Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Thing I Don't Like About Star Trek

Indeed, I am a Star Trek fan. But as a Christian, one of the things that has always bothered me about Star Trek is its humanism, particularly in the Original Series and to a lesser extent in the early episodes of The Next Generation. Today, I ran across this article (HT: Trek Today).

The article is about Susan Sackett the former executive assistant to Gene Roddenberry. She now is a board member of the American Humanist Association and lectures on behalf of humanism. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Humanism, Sackett said, is a rational philosophy without supernatural or superstitious beliefs.

“Roddenberry himself was an agnostic and a humanist. Humanism is the philosophy that reason, creativity, and our basic shared sense of ethics are all that is needed for humanity to improve its condition. Secular humanists hold that supernatural entities are either not needed or run contrary to our shared objective of a better world. Roddenberry’s vision of humanity as constantly improving and approaching a peaceful and equitable existence was the foundation of the society in the Star Trek universe,” according to the announcement of her visit by the Secular Alliance of Indiana University.

“I was raised as a reform Jew so it was not a great jump to the concepts of humanism,” Sackett said. “He (Roddenberry) was more or less an agnostic.”

Humanism is about “accepting your fellow human beings,” Sackett said. “Most (humanists) are pro-choice and open to the concept of gay marriage, all hot button issues that have been tied to religiosity.”

Some of the seemingly all-powerful figures, including the Q, that the U.S. Enterprise encountered on its treks weren’t gods or spiritual figures, she said. They are merely creatures that aren’t understood yet, she said.

Later the article notes:

After her work on “Next Generation,” Sackett didn’t follow closely the other Trek series. She, however, didn’t like “Deep Space Nine” because of the spiritual aspects of the show.

“Gene wouldn’t have liked that,” she said.


I do find the evolution of Star Trek fascinating. It is a mirror for the age in which it is made. Early in Star Trek lore, we find a very 'modernist' view of the world. It is highly optimistic. Humans are almost never the villains but have achieved a superiority and have bettered themselves. The world is often very sanitized. Good and evil is always black and white. Although there are a few allusions to religion (and a number to patriotism) in the Original Series, by and large humanity has moved beyond religion and spirituality.

Later on in Star Trek, we see religion and spirituality begin to enter. This is particularly true in DS9 and Voyager. Deep Space Nine introduces us to Bajoran culture which has a whole religion based on 'The Prophets' aka "The Wormhole Aliens" to the Starfleet types. Captain Sisko himself progresses from tolerating the beliefs to accepting them along with embracing his role in Bajoran spirituality as a messiah-esque figure 'the Emissary'. Even more in Voyager, we see Commander Chakotay in full pursuit of Indian spirit guides, even teaching the crew to find their own. Spirituality is in full bloom.

Without losing the general advancement of humanity, we see a darker side to humanity. as Star Trek progresses. For example, Picard's internal conflict of hatred for the Borg. Captain Sisko suffering his own horrid loss of his wife to the Borg is arguably a much darker character. The writer's skillfully weave in his own conflict. But even his dark side at times cannot be redeemed as he is willing to lie and murder to win Romulan support in the Dominion Wars or attack a Macquis colony with chemical weapons to capture a traitor to Starfleet. There is corruption of Star Fleet with high powered admirals in Insurrection and DS9's Homefront and Paradise Lost; not to mention a secretive corrupt intelligence agency within Starfleet itself known only as Section 31. It is more than willing to break all our morals to save our morals, so much for human betterment. Finally, even season 3 of Enterprise portrays a much darker struggle as humanity seeks to defend itself. We see a progression where the ideals remain but are often at tension with the realities of a cruel world that humans have not conquered with rational thought.

This is not to say that Star Trek ever loses its basic central tenants. Star Trek did what all good stories do, they reflect something of the age. They tell a human story and human stories at their best reflect external and internal conflict. They battle the demons within as well as without. Unlike some fiction, particularly in the science fiction genre, Star Trek has not been assumed by the dark demons. Space may be full disease and death wrapped in darkness, but Star Trek like any good mythology does have a triumph of the hero.

To a larger point, humanism just doesn't work. Even the secularist will admit as much if he would just listen to the larger critiques of postmodern philosophy. Humanism is too wildly naive. Indeed it offers a hope, a category of thought which is wildly non-rational. One might even say the level to which some cling to humanism is quite superstitious.

On the moral issues it begs the question. Who defines morals? "Humanism is the philosophy that reason, creativity, and our basic shared sense of ethics are all that is needed for humanity to improve its condition." When has humanity ever truly had a shared ethic? I think if we would be fair with the evidence of history the best ethical advancements have come when people challenged the 'shared sense of ethics,' consider slavery, racial discrimination and apartheid.

Humanism does not really wrestle with the reality of evil. People have been suffering from evil since as far back as human history records. And whenever evil is crushed by truth and justice in one area, it seems to go to seed and rise up in another area. What makes us so arrogant as to think that the future will be so different? The reality is that while humanity by be improving and becoming more advanced in many areas, there are other areas where it is not. To amount of optimism can overcome this basic reality.

Humanism ignores the human condition that our desires for peace and stability go beyond just rational thought. In the Western thought there is a large shift back towards 'spirituality' as part of a basic human yearning. N.T. Wright, in his book Simply Christian, illustrates this with a parable of a dictator who paves over all the streams of water so that things might be regulated (controlled by rational thought alone). Over time however, the springs of water bubble up and crack the pavement. He writes,

Millions in the Western world have enjoyed the temporary separation from "religious" interference that this philosophy brought. Millions more, aware of the deep subterranean bubblings and yearnings of the water system we call "spirituality," which can no more ultimately be denied than can endless springs of water under thick concrete, have done their best secretly to tap into it...Now at last it has happened: the hidden springs have erupted, the concrete burst open...The official guardians of the old water system...are of course horrified to see the volcano of "spirituality" that has erupted in recent years. (Simply Christian, 19).

Let me suggest that Roddenberry and thus like him might duly be categorized as the 'old system'.

I appreciate Star Trek. For better or worse, I am a fan. Yet there are always commitments larger than Star Trek. For some it is humanism, for me it is Jesus Christ and Christianity.

I look forward to the new movie as much as the next Trekkies (except maybe those rabid about continuity issues). I hope it is optimistic in its outlook rather than the dark outlook pervading much science fiction and fiction today. But the reality is that humanism at the end of the day is not realistic. It cannot by its own principles and the nature of reality provide the real hope that all human beings crave at some level. For all it does to decry superstitions, it ironically holds, dare we say with religious tenacity, to a future of peace flowering with hope. Based on human history and the complex problems that unfold in any future yearning for hope is at best a superstition. Man has always used his creativity for good and at the same time for evil; what makes us so sure the future will be any different?

The truth is that we need the real triumph of a hero, who having conquered sin and death has risen victoriously. This is not found in superstition, whether religious, spiritual, or humanist, this is found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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