Trekking Without God
Let's talk about religion in the latest Star Trek movie: There isn't any.
I know that some longtime fans complain about non-conforming details in J.J. Abrams's reboot of the original series. The hormones of human-Vulcan hybrids, for instance, apparently operate more on a human clock (no ponn farr). And the Federation seemed a bit more gun-happy even in the first Abrams movie than in Gene Roddenberry's original vision.
But there are lots of ways where Abrams has toed the line. Religion is surely one of those.
Mild spoiler alert: I'll not give away much more than I've seen in other reviews, but if you're the sort who wants to know nothing about a movie before you see it, come back when you're done.
And here's my two-paragraph review: Star Trek: Into Darkness is a wonderful Star Trek movie in much the same way that Skyfall was a wonderful James Bond movie. (Which is not exactly the same as saying either is a wonderful movie.) Both are faithful, but not slavishly so, to their characters' histories, make just enough sense to be fun, and include a lawn-full of Easter eggs for longtime fans to spot and smile about.
So we get a tribble and "I'm a doctor, not a..." and the original musical theme and other references that have not much to do with the story. And more than a few familiar elements that are central to the story but I can't discuss without spoiling things. Well worth the popcorn. See it on the biggest screen with the best sound system you can find.
But what you don't have is anything remotely like a whiff of religion. You might think that's because the plot zips along at, ahem, warp speed and there really wasn't room for anything about faith. But there were at least four places where the lack of even the faint aroma of metaphysics was notable.
Two people die in the movie up close and personal. One dies in Spock's arms, as he does a Vulcan mind-meld. Which Spock recounts later. The second death happens with the dying man giving what amounts to a play-by-play about what he's feeling up until moments before he passes.
What do we get? Fear and anger and confusion and friendship. But not a word about the hereafter or even any wondering about it.
I'm really not going to spoil anything by telling you the second death is followed by a literal resurrection. That particular plot line is so obvious it should be on the billboards. And the character was dead. Not in a coma or stasis or suspended animation. Dead as the no-doornails on the Enterprise sliding entries.
When he wakes up, does he talk about his trip to the light or meeting his father or making contact with the transcendent? He does not. Not a word.
None of this is an accident. The original Star Trek series was about as devoid of religious references as your average strip club. Only the most devoted Trekker can identify even a handful of obscure nods to even the existence of religion in that universe.
Roddenberry, whose vision drove the project, was a secular humanist who had little patience for organized religion. Among his relevant quotes is this one:
"We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes."
So his subcreation that had so much room for finding ways to accommodate racial and cultural diversity had almost nothing to say about religion.
That was still mostly true for the later iterations of the Star Trek saga. Even the mysterious Prophets of Deep Space 9 seemed more tied to science that the supernatural. More resonant with Clarke's Third Law than anything from, say, Genesis or the Bhagavad Gita.
When Abrams restarted the franchise in 2009, he was utterly faithful to this guiding principal: If there are Christians, Jews, Jains, Hindus or any other adherents of organized religion in the 23rd century, they were invisible to the cameras.
Ditto for this film. There's one character who has a name that in 2013 would be a clue that he belonged to a particular faith. But there's nothing in this movie or any of the other canonical versions of the character to suggest there's anything religious attached.
The final place where Abrams could well have inserted at least a nod to religion is almost at the end. The good guys have won. (I hope that's not a spoiler.) And there's a ceremony that is both a memorial service and a rechristening of the repaired Enterprise.
Don't get your tunic in a tangle about the word "rechristening," which is actually said in the film. In context, the usage was about as religious as an "Enterprise" ornament for a Christmas tree. And where today this sort of ceremony would surely have made room for a prayer, instead we get a slightly tweaked version of the most sacred text in the Roddenberry canon:
"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."
The dilithium crystals that provide the power of the passage are all packed into that wonderful split infinitive: "To boldly go."
If Roddenberry believed in anything, and he surely did, it was in the ability of humans to succeed and thrive and achieve by going boldly. Religion, he thought, was not a bit necessary. Thus far in his Trekking, Abrams seems content to agree.