I have been being questioned a lot recently about what I think could be a better way of promoting atheism or humanistic philosophies that would not be as judgmental or closed-hearted as I find many atheistic activists, or a better way of promoting a positive vision of the future. Engaging with pareconists, anarchists and leftists, I have been wondering how to point to something that shows the power of a vision. To me, the answer to all of these 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 experienced that make 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.
Star Trek is of course limited as a vision for leftists to some extent. It’s a progressive vision, and while Roddenberry was skeptical of capitalism, he still ended up imagining a world that had basically traditional liberal democratic forms. But I think he also showed that it is possible even within our current understanding to create something great. I am an anarchist, and I still believe that our fundamental social institutions will always be impediments to our personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth. But I also have come to see that so much work can be done already to improve the quality of life of people just by touching them. So many of our social problems today stem from us failing to stand up and have hope, enough that we can change systems as broken as the foster care system, the system of military waste, the educational system, and so on that benefit no one even in the fairly short term.
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.
And if we on the Left want to make people engaged and hopeful, we need to tell stories like Star Trek that show people what the world can be like.