Links and Comments: Star Trek and Humanism; John Cleese

A couple more links noticed in recent days, before I lose or forget them; my daily routine, as we settle and unpack in our new home in Oakland, will be a while getting back to have time for more considered comments.

Slate appeals to Quora to ask, What Is the Philosophical Perspective of Star Trek?. The answer is, Humanism (considering primarily the original series, and how this philosophy changed in the later series).

This is fascinating to me because, while I was obsessive about Star Trek from its original broadcast years (beginning when I was 11), and then especially during syndicated reruns in the early ’70s, I stopped watching the various incarnations of the show once ‘Next Generation’ finished, and haven’t thought about it much in the past couple decades; while my interest in more fundamental philosophical issues, science vs religion and concepts like humanism, has only emerged, or crystallized, in the past decade. So to see these concepts retroactively applied to experiences of my adolescence and young-adulthood is almost revelatory.

Humanism? Well, yes. You didn’t see Trek appealing to religion or gods much, except to debunk them. (I know the Original Series episodes well enough to remember one (“Balance of Terror”) with a couple scenes in a non-denominational chapel, about the closest Trek got to recognizing formal religion; and another (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”) in which the Enterprise encounters a superior alien being whose compatriots had visited Earth centuries before and been taken for the Greek gods… and in this episode, IIRC, Kirk comments that they no longer believe in “gods”; “we find the one quite sufficient”. So while undermining primitive concepts of gods (who were actually alien beings), there were some token nods to conventional monotheistic religious belief.

The Slate essay comments that Gene Roddenberry wanted to envision a future in which humanity had actually improved, in the sense that they had overcome religious superstitions and the cultural conflicts that are typical of most wars and conflicts around the world to this day.

Through Star Trek he wanted to show a future where we had grown up and were reaching our potential. This view provided the optimism and inspiration that cemented the show into the hearts of so many viewers. But it made it a challenging show for the writers and actors. Roddenberry’s view that we would be better people in the time of Star Trek in effect changed human nature and removed many of the natural sources of conflict for the stories the shows told.

Thinking back, I was not explicitly aware of this policy, except to have read some accounts from script-writers (e.g. Harlan Ellison), who resented the policy that prohibited conflicts among crew members (in his original draft of “The City on the Edge of Forever”).

But I suppose, in retrospect, the idealistic nature of Star Trek must have influenced my early thinking, and the undermining (as so much of science fiction has done) of conventional religious belief, the casual assumptions that one’s own culture is the center of all existence.


Via today’s Morning Heresy post, a quote from the autobiography of John Cleese (the Monty Python guy):

Yes, I know it’s easy to make fun of the organised churches, but has it occurred to anyone to wonder why it’s so easy? … All the vital questions have been dumped in favour of half-baked, po-faced rituals which are basically a form of middle-class rain dance.

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