Where Spock and Kirk bring us OUT of darkness

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” I’m not a Trekkie. I barely know my … Continued

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

I’m not a Trekkie. I barely know my phaser from my tricorder. Merely by using Spock’s and Kirk’s names in vain, I’m sure that I’m treading on sacred ground. Try to overlook my sacrilege when I admit that the Trek universe doesn’t interest me much. But the opening of J J. Abrams‘ second Trekisode this past weekend interests me as a reminder that his first stab at the franchise, in 2009, taught us more about religion than The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, and Sister Act, combined.

The lesson is in Abrams’ revision of the Kobayashi Maru.

In Abrams’ first Trek, we found that the Vulcan Spock designed the infamous “Kobayashi Maru” simulation—introduced in The Wrath of Khan—to force aspiring Starfleet commanders to face a no-win situation. Presumably, by losing to this simulated scenario over and over again, cadets would learn something about themselves and about the universe they expected to enter as Starfleet officers.

Abrams revealed that cadet Kirk—determined to win the unwinnable simulation while enrolled in Starfleet Academy—hacked the simulator’s computer so as to provide himself with an “out”. In the film, Kirk ends up before the Starfleet equivalent of a college honor council, accused of cheating. His self-defense consists, essentially, of a simple assertion:

“You told me to win, so I did.”

Spock objects.

“Kirk broke the rules.”

For Spock, the problem that cadets must solve exists in a simulation, a hypothetical place and time far removed from Starfleet. Removed, even, from reality, but offering something real, nevertheless. The only legitimate approach to solving the problem lies in using only those means hypothetically available in the hypothetical time and place of the simulated scenario itself. Spock asserts that Kirk did not so much solve the problem as avoid confronting it.

In contrast, Kirk locates the problem in his present time, in his present, not-at-all-hypothetical place. Since his time and his place includes the simulator itself, Kirk feels justified in employing strategies that directly attack the simulation. Kirk contends that the problem isn’t someone else’s paradoxical dream, but the simulator.

And that’s religion and not-religion. To imagine or not to imagine. Surprisingly, Spock turns out to be the religious nut and Kirk turns out to be the purely logical atheist.

Spock’s religion here is not a blind belief in a fairy tale, but an interest in play. He doesn’t have to believe in the objective reality of the circumstances of the Kobayashi Maru to appreciate the value of willingly adopting the arbitrary rules of the scenario and of willingly adopting a role that both reinforces the substance of that scenario and helps the scenario accomplish its aims. Spock models the essence of religion that Harvard’s Diana L. Eck and others have articulated. “Faith,” Eck writes in Encountering God, “does not mean that I intellectually subscribe to the following list of statements, but that I give my heart to this reality.”

Spock, a pure, religious freak, commits to the Kobayashi Maru’s reality, and to the peculiar kind of play that it requires.

Kirk, on the other hand, doesn’t want to play. Committed to his immediate, empirical circumstances, Kirk is either unable or unwilling (or both) to adopt a role in a scenario cooked up by someone else for purposes that only run at odds to his own self-serving objectives. Kirk, the clear-eyed atheist, rejects the Kobayashi Maru’s vision, preferring the world he can directly manipulate.

For Spock, the legitimate engagement with the problem requires imagining an environment—a metareality with its own rules and consequences. Kirk’s approach is merely practical. There is no meaningful reality but the immediate, empirical one.

Which is not to vaunt one of these characters over the other. Spock’s such a religious nut he even tends toward religious fundamentalism in his attempt to use Starfleet’s honor council to force Kirk to play a role in the Kobayashi Maru’s metareality. For his part, Kirk tends toward not-religious fundamentalism by flippantly undermining the useful purpose that the Kobayashi Maru’s metareality serves for all of his fellows at Starfleet.

Spock and Kirk come to an understanding. And the religious and not-religious among us might yet learn something from their detente. Let me suggest that these two characters don’t disagree about the nature of reality. One is not a mindless believer and the other is not an amoral infidel.

They just think differently about the problem.

David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.” Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor

David Mason
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  • Vanka

    As a Mormon, David Mason is pre-programmed to interpret everything and anything in religious terms, whether it makes sense, or provides insight, or not.

    It rarely does, and this article is so laughable as to prompt a reaction of embarrassment on behalf of “Brother Mason”.

    Of course, it is unclear why Mason would write this article at all – presumably he feels believers and non-believers should “just get along”, and he is trying to use Kirk’s and Spock’s relationship as an example for us all to emulate?


    What does this “professor” teach, and why does anybody waste their time taking classes from this guy?

    As is typical of religionists, in their apologetic (and apoplectic?) zeal, they define anything and everything that partakes of any degree of abstraction as “religious” – in order to try to convince us that we are ALL really believers, whether we think we are or not! Thus, Spock is not only “religious”, according to Mason, he is a religious “fundamentalist” (maybe even a secret Mormon!).

    And then he tries to give us a Primary school lesson (queue the “I want to be a missionary” song): that because Kirk and Spock “don’t disagree about the nature of reality”, neither do believers and non-believers.

    Yeah, right. Just as those who believe in Santa Claus do not disagree with those who don’t about the nature of reality on December 24th —

    Give me a break. How facile can you get before they retract your PhD, professor?


    The author obviously did very little research for this hairball of a column.

    Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Kirk and Spock was an outspokenatheist. In the future he envisioned, religion had withered away as baseless superstition.

    So obviously, both Kirk and Spock are atheists.

    “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.

    If people need religion, ignore them and maybe they will ignore you, and you can go on with your life. 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

  • delrayAlex

    “[Since Rodenberry was an atheist] so obviously, both Kirk and Spock are atheists.”
    There’s a leap. But actually, it isn’t at all relevant to the point the author is making. Accepting an overarching paradigm in the name of some greater purpose is what religious people do. Ignoring the paradigm in favor of the immediate present and the immediate purpose is, according to the author, what atheists do.

  • Raoul Duck

    In the Star Trek reboot, Kirk gets expelled, exiled and nearly killed after challenging Spock’s rule-bound orthodoxy. This is a typical result when reason confronts religion. Kirk, however, is magnanimous to Spock when he gains the upper hand and takes command. Again, very typical when reason guides decision makers.

    It’s not just a matter of differing opinions. Kirk, of course, saves the Federation after directly confronting the stilted thinking of Spock and the irrational hatred of Nero. To follow Mason’s article to the real conclusion; reason, not religion wins the day.

  • immigrant1

    You are right, Only if you believe that religion is an alternate reality.

  • Raoul Duck

    I know plenty of people who live in “alternate realities”. Gamers, fantasy sports fans, Dr. Whovians, and Furries. Only religious fanatics demand tax breaks and legislation that favors their alternative lifestyles. And only religious people insist that EVERYONE thinks the same way they do.
    Mormons. like the author, are among the most draconian of these groups; opposition to California’s marriage amendment as a case in point. Ironically, the actor who plays Spock, Zack Quinto, is openly gay and enjoys a committed same-sex relationship. I think Mason missed a lot in his analysis. But then again, deists often tend to cherry-pick the least bits of the complexities of real life to support their simplistic alternate reality.

  • bushidollar

    But I enjoy being an “amoral infidel”.

  • An-Toan

    Nonsense. Faith and reason are false dichotomies of rationalism and empiricism. The spiritual path transcends these apparent contradictions by way of insight and pure perception. Kirk is more awake than Spoke because Kirk lives more in the now.


    Look, I know you religionistas have a lot of fun talking about your imaginary friend, but Kirk and Spock are fictional characters created by an atheist.

    Who cares what clumsy point the author was trying to make? It doesn’t matter if his premise is wrong from the get go.

    It would be like an atheist rewriting Job casting Job as a mighty-thewed barbarian warlord cursed by an evil spider god. It’s so wrong it’s stupid wrong.


    Display this “spiritual” of which you speak.


    I think furries deserve a tax-free existence because they are saner than Seventh Day Adventists.

  • -UnitedDemon-

    I can’t believe that you actually submitted this to the Washington Post.

    I’m an Atheist, and I can tell you this is an absolutely ridiculous comparison. Spock is not a religious fanatic, he’s a bureaucrat. Kirk is not an Aeheist, he’s a rebel who believes that there is always hope of victory. If you want to make every figure in film, literature, or any other medium who has a problem with a system into a religious discussion, that’s a huge waste of time. Have you seen Office Space? Those guys who cheat the company aren’t figures in a religious analogy, either.

    Here’s a clarified version of your article: Spock believes in something hypothetical, and Kirk prefers to control his destiny. One believes that a belief system will benefit the group, and the other thinks that the individual is the one with the control.

    This is what defines laws, social mores, trendsetters, this is the fabric of civilization. Our relationship to rules that others have put on us is what human beings do in society. The social contract is not a religious contract.

    Making this Sci-fi movie scene religious is a level of transference that you should keep to yourself unless really drunk with friends and want to have one of those boozed out intellectual discussions with a receptive audience. Since you decided to publish it, I can only assume that you’re trying to jazz up your own hang ups with a piece of popular culture.

    The next time you want to make a religious analogy out of a movie that is CLEARLY not religious, just don’t.