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22 February 2007updated 26 Sep 2015 7:01am

The humanist values of Star Trek

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

By Andrew Copson

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?

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‘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.

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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.