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Strange New Worlds

The Humanist Philosophy of Star Trek

by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

from the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1991, page 20. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

On Thursday, September 8, 1966, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, "Star Trek" made its first appearance on television. It was not a particularly auspicious beginning. The episode, "The Man Trap," was a fairly routine monster story. Critics panned the show. After only a few weeks, NBC was threatening to cancel the series.[1]

Twenty-five years later, however, Star Trek[2] has proven to be something of an institution among science fiction space fantasies -- enjoying widespread popularity and undying loyalty from its highly devoted fans, known as "Trekkies" (or sometimes "Trekkers"). The original series ran just 79 episodes over three years;[3] its run would have been even shorter had it not been for an unprecedented letter-writing campaign by Trekkies. And ever since the series ended on June 3, 1969, its fans have refused to let it die. Six weeks later, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, giving increased credibility to the notion of space travel. The series began running in syndicated reruns immediately and has not stopped yet.

In 1973 and 1974 NBC aired 22 animated episodes. From 1979 to 1989 Paramount Pictures released five Star Trek theatrical films, and a sixth (and reportedly final) one is expected to be released Christmas 1991. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the most popular of the films, grossed well over $100 million at the box office. And a new television series -- "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- began running in syndication in 1987, and has already produced well over a hundred episodes.

Nor is this all. Dozens of Star Trek novels have been published. The Pocket Books series has sold over 26 million books. Countless more books have appeared, from collections of short stories to songbooks to technical manuals. Star Trek has probably spawned more clothing, games, toys, and other memorabilia than any other television program in history.[4] In August 1991 TV Guide reported that Paramount Pictures, which owns Star Trek, had "sold over $500 million worth of product to date."[5]

Star Trek has a lot to say about God, humanity, war, sex, ethics, and the like. In this article I will be reflecting on some of what Star Trek says about these things. To appreciate fully Star Trek and its significance, we need to understand the "creator" of the Star Trek "universe" -- Gene Roddenberry.


This year is not only the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, it is the year of Gene Roddenberry's 70th birthday. He is affectionately known among Trekkies as the "Great Bird of the Galaxy." A decorated combat pilot in World War II and a Los Angeles police officer in the early 1950s, Roddenberry wrote television scripts for such shows as "Dragnet" and "Have Gun, Will Travel" before producing his first television series, "The Lieutenant," in the early 1960s. The first pilot episode of "Star Trek" ("The Cage") was produced in 1964, but the series was not accepted by NBC until 1966.

Roddenberry grew up in the South and attended a Baptist church as a youth. According to his own account, Roddenberry rejected Christianity as a young teen because it seemed to him to be nonsense. He came to this conclusion when he began listening to the sermons in church. For instance, he found the Christian practice of communion "crazy": "It was communion time, where you eat this wafer and are supposed to be eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood. My first impression was, 'This is a bunch of cannibals they've put me down among!'"[6] Apparently he was not listening very closely, since Baptists are very careful to explain that in their view the bread is only a symbol of the body of Jesus.

In any case, Roddenberry rejected Christianity and religion generally. It was not until he began producing "Star Trek" that he started to develop a conscious philosophy and sought to communicate it through his work. That philosophy, as he eventually came to realize, was humanism. In 1986 Roddenberry joined the American Humanist Association. The AHA is the leading humanist organization in the country, and is itself celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1991. In May 1991 Roddenberry was awarded the AHA's Humanist Arts Award.

Once we understand that Roddenberry is unabashedly humanistic, we are prepared to view Star Trek in its proper context. "Star Trek" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" are among the very few popular prime-time shows to explore religious and philosophical issues in an intelligent manner. If we watch them with both appreciation and discernment, we will gain a great deal of insight into those issues.


Unlike other science fiction series such as "The Twilight Zone," the Star Trek series and films have been produced as a unity to communicate the world view and philosophy of one man, Gene Roddenberry.[7] It is not a perfect unity, of course. Most or all Star Trek fans recognize that across the years Star Trek has suffered from discontinuities, inconsistencies, and even absurdities. But this does not prevent them from finding something of value in each story.

There are two distinct ways in which Star Trek communicates the ideas and philosophy of Roddenberry's humanism.[8] First, Star Trek frequently functions as myth. As used here, myth refers to imaginative, creative stories which -- whether literally true or not -- are used as a way of understanding the world and one's place in it. Star Trek functions as myth when it encourages the belief, for example, that human beings are a noble species that will somehow survive and learn to solve its problems. The details of the myth are unimportant. To illustrate, it is unimportant to Trekkies whether Vulcans (an alien species) exist or not, or whether "warp speed" (the ability to travel faster than the speed of light) will ever be attained. But the general picture of the world and the view of human nature and values communicated are taken very seriously.

Second, Star Trek often functions as parable. In this context, a parable is a story that is fictitious and even fantastic but which is told in order to make a point about issues of contemporary concern. In fact, the setting and circumstances are deliberately far-fetched in order to get people to look at things in a totally fresh way. Many episodes of "Star Trek" were primarily parabolic. For example, in "Let That Be Your Final Battlefield," Captain James T. Kirk is confronted by two men, Bele and Lokai, from the same planet but of different races. Both are black on one side of their body and white on the other, but one race is white on the left while the other is white on the right. The two races were violently prejudiced against each other and warred until Bele and Lokai were the only ones left. The story is absurd; but it is supposed to be, because the whole point is the absurdity of racism.

The two functions of myth and parable are not rigidly exclusive or contradictory. However, the distinction is a useful reminder that not everything in Star Trek is meant to be treated with equal seriousness or fitted directly into a vision of the future.


Star Trek offers a new myth, one tailored for scientifically minded Westerners. In setting forth this new myth, Roddenberry has frequently criticized or reinterpreted what he perceives as the old myths -- superstitious religious beliefs that have lost their credibility for modern humanity.

For example, a recurring theme in Star Trek is that many if not most religious myths are based on fact, but are scientifically explicable without appeal to the supernatural. "Who Mourns for Adonais?" is the most obvious example. In this episode the crew of the U.S.S. (United Space Ship) Enterprise encounters a powerful being calling himself "Apollo" and demanding worship. Although accepted as the actual Apollo of Greek mythology, he is refused worship and given a scientific explanation. "Apollo's power is based on technology, on a machine that can be rendered inoperative by a well-placed shot from the Enterprise's phaser banks."[9]

Another example is "The Way to Eden," in which the Vulcan Spock (First Officer and Science Officer of the Enterprise) somehow manages to find the supposedly mythological planet of Eden using the ship's computer. "Eden" turns out to have acidic vegetation! A variation on this episode is found in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In this film, Spock's half-brother Sybok commandeers the Enterprise to go in search of Sha Ka Ree (the Vulcan name for Eden). Once again the mythical planet is found, only to reveal itself as a trap: the being they encounter there turns out to be more Devil than God.

The implication of these stories is that belief in God or other supernatural beings may be triggered by real events or experiences but is ultimately unscientific and irrational. No matter how amazing or seemingly inexplicable things may get, we should assume that there is some naturalistic explanation. For example, in "Catspaw," the crew encounters Sylvia and Korob, who appear to be a witch and warlock performing supernatural feats. They are eventually exposed as alien creatures employing some sort of advanced technology.

Sometimes Star Trek ventures even to criticize explicitly belief in God. In the original episodes expressions of overt skepticism are rare, but do occur. For example, in "The Tholian Web," when Kirk is rescued from a parallel universe through Spock's skillful use of the "transporter" (a device used to transport people and objects immediately from the ship to other locations or the reverse), Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott ("Scotty") exclaims, "Thank heaven!" But Spock protests that "there was no deity involved -- it was my cross-circuiting to 'B' that brought the Captain back!" When Chief Medical Officer Leonard "Bones" McCoy responds, "Thank pitchforks and pointy ears, as long as it worked," Kirk agrees: "That's a fair statement, Bones." The implication is that belief in God is unnecessary at best and illogical at worst.

Whereas such polemics are rare and muted in the original series, they are fairly frequent and more strident in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Probably the most explicit example is "Who Watches the Watchers?" In this episode Captain Jean-Luc Picard is mistaken for a god by the people of a preindustrialized planet being observed by the Federation (the association of planets that includes Earth and Vulcan and whose military includes a fleet of starships such as the Enterprise). In spite of their misidentification of Picard, the people are an unusually rational race that had abandoned its belief in the supernatural a thousand years previously, an accomplishment praised by Picard. The story, by drawing us into Picard's situation and leading us to identify with him, manipulates us into agreeing that belief in the supernatural is a superstition.

In a similar episode entitled "Devil's Due," Picard tangles with a woman who claims to be the Devil. She is able to perform incredible displays of power seemingly at will (for example, causing earthquakes on command). Picard, however, refuses to believe that she has supernatural power, and eventually exposes her by duplicating her tricks.

It is true that in our Western culture people have often jumped too hastily to the conclusion that certain phenomena could only be explained as supernatural. But this historical and cultural fact does not disprove the reality of the supernatural. As C. S. Lewis rightly noted, people tend to go to extremes, either disbelieving in angels altogether or obsessively believing that devils are everywhere.[10] Neither God nor angelic beings should be treated as an explanatory plug to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the regular operations or processes of nature. On the other hand, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that there must be a God to account for the origins of the universe and of life and to believe that occasionally God or angels interrupt the normal course of events.[11] We may, in short, accept Star Trek's warning not to accept supernatural explanations too easily, while not closing ourselves to the possibility that the supernatural is real.

Indeed, it seems that science fiction often encourages extremely fanciful and irrational beliefs as replacements for the belief in God. For example, one science-fiction enthusiast has seriously suggested that the Big Bang might have been set off by a time traveler from the future![12] Such proposals are evidence that the problem people have with the notion of a transcendent Creator is not its scientific credibility. In fact, the coherence of science and theism has never been greater.[13] The real reasons for rejecting belief in God appear to be more a matter of overarching world views -- of nonscientific, philosophical presuppositions.

The humanistic philosophy of Star Trek, while it rejects the supernatural God of Christianity, is not aridly atheistic. It is, rather, a religious humanism, a cosmic faith in humanity. This is fairly evident in all of Star Trek, but becomes especially obvious in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. When Sybok's "God" is revealed to be a devilish entity, McCoy wonders if God is really "out there" somewhere in the universe. Kirk's answer: Maybe God is not out there, but is "in the human heart." (Is God not in the Vulcan heart, too?) Certainly this declaration strikes a responsive chord in the viewer. Given a choice between locating God on a planet somewhere in the galaxy or finding God in the human heart, the latter answer must be judged nearer to the truth. The Bible, after all, affirms that while God made the universe, He made human beings in His own image. But the choice presents false alternatives. In biblical thought, God is both transcendent over and distinct from His creation, and immanent and active in the universe and especially in the human heart.


Although Star Trek is perhaps best known for its Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, and other extraterrestrials, it is humanity and questions about human nature that dominate the series and films. Several episodes explore the question of what constitutes the essence of human nature. Frequently this question is raised in relation to what philosophers call the mind-body problem. Is there a mind or soul or spirit that is distinct from the body, that might be able to live after the body dies? Advances in science and technology have forced contemporary thinkers to reexamine the materialistic assumption that a human being is nothing more than a random association of matter.[14]

In the Star Trek universe, the possible existence of a soul or spirit distinct from the body is frequently affirmed. For example, in the "Star Trek" episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" Nurse Christine Chapel's fiance, Roger Korby, has transferred his soul into an android body. When Korby realizes what he has become and kills himself and his female android companion, the act of suicide seems to confirm that something of the human Korby had survived the transfer.[15] In "Return to Tomorrow," Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Mulhall allow three aliens to borrow their bodies; their consciousnesses are placed in the aliens' receptacles. In a surprise ending we learn that Spock's consciousness had left the receptacle and hidden inside the mind of Christine Chapel. In "Turnabout Intruder" Kirk is forced to exchange bodies with a woman, but the transplanted souls retain the same personalities.

In the film series, the existence of a soul with at least the potential for life after death is developed in the case of Spock. When Spock dies at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he places his katra (the Vulcan word for "soul") into the mind of Dr. McCoy. At the end of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Spock's katra is restored to his body (which had been regenerated on the "Genesis planet").

It is unclear in all these stories how there can be a soul or katra distinct from the body. Unlike the Star Wars trilogy, in which the continued existence of Obi-won Kenobi after his death is explained by the life-power of the Force, Star Trek never offers a broader world-view context for the existence of the soul.

Star Trek explores other aspects of human nature besides the mind-body problem. In particular, it presents stories that raise questions about the relation of mind, will, and emotions within human beings. In one of the earliest episodes, "The Enemy Within," a transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two beings. One is "good," possessing most but not all of Kirk's intelligence and moral sensitivities; the other is "bad," possessing most but not all of Kirk's passions, emotions, and strong will (including his ability to command). The "good" Kirk discovers that, as repulsive as the "bad" Kirk is, he needs him to be whole. The clear message is that good and bad are relative, both necessary for wholeness. Dorothy Atkins rightly comments on this episode, "Again the series conveys the idea that evil does not need to be destroyed but understood and controlled."[16] This idea is conveyed in "The Enemy Within" in a way that is clearly based on the Chinese concept of yin-yang. (In yin-yang, all polar opposites in life -- good/evil, life/death, etc. -- are mutually complementary and equally ultimate realities that must be kept in balance for wholeness to be achieved.)

A similar notion is found in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Sybok takes control of the ship by telepathically removing emotional pain from the members of the crew. When he offers to take away Kirk's pain, Kirk refuses: "I need my pain." As much as we would like to live without pain, without destructive emotions, they are a part of us, and we need them.

Human nature is examined from a different angle in "Mirror, Mirror." Kirk and three others beam onto a different Enterprise in a parallel universe. Virtually everything is the same, except the Federation is replaced by an Empire and the people dress and act savagely. Meanwhile, their four counterparts from the savage universe have beamed into the Federation universe. Significantly, the Federation officers are able to adapt to their savage environment and go almost undiscovered, while their Imperial counterparts cannot adapt and are discovered immediately. The implication of this and other stories is that how we behave, what personalities we exhibit, is largely a function of environment (that is, the same people have different personalities in different settings). But not entirely: as Kirk notes, Spock is a man of integrity in both universes.

On another level, Atkins rightly notes that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy represent will, mind, and emotion respectively, and that the tensions between the three officers reflect the problem of the tensions within the soul among these three elements or aspects. The tension between reason and emotion is especially prominent through the constant bickering between Spock and McCoy.[17] Similar is the Jungian analysis of Star Trek by Ellington and Critelli, who focus on Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scott as symbolizing in their cooperation the integration of opposite tendencies in a whole person.[18]

Historically, the view of human nature that is promoted in Star Trek is humanistic. Specifically, Star Trek draws on the belief, found in both classical Greek thought and in Eastern philosophy, that human beings are basically all right but that within them disparate elements fight for control of the whole. The well-adjusted human being is one in whom these conflicting elements of reason, passion, and will are brought into a harmonious integration. Typically, this integration is the responsibility of the intellect. Thus, in "The Enemy Within," the "good" Kirk tells his "evil" half that he can hold on to his life if he uses his mind, if he thinks.

By contrast, the biblical, Christian view is that all of these aspects of human nature were created good but, as a result of the Fall, became perverted and are thus "out of whack." This is just as true of the intellect as of the emotions and will. The solution, therefore, cannot come from within the human person himself, from his own faculties or abilities. Man cannot save himself; he cannot "pull himself up by his bootstraps." Only by the gracious, creative act of God working within us can the tensions within us be truly overcome and we be made whole again.[19]

Be that as it may, Christians can certainly give assent to the Star Trek view that we need our passions and our will as well as our intellect. While a certain primacy might be assigned to intellect, to try to subdue our emotions by intellect alone is not the answer. This point is forcefully made in "Amok Time." Spock's Vulcan heritage has taught him to suppress all emotions in order to pursue a rational, ethically responsible lifestyle. As noble as this goal is, the suppression of emotions comes at a high price. The Vulcan mating time, pon farr, plunges Vulcan males into a highly emotional, disoriented state of mind -- a temporary madness to compensate for the years of suppressed emotions. (Nothing is ever said about how Vulcan females let off their emotional steam.) Similarly, in "The Return of the Archons," the people of Beta III live in a placid, emotionless state most of the time, punctuated occasionally by a "Red Hour" festival during which they become frenzied with violence and lust. These episodes make the point well that beings who have emotions must somehow come to terms with them.


The assumption that humanity owes its existence to evolution rather than creation is fundamental in most science fiction, and it is never questioned in Star Trek. Various writers in the field have pointed out the importance of evolution as a presupposition of modern science fiction.[20] This evolution is nontheistic. Theistic evolution -- the theory that a God exists who initiated the process of evolution rather than specially creating the various species or kinds of life -- is not even considered. Nor, of course, is any form of creationism ever entertained. In this connection it should be observed that this is a presupposition worth reexamining.[21]

As well, evolutionary biology is often extrapolated in science fiction to speculate on future evolutionary possibilities, and this theme occurs frequently in Star Trek. The approach taken to such evolutionary advances, however, is frequently negative.

In the very first episode created, "The Cage," written by Roddenberry, the Talosians are an advanced race that became so egg-headed that they spent all their time creating illusions and forgot how to fix their machinery.

In the second pilot episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," good-natured helmsman Gary Mitchell is jolted by an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy and his natural latent ESP potential is enhanced, making him virtually omnipotent. Unfortunately, the transformation also makes Mitchell so big-headed that he forgets the "little people" and actually threatens to destroy them. At one point Kirk points out to Mitchell that he has failed to acquire the wisdom and compassion an all-powerful god needs.

One of the most interesting explorations of this theme is the previously mentioned "Return to Tomorrow," written by Roddenberry. The Enterprise crew encounters three superbeings whose minds have survived for centuries in containers. The leader, Sargon, speculates that the humans may be descended from Sargon's ancestors when they were humanoid and were colonizing planets throughout the galaxy. This suggestion is countered with the claim that humans evolved independently; Spock, however, thinks it might be relevant to Vulcan prehistory. The evil superbeing Hamon's attempt to steal Spock's body convinces the other two, Sargon and Thalassa, that beings as mentally advanced as they are living in human bodies would pose a grave threat to other races of people. Once again, past biological evolution is regarded as fact, but the idea of future evolution into higher forms of being is implicitly rejected.

Evolutionary extrapolations are also offered in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." A recurring character in the series, introduced in the first episode, is "Q," a superbeing from the "Q Continuum" who is almost (not quite) omnipotent. (Confusingly, both the individual being and his race are called Q.) Despite the power of Q's race, they are fascinated by humans. In "Hide and Q" Q admits to Captain Picard that the human race has the potential to evolve beyond even the Q. Q is an amoral and irresponsible being (by both human and Q standards), again exemplifying the Roddenberry warning that advances in intelligence, knowledge, and power do not guarantee advances in character. Indeed, Q is very much like Gary Mitchell of "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

There are also stories warning against trying to tinker with human nature or alter human evolution. Genetic engineering comes under criticism in the "Star Trek" episode "Miri," regarding a planet that looks like Earth on which experiments were conducted to prolong life. These experiments resulted in long childhoods and then accelerated puberties ended abruptly by madness and death. In "Space Seed," Khan, the product of late 20th-century genetic engineering on earth, is the leader of a superrace rediscovered by the Enterprise crew. Along with his superior breeding comes a superiority complex. Khan troubles Kirk again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

All of these stories drive home a fundamental belief for Roddenberry: humanity's biological or essential evolution is over, and what is needed now is "evolution" only in the sense of personal, social, and ethical or moral development. Humanity is basically good, but needs to learn to overcome its instinct for violence, as Kirk once put it. And Roddenberry confidently expects that we will. Roddenberry expects us to overcome prejudice, fear, violence, and especially intolerance, not to forge a perfect world, but simply to survive.[22]

A major theme in Star Trek is that the key to overcoming violence is first to overcome prejudice and discrimination. The Enterprise bridge crew in "Star Trek" features a black woman (Lieutenant Uhuru, the communications officer), a Russian man (Pavel Chekov), and a man who is half Vulcan and half human (Spock). Roddenberry had to fight NBC for these characters, and actually would have had a female first officer if NBC had allowed it. (Such a character was featured in the first pilot, "The Cage"; she was called "Number One.")

In "Star Trek: The Next Generation" the bridge crew features a black man (Engineer Geordi LaForge) and a Klingon (Lieutenant Worf, the security officer). Klingons are an alien race introduced in "Star Trek" as a violent warrior race whose empire is encroaching on Federation territory. In the "Star Trek" episode "Errand of Mercy," superbeings called the Organians stop a war between the Federation and the Klingons, and tell Kirk and his Klingon counterpart Kor that one day humans and Klingons will become friends. This prediction is fulfilled in "Star Trek: The Next Generation": the Klingons and the Federation have been allies for some twenty years, and Worf is the first Klingon to serve on a Federation starship.

The ongoing story lines involving Spock (who with his pointed ears looks like the Devil) in "Star Trek" and Worf (who looks like a ferocious beast) in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" typify the vision of Gene Roddenberry. Intelligent beings are, on the whole, not inherently evil; they are simply different, not yet understood. They represent "strange new worlds" that must be embraced, respected, learned from, and befriended. Ultimately the point Roddenberry is making is not that humans need to be prepared to get along with extraterrestrial aliens (Star Trek as myth) but that humans need to learn to get along with each other (Star Trek as parable). And in Star Trek Roddenberry invites us to look into the future and see that we can and will learn such toleration.

Expressing in daring and dramatic fashion this humanistic faith in the inherent goodness of man and the need for toleration is what Star Trek does best. And in many ways the vision of a society free from prejudice, fear, and violence is one that Christians can appreciate. Yet the optimistic view of human nature, the belief that we can get there on our own, is one that Christians cannot accept. Both the biblical revelation and the evidence of human history bear eloquent testimony to the fact that selfishness, fear, anger, lust, pride, and dishonesty are incorrigible traits of human nature. If the human race is to overcome these mortal defects and attain a higher spiritual and ethical nature, the impetus for such a transformation must come from a transcendent source. The good news is that we have such a source in Jesus Christ, the transcendent God come in human form.


Roddenberry's emphasis on toleration is epitomized in the "Prime Directive." It is the Federation's highest law, its "General Order Number One." It forbids representatives of the Federation to interfere with the cultural development of other planets. The Enterprise crew are often placed in difficult situations because of this rule. In many cases, they could escape their predicament easily due to their superior technology, but are hampered from doing so by the Prime Directive.

Although the Prime Directive figures significantly in many of the "Star Trek" episodes (in which Kirk often seems to violate the Directive), I wish to focus on two episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." In "Justice," the Enterprise crew is allowed to visit a planet where the populace, called the Edo, lead an idyllic (and promiscuous) life. When teen-age crew member Wesley Crusher walks in an off-limits flower bed, he is sentenced to death for violating an Edo law he knew nothing about. Picard cannot simply beam Wesley off Edo and leave, however, because somehow that would violate the Prime Directive. When they determine to take him anyway, the Edo's "god" -- a being or space vessel orbiting Edo -- prevents them. Picard then delivers a speech in which he asserts that there can be no justice as long as laws (from the relatively ridiculous Edo flower-bed law to the relatively sublime Federation Prime Directive) are regarded as absolute. "Life itself is an exercise in exceptions." Commander Will Riker concurs, asking when justice was ever as simple as a rule book. The Edo "god" then allows the crew to leave the planet with Wesley.

In Roddenberry's interview in The Humanist, this episode is cited by the interviewer, David Alexander, as a "good example of [Roddenberry's] humanistic philosophy" and "the most anti-religious and humanistic television program I had seen in years." Roddenberry commented that the episode worked for people because "it was all patently sensible."[23] However, it seems anything but sensible. If the Prime Directive has exceptions, then it is not really the Prime Directive at all. That is, there are other directives or ethical principles thought to be overriding. This is indeed a good example of humanistic ethics, but what it exemplifies is that humanistic ethics is incoherent. In their zeal to avoid the absolute ethical demands of a moral God, Roddenberry and other humanists prefer to absolutize toleration except sometimes (not always) where it conflicts with their humanistic ideals of common sense and individual liberty. The result is often more puzzling than enlightening.

Toleration is absolutized, even beyond common sense, in the episode entitled "The Resolution." Here the Enterprise takes on board a scientist from a planet whose sun is going to die within a generation or so. The scientist conducts an experiment with another star to see if his planet's sun can be saved. The experiment is only a partial success, so that more work needs to be done. However, the scientist must return to his planet for a ceremony called the Resolution, in which he will commit suicide, because he is turning 60 years old. (This "Resolution" is unquestionably patterned on the rule in U.S. civil aviation requiring even competent, healthy pilots to retire at age 60.) Lwaxana, Betazoid mother of psychic ("empath") crew member Counselor Deanna Troi (who is half Betazoid and half human), has fallen in love with the scientist. But even she is not allowed to try to persuade the planetary authorities against imposing the Resolution on the scientist, who is, after all, their best hope of survival. Again, the Prime Directive is invoked. At the end of the episode, Lwaxana has accepted his decision and goes down to the planet with the scientist to observe the ceremony.

In Star Trek, then, the Prime Directive prohibition extends far beyond "interference." As "The Resolution" so clearly illustrates, the Directive is cited as forbidding even compassionate attempts to persuade people of other worlds to adopt more ethical practices or rational, life-saving beliefs. There can be little doubt that Christian missionaries would not fare well in Roddenberry's universe!

It should also be fairly transparent that this absolutized toleration is itself irrational. If we may not seek to persuade people of other cultures to change their ways, on what basis may we seek to persuade people of our own pluralistic culture to change their ways? How can Roddenberry justify seeking to change the way people think in his own culture by producing Star Trek? In the end, making toleration an absolute (or even near-absolute) principle is self-defeating.


In general, what Star Trek does well is to ask good, penetrating questions about truth, God, man, and the world. It forces us to look at ourselves in fresh ways by taking the questions of life that we face daily and addressing them in a fictional, futuristic cultural context. If it is too much to ask that it should also supply the answers, we may be grateful for the entertaining way in which it asks the questions. As the original "Star Trek" celebrates its 25th anniversary and passes the baton to "The Next Generation" (already running well), its continuing mission will be to explore old questions in new ways.

As a Christian, I invite non-Christians enthralled by Roddenberry's vision of the future to pursue dialogue with Christians. We, too, have a vision of the future in which superstition, prejudice, hatred, fear, poverty, and war will cease. We, too, agree that the human adventure is just beginning, even if we disagree as to where we are going and how we will get there. To pursue the ultimate truth about God and about ourselves is the greatest "enterprise" of all.



1 Much of the factual information in this article has been verified by consulting Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium, rev. ed. (New York: Pocket Books, 1989).
2 In this article, I use Star Trek (no punctuation) to refer to all of the productions with that name, including all three television series, the films, and the books; and "Star Trek" to refer to the original 1960s television series only.
3 Or 78 episodes, if the two-part "The Menagerie" is counted as one episode. "The Cage," the original pilot, was never shown as such during the network run, but only as the story within the story of "The Menagerie."
4 See Sally Gibson-Downs and Christine Gentry, Encyclopedia of Trekkie Memorabilia: Identification and Value Guide (Florence, AL: Books Americana, 1988), an oversized book of 269 pages.
5 Andrea Hein of Paramount, cited in Stephen Galloway, "Trek Trivia Blasts Off," TV Guide, August 3-9, 1991, 26.
6 David Alexander, "Gene Roddenberry: Writer, Producer, Philosopher, Humanist," The Humanist, March/April 1991, 6.
7 Dorothy Atkins, "Star Trek: A Philosophical Interpretation," in The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy: Critical Studies, ed. Robert E. Myers; Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, no. 4 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), 93.
8 My thoughts on these matters have been greatly stimulated and structured through discussions with Prof. Peter Lowentrout of California State University, Long Beach. His assistance in locating scholarly studies on science fiction was also of tremendous help in the preparation of this article.
9 J. Timothy Bagwell, "Science Fiction and the Semiotics of Realism," in Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 37.
10 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Co., 1943), 13.
11 Cf. Norman L. Geisler and J. Kerby Anderson, Origin Science: A Proposal for the Creation-Evolution Controversy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987).
12 Gilbert Fulmer, "Cosmological Implications of Time Travel," in Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy, 31-44.
13 Cf. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), chs. 2, 3, and 8; Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God, 2d ed. (Orange, CA: Promise Publishing Co., 1991).
14 Atkins, 104-5.
15 Ibid., 105.
16 Ibid., 103.
17 Ibid., 102.
18 Jane Elizabeth Ellington and Joseph W. Critelli, "Analysis of a Modern Myth: The Star Trek Series," Extrapolation 24 (1983):241-50.
19 Cornelius Van Til, Christian-Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., n.d.).
20 Philip A. Pecorino, "Philosophy and Science Fiction," in Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy, 12.
21 Besides the works listed above in n. 13, see Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen, The Mystery of Life's Origin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984); Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986); Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (New York: Summit Books, 1986).
22 Atkins, 96-98.
23 Alexander, 16.

End of document, CRJ0147A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Strange New Worlds: The Humanist Philosophy of Star Trek"
release A, August 31, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

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