Humanist Hero: Gene Roddenberry

Just spotted that an article of mine went up at HumanistLife just before I left. The BHA asked for our Humanist Heroes, and I nominated Gene Roddenberry:

Humanist Hero: Gene Roddenberry

My humanist hero is Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek and, I think, the most effective communicator of humanism there’s ever been.

For three decades, the universe of Star Trek brought a humanist viewpoint to mainstream audiences. Countless children watched weekly as the galactic Federation of the future was depicted as a philosophers’ state in which the humanist outlook is paramount. It was never hostile to the godly – religion is simply null, and irrelevant. This was never spelt out, because it somehow seems incredibly obvious that the future would be so. It just makes sense. Of course nationality won’t matter in the future. Of course we’ll make sure everyone gets to live to a decent standard. Of course humanity will eventually grow up and out of superstitious thinking. This was unlike anything that had come before. Critics called it a Marxist vision, but one of Gene Roddenberry’s assistants instead described it as Lennonist: a brotherhood of man.

Roddenberry’s quasi-utopian future was attained through the twin humanist beacons of science and moral development. Science fixed poverty with the replicator – surely the most desired device in science fiction – while humanity developed a way to bring the galaxy together without coercion or violence. Key to this was the Prime Directive, probably the most vaunted and violated commandment in television. Always problematic, the Prime Directive stated that the Federation must not interfere with other cultures – except of course the Enterprise was forced to intervene in pretty much every episode. This core humanist message was hammered home over the series and the years: people are free to do as they will, but if they need help, you go help.

This optimistic view of humanity’s possibilities was at the core of Roddenbery’s humanism, a life stance he didn’t have a name for when he began questioning religion in his teens. He kept such opinions to himself for years, but came to recognise the power of television to effect social change – both good and bad – and saw an opportunity with Star Trek to bring a non-religious, human-centric philosophy to the general public. He eventually described the show as his ‘statement to the world’.

But his genius was to wrap up all this philosophy in solid entertainment. Morality plays can make for dull television, so Roddenberry blended endearing characters with fantastical situations, cleverly making the resolution of moral conundrums key to the progression of the plot. And in doing so he quietly built a cultural dictionary of philosophy. Want to discuss the limits of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human? Skip tracts of dialogue and get everybody onto the same page with the word ‘Data’. The moral culpability of the soldier? The Borg will do nicely. This was never overt, and plenty (including me) were certainly watching for the phaser battles as much as anything else. But ideas etch, and the behaviour of these exciting and civil characters couldn’t help but have an effect. Star Trek always emphasised decision-making, and actually doing something. Every week the Enterprise crew would argue the rights and wrongs of their predicament, before the Captain took it out of the abstract by committing to one side or another, and acting appropriately. There are worse ways to live your life than “What would Picard do in this situation?”.

The conservative nature of 1960s US television didn’t make this easy for Roddenberry, but he ran rings around network censors by setting the stories in space – it’s not about racial equality, silly, it’s about aliens who happen to be different colours. He refused to put a chaplain on the Enterprise, despite regular pressure, and consistently crafted stories about morality that were devoid of moral outrage. Religion is rarely mentioned outright, but turns up subtly in the broad, overall themes. In The Next Generation, the only alien with god-like powers is a jerk who hates humanity. But over time he watches humans solving their problems through reason and compassion, despite his offers of magical intervention, and, by the end, he’s won over. It’s hard to see that particular story arc going down well with US networks, so Roddenberry simply didn’t tell them.

But Star Trek went beyond entertainment and subtle dissemination of humanist ideas – it’s not unreasonable to claim that Gene Roddenberry is partly responsible for accelerated pace of modern scientific progress. It’s impossible to know how many children had their sense of wonder stoked by the show, but you can get an anecdotal impression by asking any science graduate if they’re a fan. They probably are. The remarkable correlation between Star Trek fans and scientists may be because the show built upon established knowledge, but pushed it a bit. The ideas weren’t completely out there, so any children interested enough to investigate for themselves wouldn’t be disappointed. They’d discover that warp drives aren’t real, but impulse engines make sense. So why can’t you just use impulse engines to travel around? Because the distances are too great. Wow – just how big is the universe? And what about those communicators that allow the crew to keep in touch on different sides of the planet? Is that possible? Well, no, but radio waves can do that – we just need to figure out how to generate them in something hand-held…

Gene Roddenberry’s humanism affected forty years of children (and adults!), and continues to do so. Generations were raised on a regular diet of secular decency and resolving crises by weighing evidence and listening to all sides. Star Trek lodged abstract philosophy into the public consciousness, and is a pivot around which modern science turns. And above all this, Roddenberry’s vision was a source of hope. Gene Roddenberry brought a hope for humanity to millions, and is a humanist hero for that.