In the 24th Century, Where Are the Believers?
Why don't we see any yamulka'd Orthodox Jews or turbaned Sikhs on Star Trek, when we see every other form of modern ethnicity represented, albeit in highly stylized form? My answer is that at long last, by the time of Gene Roddenberry's 23rd-century utopia, we have won the long war against faith. There aren't any Jews or Moslems or Catholics or Protestants on the Enterprise because by 2299 AD, there aren't any religious people left.
After all, science fiction has long been indifferent or hostile to religion, but let's face it -- religion started it when they threatened to torture Galileo. We're just getting some of our own back.
Read the above with tongue in cheek if you want -- it'll sound exactly the same, as neither tongue nor cheek is involved in the process of reading, unless you like to sound everything out. In which case you might want to read it with your tongue sorta in the middle, where it belongs. But linguistic positioning aside, there is both a good reason and a bad one for glossing over the role of religion in the world of the future.
The bad reason is the same reason we don't see the Democratic or Republican parties in the 23rd century -- it might offend the sensibilities of those who hold those beliefs today. After all, we don't discuss religion and politics in polite company not because the topics are too difficult for conversation, but because they're the ones on which people are most likely to become angry, often for no reason predictable in advance.
Television scripts generally, with a few shining and laudable exceptions, pass through a dozen or more hands before they reach the actors' hands. Being a writer, I think this is a bad idea, and offer the scripts written by single writers, from "The Cage" to The Prisoner to Babylon 5, as proof. But it also means that if you phrase the lines of, say, a Libertarian character to finely walk the right side of the line between dramatically making the Libertarian case and misstating it in a way injurious to Libertarians, and you get that tightrope walk exactly right, the chances of your lines remaining in the same form by the time they are filmed are on the order of the chances of Count Chocula at a Slayer convention.
Why is that a bad reason? Because politics and religion are worth talking about, even on television, and they aren't discussed enough for fear of annoying audience members who might then transfer that annoyance to the latest plastic toy or bubblegum pop CD being advertised during the station breaks. Whenever they do try, such as the international politics in B5, the dynamics of conquest, resistance and collaboration on Deep Space Nine, or the problems of a shattered central state in Andromeda, the results are often gratifying, if only because it's a breath of completely untasted fresh air.
Would, then, that SF TV was sufficiently sensitive to religion to do it as well. Because with a few exceptions such as the Minbari and Narn faiths on Babylon 5 and the ecclesiastical politics (but neither the tenets, rites nor gods, all of which were derivative Saturday-morning serial stuff) of Bajorism on DS9, most television attempts to portray religious people have been pretty sad. Which is the good reason -- if you can't do it right, don't try to do it.
Most Americans, polls tell us, are religious. Perhaps they are underrepresented in Hollywood, much as conservative pacifists who are reticent about sexual matters appear to be underrepresented. But I meet religious people every day, and they don't freakin' sound like Ned Flanders of Simpsons fame or Chakotay when he's discussing his generic Native American spiritual beliefs with the same empty earnestness that Troy McClure uses on, well, everything. They sound like real people, even, or often especially, when you discuss the nature of God with them. But on TV, it's like you're an atheist or a priest, no middle ground.
Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Joyous Yuletide, Blessed Solstice, and whatever else you might be celebrating. Nearly everyone reading this column will be participating in some sort of festive activity next week, whether it includes going to church, gathering with family, opening presents, hanging pomegranates from trees, or -- in the case of a friend of mine in Los Angeles -- having artificial snow shipped in, so her kids can enjoy midwinter the way it's been celebrated across much of the world since before organized religion, with an old-fashioned snowball fight.
Many sci-fi fans and futuristic thinkers are engaged in a war against oppression, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and hypocrisy, and it's sadly true that religious leaders and spiritual have perpetrated those atrocities since time immemorial. Still, even most atheists go through the motions of certain religious rituals. For some, it's tradition, or an excuse for family bonding; for others, it's impossible to resist the lure of peppermint torte or a new tie from Aunt Harriet.
I'd venture to guess that Star Trek -- not to mention First Wave, The X-Files, and most other genre shows -- have long since offended strict fundamentalists enough that they've stopped watching or stopped protesting. I was rather surprised by the protests against Xena's Hindu-based episodes, not because I disagreed with the protestors' complaints that Xena had gotten their religion all wrong, but because it's been a specific project of Xena's to re-interpret the various religions and mythologies of the world through a feminist-oriented lens. Sometimes it has done so dreadfully. I'm not a fan of the Christian (excuse me, "Elijan") salvation of Amarys or Eve, but at least the show is addressing these issues that have had such enormous impact on human history and development, psychologically as well as culturally.
Moreover, given the demographics most genre shows seek, television producers must be insane to neglect religious sources. Want war and sex? You can't do much better than the Bible. See Jacob marry Leah and her sister Rachel after being tricked by their father! See Dinah's brothers slaughter all her male in-laws after forcing them to undergo circumcision! See Judah sleep with his daughter-in-law and suffer the consequences! And that's just in one section of the Book of Genesis. Wait till you hit the romance-novel eroticism of Song of Solomon. I hear there's even juicier stuff in the Ramayana, though I've only read excerpts.
Judaism, my own religious and cultural background, has been around for nearly 6,000 years. The idea that Jews will be completely absent from Starfleet would be laughable if it weren't so chilling -- are we meant to believe the Federation rejects all people who admit to religious affiliation, or that the rationalists have completed what the Nazis started? What historical causality can possibly explain the absence of Jews, Moslems, or Christians beyond Uhura's token reference in "Bread and Circuses"? The only way Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or any of various other religions will vanish completely by Star Trek's era is if its followers are eradicated forcibly.
Maybe these religions are thriving, and we just don't see the symbols because it's against regulations to wear a Star of David or a Virgin of Guadalupe medallion on duty. But why, in the middle of all the vedeks visiting Deep Space Nine's Promenade with its Bajoran temple and its Klingon shrine, have we never seen an off-duty human wearing some traditional symbol of faith? Why, given his background in Creole culture and African-American history, could Sisko not have honored the belief systems of his ancestors, even if he didn't believe in the higher power they celebrated? It's undoubtedly because the producers are afraid of offending audience members through a superficial or inaccurate portrayal of faith systems that might cause viewer or advertiser boycotts. But it's cowardly, and makes for poor entertainment besides.
Whether your background is Swedish Lutheran or Ashkenazi Jewish or northern Native American, herring probably reminds you of winter holidays, even if you hate it. I personally didn't inherit the herring gene, but I'm pretty sure my kids will be serving it over winter holidays to come because it will remind them of both sets of grandparents. Tell me nobody on Voyager ever went on an away mission to a chilly planet and got an immediate urge for herring, then an urge to look at Christmas lights, then a momentary feeling of connection to whatever god of their ancestors might be looking over them in the Delta Quadrant.
No matter how many atrocities are committed in the name of religion, no matter how much science is willfully discarded, I refuse to believe that the people of our future will be devoid of all faith. Science fiction should stop portraying religion as the refuge of the weak and ignorant. Much as I know the hazards of taking this position, there is a proper place for religion on television. Not proselytizing, not hitting people over the head with the preponderance of Christian teachings and symbols in our culture (speaking as a Jew, there's no such thing as Judeo-Christian; the Judeo- gets completely assimilated into and changed by the -Christian, and the tenets and values are really quite different among most branches of the two religions). I don't want to see crucifixes in every home or Bibles in every hospital room, but I've also been in a lot more homes and hospitals which had those things than television ever indicates.
TV shows are caught in the position of being theoretically representative of our culture, and also pure entertainment. And let's face it, some of the values of the entertainment industry do come into conflict regularly with the values of a lot of religious people. So some of the more judgemental viewers make generalizations which affect the rest of us, like forming groups with the word "Christian" in their titles which suggest that television is inherently evil and needs to be monitored by some God-fearing censors, and various people in entertainment get angry and start making generalizations in which religion comes to equal the Moral Majority.
When we see people identified as Jews or Catholics on TV, it's almost always a cultural distinction, not a reflection of their spirituality; we recognize them by the neighborhoods they believe in and the icons they wear, not by their assertions of belief systems nor their expressions of their values. In fact, offhand I can think or more Catholic gangsters and more Jewish greedy managers on TV - two insidious yet pervasive cultural stereotypes - than I can of priests or rabbis who've appeared in popular features.
There's a schism of sorts in which religion is almost never portrayed as a positive, except in an occasional domestic show where people gather together for a holiday and spout cliches about family values. Even shows like Touched by an Angel are vague on the social acceptability of organized church work. Secular humanism is fine with me - in many ways it's preferable - but it's not a realistic portrayal of how most television viewers live their lives. A majority of people go to church or synagogue occasionally, a significant number have religious weddings (we generally see only religious funerals on TV), and a lot of people are dragged by family and friends to religious events which they would not choose to attend themselves, but accept without it becoming a big focus of controversy. Sure, I'd be pissed if the doctors on E.R. started advising people to pray and if Mulder decided the Hand of God rather than the work of governments and aliens was behind the signs of the apocalypse he's seen, but I also wouldn't mind an occasional Christian character who neither spouted platitudes nor represented a narrow-minded perspective.
As for science fiction...Star Trek expects us to believe that the millennia-old Catholic Church will be gone in three hundred years, that a religion as ancient as Judaism which has survived holocaust after Holocaust will vanish, that people will stop gathering in mosques and shrines and temples, without the bloodiest war the human race has ever seen? It's not just ridiculous, it's unpleasant. What good is infinite diversity in infinite combinations if people can't revere the beliefs of their ancestors, or take ethical positions which some of us might find too rigid or too uncertain? If Kira can worship the prophets and Chakotay can talk to the Sky Spirits, I want to know why there isn't a gospel choir on DS9. TV needs more positive portrayal of the old religions co-existing peacefully and working out their differences through tolerance, not a pretense that they don't or won't exist. I don't know if anyone can write it well, but maybe if the entertainment industry got a little more diverse itself, there'd be a chance of it.