Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Day 3: Three Wise Men

With the down-turn in the economy, this year I could only afford two wise men, Doug Zeitlin and Jim Caswell, the prime movers behind TWERPs (Time Well Electronic Productions) who, for the third year in a row have contributed a specially dedicated podcast for the Twelve Trek Days of Christmas. This year they have taken the bit between the teeth and tackled one of the thorniest questions in Star Trek fandom: Why, in a programme that prides itself on its intellectual content, is there so little said about religion and politics?

Download this year's Trekcast from the TWERPs website,

I love Christmas. Not in a shallow way because of the commercialism but in the way that it changes people.Old enmities are shelved, people's spm rate (smiles per minute) increases and kids are absolutely maniacal about it! There are those who would draw "lines in the sand" and say that Christmas is a purely religious holiday but, as I said in my opening post for the Twelve Trek Days, "Whilst the religious aspects of the holiday are still observed in Christian communities, not everyone celebrates it as they do. The Christmas message holds two aspects that can be respected by every person on the globe whether they be Christian, Humanist, Buddhist or Moslem: Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men"

Just those two aspects are reason enough to cherish this tradition. The globalisation of Christmas could be the closest that humanity comes to standing as one brotherhood of mankind and yet Star Trek seems silent on the subject of Christmas.

Why is there such a taboo about discussing religion and politics in Star Trek canon?

Some brave souls have broached the subject in the past. Julia Houston, for instance, had an excellent little article on which is still available on the Wayback machine where she points out that the only major reference to Christmas is the idealistic dream scene of Picard in the Nexus shown in Generations.

The problem as I see it is that the writers of Star Trek - and yes, I'm taking Gene to task here as well - fail to realise that religious holidays represent definite philosophical as well as spiritual values. I am not as conversant with the religious holidays of other cultures as I should be, but I do have a firm grasp of the principles that our Christian holidays are supposed to espouse.

I suppose it is understandable that in a future that is ruled by technology, faith as such could be seen as illogical. Christians cannot prove the virgin birth of Christ even though they celebrate it, nor for that matter can they prove the resurrection that is the basis of Easter. That's why they call it faith - you accept them even though there is no empirical proof. However I would assume that there would be at least pockets of traditionalists left, just as Chakotay's people survived as a culture. As an aside, I might point out that Star Trek makes a great show of tolerance towards less well developed cultures, as evidenced by the Prime Directive - surely they would not show any less tolerance towards human religions?

Even if we put asside the religious basis of the celebrations, does this mean that the celebration itself is redundant? Christmas is a time of celebration, fellowship with strangers, family gatherings, gift giving, feasting and generally wishing for 'peace on Earth and goodwill towards all sentient beings.' Surely all of these are good ideals and to NOT celebrate Christmas because it might not be "politically correct" to celebrate a western, Christian holiday is to lose more than we could possibly gain!

Even if the religious significance of the celebrations were to be ignored, the celebration days we recognise now hold an objective significance that any Vulcan would admit to. Easter as a time of contemplation of mortality, Valentines Day as a celebration of love, Lent as a time of fasting, Remembrance day (whenever your nation celebrates it) as a time to remember the sacrifices of those who have defended our freedom. In our household we celebrate St Patrick's day, not because we are Irish (although we have the Orange and the Green in our family from my wife's side) but because it is my Grandfather's birthday and I liked him!

I would be interested to hear what a Humanist would suggest as replacements for these events, since they represent a need in humans, specific traditions that allow us the opportunity to place life, the universe and everything into context. It need not be a Christian context. Your frame of reference might be Buddhist, Taoist or Jeddi Knight... or it might be a personal standard that you have worked out yourself. Would a Humanist frame of reference be based on philosophy, ethics, the Code of Chivalry?

People will remain people even in the 24th century, unless there is some form of mind control or genetic manipulation and we are told that neither of these is accepted as permissible. A spacecraft as huge as the Galaxy class will be like a flying city and will require celebrations in just the same way that any society requires them, as focal points for communal values, strengthening social ties and as release valves for what could become antisocial behaviour. People will need celebrations to "let their hair down" in an acceptable way whether they call it Christmas or Ancestors Eve.

Extrapolating on the idea of spare time on a spaceship, one wonders whether the entertainment will be recorded or live? If the best entertainment in the federation can be played back as a HoloNovel, would people want to listen to amateurs live? My personal guess is that everyone aboard a space ship will have at least two duties - eg: First Officer & jazz player, CO & Archaeologist. They would have their primary function (say Medical Officer) as well as a secondary function (theatrical producer) that would contribute something towards the cultural life of the ship.

I remember reading once that, with the increase of technology and automation in industry, we will have more free time and working out what to do with that free time will become an industry in itself! Even within Star Trek canon this can be seen, with the different ways that the holodeck can be used, Harry Kim's clarinet practise and Riker's jazz Trombone performances, Spock's Vulcan lute playing and Bev Crusher's dance studio and amateur theatre (fan productions on Star Trek?).

Who then would take the place of a priest in such a society? Sure, the ship's counsellor helps with psychological problems, but does Deanna Troi provide a social focal point for spiritual matters? Her job seems more of an extension of the medical profession and at best would give what is termed pastoral care. Who would be the mentor, the confessor, the moral and ethical guide? Picard? Perhaps, but I think he might be a little busy on the bridge to spend too much time adjudicating moral dilemmas and he's not exactly the kind to run a Sunday School!

This is what speculative fiction is all about, asking questions such as these. If you can't find one that addresses the questions you have … why not write one? Fanfic as social commentary? Absolutely!


  1. I have commented in my own blog that I find Eugene Roddenbury's choice to get rid of religion an unrealistic aspect of Star Trek. Nevertheless, Roddenbury was quite explicit that, in his opinion, the only way for the future to be bright was to banish human religion. Himself a lapsed Southern Baptist, I long suspected the occasional vague references to religion on TOS were imposed by NBC. After Roddenbury's death, DS9 took on a more religious (albeit alien religious) aspect to it.

    Living in America, as I do, I do not see Christianity as the weakened force you may see it as in Australia. People here who wish to shorten "Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Happy Chanucha, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, Happy Boxing Day, Happy New York, Happy Chinese New Year, Happy Martin Luther King's Birthday"... happy fill in Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu etc. holidays to "Happy Holidays" are accused of having a "War on Christmas." ...often by Southern Baptists. Here there is a strong movement toward banning abortion based on Christian faith, a movement which is gaining and likely to succeed in the next few years. Here, too, the Gay community has discovered, perhaps too late, that the friends they rejected as 'not being friends at all' for encouraging them to go for civil unions, which are legally the same as marriage, but which are not called marriage, and not for 'gay marriage', were indeed their friends. Law after law for gay marriage has been overturned in referendums after battles by the Christian right and the Mormon Church, who consider them Sodomites.

    Christianity is not some cute relic which speaks only of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men. It is a set of opinions, sometimes contentious ones. Just this Christmas day, a Nigerian man tried to blow up an airplane full of holiday travelers on the way from the Netherlands to Detroit. One sect of Muslim blows up another's mosque with people praying inside, and war goes on unabated between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hindus and Moslems in Pakistan and inside India also do battle.

    I am not Eugene Roddenbury, and I don't think this will disappear. But if you want to add Christmas to Star Trek, are you also going to add Ramadan?

  2. We've just updated TWERPcast, so a more direct way of getting to TrekCast: Faith and Politics is to use the following link:

    Enjoy and Merry Christmas!

  3. My purpose was not to cheapen the meaning of Christmas, but to find the lowest common denominator that all people can agree on. You don't honestly think that the world should either accept Christmas as a Christian religious festival or ignore it do you? Or am I misreading you?

    My point is that Christmas holds a specific cultural idea that is understandable and accepted as desirable by every thinking, ethical human being. Those two concepts: Peace and goodwill. If Christian fundamentalists were to say, "This is my holiday and unless you are Christian you can't honour it" they would be doing the world such a disservice that they would in truth be destroying those two concepts rather than fostering them.

    Yes, I would indeed add Ramadan and any other religious or cultural holiday that still held meaning to the people in the 23rd century. In fact not to do so would be to fly in the face of the idea of IDIC - Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

    I don't fast during Islamic festivals but neither do I eat in front of my workmates who are fasting. In just the same way if either of my children were to marry someone from another culture I would expect their spouse to treat them with exactly the same respect and dignity that my children have been brought up to give and expect.

    Happy Hogmonay

  4. I lurk here for some time now and this is the first time I felt that I should write something. My name is Joaquim and I'm from Portugal. But first I must declare that in no way my comment should be seen as a disrespect to the personnal faith of anybody.

    I respect all faiths and pantheons that respect human life and dignity and I even respect all the faithful that respect human life and dignity even if their faith does not. I do not believe in any religion, but I cannot say that a higher power does not exist.

    Having said this, I difer in some assumptions given above. In the 23th century it is very well possible that knowledge has made clear what is already understood but not accepted today:

    "All the common believes of the 20th century are based in false dogmas and archaic morality."

    We used to burn women as witches in the 18th century and accepted that as normal. In Europe, we estimate to having killed more than 4 million of women accused as being witches. The last woman being killed as a witch was in the 19th century in the USA. We murdered innocent women ordered by our "faith mentors". We don't do it (except occasionally) anymore. We modernized our believes and our moratily. We decided not to accept some things anymore. What will we decide not to acccept in the 23th century? Not imposed by society, but organnicaly accepted by the people? That the abblation of certain parts of the sexual organs is wrong? That a man that cannot marry is not the best advicer to a marriage or sexual life? That faith in the unkwown can be valuable but it cannot be blind or stupid? That living in the backyard of a backyard galaxy should not tempt us into believe that we are the center of the universe? And that we are born in some geographic place of this planet and it is normally the place where we are born that decides our faith and not am higher calling? That evolution exists and creation doesn't? And that Christmas should not only be in the day that a supposed Son of God was born, but everyday?

    This is all to say that I always considered a very brave thing about Roddenbury the banning of religion in Star Trek. When we add things up, he is right. Religion (with all the importance and evolutionary behaviour logic that it has) has done much worse than has done good to humanity.

    So maybe his vision is not that wrong.

  5. Thank you, Joaquim, your closing statement is true, it was a brave thing for Roddenderry to have no recogisable religions in Star Trek. Star Trek is speculative fiction and as such challenges us to think, to question our own reality. "What would a world without religion be like?" is one question amongst many.

    To be fair, the tragedies that you speak of were caused by men in the name of religion rather than a religion that forced men to do wrong. Religion can be a powerful force for good in our personal lives, but it can also be used as a political tool by unscrupulous people. It is only by the separation of church and state that religion can be taken out of our laws and our courts.

    Religion is for the guidance of our individual moral and ethical judgement but its place could be taken by a reasoned secular philosophy. I believe it is when we take our philosophy to extremes that we are in danger of committing atrocities, whether that philosophy is religious, political (as in the extremes of socialism and capitalism) or cultural.

    This is why we need a cultural celebration that takes as its core the concepts of peace on Earth and goodwill between cultures.

    Christians who honour it as a religious holiday should feel a great sense of satisfaction that these core concepts are understood and respected across all cultures and that they are using their philosophy for the betterment of mankind.

    Those who do not subscribe to Christianity, and those who do not subscribe to any religion, should feel welcome to celebrate Christmas an ecumenical festival or as a secular state holiday focussing on peace and brotherhood.

    It is a start to rubbing out the lines that divide us without which we have to rely on secular laws and education and sadly they can be just as wrong.

    May we all Live Long and Prosper, Joaquim.