This piece was originally published in the November 2014 issue of the Association of Professional Chaplains Newsletter. Reprinted here with permission.
“For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain… It wasn’t until I was beginning to do Star Trek that the subject of religion arose. What brought it up was that people were saying that I would have a chaplain on board the Enterprise. I replied, “No, we don’t.” –Gene Roddenberry
“Roddenberry made it known to the writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and mystical thinking were not to be included, and that in Roddenberry’s vision of Earth’s future, everyone was an atheist and better for it. He stubbornly resisted the effort of network execs to put a Christian chaplain on the crew of the Enterprise. It would be ludicrous, he argued, to pretend that all other religions would have become obliterated by this point, or that such a cosmopolitan people would impose one group’s religion on all the rest of the crew.” —Wikipedia entry on Gene Roddenberry
I was intrigued when I discovered recently that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, hated, and I’m talking blood-boilingly, eye-buggingly HATED, the idea of putting a chaplain on board the Starship Enterprise. Before I go any further, let me issue the disclaimer that I’m not an avid Trekkie. While I am a casual fan of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, I don’t speak even a word of Klingon and I’ve never seen a single episode of Deep Space Nine. I encourage true Trekkies to boldly go where no Mindy has gone before by engaging in the Trekkie message board discussion about the topic of chaplains, religion, and Star Trek.
Despite my lack of Trekkie street cred, Roddenberry’s stance was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I have a strong suspicion that anyone who’s been a chaplain for more than, say, four minutes has at some point encountered similar antagonism to the mere fact of their existence. I’m guessing this applies in all realms of chaplaincy, but since I know the most about chaplaincy in the hospital setting, I’ll use that arena to illustrate what I mean.
Many hospital chaplains will have run into a doctor who felt that they were “in the way” or even that they were undermining patient care or challenging the doctor’s authority. Or maybe you’ve had an experience in which a patient became enraged at a gentle offer to pray with them. For example, I remember my boss at the Duke University Medical Center coming into my office wide-eyed with shock after having a patient’s family scream at her in the hallway. “You come in here with your soft voice and your little prayers! What good is that? She’s in pain! She’s dying! You’re useless!” (Side note, after the woman died, the family actually sought out my boss to thank her for putting up with them, and for finding snacks and tissues for them).
Sometimes such antagonism is born out of the anger and fear that surrounds a trauma or a death. Other times, though, it comes from a sort of cognitive dissonance. Hospitals are supposed to be shimmering bubbles of modernity — the best that modern medical science has to offer. They’re about stuffing people full of precisely engineered, molecularly-targeted drugs and doing things to them that involve really big, fancy words. Words like stereotactic laser-assisted surgery and autologous mesenchymal stem cell infusions. To some people, suggesting a simple act like offering a prayer to a higher power might be as welcome in such a setting as offering to bring out the leeches and bloodletting tools.
For others, it’s not about the setting; they just can’t get on board with the idea of religion at all. I write novels about a hospital chaplain in a small North Carolina town. In my first book, I included a scene where a patient’s wife tells the chaplain that she doesn’t need the chaplain’s help because she isn’t “superstitious.” BURN! Like most of my best lines and plot elements, that was based on a true event. In that real-life situation, I felt that that word was carefully chosen to be extra insulting. Not just “not religious,” “not a Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc.,” or “not spiritual.” Such people might’ve had a bad experience in the past with someone trying to foist their own beliefs onto others. They may lash out because they feel threatened and might simply not understand that chaplains are not evangelists.
Roddenberry’s anti-chaplain stance also spoke to me as someone who falls on the humanist end of the Unitarian Universalist belief spectrum. I, too, have sometimes wished that we little homo sapiens could move beyond a certain kind of religious expression. It’s hard to learn about yet another zealot overseas beheading an innocent person or a rigid religionist in our own country passing discriminatory laws based on narrow interpretations of their personal faith without wishing that there was “nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.”
But Roddenberry fundamentally misunderstood the role of a chaplain, and indeed the role of religion in our lives. I agree that in Star Trek’s science-driven, cosmopolitan future world, it would make sense that some aspects of religious turmoil and even perhaps facets of religious belief would naturally fall away. Let’s sincerely hope we’re done beheading each other in the name of religion by then. But Captain Kirk and his shipmates are still humans. They still live and die, become angry and jealous, confront the unknown, and, most importantly, confront the unknowable. As long as there are humans, there will be a need for those who can help them understand what it means to be human. And that’s why chaplains will be needed every bit as much in Star Date 2364 as they are today.