Captain Kirk on Atheism

You know it’s a crazy world if a sci-fi hero like Captain Kirk can weigh in on real-life philosophical issues and be right. Well, it must be a crazy world then because we have at least one such example. Get your trekkie shoes on as we gaze into the vault of 1989’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sybok are on the surface of a distant world called Nimbus III beyond “The Great Barrier,” where the ambitious Vulcan half-brother of Spock named Sybok has forcefully led them on a quest to find ultimate universal truth and meaning—a.k.a. the search for Eden and God. Moments after their arrival, they are met by a Father Time-ish being who, incidentally, couldn’t have looked more like Caucasian humanity’s version of God if all the artists in the world tried to get him to…but I digress.

This sagely-looking, incorporeal being of obviously great presence and power learns of the starship that brought them to his world. He informs them that he has been imprisoned in this distant world for an eternity, unable to reach the rest of the galaxy, and that the Enterprise would be his means of travel beyond it. But the red flag of skepticism had already been raised in the mind of Kirk, who boldly asked: “What does God need with a starship?”

Now, the situation becomes especially tense. McCoy says, “Jim, what are you doing?” Kirk says, “I'm asking a question.” The so-called “God” says, “Who is this creature?” Kirk asks, “Who am I? Don't you know? Aren't you God?” Comically, Sybok remarks, “He has his doubts.” “God” asks, “You doubt me?” Kirk says, “I seek proof.” McCoy says, “Jim! You don't ask the Almighty for his ID!” “God” tells Kirk, “Then here is the proof you seek.” At this point, Kirk is struck by a bolt of energy and knocked to the ground.

Despite the brutal nature of this “God” emerging in such a terrifying fashion, the planted seeds of doubt begin to grow into what would be considered by any god a tree of heresy. Kirk asks, “Why is God angry?” Even Sybok, the kooky believer of the bunch, is now compelled to ask, “Why? Why have you done this to my friend?” Coldly and bluntly, “God” says, “He doubts me.” But that evil, heretical Kirk had already spread the disease of disbelief. Spock reminds “God,” “You have not answered his question. What does God need with a starship?” So “God” hits Spock with lightning as well, and then it addresses McCoy: “Do you doubt me?” And at this point, even emotional, sentimental, non-reasoning McCoy is forced to go with his mind: “I doubt any God who inflicts pain for his own pleasure.”

Now this perceived “God” and the God of the Bible should do lunch sometime. They have lots in common, don’t they? In any other context, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart judging by their actions and attitudes. For instance, they both believe they are the final authority and should be obeyed without question. They both prefer human instrumentality to get their will done (even though they shouldn’t), they both use torture to enforce their demands, and they both hate the living hell out of skeptics! As with just about every god there ever was, doubt is the most damnable of all offenses. Make no mistake about it—asking the Alpha-and-Omega probing questions will get your ass struck down! This tendency describes the God of the Bible to a “T”.

But that’s not what I’m hitting at here. I’m honing in on the question asked by Kirk: “What does God need with a starship?” The question is priceless in that no matter what theistic concept is under investigation, it is the mere asking of the “need” question that leads to the unraveling of theism. Ask a lot of questions and you’ll be called an annoying kid, ask a few more questions and you’ll be called a UFOologist or a new-ager, but ask too many questions and you’ll end up an atheist! You have been warned! But again, I digress.

The gods have always hated questions as badly as they hate the questioners. To question God is to totally rob him of all power whatsoever because when you begin to question him, you naturally undercut his authority as you take on the role of one asking a subservient to give an account of himself to a superior. And when God’s authority is undercut, not only is his power rendered inert, his afflicting guilt can’t get to you either, nor can his tug at your pocketbook. So the logic of inquiry and God just don’t line up, much like Air Traffic Control scoping for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

Now God doesn’t “need” anything. He can’t need anything, being that he’s omnipotent as the fully self-sufficient prime mover and sustainer of the cosmos. And Christians will fully agree. God doesn’t need to have children sacrificed to him by having babies thrown to the hungry crocs of the Nile. God doesn’t need to have the still-beating heart ripped out of a young Aztec man’s chest and held up to the sun as a means to preserve or sustain the universe and “feed” God. God doesn’t need to be clothed or bathed or groomed. He doesn’t need a W-2 booklet for tax time, he doesn’t need Febreaze air freshener, he doesn’t need patio furniture, and he doesn’t need Limewire. He just doesn’t.

But Christians don’t go far enough. It’s not enough to look down on the pagan gods and goddesses of old and talk up how inferior they are for having typically carnal (and often conjugal) needs. They need to look down on their own God as well. Christians gloat in the supposed superiority of their own deity, but their gloating is as short-lived as an Oprah trim-down. The God of Christianity is, in fact, guilty of the very same absurdity of having unjustifiable needs as any pagan god ever was. To be forthrightly logical about it, if God exists, he can’t want anything at all – nothing – because to want is to have a lack of something, which is to have a need. And as we have already seen, a God cannot “have needs,” like I do at the moment (Ohhh Belindaaaaa? Where are you, hun? I’m a comin’ for ya!) Well, for yet a third time, I digress!

What application does this have for the Christian? It means that God doesn’t need a starship for the same reason that he doesn’t need a temple, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or a shrine. And God doesn’t need worshippers, and therefore, a universe to house them. It means that even if an omnimax deity like the God of the scriptures existed, that being would have no desire to create us or anything else at all. Nope, God doesn’t need solar systems or planetary bodies, and he doesn’t need fleshly flattery in the form of blubbering blood-bags to tell him he’s so, so, so, so, so, sooooo worthy. He would know that already and wouldn’t have a complex about it, causing him to fixate on himself so much with the neurotic narcissism of a throat-slashing serial killer.

And God wouldn’t need or want a son. The idea of a god having a son doesn’t even make sense on the face of it. That is, it makes about as much sense as a god who ejaculates to make a son (if you can imagine that?!) Nope, God wouldn’t have a son and he certainly wouldn’t have a virgin-born son, and he wouldn’t have his son brutally killed and then raised to life again for the purpose of setting up a death-glorifying, cannibalistic cult where beings who are infinitely less powerful than he sit around and eat the flesh of his dead/resurrected little boy, and then proceed to clamor on about how junior’s the greatest thing since sliced bread (well, actually before sliced bread!)

Now God may not need anything, but it is definitely an understandable mistake for Christians to think that he wants things. Talking about a God creating a people to be tokens of his glory or sending disciples on a mission to do “his will” is understandable. I mean, we collect keepsakes and send people to the store for us. We build houses and make plans, and so it should come as no surprise when the gods we create in our image “do things” just as we do. That’s why the gods get angry just like we do and command to have the heads of their enemies placed on sticks to face the sky until the evening so that their fierce anger will be turned away (Numbers 25:4).

But that’s another problem; a god can’t be angry anymore than a god can need or want a thing, because getting angry can only happen when a being is limited in power and unable to rectify a situation or is put in an edgy predicament of some sort. But you can’t put the great “I Am” in a predicament, and so to say that he can get angry (or become jealous, or regretful, or embarrassed, or amused) makes no clear sense. We’re dealing with the classic anthropomorphic problem here—you can’t take the emotions found in limited beings and expect them to fit beings who transcend all limits. This tells us that the gods were made in our image and not the other way around.

So no, God wouldn’t need a starship, but he also wouldn’t need us.



William said...

That's a fascinating exegesis from a film which otherwise suffered from the "curse" of the odd-numbered Trek movies.

Science fiction often gives us stories that, in parallel, present arguments which lay the groundwork for questioning monolithic faith. One of my favourites is still, after many years, a Doctor Who episode called 'The Face of Evil' (from the Tom Baker era, 1977 or so) - worth looking for, if you haven't seen it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,
thoroughly enjoyed that!

I remember how I was squirming in my seat when I watched that the first time. I grew up on star trek and was very uncomfortable with that scene. I got more comfortable as the 'god' got more unreasonable as I started to see how they were making it become ridiculous.

However, I was not 'elaborating' on it mentally, I was shutting down that is why I didn't see the similarities as I watched it the first time.

You helped me to realize something about people, that I think is a mechanism for insulation to threats to a belief in god. The mind avoids its normal data retrieving processes when it gets 'shocked'. I don't know what the right word is but I guess it would be like a deer in the headlights.

I think it is a catalyst to start the process of Cognitive dissonance aka rationalizations to build the 'insulation'. That could be why people in cognitive dissonance don't see how fallacious their conclusions are.

Just thinking out loud, so to speak. Is there a psychologist in the house?

Unknown said...

Hiya Joe: Wow that's good stuff. You pushed my geeky sci-fi button. I was hooked on Trek as a kid, but my weakness for the space opera now satiates itself with the NASA channel. But I do recall Star Trek V and a question that crossed my mind when I watched it back then of which you reminded me.

"This sagely-looking, incorporeal being of obviously great presence and power learns of the starship that brought them to his world. He informs them that he has been imprisoned in this distant world for an eternity,"

Who imprisoned God on the planet an eternity ago, and why?

You answered to the why part very well. Thank you. The 'who put God away?' question speaks to our essential humanity and the role of our lives as the ultimate reason of objective morality. We humans, having a strong propensity to create gods in our own image and being quite fallible, are often our own worst enemies. Yet with the enlightenment of naturalism, comes the responsibility to ourselves to hold our own lives as the ultimate ethical factor. We are faced with the choice to live or to die. By choosing life, we become Promethus who, by stealing fire from Vulcan's forge and giving it to mankind, enabled humanity to have technology that was of immeasurable benefit, but he paid the ultimate price for it. Man qua man pays his own tab by realizing the virtue of selfishness. It is we who imprisoned "God" in that far off world when we as Promethus stole the fire from the forge of "God", and and adapted it to our own use. The knowledge that our own human lives are that of which the ultimate good is made empowers us to imprison the Gods, to steal their fire, and to be our own mythic archetypical heros. The realization of the responsibility that attends to this knowledge, not only releases Prometheus from his bonds, but lights the torch of meaning we carry to our own Mount Olympus.

eheffa said...

Thank you Joe.

This was a thought provoking article.

The petulant God of the OT demonstrates so many of these anthropomorphic qualities of anger, jealousy & sudden regrettable urges to avenge a perceived wrong...

I read a book entitled "God: A biography" by Jack Miles many years ago that really shook my faith as he outlined how the God of the OT changes & matures through the books of the OT as they are ordered chronologically. He pays special attention to the character development of this God. He points out how unlike the 1Peter statement wherein GOd is the same yesterday, today & tomorrow, the God of the OT evolves in character quite dramatically over time. The OT character is however quite seriously flawed and resembles the archetype of a frustrated petty tyrant far more than the unthreatened omnipotent and loving creator of all (that he is supposed to be). (That book really shook me up & it took me a while to put my faith back in its proper box after reading it.)

In reading your analysis and comments here, one is reminded of the last chapters of Job where God sets Job straight on who exactly is in the driver's seat. He does not address Job's complaints directly but essentially declares that "might makes right". Unlike Capt. Kirk, Job knuckles under and we never find out the real answers to Job's very reasonable complaint.

It would seem that absolute power does not welcome inquiry from its minions.

Thanks for the good read.


Steven Bently said...

Excellant Post, You've done went and exposed god for what he really is, a mand made enigma.

I heard some gospel singers the other day singing "God is an awesome God" yeah I guess he

God loves gospel music and he does not like for people to not wear's a

Anonymous said...

Joe, this piece is excellent in every way! Kudos to you. No, God does not need a starship. And any God who is upset when we ask him questions is not God.

Steven Bently said...

The answer for everything unknown to man is, God did it!

God of the Bible is the satisfactory answer.

So now, I no longer have to think deeply about how this all came about, now I can get on with worshipping this god, and since I know that all gods need and desire worship and I can start building my brownie points with this god and he'll remember me later after I die, to look favorably upon my sinful soul.

This is the ancient primative way of thinking.

NightFlight said...

Robert, that was excellent! Very helpful to me.

Evan said...

Joe that is a fantastic piece of writing. It's better than the film it's based on :)

The point is brought home wonderfully. In answer to the apologist who criticizes the argument from scale by saying the atheist is putting limits on God, the atheist can respond that it is actually the theist who is putting limits on God.

To the theist, God needs something. Yet God, if we accept Anselm's argument for his existence, can't need anything, can't want anything, can't wish for anything. A monotheistic, saving God is a contradiction in terms.

David B. Ellis said...

If you want science fictional depictions of the questioning of religious/faith claims you can't do better than the Stargate TV series. The Ori storyline is an especially obvious criticism of christianity--in particular its more fundamentalist varieties.

I have to wonder how I would have reacted to that TV series if I had seen it when I was a kid, prior to my deconversion, rather than as an adult a good decade and a half after I stopped believing in the supernatural.

Would I have even associated it with my own religious views, obvious as it was that that's precisely what the story was about?

I'm not sure I would.

Super Happy Jen said...

I used to have the quote "What does God need with a Starship?" as my signature line on atheist message boards. Star Trek is the greatest. Gene Roddenberry was actually quite apposed to religion (though to my knowledge, he never called himself an atheist). Here's some fun Roddenberry quotes for you:

"For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain."

"We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes."

Harry H. McCall said...

Great post Joe!

It was well reasoned. Plus, I noticed that even the Christian apologist can't even put up a rebuttal.

Religion is about harmonized socialization with believers trained NOT to think outside the box least their created doubts spread and God falls apart. Or, put another way, mental constructs made God and mental construct can destroy God.

Thanks again for what I call a great atheistic sermon on the personalized side of human thinking termed "God".

Bloviator said...


Great comparison there!! Certainly the big man of the bible and the "god" character in Star Trek V are from the same mold. As a human father who has children that, typically, do as THEY wish rather than as I wish, the petulance and anger and threatening of biblegod resonates. Indeed, in many churches I have attended, the comparison is often made. BIG DIFFERENCE: I am human, god is supposedly omnimax (they always left that part out). Let me relate a small "saying" that was on the board of one of my son's sunday school classrooms (I believe a classroom full of FIRST GRADERS!): "Love God or suffer the consequences (there WILL be consequences)." No joke. First Grade.

I remember thinking as I saw the movie this was a wonderful exhibition of the weakness of the typical god-belief most folks I knew had. At the time I still believed in a more "transcendental" type of omnipotent being, but since then I stepped up to being just a garden variety non-believer.

I agree with Robert about how non-belief requires us to make the choice to live or die and to create the rules whereby we will do that living and dying. The scariest thing about naturalism is the requirement that we take full responsibility for our lives and our actions. Other than the terror of death, this fear of ultimate responsibility is the biggest roadblock to losing god-belief (in my most humble opinion). To know and fully embrace the fact that you alone are in charge of the direction of your life (given a baseline of functional physical/emotional/mental sufficiency) is very frightening, and the appeal of the "all is forgiven, come to jesus" card is palpable. However, as the old saying goes, wishing doesn't make it so.

Reason's Whore said...

That's great. I only vaguely remember this episode but I will have to look it up now.

This line of thinking was one of the ones that was significant to my own deconversion. I asked why (and/or how) can god need or want anything while I was still a believer taking religious classes, and I have asked it on my blog as well. The teacher of my religious class said: "That's a good question!" No one has ever given me a coherent or even remotely plausible answer.

Christians generally say something like: it's God's pleasure to create the world and us. But that gets back to the same problem. A timeless, changeless being cannot experience emotional gratification the way humans do. It's logically impossible and incoherent.

Joe E. Holman said...

Thanks, everyone, for the compliments. I got the idea for the article as I was lounging around washing clothes at mom's house two days ago. Then it hit: "I've gotta get that posted!"

Yes, Star Trek V does suffer from "the curse," it appears. I swear up and down Hollywood is dumber than a box of rocks for not hiring me as a writer! (though I'm sure we all say that from time to time!)

To Robert's question...

"Who imprisoned God on the planet an eternity ago, and why?"

It doesn't explain it. The idea is hokey and poorly thought out, but it implies, many think, that the being was just another alien entity that assumed a form most familiar to them for its own advantages. But we don't know. That's shitty sci-fi for you! The viewer is left to guess with insufficient clues!

I did use to be a diehard trekkie, but that passed. Nonetheless, it's amazing how much looking at sci-fi explains much about ourselves and our plights as humans.


Jon said...

Hi, I wonder if you remember the original Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonis," when Capt. Kirk and crew had a run in with the God Apollo. He was an alien that came to Earth thousands of years before to ancient Greece where he was worshiped as a god, somewhat like a Go-uald on Stargate. Anyway, as long as things went his way he was happy and benevolent but as soon as someone dared disagree it was thunderbolt time. As Salman Rushdie the author of The Satanic Verses observed, "He must not be much of a God if he is threatened by me." This is after the Ayatollah issued a Fatwah, an order of divine deliverance for anyone that killed the author for insulting Islam.

Funnyguts said...

My issue with this is that it comes with the assumption that God can't want something. I know that since the Christian God is believed to be a omnipotent, unchanging being, it becomes nonsensical to imagine him wanting or needing anything. While this argument is probably fine for a blog called "Debunking Christianity" instead of "Debunking Everything Metaphysical Forever," there's still more potential god scenarios out there that can want and need for things. (Or be controlled by a greater force somewhere that compels him, her, it or they to create and destroy.) I guess that in these cases the 'omnimax' label that defines the traditional Christian God is removed, but debunking one specific god still doesn't discount the possibility of a different kind of god.

Joe E. Holman said...

Funnyguts said...

"My issue with this is that it comes with the assumption that God can't want something. I know that since the Christian God is believed to be a omnipotent, unchanging being, it becomes nonsensical to imagine him wanting or needing anything. While this argument is probably fine for a blog called "Debunking Christianity" instead of "Debunking Everything Metaphysical Forever," there's still more potential god scenarios out there that can want and need for things. (Or be controlled by a greater force somewhere that compels him, her, it or they to create and destroy.) I guess that in these cases the 'omnimax' label that defines the traditional Christian God is removed, but debunking one specific god still doesn't discount the possibility of a different kind of god."

My reply...

Well, if we're agreed that this does apply to omnimax dieties, but not to "higher powers" of sorts, then we're in complete agreement. Sure, a "higher being," loosely termed "God" might very well have wants and needs of all kinds. And going further, the creation vs. perfection argument doesn't prevent pantheistic deities who occupy the universe--the material world being merely "a part" of them. So, no, there are limits to the argument, but the smartest person in the world is powerless to defend this conception as it applies to the omnimax-ed "Amighty."


Scott said...

My issue with this is that it comes with the assumption that God can't want something.

...I guess that in these cases the 'omnimax' label that defines the traditional Christian God is removed, but debunking one specific god still doesn't discount the possibility of a different kind of god."

But if you remove the omnimax properties of God, what are you left with? Most religions assume that God is worth following precisely because he has omnimax traits. That is, God's infinite knowledge is what sets him apart from people who are just really smart or more powerful than we are.

If God creates something, but does not have omnimax abilities, then is creations could have design flaws or be fail to be "manufactured" to meet specifications. His plan might have unforeseen problems he did not expect.

Unless I'm wrong, faith in God is faith that he is perfect. That is, he has all the answers, just not most of them or more than we do.

This is this is why I find the entire concept of God contradictory. He wants or needs something outside of himself, but he is always right and has all the answers.

SC said...

Galileo has some interesting things to say on this type of Bible interpretation in his "Letter to Christina".

Unknown said...

Great article/write-up. Had me chuckling the whole time.

Unknown said...

Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek, did not believe in an omniscient, omnipotent personal god.

Anonymous said...

"Ask too many questions and you end up an atheist." How accurate! That's exactly what happened to me when I was only 13. Did a take a HUGE rations of grief for it from my parents and everyone else/ For sure, but I always was able to anger them into silence by continuing to demand answers to the same questions.