Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, has died aged 83.
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.