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Star Trek, Atheism and the Power of Vision

I have been being questioned a lot recently about what I think could be a better way of promoting atheism, or a better way of promoting a positive vision of the future. To me, the answer is the same: Star Trek.

Star Trek has been very important to my family.

My father found Spock to be a role model. My Mom had a crush on Kirk (what young lady in the 60s wouldn’t have?)

And even to this day, the opening theme of Next Generation and Patrick Stewart’s stentorian opening narration (which was gender neutral in the late 1980s) fills me with hope. If I am feeling sad or despairing at the world, I watch an episode of Next Generation and feel a sense of hope.

Star Trek has always had its issues. Characters are often fairly shallow, and have a limited range. They never were able to write Firefly-type outlaws (as the episode “The Outrageous Okona” proved), and the show could be heavy-handed. DS9 was in my opinion a weaker Babylon 5, and I have never once warmed up to Voyager. The classic Star Trek episodes look cheesy in retrospect, even as much as the themes and vision still hold up.

But Star Trek was such an unimaginably different show, and it’s because people involved in it, Roddenberry and others, had a vision.

When I was in college, I took a class on racism with Bruce Haynes, one of my favorite Professors throughout my entire scholastic career. We were discussing the way that the portrayals of people of color on television and film are routinely stereotypical, offensive, or limited.

I raised my hand and mentioned Star Trek.

Bruce practically cut me off. He said something to the effect of, “Okay, Star Trek’s different. We could do a whole class on Star Trek and race”.

Many of you have heard some of this before. But there’s another aspect that deserves discussion.

Roddenberry’s vision is atheistic. Gods are just space entities or frauds, often malevolent. Religion should be respected as part of culture, and the faith of Worf is challenged, but much of the idea was to reject religion as a belief system.

I’m not an atheist. I’m a Buddhist and, separately, I have had experiences that have made me believe in a non-interventionist intelligence of the universe.

But I love Star Trek. I could live in that world. I have taken ideas from that show to enrich me.

In an episode where Wesley Crusher faces a court of inquiry, Picard expresses disappointment in young Wesley.

Picard tells Wesley, “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based!”

That’s a way of living life. That is a belief system. It’s atheistic, but that’s practically a coincidence.

It is such a good way of living life that non-atheists, people who may resonate with the Jedi’s vision of a living world, can still embrace so much of it and be changed by it.

Star Trek shows us a future where people calmly discuss issues, where they grapple with ethical and scientific challenges with heart, where people cooperate. It shows us a world human beings would want to live in.

Star Trek taught me to ponder ethical issues. It taught me to look beyond what I idly hoped and consider what was actually going on. It taught me that people can cooperate, and that organizations of people can work together. It taught me that a good workplace should be like a family. It taught me to be skeptical of gods, angels and spirits. It taught me the importance of our whales and our planet. It taught me to stand up against bullies no matter how cloaked in righteousness they were, and to speak truth for the little guy with courage.

I do have some problems with the future in which Starfleet’s characters reside. I would prefer non-hierarchical organizations. I think a future will see our organizations look more like Valve than Starfleet. But the concepts of duty, respect (flowing both ways), and responsibility in Star Trek are still inspirational, even to me as an anarchist.

Anyone who wants to change the world or touch people should use Roddenberry as an inspiration. Anarchists must create a vision that makes people want to wake up in that world. Pareconists, libertarian municipalists, syndicalists and Marxists have to find a way of expressing their dream such that people can touch it. Atheists have to find a way of expressing a way of living that doesn’t require God. Conservatives, liberals, progressives… if we spent more time figuring out our hopes and less time yelling, maybe we’d have a better world already.

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4 thoughts on “Star Trek, Atheism and the Power of Vision

  1. Star Trek had the window dressing of the future, but with one exception it was always ever about the time in which it aired, from the Cold Warriors thinly disguised as Klingons to the political correctness of the Clinton era Voyager to the urban terrorism of the latest Abrams Trek film. And I believe the exception was The Next Generation, which truly did look ahead, not sideways, and when it was good it was very very good.

    • arekexcelsior says:

      You know, I think it may be easy to think that in retrospect, but think about how different the original series was from the world of the 1960s. It was a crew where a black woman was on the deck, interacting with people directly. True, to some extent she was a secretary and communications officer, but this was a woman in the military on the flagship of a fictional navy.

      It was a crew with Russians on it. Roddenberry was clearly predicting that the Cold War would end. He was predicting that Russians and Americans would make peace. That was hardly an uncontroversial idea at the time.

      Of course one can always find parallels, and even Next Generation had its forays into the political issues of the day: The idea that warp drive would undermine the fabric of reality, for example, was a clear metaphor for pollution and the costs of transportation. But the original Star Trek still had a radical vision of things, even with concepts like the doomsday machine that were clearly analogs to the issues of that time. The idea, for example, that human beings could challenge the gods even if they existed, is not exactly new (Bakunin had the concept), but it was certainly not a commonly held concept.

      I personally love TNG the best and would agree with you there was something special about it, but the original series counseled ideas of forgiveness, peace, diplomacy, and solving problems through science and cleverness rather than violence that remain very salient to this day.

      And, as I’ve pointed out in the past, even the original series was so radical that today we can’t do it justice with the Abrams movies which are in no way Star Trek movies.

  2. What the original Star Trek had going for it was writers, unfortunately they were undermined by Shatner’s ego, to the detriment of the screen time of the supporting cast. But there were incredibly thought provoking moments at times, always accompanied by a certain stately fanfare (you might remember), such as when they imagined the ramifications of being the galaxy’s antibody against the space amoeba. You didn’t get that stuff on Gomer Pyle USMC. The Next Generation didn’t really giddyup until season three when they made Roddenberry stand down, and then it maintained a level of quality that, despite some turkey episodes, did not decline even as the series ended. DS9 was hobbled by the basic concept, they didn’t explore strange new worlds, they kind of stayed put, but the Dominion War arc salvaged things a bit. The less said about Voyager and Enterprise the better.

    • arekexcelsior says:

      I think Shatner was a fine actor, and still is. Of course, he definitely learned years later how much people had been put off by his arrogance and has clearly tried to poke some fun at himself.

      Yeah, season 1 and season 2 of TNG are not… great. But even mediocre episodes of TNG dealt with complex ideas like cultural imperialism and relativity, gender relations, etc.

      I personally found that the Dominion War, again, was mostly an inferior version of Babylon 5. I’ve come to like DS9, but DS9 definitely does not feel like Star Trek.

      Of course, my point was less how entertaining Star Trek has been or what not, and more the way that Star Trek strikes a nerve in terms of presenting us with a future we can like. And isn’t that great in its own way too, that something that is flawed can still resonate with us so deeply and unite so many people.

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