the Christianity of antiquity, which – just as today – was not monolithic. Given that Christianity is informed potentially by hundreds of pages of “Scripture,” it has enough give in its shape to fit a very wide swath of cultural norms and practices. There’s so much data between the first chapters of Genesis to the final verses of Revelation that a pick-and-choose methodology of assembling one’s preferred doctrines is pretty much impossible to avoid. Some Christians will tell us that drinking alcoholic beverages is sinful while others cite passages condoning, even recommending alcohol consumption. Some Christians, like the Fred Phelps type, preach a wrathful, vengeful god which can’t wait to submit non-believers to eternal torments, while others prefer a softer, forgiving god which “understands” your human weaknesses and loves you in spite of your moral failings. A shape-shifting worldview, Christianity comes in many flavors to suit virtually every taste. There are even some Christians who say they are atheists.
And I’m hardly convinced that adoption of Christian norms always inculcates empathy in believers. I recall several conversations with believers who expressed delight at the thought of sinners roasting in hellfire for all eternity. In a manner probably not unlike the apparent schadenfreude exhibited by Romans at the gladiatorial games, these believers would verbalize their fantasies of people they personally knew suffering in unquenchable torment simply for not accepting their proselytizing efforts. Of course, they expressed their delight in such fantasies behind closed doors, outside of earshot of those non-believers whom they scorned. The idea that we’re all “created in the image of God,” while explicitly affirmed by these individuals, certainly did not cause them to wince at the suffering that excited them so much.
Then there’s the infamous example from a sermon by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) titled Sinners in the hands of an Angry God:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
Another notable example comes to us from John Furniss (1809-1865):
You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgement, that it was condemned to Hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell-- despair, desperate and horrible! The same law which is for others is also for children. If children, knowingly and willingly, break God's commandments, they must also be punished like others. This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that Hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in Hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood. (The Sight of Hell, p. 21)
So while I get that Wood wants to credit Christianity exclusively for people’s empathetic reactions to human suffering, I tend to think that empathy is a human capacity the measure of which a person possesses being independent of one’s stated beliefs, to the point that it really has nothing to do with what one may actually believe. That is to say, the relationship between the wincing reaction and one’s ideas may be the opposite of what Wood apparently thinks it is. Either way, I definitely do not fall into the camp that “everyone has these ideas by nature” – that’s not my view at all. Indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to say on the face of it what idea (if any) may be behind an empathetic reaction like the one portrayed by Lt. Uhura in “Bread and Circuses.” The reaction may in fact be borne more of a selfishly directed induction – e.g., the thought that “that’s gotta hurt!” when watching someone getting stabbed by a heavy sword thrust into his abdomen. After all, empathy involves imagining oneself in another’s shoes, and many have observed that reading fiction tends to expand this capacity. So there is an element of selfishness involved empathy, a trait which Christianity furiously condemns.
We should remember that the empathy human beings experience is not reserved only for other human beings. Many Buddhists, for instance, are notorious for their empathy for animals and insects. I used to know a woman, who was Buddhist, who insisted on rescuing spiders and other creepy-crawlies from her house, preferring to gently capture them and let them go free in her garden as opposed to getting squashed by my size 12 Birkenstock (I don’t like spiders much!). Clearly this was not borne of the presumption that spiders were created in the image of the Christian god! But that seems to be the only explanation David Wood will allow. Was it based on an idea, or was she attracted to ideas to which such empathy inclines one?
In spite of this belief that human beings are “created in the image of God,” which has no objective basis or meaning (it seems to mean something different depending on whom you ask, or in what context it supposedly applies), it’s noteworthy how easily Christians will suddenly develop amnesia and exclude this belief from their moral analyses. After all, according to what Greg Bahnsen has stated, Christianity is a worldview in which the notion of “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” is philosophically meaningful (cf. Always Ready, p. 172). In Christianity’s twisted understanding of reality, morality and evil come from the same source. Then there’s William Lane Craig defending the Christian god for ordering widescale murder:
Our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, so that when he issues commands to us, they become our moral duties. So Israel and the armies of Israel became in effect the instrument by which God judged these Canaanite peoples. The adults deserved the judgment that they received… Now the more difficult problem is the children. How could God command that children be killed, because these are innocent. And I think what I would want to say there is, that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time, every day, people’s lives are cut short. God is under no obligation whatsoever to prolong anybody’s life another second. So he has the right to give and take life as he chooses. Moreover, if you believe as I do in the salvation of infants or children who die, what that meant was that these… the death of these children meant their salvation. They were the recipients of an infinite good as a result of their earthly phase of life being terminated. The problem is that people look at this from a naturalistic perspective and think life ends at the grave. But in fact this was the salvation of these children, and it would be far better for them than continuing to be raised in this reprobate Canaanite culture. So I don’t think God wronged anybody in commanding this to be done. He didn’t wrong the adults because they were deserving of capital punishment. He didn’t wrong the children – if there were any that were killed, which we don’t know – because God has the right to take their lives, and in effect they were recipients of a great good. So I don’t think anybody that was morally wronged in this affair. (Source: Christian Apologetics – Genocide Is Good For Everybody!)
The generalizations which we observe in Wood’s statement above make me wince like Lt. Uhura does in the Star Trek episode. Wood asks, “If we’re all just naturally horrified at the thought of such grotesque violence, why was this the favorite form of entertainment for an entire population?” But that’s just it: not everyone is the same on these points. That’s undeniably empirical. There are empathetic Christians, and there are not-so-empathetic Christians. Likewise, there are empathetic atheists, and there are not-so-empathetic atheists. It may be that those attracted to such spectacles were the kind who would seek entertainment in a gladiatorial stadium. But does that warrant the supposition that such spectacles of brutality were in fact “the favorite form of entertainment for an entire population”? No exceptions? Really? We can sit here in our modern easy chairs and just attribute across the board the glee and rapture exhibited by what may have actually been just a statistically insignificant subset of a population? We can imagine that all persons attending gladiatorial contests cheered at the carnage, but I’ve found that reality and imagination are often very much at odds with one another.
Let us also not forget that what we’re talking about here between Romans and Christians is really just two competing religions. The statement which Wood quotes from Marcus Minucius Felix, which speaks of “the sacred games,” reminds us of this very important point. The Romans who threw slaves into hungry lions’ mouths were practicing their religion just as today’s weekend believers are practicing their religion when they pretend to be consuming the flesh of their Lord and Savior at communion. Both practices make me wince. In the Roman mind the lion devouring the slave was a symbol of divine vanquishment over the enemies of the Empire just as the believer devouring his Lord and Savior is a symbol of a crucified god restoring the believer. Both practices are rationalized by what they are imagined to represent. A lot of very bizarre and often sinister activities have been engaged under the banner of religion. Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, and Andrea Yates are among those which come readily to mind.
So Star Trek never struck me as even marginally Christian in character or content. The occasional allusion one may find here and there (I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but it’s been years since I watched any episodes) may be more accidental than the eager apologists might suppose. “Bread and Circuses” seems to be a one-off, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds the title of Wood’s video (“What Start Trek Got RIGHT about Jesus”) when the name Jesus isn’t mentioned even once anywhere in the episode’s dialogue. Then again, Christianity has a bit of head start on influencing western culture than do any science fiction stories, so it would not be surprising to find occasional references that have ties to Christianity woven into the script here and there. Unfortunately, the writers are probably no longer around to interview on this question, and if they had left details on such topics I certainly have not explored them – I’m not a “Trekkie” anyway and have other matters to tend to. What I do know is that the story lines of Star Trek were not interspersed to citations of chapter and verse relating the events depicted in the program to scripture. Nor did I ever get the impression that the creators of Star Trek imagined the future of human civilization to be particularly Christian in any way. Rather, insofar as such questions were concerned, Star Trek always struck me at best as neutral (something I thought Christians were supposed to abhor and resist) if not outright worldly (especially given those tight skirts and Kirk’s predictable philandering).
Wood himself seems to agree when he talks about the series’ creator Gene Roddenberry, describing him as having “quite a bit of contempt for religion” who “made sure that religious ideas were excluded from his shows.” But this is hard to square with the ostensibly Christian motifs in “Bread and Circuses” as well as Wood’s claim that Star Trek is portraying a future civilization that is highly influenced by Christian teachings. To this, Wood says that “back then [in Roddenberry’s time] even humanists seemed to understand where some of their ideas came from. And they didn’t have a problem saying it.” But again, I still don’t see how this squares with the claim that Roddenberry “made sure that religious ideas were excluded from his shows.” So Wood seem to be saying two opposite things here, is confused, or has lost track of what exactly he’s trying to argue.
As for the persistence of religion in humanity’s future, I think there are some simple reasons why religion will continue to thrive among human populations for as long as we exist. If there are other organisms in the universe which have reached the conceptual level of consciousness, these reasons may very well apply to them just as inevitably as they do for human beings, that is to say: among some individuals rather than all. The chief reason is that pretty much all human beings master use of their imagination at a relatively early age in their lives (three- and four-year-olds are already fairly adept at imagining), while regulating one’s own consciousness by the strictures of reason comes only at a later age, and only as a result of deliberate effort, and even then not always consistently. The ability to imagine is a given well before a thinker starts to consider what reason is and whether or not it’s worth investing his energy in exploring. So the religious view of the world, whose core is to be found in the exploits of the imagination, has a leg up on the rational view of the world, given that we are all experts in using our imagination while relatively few endeavor to embrace reason systematically.
A reinforcing factor is the tendency of children to presume implicitly that other consciousnesses are inherently superior to their own, that especially older individuals – say an older sibling and one’s own parents – possess unattainable knowledge and are apparently immune to the limitations, blind spots and proneness for error which plague their own. “Faith in the supernatural,” observed Rand, “begins as faith in the superiority of others” (For the New Intellectual, p. 128). This tendency, sealed as it may be at a very early age, may very easily persist into adulthood if never recognized and rooted out. I remember observing church members years ago and how they spoke of the pastor, as though he possessed god-like powers of perception, and yet he was just a man. They presumed he possessed a superior form of consciousness in a most child-like manner, a habit no doubt established in childhood and never challenged later in life.
Matthew 18:3 famously states:
And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The antidote to these factors begins with the fully conscious grasp of the primacy of existence and its implications for one’s understanding of reality, oneself and knowledge. The primacy of existence is the fundamental condition necessary for understanding why the imaginary is not real, why wishing doesn’t make it so, why an emotion (e.g., fear) is not the beginning of knowledge, why reason, and not faith, is the proper norm for a mind intending to deal with reality on its own terms. It is available to all thinkers, and implicitly grasped if only intermittently (even most Christians today will acknowledge that wishing doesn’t make it so). But it’s not something we find being taught to our young.
The factors which can incline a person towards religion are well seated in one’s childhood, and by default they will persist into adulthood if not somehow unseated. My sixth-grade teacher once remarked that “maturity is knowing when to stop,” and that little aphorism has never left me. I think it applies here. It’s not that there won’t be religious people in the future, it’s that the proportion of adult thinkers to the rest of humanity will not increase without a determination to mature into intellectual adulthood.
by Dawson Bethrick