Star Trek has always leaned into a scientific direction that many of us have enjoyed watching. Of course, as our knowledge of space and science expands, Star Trek expands with it. That is why Star Trek: Discovery, one of the newest shows in the universe, is so compelling. While the first season was good, the second season is where the show really took off. That is where Star Trek and religion collide in an interesting way.
Throughout the second season, there are many story beats surrounding faith. The interesting part of all of this is that they tried to mix in characters that the writers used to represent both sides of these stories. Michael Burnham, the lead character of the show, might be human but grew up on Vulcan.
Both of her parents were scientists on Vulcan but were killed. Thus, she was adopted by the Vulcan Ambassador Sarek and his human wife, Amanda.
Michael went to the Vulcan Academy and has proven her scientific prowess several times during her stints in the academy and as a member of Starfleet. However, she will do the best thing in her own mind and that can sometimes endanger her crew. Her faith in herself and in science, while understandable, often makes her avoid other possibilities.
The “Logical” Michael BurnhamIn the first season, Burham is investigating what she learns is a downed Klingon ship. She is even attacked by one of them and knocked out. As she comes to, she tells her Captain of what she discovered. Few believe her due to the lack of Klingons in the territory for so long.
However, she knows she is right and will do anything to protect her crew, even if that means betraying her captain to do it.
While she was right and Klingons were present, this led to a fight they were unprepared for and the death of her Captain. She was held responsible for starting a war with the Klingons. Thus, she was branded a traitor and stripped of her rank and Starfleet privileges. She is then sent to prison for her crimes, preparing to live out a sentence at an unknown length.
However, she managed to get back into Starfleet in an interesting way.
A Discovery Is Made:
On transport to another facility, she along with other prisoners were nearly killed due to space beings on the outside of their ship. The pilot tried to take care of it but died, so now they are surely dead. On top of this, little beings are about to eat their ship entirely before they are mysteriously saved.
Captain Lorca of the then-science vessel, Discovery, saved the vessel. He then decided to bring her on his ship and utilize her while she is present.
Yet she remained behind on Lorca’s request after the prisoner’s vessel left. However, she had to start from the bottom to work her way back in. Lorca himself was essentially a traitor we’d later find out, who was even killed in the series. This worked out well, as it allowed the writers to introduce a key character in the Star Trek franchise, Captain Christopher Pike.
Burnham’s scientific experience proved to be valuable but also earned her way back into Starfleet. This time, she is willing to listen to others but still wants to do what’s right. However, her reliance on logic still affects her just as it affects many Vulcans. This is important to Star Trek and religion overall in the series, as Vulcans often end up missing the forest for the trees.
Religion and any real faith system are not considered logical, and thus should not be believed in. However, this is a big issue when it comes to Burnham in particular.
New EdenWe need to discuss a little about the Discovery series in the second season. In this season, there is a mission to find Spock, who happens to be the adoptive brother of Michael Burnham. She hears that Spock was not on the Enterprise in spite of being its Science Officer. It is claimed he was given time off, which led to him going into psychiatric care.
Throughout this season, there is a Red Angel that keeps appearing off and on. This is where Star Trek and religion first started to mesh a bit for the series.
In the first episode of the season, Burnham was saved by what she described as a “Red Angel.” Yet her scientific background led her to believe that she must have been mistaken and tried to explain this away. It also made her feel she should not share her experience right away.
That was until finding out Spock also saw this same Red Angel in dreams of his. Some of which he has had since he was a child. Most of the time, telling him of future situations.
However, things really begin to get interesting in the second episode of the season titled: New Eden.
In this episode, Discovery is following Red Angel signs and tracked one to a Class M Planet in the Beta Quadrant. There are no warp signs in the area when they arrive, but there are human life signs. This is shocking to the people on Discovery because humans were not known to have settled as far as the Beta Quadrant.
The Weirdness Begins:
In Star Trek, Earth is in the Alpha Quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy. Humans were really only going to settle in the Alpha territories due to the closeness to Earth. Thus settling this far out is odd. As it is thousands of lightyears from where they should be.
A distress call has been sent out from the surface, making the Captin order a red alert. Yet when they find the humans on the surface, everyone seems to be fine. However, this planet has been sending out this distress alert for around 200 years, which seems odd.
This goes back to Star Trek’s World War III period, many years before warp technology was invented.
Therefore, it seems impossible that these humans are present. On top of this, they seem to be completely self-reliant on the land without any electricity or technology beyond those of what would be considered 1700s tech. This puts them behind the development of other humans, essentially dealing with a devolution issue rather than an evolutionary one.
They shouldn’t be here, so Pike & Burnham want to investigate this place. Upon reaching the surface, they check out the local church which seems to be littered with all religions from Earth. They even utilize Wiccan religious material along with the Abrahamic faiths.
The people here basically meshed all the religions into one, which seems quite problematic. Yet they seem to have done this because of a lack of understanding.
The original humans that came here are long dead. Those who remained are great-great-grandchildren at the very least of the originals. This is interesting to look at when it comes to Star Trek and religion overall, as a meshing of religions makes a lot of sense for those that never could evolve for hundreds of years.
Captain Pike’s Odd BackstoryRemember when we referenced how the writers tried to play both sides of the faith story? Star Trek and religion have collided a few times over the years, and in each period the writers tried to give both sides proper representation. With Burnham’s history as a science-first type of person, Captain Pike needed to be the slight religious representative for the show.
He references that his father taught science as well as comparative religion. This meant that, even though the two seemed to be total opposites, Pike’s father did not let that stop his belief system. That led to a confusing household for the young Christopher, which caused him and his father to not agree very much.
Now older, he realizes how useful it was to grow up in such a household. Especially when coming across New Eden.
Burnham believes that these people need to be informed of where they came from and maybe even find out how they arrived. On top of this, they need to have Starfleet information given to them up to what these humans would be seeing if they were back on Earth.
Captain Pike disagrees, citing the Prime Directive to not interfere with developing planets. On top of this, he believes these people also have a right to believe in any religion they wish. Burnham essentially says that what these people believe is “a lie.”
However, Pike responds to this by asking:
“Can you prove that?”
The Red AngelThroughout this series, we’re given this Red Angel character that seems angelic when viewed but still somewhat mysterious even still. Yet that is by design, as they need to be a mystery. Anything they mess with needs to be for a purpose, but on top of that, this Red Angel seems to be connected to Burnham and Spock. Enough for Spock to essentially go insane for a period of time as a result.
Star Trek and religion collide here, as Burnham cannot possibly believe there is some angelic figure. At the same time, she cannot explain how this being is doing what they have done. It almost seems to be, well, unexplainable. She also cannot explain how Spock at a young age saw the exact same Angel she herself experienced.
Captain Pike among others is not exactly convinced a creator or higher power is responsible. However, no one can prove this isn’t the case either. That leaves a lot of things open-ended.
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It is claimed that Spock actually helped to find a lost Michael when they were younger due to the help he was given by the Red Angel. He told his parents about this, but they always assumed he used logic to determine Michael’s location. The connection to this being for both seems to be too odd.
There is no longer an assumption of coincidence. Maybe Captain Pike and other crew members are right to assume that this being, regardless of where they came from, seems to have a holy purpose. Yet ever reliant on her background in logic, Michael decides she wants to capture this being.
Angel No MoreSadly, we must get into spoiler territory here. It turns out that Burnham’s mother managed to survive by using a suit that allowed her to travel throughout time. She was the Red Angel the entire time, well, mostly. You’ll need to see the show to know what we mean there. That is how she was able to be seen by Spock and help her daughter when she needed it.
She was also the one responsible for transporting all of those people away from the Earth to New Eden hundreds of years ago.
Star Trek and religion meet here yet again. Some might assume that revealing the angelic being was just a human in an advanced time-traveling suit would ruin any belief system. They proved that science was behind everything, even if they cannot completely understand it themselves.
Did Star Trek writers intend to dismantle faith through this storyline about the Red Angel? Unlikely, but they DID want to show how there could be scientific reasons for things. We might not understand something completely, but that does not always mean a higher power was behind it.
The Prime Directive IssueStar Trek and religion often met over the years when it came to a lesser species or those who have not evolved to be as advanced as those who travel on the Enterprise. In fact, we’ve seen it happen quite often, which is one reason why there is a Prime Directive to not interfere with the evolution of a species.
The issue is that many problems can occur that make blindly, unquestionably following the Prime Directive difficult to do.
In the movie Star Trek Into Darkness, there was a lesser species that seemed to be worshipping a false god. To them, this God was clearly worthy of worship and the species was not to be interfered with. When this universe’s Spock and Captain James T. Kirk stole from the species, they were given no choice. The Enterprise had to be seen.
Once it was, the species then began to start its worship of the Enterprise ship they saw fly off. To do this, they initially drew the ship into the red sand on the planet. It is unknown how they improved upon this since.
Yet there is one instance where the Prime Directive was nearly impossible to follow. That happened when one captain was assumed to be a God, let’s examine that crazy story.
Who Watches The WatchersCaptain Jean-Luc Picard in an episode called Who Watches The Watchers from Star Trek: The Next Generation became a God, well, kind of. A species the crew encountered was not as scientifically evolved as they were. During the story, the Enterprise is set to assist an outpost. They try to hide their people via holographic rockface. However, an accident causes the holographic rockface to disappear, exposing the hologram to a Minataken named Liko.
As Liko approaches it, he is hit with an electrical shock causing him to fall off a cliff and become critically injured.
While against the Prime Directive to help them, Doctor Crusher decides to provide aid anyway. Once Liko awakens and witnesses the Sick Bay on the Enterprise, they notice Captain Picard giving instructions. Dr. Crusher is then able to heal Liko and then attempts to wipe his memory.
First Officer Riker and Counselor Troi disguise themselves as Minatakans to monitor Liko on his return home. They also wanted to ensure the mind wipe worked, which it did not.
Liko believes after seeing Picard give instructions, he must be some sort of a God. He then convinces other Minatakans that Picard must be their God too. While Riker & Troi try to dispel this myth, it gains too much traction. Eventually, an issue occurs where Lt. Palmer is captured and delirious. Riker and Palmer escape with Troi’s distraction, but she is captured.
This caused Picard to come down to rectify the situation, which only further violates the Prime Directive. The village where Troi is being held is led by a woman named Nuria. Picard transports her to their Sick Bay to see his crew is mortal, and even has her look at the death of a Starfleet crew member.
She is then transported back during a thunderstorm, making her species assume she angered the “holy” Picard.
While she attempts to rationalize things with Liko, it doesn’t take. Picard returns yet again and wishes to prove his mortality. Liko aims an arrow at him, but Liko’s daughter hits up against her father as he shoots the arrow, causing the arrow he shot to merely wound the Captain. Yet this shows that Picard can bleed, and Gods do not bleed.
Star Trek Often Uses An Agnostic Point Of ViewWhile Star Trek and religion often collide when it comes to species like what Picard among others came across. It should be noted that their development was often in a lesser period than ours today. The writers of the Star Trek shows are giving us these examples to show that there are many traits other species have in common with humans.
However, they also attach their lack of evolutionary development to the story. Since our human societies always ended up adding some sort of religion or faith system, it only makes sense other evolving species would do the same.
Yet so many use religion to explain the things they do not understand. This defies logic to the Vulcans but makes sense to humans. Many of us tend to settle for the “God did it” answer to everything. However, Vulcans do not because logic can break apart many religions, and science can explain how many things happen.
Not that there is not some creator behind the universe. Rather, they know every little thing that is unexplainable is not somehow the result of a higher power. This would not be logical of them.
Humans used to think seizures were caused by the Gods punishing someone for evil thoughts. Today, we know better because we have science to explain how seizures work.
Burnham & Spock might not entertain the idea of faith or religion at all due to their reliance on logic. However, others like Captain Pike & Captain Picard, and even Captain Kirk are willing to still state that there could be a higher power behind everything. They simply do not know, but they surely want to find out.
This agnostic point of view is useful and important in Star Trek.
You’re Traveling Through Space, How Can Religion Be Considered?Some would state that Star Trek and religion become interesting when you see crewmembers have specific belief systems, as they really do not make sense to see. You’d think that after seeing everything they see and the scientific developments around them, they wouldn’t buy into any religion.
However, a person’s “faith” is internal. Plus, it would not be considered much of a “faith” if they did not have faith in that belief system, right? Thus, having a religion and traveling through space could not be considered contradictory when you really think about it.
Of course, one would assume an atheistic point of view is more sensible here. They are in the distant future, and as we evolve scientifically in the real world, we can explain more and more about our world and universe. That is why we’re likely to see people like Spock and Burnham more often, where our logic dictates our beliefs.
For the rest of the crew members, they know one thing. We can explain how so many things came to be, but that still does not necessarily dismiss the idea of an ultimate creator. That is why Captain Pike told Burnham to “prove” the New Eden beliefs are a lie.
He wanted Burnham to understand that logically unless you can completely prove something to be impossible, it must always remain possible.
It does not matter if you travel through space or you’re part of the crew of a normal ship on the water. The belief systems of species you come across may baffle you even. However, while religious beliefs are fine they should not be the immediate go-to for every answer that one cannot explain yet. One must question everything!
Ultimately, that is the biggest takeaway Star Trek can ever give us.