Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, has died aged 83.
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The humanist values of Star Trek

A Starfleet crew values cooperation and liberality. They value the equality of persons and the dignity of life.

I’m a really big Star Trek fan. Not to the extent that I go to bed in Spock ears and never miss a convention (these days) but still a really big fan. It wasn’t until I started working for the British Humanist Association, however, that I realised that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was also a committed humanist.

Perhaps there is something about the genres of science fiction or fantasy that is very humanist. Both Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman are supporters of humanism, as is Arthur C Clarke, and as was Isaac Asimov. Once I knew this, though, it made a lot of sense. The society Gene Roddenberry created in Star Trek is a very humanist one - at least in the original series and Next Generation. Later series, after the death of Roddenberry, become a little too new age for my liking.

Roddenberry has a hopeful vision of the future: one in which mankind has united around shared human values, joined in a common endeavour to reach the stars, and happily left religion behind on the way. It’s a counsellor, not a chaplain that the Enterprise crew turn to when in need of guidance. Starship crews explore a cosmos that is full of beauty and wonder and they respond with awe and appreciation. This wonder does not overawe them, because ultimately the universe, and its billions of stars and planets, is a natural thing which the curious can know and understand. All the phenomena encountered within it are investigated rationally and, though they may at first seem inexplicable, are understood in the end as susceptible to naturalistic explanations.

Like any utopia, the Star Trek universe reflects the values of its creator, and this is just as true on the level of human values and relationships as it is on the larger levels. A Starfleet crew values cooperation and liberality. They value the equality of persons and the dignity of life. Although rank is respected, the views of all are given fair airing. When the crew encounter new peoples there is an assumption of peace, but they defend themselves robustly when attacked (no bellicosity, but no turning of the other cheek here either), and although the men and women of this future cultivate an internal life through meditation or the arts, they accept reason and science as the means by which they can know the universe they explore.

But not too much! The charge that a humanist society would be a coldly rational one with humanity in thrall to unfeeling science receives a blow in Roddenberry’s world. What is the story of Spock other than one person’s discovery that, although science and logic may uncover truth, it is our relationships with others and the meaning that we make for ourselves that give life its purpose?

‘Science defeats religion’ – that is what many people assume to be a humanist creed. I use the word creed advisedly, since the people who level this charge are frequently also those who level the bogus charge that humanism is itself just another religion. I am not a scientist - though of course I look to scientists for answers to the questions they are qualified to answer and to which religion gives far less satisfactory answers - and it is not the science in science fiction stories that appeals to me so much as the stories.

In his book, On Humanism, Richard Norman makes the case for our stories as having "a shaping role, enabling us to give a meaning to our experience". For many religious people, that may be what their own holy books mean to them. Obviously humanists can have no sacred texts , but all people have the stories that, for them, are full of meaning. You will have your own favourites, but I recommend you take a look at Star Trek too.

Andrew works for the British Humanist Association on education and public affairs. As well as campaigning for the inclusion of non-religious philosophies such as humanism in the school curriculum, he has published articles criticising worship in schools.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.