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.
CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge