Star Trek and (my) Humanism
It is no secret that I am a massive Trekker, my love for all things Trek probably approaches religious devotion. On much reflection, I think that this fanatical addiction is rooted in a deep cognizance between the ethical values portrayed on Star Trek and my own.. It’s also no secret that Gene Roddenberry was a humanist, and he was not shy about openly portraying his (admittedly) idealized version of what humanity could look like if they embraced these principles.
We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we’ve done already, we’ll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into.
Paul Kurtz has come out with the Neo-Humanist Manifesto, the latest in a long line of Humanist manifestos. If you’re really curious what is meant by the term ‘humanist’, check out that link, because the explanation is quite exhaustive. Upon recently reading this manifesto, I found that all of the ‘core principles’ are readily found on Star Trek, which may explain my heartfelt endorsement of the document and the tenets within.
Aspire to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to religious believers who share common goals
Star Trek has depicted the Federation with a willingness to work with religious believers towards common goals (such as the Klingon-Federation accord signed with the religious Klingons at Khitomer. In some cases, the unique needs of particular religious (or at least ritualistic) aliens drove Kirk to take the whole ship to planets, as seen in Amok Time.
Yes, this ritual involves fighting, and sex and eventually Kirk losing his shirt, but damnit, that’s why Star Trek is great
Neo-Humanists are critical of theism
If there is one thing that Star Trek does well, it’s being critical of theism. Kirk in particular, manages to stick it to omnipotent or near-omnipotent creatures, like in The Squire of Gothos, Arena, The Return of the Archons, Errand of Mercy, and particularly Who Mourns for Adonais, where the crew actually meets Apollo from Greek mythology. In that episode, he offers them a perfect life, where all they must do is worship him. Kirk delivers this line:
Apollo: I can give life or death. What else does mankind demand of its gods?
Kirk: Mankind has no need for gods.
BAM! Of course, this trend continues well into The Next Generation, where there is an omnipotent character named Q (played by the ineffable John Delancey). In one particularly awesome episode, Picard dies and meets Q, and remarks:
I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you; the universe is not so badly designed.
In Who Watches the Watchers, the Enterprise crew is mistaken for gods by indigenous peoples they had been anthropoligcally observing. Picard, desperate to not be mistaken for a god, exclaims:
Look at me…feel the warmth of my hand, the rhythm of my pulse. I’m not a supreme being. I’m flesh and blood, like you. Different in appearance, yes, but we are both living beings. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. In all the ways that matter, we are alike.“
“Horrifying… Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!“
Star Trek pulls no punches. When the humanistic worldview is opposed by gods, religion or institutions in the narritave, Star Trek will speak out against the injustice and for the good of all humanity.
Are best defined by what they are for, not what they are against
We the life forms of the United Federation of Planets determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and to reaffirm faith in the fundamental rights of sentient beings, in the dignity and worth of all life forms, in the equal rights of members of planetary systems large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of interstellar law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of living on all worlds…
Lest we not forget the mission of every Star Trek series we’ve ever seen: “To explore strange, new worlds. To seek out new life, and new civilization, and to go boldly where no one has gone before.
[A humanist] accept responsibility for the well-being of society, guaranteeing various rights, including those of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; and supporting education, health care, gainful employment, and other social benefits;”
Gene Roddenberry was incredibly progressive in this respect, especially considering the extremely divided society in which Star Trek first appeared. In the original pilot, (later seen in the two parter episode The Menagerie) he had a woman as a first officer, but that was shot down by the execs. Despite this hostility from the management, Roddenberry fought for his inclusive vision of the future, because he knew that our world would soon move beyond the petty differences that so defined the early sixties.
Roddenberry also added the proud Russian character Chekov in the second season, which was ballsy considering it was the middle of the cold war. Roddenberry wrote a cast that transcended politics, gender, social, regional, national and even planetary divides. Star Trek is often cited as inspiration for an entire generation of people who would create a world with much less disparity. Take, I don’t know, Mae Jemison, who had a cameo on TNG.
Mae Jemison also happens to be (the first) female, African-American person in space, just over 25 years after Star Trek first aired. Aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor’s second flight, she performed as a medical mission specialist on the fledgling Skylab. In space, she even greeted NASA with “hailing frequencies are open”. Jemison also said her inspiration for joining up with NASA was Nichelle Nichols, playing Uhura on Star Trek.
She got the Star Trek gig in part from my Close Personal Friend(TM) Levar Burton, who I think we can all agree is a wonderful human being.
Say what you want about NASA, (and I’ve said some things), but the type of ‘big think’ projects that NASA does are a step in the right direction. Who knows, maybe those steps might take us closer to a world like Star Trek, a world that has fully embraced the ideas represented in humanism.
I know, I know, naive. But that’s what you get for being a Trekker.
- We’re the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We’re tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference, we’re Human. We couldn’t escape from each other even if we wanted to. That’s how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that’s truly yours is the rest of Humanity. That’s where our duty lies. – Kirk