The Believing Bartender

by Josh Randall

This essay is an examination of religious depictions in science fiction, particularly within the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This essay finds that Deep Space Nine doesn’t seek to actively challenge and change cultures and religions by analyzing the Ferengi (a peripheral religious organization and species) and the actions of Quark, one of Ferengi’s members. Instead, Deep Space Nine incorporates a more realistic, positive, and sophisticated view of religion than previous Star Trek incarnations and the science fiction genre in general have done.

Star Trek is a science fiction series that was originally created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s. His vision of the future was of a technological utopia, a society that could exist without war or famine, grief or pain, and that would explore the galaxy acting as an emissary for its utopian ideologies. Roddenberry’s vision has since been reenacted in more modern incarnations, with new television series and films taking on the Star Trek title. Deep Space Nine was the third television installation of the Star Trek franchise and introduced a new direction for the science fiction show. Peter Linford states in a publication examining religious depictions in various incarnations that Deep Space Nine “attempt[ed] a more sophisticated and positive view of religion than that traditionally found within the genre of science fiction” (77), and indeed, is markedly different in its depiction of religion from the original Star Trek itself. My findings agree with Linford’s. In addition, I find that Deep Space Nine charitably characterizes religion, seeing it as a necessary element for its characters, which differs from the original series’s patronizing attitude towards religion. Within this paper, I will synthesize Adam Frisch and Joseph Martos’s definition of religion and its uses in science fiction with my own observations to establish a framework. I will use this framework to examine the Ferengi religion from Deep Space Nine. I will then examine Quark, a bartender on the station and practitioner of the Ferengi faith, and his character evolution throughout several episodes in the series as a mode whereby to discern the series’s treatment of and attitude toward religion.

Definition

Frisch and Martos’s definition of religion in science fiction, as noted by Linford, posits three points: religions in general must have “comprehensive cosmologies,” questions about existence and the meaning of life are something to be concerned with and understood, and negotiations of its adherents between their prescribed beliefs and their questions of existence should be defined. In short, religions answer existential questions while offering methods whereby its adherents may respond to situations in order to receive the greatest value from life. To augment Frisch and Martos’s definition, I would add that in order for a religion to be valid, its influence must be apparent in the actions of its believers. In other words, valid religion is living the practices and beliefs that empower or drive individuals to behave in a certain manner, though dogmatic action and idolatrous behavior may occasionally stem from such living (something that was often a focus of the original series).

In the original series, the Enterprise (and by extension, Starfleet, the Enterprise’s governing body) was a roving utopian emissary, bringing enlightenment to the religious cultures it met. The cultures they met were operating under dogmatic practices that the Enterprise then lifted to a more illuminated state. One example of this is in the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais,” when the Enterprise encounters the Greek god Apollo living on another planet. After being captured by the deity, the crew eventually defeats Apollo by destroying the temple he resides in, which had been powering the force field that Apollo used to capture the Enterprise. Following the attack, Apollo weakens and fades away. The destruction of the temple is symbolic of society having shifted away from religion and worship. In Deep Space Nine, however, this secular proselytizing practice ceases, and the necessity and value of religion is considered. Linford notes that unlike the Enterprise, the station is locked in place and other cultures visit the station, bringing their own ideals and values to Starfleet (86). One such culture whose progression plays a prominent role in the series is the Ferengi.

The Ferengi

The Ferengi, first introduced in The Next Generation, had been characterized in their infrequent encounters with the Enterprise as a race of misogynistic, super-capitalistic businessmen. However, with the introduction of recurring Ferengi characters in Deep Space Nine, the series moves beyond this caricature and fleshes out this particular race, such that their greed and unrelenting avarice become more like a practice of worship. For them, “commerce is religion” (Cowan, 146). In harmony with the offered definition of religion, the Ferengi espouse a simple worldview, one that advocates the accumulation of wealth at any cost, which is the empowering belief that motivates the Ferengi’s actions. Ambition is the supreme characteristic, and greed is the motivating factor in religious devotion. They have a religious text, the Rules of Acquisition, which each Ferengi dutifully studies and follows. This religious text places acquisition of wealth above relationships or morality. “Greed is Eternal,” states rule number 10, and accumulation of “Latinum” (the prevalent currency), is the greatest sign of one’s devotion. “A Ferengi without profit is no Ferengi at all,” states rule number 18, making it clear that the very purpose of life, according to their religion, is profit.

Their religious leader is the “Grand Nagus,” who frequents Deep Space Nine in his role of overseeing the Ferengi business empire. A Ferengi attains this position by being the epitome of a Ferengi: the consummate businessman, the shrewdest dealmaker, the best at playing the market, and the most economically exploitative. If it can be shown that the Grand Nagus is faltering, and is no longer the ultimate practitioner of the religion, he is deposed. This policy ensures the competitive fitness of their spiritual leader. The Ferengi hierarchy is marked by constant subservient and sycophantic behavior toward those in superior positions while watching the leaders for errors, all the while running roughshod over those beneath themselves (a behavior motivated by the “Rules of Acquisition”).

The ultimate goal of each Ferengi, and indeed what the religion defines as the “meanings of life and existence,” is the ascension after death to the “Divine Treasury.” Douglas Cowan gives a succinct definition of what occurs following a Ferengi’s death:

Their place in the afterlife is determined by the profit the Rules allowed them to accumulate in life. Paying his bribe to the Registrar upon his arrival at the gates of the Divine Treasury, a deceased Ferengi presents his lifetime profit-and-loss statement to the Blessed Exchequer and, in a kind of posthumous audit, is assessed on how well he followed the Rules of Acquisition. Those who show sufficient profit hope to enter the latinum precincts of the Ferengi heaven; those in a loss position go elsewhere. (146)

The desire to attain access to the Divine Treasury in the hereafter is the impetus behind the Ferengi’s drive to attain wealth, and serves as the motivation for the Ferengi canon of scripture and religious organization.

Clearly, this is a faith that empowers the actions of its believer. Ferengi embody their beliefs through their practices, fulfilling my definition of a “valid religion.” Although the religion may seem utterly pragmatic, many of its precepts are simply undoctored, unapologetic manifestations of principles that appear in other religions. Many faiths in our own history have had profit-loss motivations within certain practices; to remove the pious trappings makes this faith no less “valid” in its portrayal (Cowan 148).

Quark as Model

The character of Quark is an excellent model whereby to examine the series’s depiction of the faith and religious belief of Ferengi in general, as well as some of the societal commentary reflected in the series through the Ferengi. I will look at two particular episodes that are distinctive in the issues they address and the facets of the Ferengi faith that we observe.

Quark is a Ferengi who owns and manages a bar on Deep Space Nine, a space station that is positioned close to a wormhole. This position is a stable spatial phenomenon that enables ships to pass into a quadrant of space 25,000 light years from the space station itself, affording unique economic opportunities for trade. Also in close proximity is a planet formerly occupied by a brutal regime, recently ceded to Starfleet. Quark came to the space station before the wormhole had been discovered and opened up his bar as a service to the regime in power. After the regime ceded the planet and moved out of the system, Quark contemplated leaving the bar, but decided to stay after the appearance of the wormhole. Its appearance offered a host of new economic opportunities, and could potentially increase Quark’s profit margin exponentially, a possibility no practicing Ferengi would decline.

Indeed, Quark is a devout Ferengi and follower of the “Rules of Acquisition. He has its tenets memorized and he follows them in every situation. This is often a point of conflict between him and the other members of the crew, who are for the most part Starfleet personnel or from the formerly repressed planet and don’t agree with his seemingly amoral business tactics. His struggle to remain true to his Ferengi faith while surrounded by unbelievers and the subtle evolution of his belief system is a prevalent theme that defines his character arc.

One of the first major challenges Quark faces comes in the third season during the episode “Prophet Motive.” The Grand Nagus visits the station and brings a new version of the “Rules of Acquisition that he has written. The new version runs completely counter to the Ferengi ideal, emphasizing family and friendship over profit, morality over ambition, and kindness and giving over greed. Quark and Rom (Quark’s brother) are the first to see the revisions. Appalled, Quark exclaims, “Greed is the purest, most noble of attributes!” Besides this change to scripture, the Nagus also institutes a “Benevolent Society,” a charity organization that spends the Nagus’s significant profit on welfare projects.

Quark’s initial reaction is shock, but he quickly decides that the Nagus is testing him, seeing if he will remain true to Ferengi ideals in the face of monumental changes. Eventually, Quark and Rom discover that the Nagus had encountered aliens within the wormhole, who, disgusted with the outright selfishness of the Ferengi people, changed the Nagus’s inclinations by “de-evolving” him to a primitive, less greedy Ferengi mindset. Quark and Rom return the Nagus into the wormhole at great personal danger, where they convince the aliens to restore him to his avaricious state, and then dispose of the new Rules of Acquisition.

In these types of crisis moments, when deeply held ideology is challenged, the true nature and beliefs of individuals emerge. What the Nagus has proposed is a fundamental change to Quark’s personal scripture, a trying circumstance for any individual. Rom is quicker to accept the changes, and even joins the “Benevolent Society,” but Quark is skeptical. He wants confirmation that this change to the Nagus is genuine, and when the evidence proves to the contrary, he’s quick to risk his own life to restore the Nagus’s real identity.

Although this skepticism could be seen as Quark simply wanting continued scriptural justification for his economic practices, I see his hesitancy as an active declaration of his belief. He truly desires the well-being of his spiritual leader, especially after seeing such a drastic, and what Quark believes to be harmful, change in his leader’s personality. Though Quark’s religious conviction may appear avaricious, he is not portrayed as dogmatic or simplistic, but as complicatedly working through the conflict between his held beliefs and the perceived changes in his scripture. This is an indication of Deep Space Nine’s intent to portray religious beliefs in a more positive and fulfilling light. Indeed, Quark’s concern is with the Ferengi society as a whole. He fairly asks how the Ferengi can continue to drive their progress without ambition or greed for motivation. The wormhole aliens indicate that in the past the Ferengi had been a kinder, less materialistic society.

Although perhaps an example of regression in Ferengi society, a more valid question is, without the evolution to their acquisitive state, would they have achieved the discoveries necessary to becoming a space-faring species? Clearly, despite naturally individualistic proclivities, Quark still recognizes something that he believes is best for his people, dispelling any hint of caricature from his portrayal. This entire event might easily have taken a comedic and mocking tone, but although there is some humor inherent in the situation, the episode treats the Ferengi fairly and with gravitas, demonstrating the series’s commitment to depicting religion positively.

Another demonstration of this commitment is in an episode entitled “Body Parts.” Quark is told he has contracted a terminal illness, so as is traditional among the Ferengi, he puts his body on the market to be sold after his death. He receives a huge offer and accepts the contract, only to discover that first, he was misdiagnosed, and second, the contract is held by his nemesis named Brunt, a liquidator for the Ferengi Commerce Association (FCA). This position serves as a quasi-ecclesiastical role in the Ferengi religion, with the ability to suspend Ferengi business licenses and confiscate all assets of said Ferengi if they are found to be violating precepts of the Rules of Acquisition. When Brunt refuses to renegotiate his contract, Quark’s dilemma becomes a religious question: does he hire a killer to end his life to keep the contract, as he is obligated according to the Rules of Acquisition? Or does he break the contract and essentially suffer excommunication, losing not only his business license and all his possessions, but also his status within Ferengi society and an assurance of a place in the Divine Treasury?

While Quark and Brunt discuss the contract, we discover that Brunt refuses to yield because he sees Quark as an unworthy Ferengi practitioner. Even though to the viewer Quark seems as rapacious as any Ferengi businessman, we discover through this conversation that he has softened in his time among non-Ferengi. Brunt exclaims with derision, “You give your customers credit at the bar! You only take a 30% kickback from your employees’ tips. . . . You’ve gone Starfleet. It’s people like you that give honest Ferengi businessmen a bad name.” It seems that Quark’s ultimate sin is philanthropy (a strong word for “slightly more generous than a typical Ferengi”). Quark defends his practices and promises reform, but Brunt is uncompromising. Quark can fulfill the contract and remain true to his faith, or break it, and become an outcast in the Ferengi society, disowned and ostracized. He must decide to what level his devotion extends.

Quark struggles with this decision. He hires a former spy to strangle him when he doesn’t expect it, but then remains constantly alert. He clearly does not want to die, but also does not want to deny his Ferengi-ness. This contradiction between individual and institution characterizes much religious discussion. Adherents must constantly determine how much they are willing to sacrifice in the name of their religion. Self-sacrifice and martyrdom are present in nearly every religion. If a religion’s validity is determined by the actions of the individuals empowered, then self-sacrifice is perhaps the ultimate indication of validity, as well as a stamp of the believer’s devotion. That Quark even considers giving up his life lends credence to the Ferengi faith.

Quark ultimately resolves to break the contract, following a transcendent experience. While asleep, he has a vision of going to the Divine Treasury and meeting the original Grand Nagus Glint, the author of the Rules of Acquisition. He and Quark discuss Quark’s predicament, and Glint tells him to break the contract, saying that the original title of the Rules of Acquisition was a marketing ploy. In Glint’s words, “Would you buy a book called ‘Suggestions of Acquisition’?” Quark informs Brunt of his decision the next day, and Brunt exercises his legal/ecclesiastical authority by repossessing all of Quark’s belongings. At the end of the episode, as Quark laments his destitution, the other members of the crew come by and announce that Quark’s bar will be a new storage area for some extra chairs, and others donate drinks and food as a new beginning for the bar. Quark then has an epiphany: perhaps he has in some way “gone Starfleet,” but if he has that does not mean he is not Ferengi, nor does it alter his core beliefs. His only remaining “assets” following Brunt’s liquidation are his friends, and they help him get back on his feet. Quark learns that he can be in the Starfleet world, living among them, providing their goods, but not be of the Starfleet world. He is still able to maintain his religious convictions and practice Ferengi beliefs.

Though Quark’s beliefs initially lead him to contemplate ending his life, he ultimately finds that the values he has cultivated living among Starfleet personnel have blended with his Ferengi beliefs. He still has respect and love for his faith and still wants to hold on to its doctrine, but he finds contradictions between the two binaries. The Starfleet officers are repulsed by the idea of Quark killing himself to maintain a contract, since they hold life sacred above anything else. Quark’s religious leader, Brunt, requires Quark to keep his contract at the expense of his life. Brunt’s malicious intent should also be factored in: Quark and Brunt had previous dealings in the series that led to Brunt’s embarrassment. Perhaps another Ferengi would have waived the contract. In any case, Quark decides to break his contract, indicating the effect that Starfleet has had on him. But that Quark remains a believer in his faith signifies the intent of the series to respect the faiths encountered by Starfleet.

This episode is an excellent examination of the series’s depiction of Ferengi and of religion generally: first, with Quark’s negotiation between the tenets of his faith that requires his self-sacrifice to maintain his integrity and fellowship within the faith (and potentially eternal salvation) and his own desires of self-preservation; and second, with what seems to be an exploration of the origins of the Ferengi faith itself. Though the vision is supposedly just a dream, Quark’s conversation with Glint is telling. Glint discloses to Quark that the very scriptures whereon the faith is founded were simply suggestions for good business, not obligatory statutes. The Ferengi faith had, over time, solidified and canonized those suggestions, making them an integral part of cultural and religious observance.

Here, Deep Space Nine comments on the origin of religion in general. Religion is often based around one or more canonized works. As is the case in this episode, the authenticity of these works can be questioned, but the episode is not necessarily criticizing the authenticity of the canonized works. Regardless of Glint’s motives in writing the Rules of Acquisition, or in the case of any religious work, its canon has fostered a flourishing society capable of functioning beneficially with cultures outside of itself, and its members value its precepts to the point of self-sacrifice, lending it validity beyond the context of its origins.

Conclusion

In the original series, the Enterprise acted as the roving utopia, a clear affirmation of Starfleet society as a cultural apex. Here, Starfleet’s impact is subtler. The changes in Quark are such that neither the viewer nor Quark recognizes them until the changes are highlighted by a fellow Ferengi. When Quark is cast out from his own, he finds a place among the tolerant Starfleet, who, though perhaps disagreeing with many of Quark’s beliefs, provide him with the means whereby to begin practicing again.

This is perhaps the ultimate difference between the two series. Deep Space Nine does not seek to actively challenge and change cultures and religions, but instead gives them place within its religious tapestry, the weaving of which affects not only the encompassed faith, but also the entire product. The series’s apparent intent, positive, and sophisticated view of religion is realized in the depiction of the Ferengi faith. Although the Ferengi are initially introduced in the Star Trek universe as caricaturized super-capitalists, Deep Space Nine expounds and deepens their race and religion in a charitable fashion, even offering justification for some of their seemingly repugnant practices. Although the series does not condone all of their behavior, in examining the antecedents the viewer understands them.

The Ferengi faith is but one religion portrayed in Deep Space Nine. Depictions of the Bajoran or Dominion faiths are more overtly religious and also offer insights to the achievement of Deep Space Nine. In any case, Deep Space Nine’s illustration of the Ferengi religion embodies the series’s ultimate accomplishment of fair representation and is indicative of the series as a whole. Moving away from the patronizing and shallow characterizations of religions in previous Star Trek incarnations, Deep Space Nine represents a step toward more charitable and positive religious depictions, presenting a place for them within the tapestry of culture in the future.

 

Works Cited

“Body Parts.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Writ. Louis P. DeSantis, Robert J. Bolivar. Dir. Avery Brooks. Paramount, 1996. Netflix.

Cowan, Douglas E. “Heeding the Prophet’s Call.” Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television. Waco, Texas: Baylor University, 2010. 141–169. Print.

Linford, Peter. “Deeds of Power: Respect for Religion in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture. Ed. Jeniffer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. 77–100. Print

“Prophet Motive.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Writ. Ira Steven Behr, Robert Hewitt Wolfe. Dir. Rene Auberjonois. Paramount, 1995. Netflix

“Rules of Acquisition.” Wikipedia.org. n.p. n.d. Web. 8 April 2013.

“Who Mourns for Adonais?” Star Trek. Writ. Gene Roddenberry, Gilbert Ralston. Dir. Marc Daniels. Desilu Productions, 1967. DVD.