It’s just scratching the surface, but I’ve brought together a few of my favorite Star Trek episodes that deal with religion and portrayals of God. Sci-fi is a fantastic venue for exploring how people interact with religious ideas and concepts. Gene Roddenberry masterfully encouraged exploring the human condition in Star Trek. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager. Each has its way of presenting and dealing with supernatural occurrences. Below you will find my commentary on episodes from each series that portray human reactions to divine encounters.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Who Watches the Watchers” (S3.E4)
“The Mintakans are beginning to believe in a God and the one they’ve chosen… is you.“Riker to Picard
When a primitive species encounters the technological power of advanced Star Fleet personnel, they begin to suspect that the encounter is divine. Throughout the episode, Captain Picard wrestles with the philosophical question of divinity. What is the nature of God? What is the nature of humanity? In a perfect world, the Prime Directive would keep a situation like this from happening, but when it happens, how does one convince another that their advanced technology is not magic?
Who Watches the Watchers confronts an issue of faith. How and why do people believe in divine power? In the episode, the primitive culture is described as having moved past a need for superstition in favor of scientific observation and social development based on reason and rational thinking. However, the encounter with Star Fleet, particularly with “The Picard,” seems to have set them back by reintroducing religious ideas in their culture.
“If you believe that I am a supreme being, then you cannot hurt me. If, however, I am telling the truth, that I am mortal, you will kill me. If, however, my death is the only evidence you will believe, then shoot!“Picard to the Mintakan representative
Imagining a society that has indeed given up religious ideologies is difficult. ST: TNG presents a future where peace is made possible through singularly focused human efforts to collaborate with other cultures. Beliefs, superstitions, and religious worship often challenge this model. Nonetheless, Captain Picard is constant in his reassurance of science, rational thinking, and technological advancement. This is what makes the series so enjoyable. Not everything can be explained by science, but there is extreme hope in human efforts to bring about societal change for good.
“Who Watches the Watchers” (S3.E4), directed by Robert Wierner, written by Gene Roddenberry, Richard Manning, and Hans Beimler. Star Trek, the Next Generation, 1989.
Star Trek: Voyager, “Blink of an Eye” (S6.E12)
“Perhaps we shouldn’t completely ignore the old beliefs, no matter how strange they may seem today.”Kelemine
A planet’s gravity pull traps the Voyager ship in a time field differential. The event of their getting trapped there causes quaking destruction on the planet’s surface, and at the moment of that first quake, the inhabitants look to the sky, and they see a bright shining light reflected by Voyager. The event becomes central to religious beliefs and the prime motivation for scientific advancement. Because time is moving more rapidly on the planet’s surface than for Voyager, moments for the crew are paralleled by years for the planet’s inhabitants. As a result, Voyager witnesses an entire civilization grow with technology that spans centuries in the blink of an eye.
One of the fascinating aspects of the inhabitant’s evolution is how religion immediately forms around the Voyager event. The ancestors who witnessed the original manifestation of the event named the Light Bringer, Ground Shaker, as a deity would be called for its attributes. Over generations, skeptics rose, questioning the religious beliefs of their ancestors as superstitious. Nonetheless, the Light Bringer remained a constant cultural phenomenon. It appeared in children’s books and television shows and altogether motivated technological advancement, if only to discover what was out there.
This episode of Star Trek plays with the idea of how technologically advanced cultures often appear as godlike to those less developed. This is a trope of science fiction. Exploring the nature of human belief in the divine is a subject of curiosity. Read more about “Blink of an Eye.”
“Blink of an Eye” (S6.E12), directed by Gabrielle Beaumont, written by Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman, and Michael Piller. Star Trek: Voyager, 2000.“
Star Trek: Voyager, “Emanations” (S1.E8)
The afterlife is a tricky issue. And while many sci-fi tropes deal with artificial heavens or holographic simulations to entertain an untethered mind, not many sci-fi stories elevate the mystery of spiritual experiences. However, Star Trek Voyager explores this in several episodes. One of the most memorable is called Emanations.
“I’m not certain, but I am certain about this. What we don’t know about death is far, far greater than what we do know.“Captain Janeway
The crew of the Voyager stumbles onto an astroid that emanates strange readings. They go to take a look and find hundreds of bodies wrapped in webbing, lying dead. As they investigate, one of the crew, Harry, is accidentally exchanged with a shrouded body just beamed to the asteroid. He awakens in a coffin-shaped transporter device on another planet. Throughout the episode, the idea of having faith in an afterlife is questioned. Harry’s confirmation that their bodies lie undisturbed and undoubtedly dead on the astroid is bothersome for the planet’s inhabitants. This information undermines their belief in a heavenly afterlife where they are reunited with their ancestors. Back on the Voyager, they have beamed up a body that still had life. Their advanced ship’s technology and medical center restored and healed the inhabitant. The revival was unwelcome, especially since it confirmed the lack of an afterlife as they had expected.
In the end, the crew of the Voyager can exchange the alien for Harry, and each species parts filled with distrust and doubt. However, there is a glimmer of admission for the spiritual at the end of the episode when Captain Janeway reveals that the unusual readings around the asteroid seemed to emanate a sort of living essence of being. Perhaps the afterlife will not be what we expect, but that is no reason to lose faith.
“Emanations” (S1.E8), directed by David Livingston, written by Gene Roddenberry, Rick Berman, and Michael Piller. Star Trek: Voyager, 1995.
If you want to read more commentary on religion and science fiction, check out my book So Say We All: Religion, Spirituality, and the Divine in Battlestar Galactica, and check out other blog posts on Science Fiction.
Dr. Erica Mongé-Greer, holding a PhD in Divinity from the University of Aberdeen, is a distinguished researcher and educator specializing in Biblical Ethics, Mythopoeia, and Resistance Theory. Her work focuses on justice in ancient religious texts, notably reinterpreting Psalm 82’s ethics in the Hebrew Bible, with her findings currently under peer review.
In addition to her academic research, Dr. Mongé-Greer is an experienced University instructor, having taught various biblical studies courses. Her teaching philosophy integrates theoretical discussions with practical insights, promoting an inclusive and dynamic learning environment.
Her ongoing projects include a book on religious themes in the series Battlestar Galactica and further research in biblical ethics, showcasing her dedication to interdisciplinary studies that blend religion with contemporary issues.