Star Trek has long been described as a cult phenomenon…but is it an actual cult? Some anthropologists think so. Following the example of anthropologist Margaret Mead, they lived among the natives and studied their rituals-that is, they went to Star Trek conventions and fan clubs. Here's what they found.
Their conclusions? Writes cultural anthropologist Michael Jindra in the journal Sociology of Religion:
When I undertook this research, my first intention was to focus on how ST [Star Trek] draws a picture of the future that is attractive to many Americans. But early on I realized I was dealing with something much bigger and more complex than I had anticipated...it had features that paralleled a religious-type movement: an origin myth, a set of beliefs, an organization, and some of the most active and creative members to be found anywhere…Religion often points us to another world; ST does the same.
Even Futurama floated the concept of a "Church of Trek" in the episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before." (Trek Priest: "And Scotty beamed them to the Klingon ship where they would be no Tribble at all." Congregation: "All power to the engines.")
Still a nonbeliever? Let's consider this point-by-point:
(1) Does the religion have a founding prophet and an origin myth?
Gene Roddenberry acknowledged his role as semi-divine messenger in an interview he gave to The Humanist magazine shortly before he died. He revealed that he sought to imbue Star Trek with a very explicit humanist philosophy that human beings should take control of their own destiny. Roddenberry claimed he had to keep this intention "secret," lest the network pull the plug on him.
Appropriately, Roddenberry's version of Mount Sinai was a 1966 sci-fi convention where he screened an early preview of Star Trek. One fan who was there recalls the event as almost a conversion experience:
After the film was over we were unable to leave our seats. We just nodded at each other and smiled, and began to whisper. We came close to lifting the man [Roddenberry] upon our shoulders and carrying him out of the room. .... [He] smiled, and we returned the smile before we converged on him.
From then on, the fan says, the convention was divided into two factions, the "enlightened" (those who saw the preview) and the "unenlightened."
(2) Does the religion have scripture and an accepted canon?
"What the Bible does in 66 books, Star Trek does in 79 episodes," says Jeffrey Mills, who teaches college courses on the cultural relevance of Trek.
No doubt, theologians would take issue with a comparison between "The Trouble with Tribbles" and the Book of Exodus. But scholars such as Jindra see Trek episodes not as scripture per se, but as a collection of parables more akin to "folk religions":
Both Star Trek and mythological religions (such as those of the Amazonian peoples as described by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss) rise out of the work of storytellers who weave together compelling narratives out of the characters, values, and context of the contemporary culture. Some of these stories eventually become established as myths that help form (and reflect) the basic cultural values of peoples….For some fans, Star Trek replaces older religions like Christianity, and for others it supplements them with new ways of expressing the same message.
Although Star Trek episodes (especially the original series) don't comprise literal "scripture," they are the basis for a rigorously enforced canon. Or, as one fan defined it:
"Canon" means that Gene Roddenberry (or his duly appointed representative) has declared something to be officially part of the "Star Trek" universe. This includes the TV episodes and the movies, primarily. "Non-canon" is everything else (the books, the animated series, comic books, the story you made up when you were playing "Star Trek" with your friends during recess back in Kindergarten, etc.).
Of course, that's just one view. Trek fans routinely engage in ecclesiastical debates over what constitutes "pure" Trek. (Over at the Memory Alpha Wiki, the authors argue that the Star Trek animated series can be considered "canon," since it was "created by the same people" who created the old series.)
Scholars of the Church of Trek see these arguments as more than nitpicks over revisionist storytelling (such as the Star Wars fans' battle cry that "Solo shot first"). Jindra, for instance, considers it to be a way of maintaining a level of authenticity that is crucial to the "suspension of disbelief":
The creation of new plots and stories and the ironing out of existing ones is essentially the mediating of contradictions in the story (universe). In this universe, the contradictions are an affront to the consistent universe that fans so desperately want to see created.
(3) Does the religion have a unifying belief system? Does it offer salvation?
Writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, Robert Kozinets—a professor of marketing who studies "consumption subcultures"—found that Star Trek fans often invoke the Vulcan philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC). As one British Trekkie told him:
[IDIC] contrasts so sharply with much of what we see today—politicians, religions or at least religious people, just small minded individuals in general pouring hate and scorn on, well, whichever scapegoat they want to pick on this week. The "I can't do anything but hate you because you vote Labour/you are gay/your skin is a different color to mine/ you don't believe in the same god as me" view that you see all around you. In Star Trek, and in Star Trek fandom, this isn't present.
Likewise, Roddenberry himself once commented:
When I go to conventions and I see people of all sizes and shapes and abilities, and when I see people with nerve disorders that can't really sit properly and so on, I still know what's in their minds. They are saying, "In a better world, I can do anything! I'll be there in a better world."
Star Trek fans tend to practice what they preach-they're not content to wait for Roddenberry's utopian vision of a better world, they're committed to doing their part to make it happen. Hence, the number of fan clubs that establish charities such as food banks and blood drives; or that lobby for more funding for space programs. In that sense, Jindra argues, Trek offers the promise of a communal afterlife:
The appeal of ST is not for a kind of personal salvation, but for the future of the ST collective …."I" will not live until the twenty-fourth century, but "we" certainly will, according to the ST future. It is hope for ourselves as a society, a myth about where we have come and where we are going. Fans want to be part of forming that destiny.
(4) Are adherents of the religion sometimes stigmatized by nonbelievers?
Although Star Trek fandom includes such noteworthies as Bob Dylan, Colin Powell, Stephen Hawking, and the Dalai Lama, the dominant view of the typical fan is still that of the pointy-eared, 35-year-old virgin living in his parents' basement. Even the release of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film—which arguably endowed the franchise with an unprecedented veneer of mainstream coolness—provoked the ritual ridicule of Trekkies on SNL and the Onion News Network.
That fear of ridicule, the scholars say, is why Trekkies are not more open about their fandom-or, at least, why they feel compelled to explain that they're not "that type of fan." And, according to Jennifer Porter-a professor of religion and modern culture—the social stigma attached to Trek fandom partially explains the popularity of Star Trek conventions, which she describes as spiritual "pilgrimage" sites that embody "Freedom to express yourself fully, as an individual, instead of in conformity to institutional, social, or cultural norms."
Kozinets goes a step further and argues that the Star Trek collectibles on sale at conventions are pseudo-sacred objects. The fans who buy them are, in effect, making the decision to publicly profess their faith. In other words, wearing a Bajoran earring is like wearing a St. Christopher medal; proudly displaying a vintage 1978 Captain Kirk action figure in your home is the equivalent of putting a plastic Jesus on your dashboard.
But, just as many people are disgusted with the commercialism of Christmas, so too are many Star Trek fans upset at the rampant consumerism within their circle. Kozinets says that Trekkies speak of a mythic, "uncontaminated" time when Star Trek was more about message than merchandizing.
Ironically, however, the forefather of Trek merchandising was none other than Roddenberry himself. William Shatner recalls that Roddenberry started a mail-order business called Lincoln Enterprises, which sold collectibles to fans. Roddenberry imposed a script rewrite on the episode, "Is There No Truth in Beauty," so that Spock would be wearing an IDIC medallion that would be marketed by Roddenberry's company-thus proving that even a prophet can make a profit.
So, is Star Trek a religion? And, if it is, will the latest film's reinterpretation of canon provoke a violent schism among fundamentalist Trekkies? (Otherwise known as "Radical Trekists.") Can we expect to see the publishing industry capitalize on Trek religious-themed books, with titles such as Are You There Spock? It's Me, Margaret.
Speaking as a lifelong fan myself, I'm not quite ready to buy into the "Church of Trek" thesis. Or, more to the point, I'm not convinced that hardcore Trek fandom is all that different from the myriad other subcultures in our society-except, perhaps, more richly imagined than most. Ultimately, it comes down to labels. It doesn't matter much to me whether Trekkies are "fans" or meet the anthropological definition of "adherents." They're mostly people who happen to believe in tolerance and the importance of creating a better world for future generations. May they live long and prosper.
Mark Strauss is a senior editor at Smithsonian Magazine.