What Makes a God?: Wormhole Aliens and Bajoran Religion

Benjamin Sisko is the Emissary

It’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek to be secular. In a 1991 interview in The Humanist, Roddenberry said:

‘I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will — and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.’*

Before Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered in 1993, two years after Roddenberry’s death, encounters with religious cultures in Trek series usually (though not always) involved Enterprise crew members pointing out the dangers of the culture’s religious belief, or at least expressing reserved discomfort.

However, in DS9, the Bajorans and their religion are a major part of the culture of the space station, and a prominent feature of the series. The Bajorans worship gods called the Prophets, who they believe watch over Bajor. In the pilot episode of the series, Commander Benjamin Sisko, the Starfleet commanding officer of the station, is the first corporeal being to speak with the Prophets, when he and fellow officer Lt. Jadzia Dax discover the entrance to a stable wormhole in which the Prophets live. This first contact solidifies his reputation as the Prophets’ Emissary, a title which he had been given earlier in the episode by Kai Opaka, the supreme Bajoran religious leader.

For the first half of the series, Sisko is extremely uncomfortable as a religious figure. He prefers to use terms such as ‘wormhole aliens’ and ‘wormhole’, whereas Bajorans use the terms ‘Prophets’ and ‘the Celestial Temple’. However, in the episode ‘Accession’ (#417), Sisko begins to claim his role as the Emissary, out of care for Bajor, and the Prophets support his claim against that of a challenger. Finally, by the end of the series, it is revealed that Sisko’s mother was possessed by a Prophet in order to give birth to the Emissary, and in the final episode he joins the Prophets as one of them.

In the end, the Bajorans’ gods are not exposed as false prophets (as had occurred with other cultures in some previous Trek episodes – see the original series’ ‘The Apple’ and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘Who Watches the Watchers?’ and ‘Devil’s Due’), but are vindicated as true guardians of Bajor, even if not ‘divine’ in the way Christian theology would understand divinity.

The portrayal of the Bajoran Prophets in DS9 suggests two characteristics that true gods share in the world of Star Trek:

1) They are part of the natural universe, not supernatural. The Prophets are advanced beings who are incorporeal and exist outside of linear time. However, unlike the God of Christianity, they do not exist outside of the created universe. This characteristic is shared with the Founders, the changelings who created the races of the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar. The idea that humans (as well as all Alpha Quadrant humanoid races) were created by alien beings is also presented in the TNG episode ‘The Chase’. Although the Prophets are not the Bajorans’ creators, they are fellow inhabitants of the same universe, though with superior abilities and existing on a different plane.

2) They seek their people’s flourishing in freedom of mind, body and spirit. In ‘Accession’, the Prophets support Sisko’s claim as Emissary against a Bajoran who claims the Prophets’ sanction for returning Bajor to the dejaras, the castes which formerly dictated Bajorans’ occupations and social positions. Sisko decides to reclaim his role as Emissary when he sees that the caste system is leading Bajorans, including his first officer Kira Nerys, to abandon their rights and the use of their gifts and talents, and even murder in the name of religion. The Prophets reveal that they sent the false Emissary (who was acting in good faith) to show Sisko that he was the true Emissary. The Prophets’ actions serve to encourage Sisko to become the leader that the Bajoran people need (empowering him to remove the caste system as well).

The Founders, on the other hand, keep their people subservient to them, by chemical dependency in the case of the Jem’Hadar. Other ‘false prophets’ and false gods in Star Trek seek to control their people by limiting their ability to think, act, or travel freely.

In post-Roddenberry Trek, true gods do exist, but they share the values of Starfleet – increased freedom and independence for their people. The divinity of Star Trek is a divinity which works towards the day when its aid is no longer needed – a divinity which aims for its own obsolescence.

__________

*CORRECTION: In his comment below, symposium contributor Kevin C. Neece informed us of the following:

…that oft-quoted passage attributed to an interview with Gene Roddenberry in “The Humanist” is no such thing. Roddenberry said some of that, but in an entirely different context and much of it, including its apparent insult to the intelligence of all religious people, is a fabrication. Roddenberry’s real beliefs were far kinder to religious people and he was a very spiritual man, though he certainly abhorred most of what he saw in organized religion.

You’re in good company, though. A wide array of publications and books have used that quote over the years. It’s quite prevalent and it took me a long time to sort out its true origin and original version, which is much too long for a blog comment! Your ultimate assessment of Star Trek’s mostly “secular” intentions, however, is sound.

Thank you to Kevin for alerting us to the quote’s lack of authenticity! I have decided to let the quote stand, with the correction, in hopes that others will be directed to Kevin’s information.

Image credit: Memory Alpha. Fair use justification: this image is being used for scholarly comment on the character depicted.

4 Comments

  • Kevin C. Neece says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Cole! You’re correct that the Prophets do seem to foster Federation values, as all protagonists in Star Trek do. I wonder, though, if they ultimately qualify as gods?

    I’ve wondered about this for some time because I think the series ultimately prefers to see them as “Prophets” rather than “wormhole aliens,” though its apparent mysticism is always grounded in a scientifically verifiable reality, however implausible it might seem to some – the fact that these beings exist non-corporeally and have a nonlinear experience of time.

    As early as the Season 1 finale, “In the Hands of the Prophets,” Benjamin tells his son Jake, “To those aliens, the future is no more difficult to see than the past. Why shouldn’t they be considered Prophets?” But is qualifying as prophets the same as qualifying as gods?

    I’m particularly interested in whether you think DS9 portrays these as beings who are worthy of worship, as I believe this idea would have been repugnant to Gene Roddenberry. Sisko learns to trust the Prophets, but he never seems to worship them as gods the way Nerys does. Nonetheless, Nerys’ faith is respected. I’m curious as to your thoughts on this. If Star Trek has true gods, what sort of gods are they and what is our appropriate response to them? Does DS9 vindicate the Bajorans’ worship of the Prophets or temper it with scientific certainty?

    As an addendum, that oft-quoted passage attributed to an interview with Gene Roddenberry in “The Humanist” is no such thing. Roddenberry said some of that, but in an entirely different context and much of it, including its apparent insult to the intelligence of all religious people, is a fabrication. Roddenberry’s real beliefs were far kinder to religious people and he was a very spiritual man, though he certainly abhorred most of what he saw in organized religion.

    You’re in good company, though. A wide array of publications and books have used that quote over the years. It’s quite prevalent and it took me a long time to sort out its true origin and original version, which is much too long for a blog comment! Your ultimate assessment of Star Trek’s mostly “secular” intentions, however, is sound.

    Thanks again for a great start to this symposium and I look forward to your response! 🙂

    • Tim Nargi says:

      Do you have the original quote from Roddenberry? I’d like to read the whole thing.

      • Kevin C. Neece says:

        I do, but it’s spread over several pages in a book. To understand what he’s saying, you have to read the whole conversation. Basically, someone cobbled together some of Gene’s actual words to make it sound like he said something he didn’t say. At least, that’s how it appears to me. I’m working on a blog post about all of this.

        If you have more questions, feel free to contact me through my website as I’d prefer not to derail the comment thread from Cole’s good material. 🙂

    • Cole Matson says:

      Kevin,

      Thanks for your excellent comment. You’re right in that the Prophets are not “true gods” in the way we, people of faith, would understand gods. They’re not divine as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph is divine, for example. I agree with your point, that Gene Roddenberry would be against the idea of any being being worshipped as divine.

      Fair point, I’m being a bit dodgy in my use of the term “true gods”. What I mean by it is beings who deserve their place in their people’s religious system because of their genuine care for their people’s growth – with the MAJOR proviso that this place of honour is TEMPORARY, and only for the purpose of tutelage until the people are wise enough to know that they don’t need gods to be free and virtuous.

      Does this view of gods align with what you understand to be Roddenberry’s kinder view of religious people?

      Speaking of which, thank you very much for the quote correction. I’m amending the post now to make note of it. Could you post a link to your blog post working through the actual quote context, when it’s done?

      Very glad I found your blog!

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