Star Trek's omnipotent prankster Q shows the folly of worshipping beings who possess superior power, but not superior morality or wisdom.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Spoilers for season 2 of Star Trek: Picard.]

I love science fiction for its power to give us insight into ourselves. If we lived in another world where technology and customs were different, what would still be the same?

Each story’s answer to this question tells us what kind of beings the author thinks we truly are. Cooperative or selfish, peaceful or warlike, clever or foolish: famous sci-fi stories have propounded these answers and many more, in an endless dialogue about what’s at the heart of human nature.

But in addition to that, the way we react to these stories—what we focus on and what we overlook—has surprising power to reveal truths about us.

All this is to say that I’ve been watching Star Trek: Picard, a Paramount series starring Patrick Stewart as the aging Jean-Luc Picard. No longer captain of the Enterprise, he’s trying to find a new home and purpose in the twilight of his life.

In the second season, after a first contact goes disastrously wrong, Admiral Picard and his ragtag crew are thrown into an alternate timeline where the peaceful Federation has become a genocidal empire. They come up with a plan to travel back in time to the point of divergence and fix it.

After stealing a starship, they come to the critical time period: Earth in 2024, an era walking a narrow path between utopian possibility and fascism. And there’s an unwelcome surprise awaiting them: the cause of the divergence is Picard’s old nemesis, the omnipotent alien being Q (John de Lancie, also a secular activist who spoke at the 2016 Reason Rally!). It seems that the altered history is another of Q’s inscrutable tricks or tests or games, and he’s challenging them to see if they can undo it.

Despite the obligatory action scenes, this season is a character study at its heart. It’s about why Jean-Luc Picard, for all his greatness as a captain, has always been so solitary and private as a person. It adds a welcome sense of depth to the character.

I was inspired to write about the show by Jim McDermott at America magazine, a Jesuit priest who writes about pop culture. There’s one part of his review that has a connection to our mission at OnlySky, and I couldn’t let it pass without comment:

In its second season, “Picard” reintroduced one of the weirdest and most problematic concepts in all of the franchise, the alien Q, a being so advanced he can change all of reality with the snap of a finger. Played with impish abandon by John de Lancie, Q is often described as a god, and from the first episode of “Next Generation” he has had a strange fascination with Picard. In last night’s finale, Picard insists Q tell him why he’s always been so fascinated with him. The truth is written all over Q’s face, but still Picard keeps asking, “Why, why me?”

Q walks over to Picard, leans down and takes his face in his hands, like a father to a child. “You matter to me,” he says. If I had a thousand homilies I couldn’t come up with a simpler and clearer image of how our God feels about us or looks at us.

The new ‘Star Trek’ has moments better than my best homilies.” Jim McDermott, America, 6 May 2022.

This analogy stuck with me, because it’s so inadvertently on the mark. I think McDermott is right in comparing Q to the Judeo-Christian God—but maybe not in the way he means.

Across the totality of his appearances on Star Trek, Q isn’t a benevolent father figure, but a cruel and capricious trickster. He sows chaos, destroys lives, and feels no remorse. He takes sadistic delight in tormenting the crew of the Enterprise, and Jean-Luc Picard specifically.

In his first appearance, in the pilot episode of Next Generation, Q accuses humanity of being a savage, violent race. Treating Captain Picard and his crew as stand-ins for all humanity, he conjures up a kangaroo court to put them on trial. He orders them to enter a plea—while pointing guns at their heads and proclaiming that they’ll be executed if they plead not guilty.

In a famous episode, Q catapults the Enterprise into a distant region of the galaxy, where they encounter the Borg—Star Trek’s iconic cyborg zombies who seek to assimilate all life into their hive mind.

The Enterprise is no match for the Borg, and they’re on the verge of destruction when Captain Picard swallows his pride and pleads with Q to send them back. He does, but only after 18 crew members have been killed. When they angrily confront Q about this, he mocks their anger over lost lives, saying, “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed.”

Q has superior power, but not superior morality… This is also an apt description of the God of the Bible.

In another episode, Q is stripped of his powers and turned into a human being. He begs the Enterprise crew for sanctuary, because he’s harassed and tormented countless intelligent species, all of whom will want to kill him when they find out that he’s mortal.

In short, Q has superior power, but not superior morality. He may feel a twisted affection for humanity, but he never acts in the way a benevolent being would act. He uses humans as pawns in his games. He’s indifferent to death and suffering. He acts as if mere power makes him superior. He never feels an obligation to explain or justify his actions. He shows favoritism and partiality. His true motivations are unknowable.

As it happens, this is also an apt description of the God of the Bible.

Yahweh is capricious, jealous, petty, and cruel. He creates humanity, then grows disgusted with them, drowns them in a flood and starts over. He orders Abraham to butcher his own son as a test of faith, and rewards him for being willing to do it. (An ordinary and decent person might have expected that refusing was the response that would have been rewarded.)

He selects the Jews as his chosen people whom he loves better than everyone else, tells them that he’ll guide and protect them for all time, then changes his mind when they displease him. He tears up his covenant with them, sends foreign conquerors to overthrow and slaughter them, and consigns the survivors to slavery in exile.

In the Book of Job, he ruins the life of an upright and pious man for the sake of a bet with Satan. When Job demands an explanation for all his suffering, God appears to sneer at him that he has no right to one, because God is bigger and more powerful and can do anything he wants.

In the New Testament, Jesus preaches love and forgiveness, while promising that most of humanity will suffer the eternal torment of hell. He condemns sin while telling humans that they’re tainted and powerless to avoid it, making it clear that we’re born into a rigged game.

If anything, these brutal acts surpass anything Q ever did. If this deity were reduced to mortal form, I can imagine there’d be a lot of people who’d want to have a word with him. Besides, Q deserves credit for one more thing: unlike Yahweh, he never demands to be worshipped!

McDermott’s pop-culture exegesis is, perhaps unintentionally, a perfect illustration of how Christians interpret the Bible. They pick out one scene or one verse that’s inspiring in isolation, but gloss over how the broader context displays inferior morality. They emphasize the good while overlooking the bad.

Religious people who do this show that they’re morally superior to the book they follow. They focus on the parts that are more palatable, while neglecting the ones they’d rather not defend. Like Star Trek fans who put vast effort into harmonizing the franchise’s plot holes, one sometimes gets the impression they put more thought and care into this than the original writers ever did.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...