“Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex wonderfully unfathomable world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?” ― Tim Minchin.
Christmas is Coming! What can it teach us?.
I was five years old, and my family was staying for Christmas at my grandparents’ farm. Excitable young me was filled with the thrill of having been told that Santa would visit tonight if I was a good boy and went to sleep. All the other children in the family promptly did so, but as the oldest child I decided to be a rebel; instead, I would lie awake in bed until midnight, when I would surely catch Santa as he came down the chimney.
As I lay silently in bed over the next few hours (??), I could hear the adults in subdued conversations across the house slowly becoming quiescent as they each went to bed, until a silence descended that was punctuated only by the ticking of a living room clock and the occasional crackle of embers in a fireplace. I daresay I fell in and out of an erratic sleep…
Later that night, I was apparently awoken by sleigh bells, a collective THUMP THUMP THUMP of reindeer hooves hitting the roof, and then a more sedate and solitary CLUNK… CLUNK… CLUNK… of heavy Arctic-type boots crossing the roof towards the chimney. After a few moments, I heard those same boots imprint themselves on the carpet in front of the fireplace, in the hallway outside my bedroom door, which my parents had left slightly ajar.
I squeezed my eyelids tightly shut, and heard almost imperceptible footsteps as someone entered the room momentarily to ensure that I was asleep. I lay there in my bed, with the blankets tightly pulled up to my chin. Quivering with excitement, even at that young age I knew that I would not likely be fooling anybody by pretending to be asleep. But then I heard the bedroom door squeak almost shut, as the person left the room. A couple minutes later, I heard footsteps across the roof again, and then sleigh bells jingle until they faded into the stillness of the night.
As an adult, nearly sixty years later, do I seriously think that I was visited by Santa Claus on that Christmas Eve 1966 in Bannockburn, Victoria? Of course not. What I do think is that this story probably demonstrates the power of lucid dreaming or hypnagogic hallucinations. Most obviously, though, it also reveals the power of suggestion to impressionable or excitable minds and may help to explain many conspiracy theories and stories of alleged angels, alien visitation, false memories, divine revelation, miracles, or the Mandela Effect.
My close encounter of the Santa kind is a transcendental moment for me because it contains a bitter lesson: it shows that for all our aspirations towards nobility and betterment, our propensity for progress can be inhibited. Our brains are flawed organs and we are susceptible to suggestion or hallucination – or just plain mistakes. Our dreams and visions can be imperfect or mistaken or outright incorrect. Transcendence or transgression, nobility or nonsense – we are capable of them all. This does not mean that we should abandon our quest for betterment or advancement; in fact it makes that quest all the more valuable when we exercise critical thinking, and balance our dreams with rationality in order to get something right.
Our search for spirituality should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes: humans are such a relatively small, insignificant part of the Universe, and yet we contain an immense capacity for nobility and growth within ourselves; we reflect a potentiality that is cosmic in its implications. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; we glimpse that capability within ourselves whenever we experience the everyday or glimpse transcendence. What some may call sacred or spiritual, I assert to be secular self-awareness: seeking something deep or meaningful, and finding profound awe and splendour in our human search.
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”
— Peter Drucker.
I was recently accused of being a militant gay atheist.
I felt momentarily dumbstruck, wondering which portion of that identity was meant to be militant – being gay or being atheist. But then I realised that the woman who had made this criticism appeared to be a religious lesbian who had read an article on my humanist blog. She evidently thought that accusing someone of being atheist was the harshest criticism she could hurl at me.
In response, I thanked her for the compliment, because – militancy aside (whatever that means) – I certainly would love to be considered in the same calibre as many LGBT atheists, nonbelievers or humanists who were part of the gay liberation era or subsequent LGBT rights activism, including Frank Kameny, Leonard Matlovich, Harvey Milk, Peter Tatchell, Greta Christina, Michael Callen, Barney Frank, Andrew Copson, Debbie Goddard, Christopher Hitchens, Bob Brown, Georgie Stone, Jason Ball, Alison Thorne and Phil Carswell – not to mention earlier role models including Magnus Hirschfeld, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Greta Garbo, Alfred Kinsey, Henry Gerber, Alan Turing and Marlene Dietrich.
This woman who seeks to insult me by calling me ‘militant gay atheist’ is a member of my own LGBT community – people who have traditionally been criminalised and pathologised and marginalised by religion to this very day. Nevertheless, like many in the LGBT community, she appears to default to religion as being the ethical norm, even in a demographic where nearly three quarters of her cohort identify as having no religion.
Atheists and agnostics need to confront and change this popular but erroneous conflation of religion with ethics. We can change it through the application of humanist (and other humanitarian) ethics and activism. To do this, humanists need to explore ‘three rs’ of our own – not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, but another three challenges to test our resolve: relevance, reconciliation and reassurance.
Our nation is dominated by young people who no longer predominantly look to the church, theology, or older philosophies for consolation. They are an increasingly nonbelieving cohort of people who find ancient myths interesting only because such stories can be rebooted and retold in modern, space age ways. Forget Jesus or Athena or Hercules; today we have Superman, Jessica Jones, Wonder Woman, Pokémon, Marvel superheroes, Katniss Everdean, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Captains Kirk and Picard and Janeway, Luke and Rey Skywalker, and Australia’s own Cleverman; all of them being reworkings of ancient heroic tropes. While young audiences flock to the Marvelverse, one recent popular visitation in Australia was to the Astraverse via the Bollywood Hindi superhero movie, Brahmastra Part 1: Shiva.
These superheroes are not like philosophers of yore, who navel gazed and debated how many angels sat upon the head of a pin. Today’s superheroes and cultural icons are people who reveal their inner philosophies and ethics through outward actions, not words. They reflect modern cultures of instant gratification and individualism: where smart phones make information exchange instantaneous and global; where communications have been revolutionised by Facebook which has replaced emails (which in turn replaced snail mail). People now seek their own answers and try to make their own sense of facts and data instead of deferring to experts and community leaders. They no longer need social clubs with monthly meetings and newsletters and annual membership fees if they can instead enjoy instant online social networking with those who share their specialised interests. Zoom meetings are replacing pub crawls. Welcome to the 21st century.
There is also the question of literary relevance. How do we promote humanism in a world where Scooby Doo and Sheldon Cooper have done more to advance popular understandings of evidentiary science and critical thinking than has the modern humanist movement; and where Big Bird has taught more young people about cooperation than a library full of secular ethics books? As an implicit recognition of cultural change, there have been various religious reboots, ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to Black Lightning, and from ‘Christ of the Never‘ to an African Jesus, that have all sought to keep their messages relevant to new audiences. Meanwhile, the interdependence of cultural mixes becomes apparent with the adoption of UFO mythologies by the Warlpiri people of the Northern Territory (see Eirik Saethre, 2007). This is a lesson that secularists would do well to learn. Where are our modern role models and morality plays and genuinely militant activists for humanity?
This brings us to one of the greatest challenges for secularism across western societies: its predominance of white, European men across atheist, aligned, and humanist discourse: everything from our cultural histories and conference programs, to podcasts, books, and traditional lists of those receiving our accolades or awards.
Don’t get me wrong: many rationalist/humanist/atheist activists are doing what they can to fight institutional racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. But we need to recognise that we are benefactors of generations of patriarchal and racially elitist attitudes and biases encompassing our sciences and arts, literary and intellectual norms; and that our cultural paradigms involve forms of white male privilege. Historically, Humanism can be seen as linked to colonialism:
“Colonialism relies upon a racist discourse of imperial humanism that orders humankind, implicitly or overtly, according to a naturalized hierarchy in which modern European White Man is taken as a normative template for human being, value, and achievement.” – Simone Bignall, p. 1.
Living in an era that strives to be post-colonial, do we dare to be post-humanist? What does that even mean, and what does it entail? Perhaps we should ask others outside of our comfort zone. Perhaps we should also consider the interdependence of our human and wider families: sentients, living creatures, the environment.
The debate between theism and atheism needs new definitions, and should ideally include the optimism inherent within humanist frameworks. As one example, US African-American humanist Anthony B. Pinn challenges his fellow humanists to ‘acknowledge blacks as being alive‘.
This rather startling statement has two clear interpretations: the first being to acknowledge that white privilege needs to be dismantled and replaced with genuine equality within which all people have equal rights and opportunities as a demonstration that all life is equally precious.
The second interpretation is that forms of atheism, in seeking to replace religious philosophies, must offer something that is at least as life affirming and compelling as the consolation offered by religion in response to death and mortality. Pinn explains that his walking away from the deeply religious elements of his African American community into broader secular humanism can be seen in this context:
“I left the church and entered a community I believe better values life, one that better understands the need to safeguard the life web of which humans are part.”
It is this consolation – the practical here and now, not some mythical afterlife – that Humanists should be promoting. Humans do not need the solace of a heaven in the afterlife if we are striving to make heaven here on Earth. Our questions, our answers, and our actions, can all help to create the future to which we aspire.
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein.
Simone Bignall, ‘Colonial Humanism, Alter-humanism and Ex-colonialism’, in S. Herbrechter et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Critical Posthumanism, 2022.
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan.
Humans have probably always liked to look up at the stars in awe – even those of us in modern generations who, for the first time in human history, live in urban centres that are so overcrowded with light pollution that our views of night-time skies are damaged and restricted.
Yet there seems to be something universal – maybe even primal – about our instinct to look upwards and gaze in wonder and appreciation of what we perceive to be scenic beauty.
I have come to wonder if there is some deep meaning behind our instinct to scan the skies. In recent years, Carl Sagan and J. Michael Straczynski have remarked that we are not only made of atoms that were forged inside the nuclear furnaces of stars, but we are star stuff with a sentient awareness of our actual existence within the cosmos.
Delenn: …I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of them all. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.”
― J. Michael Straczynski.
Our propensity for looking upward and asking questions about our place and purpose in the Universe has led to the birth of thousands of philosophies and religions. Perhaps one of the most universal manifestations of this practice – differing across cultures but seemingly ubiquitous around the globe – has been the quaint but mistaken tendency to look up and theorise that the stars and planets directly influence our daily lives. Just as they add visual grandeur to our lives, perhaps they also control our love lives, they give us good or bad luck, or they somehow influence the outcomes within our daily routines?
Astrology is a pseudoscience that has been thoroughly debunked. Dr Anthony Aveni explores twice when it was has been found wanting: the first time when Saint Augustine and early Christian leaders pointed out its inconsistencies with their religious doctrine, combined with the concurrent decline of ancient Greek and Latin learning upon which early astrology had been linked (1994, p. 170). Aveni then states that the second great debunking of astrology occurred more recently during the Enlightenment:
“Renaissance expressions of what the natural world was about echo from a tense time, when intellectuals who wanted to think and act more freely began to feel constrained by the demands of a deterministic universe… The freethinking humanists who began to shake the faith were partly responsible for astrology’s second death, for under the same roof, mathematically based astronomical theory and human practice began to seem ever more irreconcilable.” – Anthony Aveni, 1994, p. 171.
He notes how people began to approach astrology more rationally, for example asking how two different people who were born under the same astrological sign could nevertheless turn out so differently. The answer is a self-evident debunking of the whole pseudoscience.
Phil Plait summarises the human desire to find answers in astrology:
Despite the claims of its practitioners, astrology is not a science. But then what is it? It’s tempting to classify it as wilful fantasy, but there may be a more specific answer: magic.” (2002, p. 215)
Ultimately, astrology might be seen to be a wasteful distraction from finding real answers that underlie our tendency to ask big questions. Instead of seeking human answers from the stars in the sky, we should look for those same answers closer to home – in the star stuff that stares back at us when we look in the mirror.
Anthony Aveni, Conversing with the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos, New York: Kodansha America, 1994, pp. 170 – 177.
Philip C. Plait Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax’, New York: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2002.
I recently attended the funeral of an old friend. Forty years ago we met through our mutual interest in science fiction and cosmology, and we had stayed firm friends forever after, frequently talking about the awe of galactic vistas and the thrill of possible future spaceflight for humanity. But her death and funeral brought me back to earth with a thud.
As an atheist, I have attended a number of Catholic funerals. Despite my desire to show respect for the beliefs of the deceased, I have found it somewhat wearying to endure the innumerable times we are asked to stand for some (to me, meaningless) prayer or doctrinal babble and then sit down again; even more puzzling is the burning of incense, sprinkling of water, ringing of bells, ritual chanting, and even the holding of communion in the middle of a funeral. The hymns and music are often familiar but lack any personal connection to me, and moreso the Biblical readings, but still I always try to understand the underlying ideas of rebirth, redemption, or whatever it seems they are trying to convey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, what I find it most perplexing is that the majority of the service concentrates very little on the person being memorialised and more upon the rituals and doctrines of that church. Why such a predominance upon ritual? Is this some generic human thing?
I understand that the idea of life after death, and the somewhat appealing notion of eventually being reunited with lost ones, can give consolation to the bereaved and their family/community, but the religious claptrap often seems so distant and far removed from the rest of their lives. Case in point: to their credit, my friend’s extended family and community knew who I was and made me feel welcome. We chatted about the fact that my friend’s funeral was coincidentally being held on Star Trek Day, and we swapped stories about past times. I feel that such welcoming inclusion of strangers and newcomers within communal activities would be a good idea for atheist and humanist communities to learn – as might (or so some argue) the inclusion of rituals that provide meaning and communal bonding during life events.
I left the church feeling glad that I had attended, but also possibly feeling somewhat smugly superior because I clearly did not share their need for symbolic rituals. And then, as the hearse left, I flashed my friend the Vulcan salute.
Some decades ago, an an excitable young teen, I purchased what these days we would consider to be a pulp magazine from my local newsagents. It turned out to be a religious publication aiming to proselytise young people, but what attracted me was the cover photograph from a TV sci fi series and the headline asking whether sci fi would be the religion of the coming decade.
No, I thought to myself in answer to the question, sci fi was based upon science and was secular – such consolation and reassurance coming from the contemporaneously messianic prophetic figure connected to Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry, also known as The Great Bird of the Galaxy). Any irony in my mindset was later discerned after intervening decades matured my life perspective.
But it cannot be denied that sci fi taps into a very powerful impulse that also empowers religion: seeking hope and consolation from awe, wonder, and pondering our individual/collective place in the Universe. (In my own case, I lost my reverence for religion in my twenties when I realised that while sci fi looks ahead, religion too often looks backward and seeks to perpetuate archaic attitudes and moralities that humanity strives to outgrow. I like to think, however, that science and sci fi enabled me to retain my sense of awe and wonder, and my questioning impulse).
It is this same sense of veneration of our cosmos and our material, humanist potential that was captured in the recent return of the Cosmos TV series (produced in part due to the hard work of Seth MacFarlane) and then extended into his more recent sci fi series, The Orville, which recently telecast season 3 after a COVID-induced hiatus.
The wait for Season 3 was worth it.
Whereas its first two seasons struggled to balance sci fi aspirations with low-brow populist college undergraduate humour, Season Three has matured into a series beyond its inspirational sources (the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV programs) and even occasionally outstripping them with nobility and marvel.
The longer production time for Season 3, along with presumably a bigger budget, have enabled the series to expand into a noble and creative masterpiece within which each episode rivals the length and cinematography of a TV movie. Forget college undergraduate humour; this is a serious and philosophical sci fi production.
The opening episode of Season 3 takes an excursion into our modern world: our fear of developing technology and emergent sentientism, wherein the character of Isaac is bullied to the point of desparation. While this touches upon a prejudice first explored by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry who created a robot in his Questor Tapes TV pilot (he is credited as quoting the anti-robotic attitude of studio executives: “Yes, but would you want your sister to marry one?”) but it also provides arguably the weakest premise of the season, where prejudice and bullying are tolerated aboard the starship Orville with barely more than a metaphoric shrug and slap on the wrist. This opening episode also introduces the character of Charly, who is readily established as a nuanced but unlikeable character who must make her own journey through the season in order to find redemption.
Subsequent episodes explore strange new worlds both without and within. The Orville’s characters undertake journeys through metaphor and social issues that are as relevant as today’s news headlines: same sex marriage, LGBT rights, racism and prejudice, anti trans* bigotry and its ties with misogyny, war, hate and forgiveness, the morality of withholding life saving technology from deprived people, and definitions and clarifications of family. Go back and watch the first two seasons as an introduction to this optimistic season, which, retitled as The Orville: New Horizons, definitely takes us from familiar territory into new explorations of the human adventure.
The final episode (episode 10) brings Season 3 full circle, showing how race, culture and species can grow together into a form of family. This conclusion should be enough to bring human audiences (and a collective army of ten billion robots) to their feet in applause. In maturing into a serious series, the Orville points the way ahead with hope and optimism for our humanist and sentientist future. A new, better species traverses the heavens where once only trod the gods. All that and human too.
I sing the body cosmological
I celebrate multiverses;
Particles surfing on dark matter,
Virtualities mingling with the foam of nothingness
from which they came and to which they return.
Whether large or small, cubits or qubits,
Each Big Bang encapsulated in its own bubble.
I sing the body astronomical
Where laws of physics birth and give birth,
From galaxies to primordial goo
Where evolution unfolds from cosmological to astronomical
from stellar to planetary
from geological to chemical
from biosphere to biology
where stellar fires fuel organic fervour:
astronomic ardor begets earthly élan.
I sing the body organic,
A Laniakea of life.
Where muscles, neurons and dynamism
spin and dance and weave together
in a chorus of celebration and exploration
from bio to brio
from leaves of grass to lives of graciousness
from curious to courageous
from ignorant to informed
from enquiring to enlightened.
I sing the body electric,
(The armies of life engirthing each other and being engirthed)
Celebrating confluence to come – –
The rise of sentient AI
and the ennobling and enabling of current life
into TransHumanist and TransOrganic forms.
A joining, a fusing, a suturing,
where neurons marry quantum switches,
where life force marries electricity
A future where organics
and synthetics mingle and merge,
become the new living normal.
Where ‘society’ becomes ‘singularity’
and where individual thought becomes hive mind;
(the end of loneliness and selfishness and crime and poverty);
where ‘me’ becomes ‘we’
and all flesh and fibre
bone and clone
cellular and crystalline
sweat and sand
mortal and metal
I sing the body eclectic,
Evolving from cosmos to consciousness,
From cognition to conscience,
From competition to compassion.
With thanks and acknowledgement to Walt Whitman (poet), and Dean Pitchford & Michael Gore (song writers), for their inspiration.
I admit that I have not been blogging so much this year – I have been distracted by a need for activism in the world around me. My desire to help create a better world is not only my human instinct kicking in, but a manifestation of my interest in sci fi.
And in my quieter moments, I have been doing voluntary work for the Australian Science Fiction Foundation, especially helping to create their new website (soon to be launched) as my latest contribution to advancing futurism and cultural innovation. This is a refreshing exploration of other worlds and other realities, far from our mundane world of COVID and war and politics and world poverty.
And no, I have not been seeking mere escapism. I do not subscribe to the cliché that science fiction is a crutch for those who cannot cope with reality. Instead, I have been using the ideals and visions within SF to replenish my optimism for the real-life future and to contribute, in lateral ways, to building a better world by (hopefully) encouraging others to look upwards and ahead. Fictional character Sarah Connor once commented that a storm is coming, and her words should inspire us to prepare for whatever that storm may be – climate catastrophe, nuclear war, pandemic, political upheaval, or whatever the future may hold.
Which of course brings up an obvious question: why science fiction?
The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning
Humans have probably been telling stories since our distant forebears leant how to communicate. Those stories reflect our cultures, our values and our circumstances.
Where Jason and his Argonauts once explored unknown vistas, we now have James Kirk and his astronauts exploring strange new worlds. Where King Arthur or Robin Hood once fought for justice against corruption and oppression, we now have Harry Potter and Leia Skywalker. Superman and the Marvel Avengers police the ethereal skies where Olympian deities or other divinities once claimed exclusive sovereignty.
In the past, we had Pythia or Merlin or Sherlock Holmes as our fictional or mythological guides for morality and rationality responding to technology and circumstance; today Spock or the Doctor or R. Daneel Olivaw serve as transHumanist and secular reworkings of our template Everyman.
Through such timeless motifs – including the use of metaphoric humans disguised as robots, superheroes, artificial intelligence, or other forms of sentient life – science fiction holds up a mirror to ourselves and teaches us what it means to be human.
Mission to Planet Earth
Climate change and pollution are hardly new kids on the science fictional block. They have been explored for decades. Through SF films like Silent Running, I became aware of the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, while The Omega Man introduced me to the dangers of epidemics a decade before HIV/AIDS appeared on the world scene and a generation before COVID. Through the Planet of the Apes books and films, I became aware of the power of metaphor and nuance in exploring religious or philosophical themes, while 2001: A Space Odyssey taught me that the Universe’s poetry could be visual if we gaze into the cosmos.
Perhaps most powerfully, Star Trek and Thunderbirds showed me the power of people working together to explore strange new worlds and helping each other out of natural disasters.
And all of this before I hit puberty (which is testimony to the power of sci fi – as a genre that explores the future, it has special power to inspire and empower young people especially).
In the wider world, science fiction has the ability to warn us (The Handmaid’s Tale) or inspire us (Hidden Figures). I have known people whose career choices were inspired by SF: authors, teachers, human rights activists, scientists, doctors, even astronauts. And in turn, the real-life space program has helped to create the technological and scientifically literate cultures in which we live today.
More than all that, space and science fiction have already saved our planet, through NASA’s ‘Mission to Planet Earth‘ (launched in 1991) which led the world response in solving the hole in the Ozone layer.
I have previously written about the inspiration that can be found within science fiction:
I enjoy science fiction because it promises me that humanity has a future, full of dreamers, explorers and heroes. It promotes the joy of diversity – including aliens, robots, cyber citizens, sentients, men and women, [variously] queer and trans and gender non-binary humans – all living together in peace and equality.
We can do more than dream of such a world: we can help to create it. Make it so.
In 2009, blogger Keith Akers asked a question about the a popular internet meme which is commonly attributed to Gandhi: ‘Be The Change You Want to See in the World’. Akers has subsequently concluded that the likely original source of the aphorism was a high school teacher from Brooklyn, New York, named Arlene Lorrence, who popularised the saying in the 1970s.
Akers acknowledges that Lorrence was agnostic and that she popularised the aphorism within a larger initiative, The Love Project, as a way of seeking ‘her own spiritual revelation, unconnected with any specific religion… a conscious affirmation that she was open to the next level of her unfolding…’
Some atheists and humanists might find the concept of ‘spirituality’ to be problematic, because it deals with a term describing a realm of existence that lies beyond the measurable, observable universe, and is therefore subject to question. After all, how do we prove that we have a soul? Leaving aside such ephemeral questions; as a humanist, I see the quest for spirituality to be more in line with the basic human aspiration of self betterment and striving for higher goals. In our human quest for significance, we seek to make a difference and to somehow leave the world a better place for our having been in it; and one does not need a ‘soul’ for this – merely a conscience – and so the adage to ‘be the change’ touches a primal and universal human desire.
Alternatively, I do have a problem with the common assumption that religions somehow hold a monopoly upon morality. While social evolution continues to update and supersede religious philosophies – such as the concept that racial segregation could be justified by some conservative interpretations of religious thought (a popular idea within living societal memory), or the idea that women or LGBT people were somehow inferior – humanity continues to improve as humane, critical thought is applied to traditional philosophies. To me, one does not need a religion to be a good person – one only needs a conscience.
One example of outdated religious morality might be found in the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (Greek: deka logoi [“10 words”]), a set of religious precepts from Judaism that have also been adopted by Christianity and Islam as comprising a set of divinely mandated rules by which humans should live. It is worth noting the similarities and differences between the Decalogue and the earlier Code of Hammurabi, which appears to be more complex and nuanced but still equally archaic.
According to an email from the Atheist Republic on 18 March 2022, AR blogger Andrew McArthur analyses the 10 Commandments and aptly asks: Hey God, is this the best you’ve got?
This is no mean-spirited bashing of religious precepts nor some attempt to bully Christians out of their religious assumptions. Any objective examination of the 10 Commandments shows that humans can rationally deduce much better precepts for living – and we do every day. It is no wonder that – despite the fervent claims of some Christians to the contrary – the 10 Commandments are not the basis for civil society nor for our modern moral precepts. The Decalogue has long been superseded by humanist principles in everything from civil governance to family life; from the abolition of slavery to the implementation of human rights; from legal jurisprudence to international relations.
The 10 Commandments – Carved in the Stone (Age)
Others have critically reviewed the 10 Commandments and found them to be lacking – so I will not go into my own extensively detailed critique, except to point out what I believe to be their most obvious deficiencies. After all, even a cursory examination of the Ten Commandments reveals their inadequacies, omissions and skewed priorities.
The first three Commandments concern God demanding total and unshared worship – “thou shalt have no other gods before me” etc (an interesting perspective from religions that subscribe to monotheism claiming that only one god exists). This deity devotes three whole commandments (30% of his whole moral code) to demanding that his followers worship only him. In a moment of embarrassing candour, I must admit that this insistence upon his own wants and needs actually reminds me of a schoolkids’ club that I tried to run when I was between the ages of 11 to 14. I drew up a list of club rules, and, impatient that my friends would not drop everything else in their lives and attend every meeting, I insisted on absolute attendance and compliance. OK, that was my immaturity and childhood inability to fully empathise with others (something that I hope I have left behind in my more mature years) – but this is a perspective that any omniscient deity should surely have outgrown.
Only one Commandment really touches upon family issues, and it instructs children to honour their parents. It says nothing about honouring children, ensuring that marriage is a joining of equals, providing a safe family space, banning family violence, or even defining whether a family is a nuclear family or otherwise. Do we help others in our extended family, or all members of our human family? Apparently God does not care about these other matters.
The Commandment banning killing is problematically vague. Does this include banning abortion? (elsewhere in the Bible suggests not) – War and genocide? (the Bible is full of these) – Does it permit execution of declared criminals (such as children who disrespect their parents) or people from other religions, or witches, or LGBT people? (Leviticus is full of it). Or can we kill others in self defence? And does this prohibition endorse the sanctity of all life and imply that we should all become Vegan? Hmm. God seems a little bit vague here.
Andrew McArthur points out the problems with the Commandment banning adultery:
Okay, but what about rape? What about child sexual abuse? What about polygamy? Again, this God fellow seems rather limited in his understanding of the human ability to behave in absolutely vile ways when it comes to sex.
Indeed, this commandment is the only one that mentions any form of sexual morality, so its scope for regulating all human sexual behaviour seems rather naïve and inadequate. Aside from child abuse and rape as mentioned by Andrew McArthur, the Commandments say nothing about banning armies from committing mass rape of conquered peoples and the sexual enslavement of conquered women and children – as frequently happened according to the purported history of the Old Testament. Marriage itself (the subject of this Commandment) is seen in this same religious culture as a form of indentured sexual servitude for women – which, when combined with the Commandment not to covet thy neighbour’s ass or wife or any other of his possessions, makes the intent of the Commandment about adultery clear: adultery is merely an extension of the Commandment not to steal: do not steal a man’s female sexual servant nor his honour.
We can do better. This is, after all, the twenty-first century CE and no longer the Stone or Bronze Age.
The 10 Countermandments – Principles for the Space Age
In order to encourage critical thinking and freethought inquiry, it seems easy to write a better, more balanced and (frankly) more civilised set of 10 Countermandments for our modern world. For example:
THOU SHALT respect the planet, its environment, its many vulnerable biospheres, and all species. This includes recognising and protecting the fragile nature of our solitary blue dot in space.
THOU SHALT respect all sentient life and ensure that societal rules governing life and death are are predicated upon grounds that are rationally deduced and enacted; and are designed to minimise suffering, prolong the value and nobility of all dignified life.
THOU SHALT honour human rights and ensure that all behaviours, cultures, religions, political/economic systems, and laws uphold those rights.
THOU SHALT ensure that all people have access to free education, medical care, employment opportunities, housing, and welfare.
THOU SHALT uphold full equality of all people, regardless of cultural or racial background, sexuality, gender or gender identity, age, employment status, nationality, financial status, physical and mental ability, or other means that have traditionally been used to discriminate and disempower.
THOU SHALT provide special assistance to those who are disadvantaged or oppressed, in order to ensure that they are fully enabled to exercise their human rights and individual potential alongside everyone else. This includes protecting women, children, economically deprived populations, war victims and refugees, people living with disability, older populations and others who are especially vulnerable.
THOU SHALT actively work to abolish inequality, poverty and oppression in all its forms; and rigidly enforce a ban on slavery, torture, violence, war, and entrenched political/institutional inequality.
THOU SHALT encourage opportunities for education, critical thinking, sciences and arts, and the self empowerment of all people.
THOU SHALT love all human and sentient life as much as oneself, and behave accordingly.
THOU SHALT use one’s life and abilities to maximise opportunities for individual and communal fulfilment of potential, happiness, life and love; creating a better world for having been in it.
OK, so these countermandments sound a bit like simplistic platitudes, and I daresay I have accidentally left out important principles, but this list was cobbled together quickly in order to demonstrate that it is easy to find better ethical principles than might be found in dusty old theologies and mythologies. Thinking of such possibilities can be fun.
But what is even more fun, beautiful, challenging and awe inspiring is a willingness to be the change we want to see.
I never met my grandfather (see the picture of him during WW1), because he died years before I was born, but one family story is that he used to have fun at parties telling people that he and my grandmother had met in an insane asylum – because they had. Both of them had been psychiatric nurses dealing with the trauma of shattered bodies and minds among returned soldiers after the so-called Great War.
Two decades later during World War Two, my other grandfather served as a volunteer fireman during the Blitz in England. He was often called to go out and extinguish fires at night after buildings had suffered from bomb damage. One night, according to family lore, he returned home greatly distressed – a bomb had hit an air raid shelter and killed many men, women, children and babies, and he had been forced to help sift through the rubble and carnage.
This is the reality – for all our admiration of Star Wars movies and Rambo flicks, for all our cultural hero worship of ANZACs and the Battle of Britain and the Trojan War, the reality is that war is hell. People and other living creatures suffer and die. Certain nations may boast of their military spending and campaigns, but they are actually making profit from the death of others.
But there is a greater reality – whether climate change (war against the environment) or politics (war against civic society) or world poverty (war on equality) or nature (war for survival).
Richard Dawkins summarises the reality of nature:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease…”
The animal world is hell, and humans are part of that natural world – so why should the human world be any different?
The answer is obvious: because we can make it better. We have the capacity and therefore the moral responsibility. Our basic human intellect and ethics should make us not only humanist but also sentientist.
The war continues every day. What did you do during the war?
Whether star gazing or navel gazing, humans experience awe and wonder in their world. We see dragons in clouds, and Jesus’ face on a piece of toast; we hear cosmological choirs in a symphony orchestra, and we interpret design in the natural environment even though we evolved to fit inside its parameters. Our tendency towards Pareidolia makes us creatures who are hard wired to find comfort, security and meaning in patterns and interpretation. Sometimes those interpretations can be profoundly life changing.
“There are moments in your life that make you and [set] the course of who you’re going to be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes, they’re big moments you never saw coming. No one asks for their life to change, but it does. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.” – Unknown.
One of my earliest memories is from my very young childhood, when my family was out for a Sunday drive. Suddenly, we heard the sound of an ambulance siren, and my father (who was driving) pulled over to let the ambulance overtake and speed ahead – right through a red light intersection that lay ahead. I asked my parents why they were allowed to do that.
Mum and Dad explained that the ambulance had special permission under the law, because they were on their way to help save someone in an emergency. Over fifty years later, I recall that moment – I was dumbfounded and nearly burst into tears; deeply, profoundly touched that the law recognised the value of human life, and was prepared to allow ambulances to break ordinary laws if it meant helping to save someone. It was perhaps a definitive moment in my early life, when I understood that humans were capable of great nobility.
In subsequent years, I came to understand that many people value such transitional moments or flashes of insight, and they often seek vocabulary to clarify or express the import of those moments: spirituality, transcendence, the miraculous or the numinous. Whole religions have risen up in search of answers to explain such times of inner existential reflection.
But for me, this is one significant feature of the human creature – our ability to ponder and reflect, and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. We see it everywhere – from Harry Potter books that enrapt a generation with their implicit message of finding something magical in the everyday; to our ability to marvel at the night-time sky. For me, this is not divine revelation or fate; it is simply the ability of sentient humans to seek, find or create significance for themselves.
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A more recent transcendent moment took place after I had faced heart surgery and the possibility of my own mortality. Some relatives visited me in the hospital, and gave me a photo of a baby that had just been born into the family. I instantly fell in love with the child not only because he shared my DNA, but also because he represented something more fundamental: the potential and hopes for life itself. Amidst my lonely cogitations of possible mortality, here was a baby showing me that life goes on regardless of anyone’s individual circumstance. I was greatly comforted with the profundity that I was part of a species and an organic flow of life that would continue whether or not I was there to participate further. Where some people sought consolation in religion as something bigger than themselves, I was comforted to know that the human species – and life itself – offered its own version of collective immortality through biological survival.
Beyond humans, our biosphere is filled with other species that also share our biological imperative to survive. I wonder if, like humans, other sentient species also have their own versions of numinous experiences?
“What a piece of work is [humanity], How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty…” – Shakespeare..
Our search for ‘spirituality’ should be recognised as a pilgrimage in search of our secular selves, warts and all. Carl Sagan acknowledged that “We are a way for the universe to know itself” and such a revelation is both reassuring and terrifying in its aspiration and its possible outcomes. We do not need a stone age deity or a new age mystic to tell us that we are filled with potential; our individual ideals and visions are a Rorschach test of our inner personalities. Our self awareness compels us to seek enlightenment or significance in nature, music, arts, hobbies, or philosophies, but our answers – and the transcendent responses we elicit – come from within. I believe that the numinous is luminous: it lights the way ahead for us as we seek to improve ourselves and our world.
I don’t suppose there are too many 60 year-olds who can find documented evidence from 90% of their lifetime ago and discover that they were writing fan fiction. Helping my elderly mother clear out some drawers of old family memorabilia, I recently came across a booklet I had produced in 1966 (or thereabouts) which showed that my earliest surviving fan fiction was not Star Trek, Thunderbirds, UFO, McMillan and Wife or The Night Stalker. My earliest fic – holy jemoly! – was the Batman TV series.
Diversity starts early. In my case, having learnt to read before I even arrived at school, I recall reading Black Beauty from cover to cover, along with my mother’s assistance, at the age of four. When I began school, I was placed in a large class of children for whom reading was otherwise a largely alien concept. At recess and lunchtime, while the majority of my male classmates were learning to kick a football, my mixed-gender peer group busied itself playing elastics or role-playing ‘Lost in Space’, and generally not conforming to the stereotype of 1960s Aussie school kids. That peer group later grew up to mature into a collection of gay men, lesbians, cross dressers, and other diverse characters. They all loved science fiction from an early age.
As a teenager, while my male school friends were out playing footy (or other sport) every Saturday afternoon, I was curled up on my bed reading the latest Asimov or other science fiction paperback novel that I had purchased with that week’s pocket money. Such an intellectual investment has long-term implications: as an adult, I have more books in my house than any other item.
My passion for writing also began at an early age: the above photo features the front of a four-page booklet that I produced in the mid-1960s modeled on the Batman TV series – and in which a friend rather kindly suggested recently that I showed a better understanding of narrative structure at age six than some modern adult authors do today. Whatever the case, this humble venture spearheaded a lifetime of writing which began with fan fiction and evolved into more serious efforts – academic and otherwise – and which most recently includes this blog.
Aristotle spoke of how our basic personalities are formed at a young age. He foreshadowed the nature versus nurture debate regarding various aspects of our character: sexuality, addictions, mental health predispositions, etc. We accept that the answer to the nature versus nurture debate often appears to be that we are born this way and that our personality does not change. My own experiences of attending school or science fiction reunions – and finding my old classmates or Trek friends still pretty much the same people in middle age as they were when tender teenagers – is testimony to this fact.
And yet our early social conditioning – our nurture – is not immutable. My childhood upbringing included a strong religious component, from which I broke away in my twenties when intellectual and moral conflicts arose between religious dogma and real-life issues such as critical thinking, sexuality, world poverty, and the religious-based oppression of women, LGBT, and others. Secular utopian (and dystopian) science fiction provides much more relevant, grounded, thought-provoking and inspirational literature than does apocalyptic ancient Biblical mythology; real-life humanist activism helps to create a better world today than does deferring instead to an unproved religious afterlife.
At the time, my religious deconversion was like a cataclysmic nuclear explosion amongst toxic religious dictates that had accumulated in my life. The transition ended one life trajectory, and began another – one that was unexpected, unknown, and uncertain. Although painful at the time, in hindsight I now see 13 September 1987 as my day of liberation, encapsulated in a quote from science fiction TV series Space 1999:
“It’s better to live as your own man, than as a fool in someone else’s dream.”
(John Koenig, The Bringers of Wonder part 2, 1977).
Pain and trauma supply life experience that can lead to growth and personal development, and provide an opportunity to explore a vast cosmos of new ideas and fresh perspectives: To everything that might have been… To everything that was.
My life experience thereby suggests that there are aspects of free will which can be chosen and altered. I believe that we have a responsibility to choose betterment… every time.
Early exposure to science fiction and fan fiction instilled in me a sense of activist empowerment, and a strong optimism for the future despite what I see as humanity’s many flaws and weaknesses. That is my human journey, and I hope is it also your experience… and your daily choice within whatever aspects of free will you experience for yourself.
My speech at an Interfaith Dialogue in September 2017, alongside a Christian And Muslim Speaker at La Trobe University.
I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Based up indigenous.gov.au and Reconciliation Australia
I begin with an Acknowledgement of Country because it is appropriate. Similarly, I am wearing a ‘Vote Yes’ T-shirt tonight not to confront people regarding the same-sex marriage postal vote, but because the T-Shirt and the AOC are pertinent to what I will be saying.
My name is Geoff and I am an atheist and humanist. Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight at your Interfaith Dialogue, although I should start with some clarifications and definitions.
Unlike Islam, Christianity and other religions, atheism is not a faith position. It is the exact opposite – a lack of belief in a god or gods. Beyond that, there is no singular ‘atheist position’ on any issue or argument, which is probably why we generally do not have atheist churches or many social groups. Atheist views are as diverse as are the background cultures and societies of atheists around the world. Therefore, I am not here to give ‘the’ atheist perspective on happiness but simply one individual atheist perspective – my own.
Many atheists subscribe to humanism, an outlook that provides the foundation for much of our modern, secular world, and of our understandings of human rights, humanitarian charities, the humane treatment of animals, and a recognition of our common humanity.
In the words of Shakespeare: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.”
This is not some subverted form of religious worship inverted back upon the human ego, but an evidentiary recognition that humans have singular capabilities to solve the problems of the world – and a related responsibility to do so.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We all know the words and understand that these are three things to which humans presumable aspire. But what exactly is happiness? How might atheists and humanists view happiness?
In the words of one old song, happiness means different things to different people. We all understand and emotionally connect when we see the happiness on the face of a smiling, giggling baby; we all laugh when a friend shares a funny joke; we are all susceptible to the charms of advertisers who tell us that our lives will be happier if we purchase their product.
But happiness as an emotion is transitory and fleeting. It is unreliable and can be deceptive. I have been told by believers that their faith makes them happy or that, conversely, if they lost their faith, their lives would feel empty and unfulfilled. Either way, they are equating their religion with their happiness as some sort of supposed evidence of their faith. I have two problems with such a position. Firstly, as an atheist, my lack of belief gives me an equal sense of happiness and fulfillment – and I recall a Christian friend who admitted to me, a year after I lost my faith, that she could see that I had never been happier. So you with your beliefs and I with my non-belief may feel equally happy, but we cannot both be right.
Secondly, alcoholics and drug addicts find happiness in substance abuse. They actually feel happy even as they potentially destroy their lives or the lives of others. Their example shows me that the emotion of happiness is not a measure of whether something is necessarily good or bad, right or wrong, true or false.
But there is more to happiness than the emotional state. Happiness is also a sense of well being and fulfilment that comes about when our physical and psychological welfare needs are met. In his book ‘The Expanding Circle’, ethicist Peter Singer explores the evolution of our sense of welfare as both individuals and as a collective human society. Singer writes that reason leads to the principle that “one’s own interests are one among many sets of interests”, and that none of these other sets of interests are ordinarily more or less important than our own.
As we individually grow from childhood to adulthood, we learn that our welfare is interdependent with that of others around us. As children, we learn that the welfare of our siblings and parents is inextricably bound to our own. Beyond that, we learn similarly of our school friends, our neighbourhoods, our churches and other social circles, then ultimately of our nation and the world.
Such growth in understanding can also be seen in collective human societies as they evolve from small hunter gatherer clans, to larger city states, and beyond into widespread national and trans-national identities. Indeed, recent human understandings have expanded our welfare concerns to include those of animals and of the environment.
I view the holy books of the three Abrahamic religions as literary products of their pre-industrial and pre-enlightenment societies, conflating tribalism with particular religions, and concerning themselves with the preservation of those cultural identities. I also see that the world is evolving beyond such tribalism, and increasing numbers of people see religion as providing insufficient foundation for our identities as digital and global citizens. In response, and despite their insistence upon tradition, religions adapt and evolve in order to survive, as does all of human society.
This brings me back, full circle, to my beginning, with my Acknowledgement of Country, which recognises that everything we do can impact upon other people’s lives in ways that are positive, negative and neutral. My country also currently incarcerates refugees and asylum seekers in concentration camps under conditions that are cruel and inhumane. How can humanists respond to such injustice?
As a part answer, I offer my T-shirt, which concerns itself with the same-sex postal vote. I wear this ‘yes’ T-shirt with pride, fully aware that there may be others in this auditorium who disagree. But I ask for your indulgence in a quick thought experiment. If, instead of same-sex couples, the postal vote was asking us about another minority group. What if it asked whether Jews should enjoy equal rights in Australia? Or Muslims? Asian Australians? Catholics? Indigenous Australians? How would you vote then? I would hope that you might vote for equality and compassion, in recognition of our common humanity – as though your brother’s or sister’s human rights were under question, because indeed they are.
In all these cases, I would still vote the same way and still wear this T-shirt with equal pride, because I believe – as I hope you do – that we are all equal in worth and dignity, and should be entitled to equal protection under the law. Our entitlement to happiness as living, thinking beings, surely compels us to work towards the mutually beneficial welfare of all.
We are all here at university because we recognise that we do not and cannot know everything, but we wish to learn skills that will enable us to research wisely, to think critically, and to reach informed and reasoned, evidence-based conclusions as part of our individual journey towards becoming empowered global citizens. You may believe in an afterlife – I do not – but I hope that we share a similar desire to do our bit to help create a bit of heaven here on Earth, because our minds give us the capacity to do so and our conscience compels us to act.
Caring for the welfare of others, and working towards that end, helps to create fulfilled individuals and produces a society wherein an optimal amount of happiness might be created for all. My own quest for happiness inspires me to work for the happiness of others, as I hope your journey may similarly inspire you.
The popularity of the original series of Star Trek is based, in no small part, upon its portrayal of racial equality, possibly explained most succinctly by Star Trek actor George Takei (2015, @4:35 minutes) when he postulated that the starship Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth, adding that: “… the strength of this starship lay in its diversity…”. The show’s racial mix was exemplified in its most famous interracial kiss during a third season episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, originally telecast in November 1968. This legendary kiss forms one of Star Trek‘s most endearing urban myths, and serves as a focus of intersectionality entwining societal racism, misogyny and homophobia. The episode in question was a favourite of one of my Star Trek friends and mentors, Diane Marchant, because it also featured a kiss between Spock and Christine Chapel, but for some reason, even as an adolescent, I greatly detested the episode, although I could never quite clarify to myself why I disliked it so much.
Eric Greene (2006, 59) points out one of its obvious problems, and in doing so, he provided me with a personal revelation as to why I had always found this episode repulsive: ‘Kirk and Uhura were forced into that kiss – it was desired by neither and resisted by both. And a Black woman forced to kiss a white man against her will ain’t romance. It’s rape.’
Oops. It is time for Star Trek‘s 23rd century to have its own #MeToo moment.
Another major problem is that, according to this urban myth, the smooch was television’s first interracial kiss – which is incorrect. It was not even Star Trek‘s first interracial kiss. Kirk kissed Marlena Moreau in Mirror Mirror, an episode that aired the year before Plato’s Stepchildren (O’Boogie, 2015). Another, earlier interracial Star Trek kiss featured Khan Noonian Singh and Marla McGivers in the episode Space Seed; their romance having been made possible by the removal of an even earlier interracial relationship that had been planned for first season episode, The Alternative Factor (Cushman with Osborn, 2013, 474 – 476).
In all myths – urban and otherwise – the mythical and fictional dimensions grow as time passes, and mundane details can later assume Olympian proportions. We see this metamorphosis take place within living memory, wherein the mythology of Roswell grows from shattered weather balloon to alien visitation, and then to full-blown government conspiracy within a few short years. Similarly, having been a Star Trek fan for about fifty years, I can testify that in the 1970s, Plato’s Stepchildren was considered to be just another episode, and was not seen as being anything significant in Star Trek lore. It was only some years later, perhaps after The Next Generation, that I seem to recall ever hearing the idea that Plato’s Stepchildren gave us television’s first interracial kiss. This was not the only Star Trek urban myth that appears to have developed some years after the original events, to accommodate the needs of the franchise expanding to meet audience demands. But like all myths, this tale tells us perhaps more in its unpacking than in its telling: we desire racial equality, and a utopian story featuring utopian heroes is more uplifting and emotionally appealing than more mundane realities.
The realities are that various interracial kisses had already appeared on US TV as far back as 1951, when Lucille Ball kissed Dezi Arnaz Jr (Mcleod, 2015). In a wider scope, a television kiss between black and white participants actually first took place (O’Boogie, 2015) in a 1959 TV program called Pension Hommeles on Netherlands TV; followed by a similar kiss (Mcleod, 2015) in a 1962 UK TV play, You In Your Small Corner. Even the first season of US western series The Wild, Wild West – which I would see as a template for much of what happened later in Star Trek – featured an interracial kiss between a Caucasian man and an Asian woman in 1966 (Jay, 2019).
The presumption within all these kisses was heteronormativity. By contrast, David Gerrold (2014) points to a very early Star Trek episode, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, which includes a scene where Uhura spontaneously gives a ‘sisterly’ kiss to Christine Chapel in a moment of shared excitement. It is there that we find Star Trek‘s first interracial kiss, possibly overlooked for fifty years because it involves a same-sex kiss between two women. Yet the ‘groundbreaking’ kiss which Star Trek promotes in its urban mythology is the patriarchal, heterosexual rape kiss (with racist overtones) between Kirk and Uhura.
Our human adventure is just beginning; and we do not need to invent fallacious myths in order to find inspiration. By all means, let us find value and significance and vision in our modern literature and art, but let’s base these stories upon truth and positive human values. Star Trek was transformative as television; we do not need false folklore to fully appreciate its positive humanism.
Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, 2013. These Are The Voyages: TOS Season 1, (Revised Edition), San Diego: Jacobs/Brown Press.
Eric Greene, 2006. ‘The Prime Question’, in David Gerrold & Robert J Sawyer (eds.), Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Dallas: BenBella Books, 57 – 86.
Kayla Iacovino et al, 2015. Oh Captain, My Captain (Kirk), Women at Warp, Episode 6, 10 May. (See also Rebecca’s response of 22 July 2015 on that webpage).
Maurice Mcleod, 2015. ‘Why TV’s first interracial kiss is a proud British snog’, The Guardian, 24 November.
Dr Winston O’Boogie, 2015. ‘Did Star Trek really show TV’s first interracial kiss?’, The Agony Booth, updated 22 November.
George Takei, 2015. In Neil DeGrasse Tyson (host), Star Talk, 20th Century Fox.
From Anthropomorphism to Apollo
– outgrowing ancient myths, creating new ones.
“LIFT-OFF! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.” – NASA Public Affairs Officer Jack King utters the first words to confirm lift-off.
On the 52nd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 towards the Moon, it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect upon the philosophical questions posed by that scientific achievement. The story of the Apollo missions is the stuff of modern legend – and is destined to become modern mythology. Perhaps it is no surprise that even as the Apollo missions were preparing to land men on the Moon, the archetypical astronaut was being conflated with pop mythology comprising gods and celestial beings, courtesy of Erich von Daniken.
Taking this idea of prosthesis and osmosis one step further, it is possible to understand that the space age has transformed us – and is still doing so, upgrading humanity one mobile phone at a time. Our ever-accelerating hardware and software updates mean that we have become humans with different capabilities and expectations than our parents during the Apollo Moon missions. It is hard to remember the world before the Internet, before ubiquitous mobile phones and streaming and tablets and wifi transformed us into a species that is closer to a lived experience of the ‘global village’ than any other in history. This merging of humanity with heroic high-tech might be the next step in our evolution from organic to something more. Such change is something to be celebrated and not feared:
“Asked if he felt the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanise us, [Arthur C] Clarke replied, “No, I think it’s superhumanising us.” “ (Benson, 2018, 432)
This evolution may even extend from the human to the posthuman. Francesca Ferrando suggests with some qualification that:
“Etymologically, the term “human” comes from the Latin term “humus” meaning “soil”, which, in our solar system, is only present on Earth. We can thus see migrating to space as the linguistic and semiotic step towards the literal creation of post-humans…”
Thus we may be evolving into the beings that we currently imagine in our dreams and myths: better, stronger, faster. Arthur C Clarke asserts in his Third Law that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and maybe we get a glimpse of this advancement when we ponder our futuristic posthuman societies scattered across the solar system. Perhaps we are in the process of becoming our mythological heroes.
Hit and Myth
My introduction to science and myth-making came via two avenues: the first being the flying saucer craze of the 1970s (which really excited a teenager who had been inspired by the space program) until I began to realise – as I came of age – that the science and critical thinking in these conspiracy theories was abysmal. I later came to understand a fundamental truth about the UFO craze as explained by Alexander Geppert (2012, 335):
“Seldom can historians observe the making of a ‘modern myth’ in real time, over the course of several decades; the emergence of the UFO phenomenon immediately after the Second World War constitutes such a case.‘.
My faith in UFOs began to decline along with my wishful thinking about Chariots of the Gods and the possible circumstances surrounding the tragic disappearance of Fred Valentich as a local case of alleged alien intervention. Even as a callow youth, I could see that UFOlogy was more wishful thinking than scientific investigation. I was maturing into a youth who esteemed critical thinking and scientific evidence over excitement and superstition. If only the rest of the world could do the same!
My second introduction to science and mythopoeia came via a humble pulp magazine that was on sale in my local newsagents in 1979. I was attracted to the front cover and content of a magazine that proclaimed; “SCI FI – Religion of the 80’s”. Inside, Christian evangelist Mal Garvin proclaimed:
“We believe that science fiction is replacing some of the functions of religion. Though it may be doing it for the wrong reason.” (Garvin, 1979, 24.)
In that same issue, the Superman story was conflated with Biblical figures (ibid, 37 – 40). Even then, as a tender young teen, I sensed that this conflation of science and myth was somehow intended to lend scientific credibility to mythical/religious archetypes instead of acknowledging the grandeur to be found in science. If anyone was using the wrong reason to conflate science and religion, it was not the scientists.
Utopia, Dystopia, Mythopoeia
It is perhaps in human nature to construct a whole pantheon of mythologies, spanning from past and present into the future. As children, we seek role models in order to learn by imitation. As adults, although we have outgrown the need for imitation, we retain the instinct and use it to construct mythologies, religions and archetypes in order to personify what ideals we would seek to emulate or take as a warning of our fears. JRR Tolkein spoke of this myth-making in his poem Mythopoeia:
“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.”
Star Wars creator George Lucas created a breathtakingly successful franchise by borrowing extensively from other science fiction stories or literary tropes – including Flash Gordon, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo, Gone with the Wind, and ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen – and creating modern mythology which will undoubtedly echo our culture in the annals of history as much as the legend of Troy documents the culture of ancient Greece.
“Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.”
Such a conflation can be awe inspiring as we discover the glories of science. But David Ludden Ph.D. warns us that this conflation of science and mythology has its potential dangers, including the rise of conspiracy theories that undermine public confidence in science:
“Because conspiracy theories sow the seeds of distrust in our governmental and social institutions, they can have a destabilizing impact on politics and society.”
Whether 5G, COVID (or other) vaccines, HIV/AIDS denialism, climate catastrophe, Moon landing hoaxes, September 11, lizard aliens… and probably a thousand other conspiracies… Ludden suggests that such theories express the desire for understanding and certainty, control and security – particularly among those who do not understand modern science or who might feel threatened by the modern world. I would suggest that such theories also promote the false equivalence of expertise versus ignorance – a favourite among religious fundamentalists – where uneducated and unqualified people believe that their ignorance is equal to the knowledge of world experts. Conspiracy theorists want to bypass years of hard study and academic rigour, and declare themselves as being equal to Stephen Hawking, Anthony Fauci or Katherine Johnson. This is a rather astonishing act of laziness, arrogance and hubris. Do you want to know about the COVID vaccine? Go ask your doctor – YouTube is not a university; and Facebook is not a scholarly source. Do you want to determine if climate change is real? Don’t take my word for it – ask a climate scientist, not your fundamentalist pastor who relies solely on a Bronze Age prescientific book as his sole source of information.
Barry Vacker warns us that the conflation of science with mythopoeia is filled with the danger of these human frailties:
“The Apollo missions, 2001, and the original Star Trek TV series blasted us into a sublime future with the opportunity to build a unified planetary civilization, but we rejected it because we were unwilling to accept that we are a single species inhabiting a watery rock orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen in an infinite universe. Apollo and Hubble forced us to confront cosmic nihilism, or the fact that there is no obvious meaning to human existence in a godless universe. Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-year-old moon, and via the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve peered across 13.7 billion years of space-time — and there is not a Creator in sight. As Nietzsche famously said long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.” But most everyone can’t accept it. Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Yet our species remains in utter denial.
We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless” – (Vacker, 2018, 3).
Dr. Pham Trong Van points out that knowledge comes after a long process of hard study: “You must identify clearly that studying is arduous and “the path of science” is not like others. Through difficulties, we find the glories of science and sympathize with those who sacrifice their whole lives for science.” And Armond Boudreaux reminds us that mythologies serve a more pointed purpose in our modern human endeavours:
“One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power.”
Perhaps our myths and deities tell us more about ourselves than we realise: our gods are anthropomorphic versions of our aspirations, dreams, or nightmares.
A generation has now passed since men walked on the Moon, and this has allowed sufficient time for eye witnesses to become wizened historians; for formerly fresh and vibrant memories to be recast as ephemera within a larger repository of lifetime memories; and for exciting progressive events to be recontextualised within the mundane modern culture that they have helped to create.
Like the charming angels on the frontage of Bath Cathedral – many climbing Jacob’s ladder and some falling back down – we are a mix of aspiration and frailty, nobility and weakness. Our science and our dreams are limited by our failures and foibles. But still we strive and evolve beyond our mundane limitations, even though – on the scale of an individual human lifetime – such evolution seems to take forever. Our small steps become a giant leap when combined.
Meanwhile, adults and children continue to pause and gaze up at the night sky in awe and wonder – we are glimpsing our past, our current place in the cosmos, and our future destination. As we outgrow our pantheon of deities from Mount Olympus or the Garden of Eden, we might find another source of inspiration when we climb the dizzy heights of Olympus Mons on Mars, or create our own interstellar Garden of Eden on an exoplanet. Leaving behind our ancient mythologies, perhaps we will create new ones that are more authentic, engaging and exciting. Stardust to stardust.
Michael Benson, 2018. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Francesca Ferrando, 2016. ‘Why Space Migration Must Be Posthuman’, in Schwartz, J., Milligan, T. (eds.) Ethics of Space Exploration, Springer, Vol. 8, 137-152.
“Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict
and just big enough for co-operation.” – Yuri Gagarin
Sir Isaac Newton is famously attributed, in his 1675 letter, with the metaphor that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can certainly appreciate his allusion to the intellectual and scientific giants who have changed our world. And yet the metaphor has earlier attribution that includes Christian humanist Guillaume de Conches, and implictly accords greatness to people from many backgrounds and cultures across humanity. In 1961, a young Soviet pilot became one such giant by literally going boldly where no one had gone before.
I am lucky to have been born – with barely one fortnight to spare – into a generation that will, in the mists of history, be remembered as one which truly took a step into a new frontier and maybe changed forever what it means to be human. This revolutionary change was spearheaded by 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, born into a family with seemingly evocative Biblical overtones (his parents were a carpenter and a dairy farmer) whose trip on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok lasted just 89 minutes. With his short cosmic jaunt, he plugged into the timeless dreams of philosophers and stargazers, and tapped into our most primal dreams of flight:
YURI GAGARIN Maj. Yuri Gagarin during training, April 1961. The black-and-white photo has been colorized. AP Photo / TASS / Mattias Malmer (public domain). Planetary Society.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
– from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee
While writing such testimony, I resist the conceit of mythopoesis, the process of creating myth; a human tendency that was evident in those who sought to recast Gagarin as a Russian icon, or ascribe him an aristocratic family background. Nevertheless, the reality is that Gagarin was a genuine pioneer and hero, and that his was a dangerous journey aboard a flawed, fragile capsule hoisted aloft by explosive propellant. The background stories behind his life, flight, and tragic death, are all shrouded in Soviet-style mystery, and certainly help to demythologise his narrative. In the early days of the space race, cosmonauts and astronauts were referred to in the USA as people with ‘the right stuff’, able to tap into inner reserves of resilience and indomitability. Gagarin’s background may have prepared him for such a hardy adventure. William Blake alluded to noble human attributes that can be found within the souls of such giants:
“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?”
– The Tyger by William Blake.
So it will be in the galactic era to come. Our human ability to dream and to grow will ensure that, pending survival from pandemic and parochial war, we have a potentially wonderful future ahead. Claiming a habitat in space may ensure our long-term survival as a species should a meteor or microbe threaten planetary extinction here on Earth. The harshness of environmental conditions on other worlds will hopefully make us mindful of the need to wisely and optimally utilise interplanetary resources, while also ensuring the backbone of a thriving space economy and perspective that has the potential to benefit all of humanity and other life in our planetary ecosystem. Learning to terraform other planets may give us the ability to also terraform our home planet back from climate catastrophe.
Any suggestion that space exploration is somehow a waste of time or money is really quite problematic for a number of reasons: it invokes the hypocrisy of creationists, religious fundamentalists, and anti-science denialists who wish to promote some form of luddite society while still enjoying the benefits of our scientific age; and it stifles the human impulse to look up in awe and seek to explore and evolve. It ignores the lessons of history that science has improved the quality and quantity of our lives, and that those societies which resist progress actually go backwards. Perhaps most pointedly (in contradiction to the populist maxim that the money spent on space should instead be spent on the poor), the space program actually has the potential – when adopted widely and wisely – to assist developing nations, to supply valuable infrastructure and to help the environment. We cannot fight poverty if we economically, scientifically or intellectually impoverish ourselves.
On this anniversary, let us celebrate the fact that humanity took its first tangible step into space on the first Cosmonautics Day, 12 April 1961 – the day when Yuri Gagarin soared (however momentarily) into space, and changed our world. Celebrated annually across Russia and aligned nations, Cosmonautics Day was officially declared International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. The occasion has been supplemented since 2001 with the addition of Yuri’s Night, described as ‘space-themed partying with education and outreach‘. Our future is coming, and we should prepare. Let us honour the dreams and wonderment of billions of people down through the millennia, as they looked up at the cosmos and into our possible future:
May our next trip into space be bold and ambitious, reflective of the utterance: “Poyekhali!!” (“Let’s go!”) that began Gagarin’s launch in 1961 – and turned our species forever from Homo sapiens into Homo galacticus.
“[Actor Leonard Nimoy] wrote autobiographical tomes variously titled, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock; perhaps his next book should have been titled, We Are All Spock.” – (Allshorn, 2015, 12)
The original Star Trek series was created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, who presented a utopian vision wherein science and society had evolved to create a future without war, injustice or other human foibles. Spock was one of his most noble, popular and inspirational creations.
Star Trek was a television series with ambitions that were larger than the television screen: “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables – morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background.” (Gerrold, 1973, 48)
Spock was a true scientist and humanitarian. He explored the galaxy (and nature) with an open-minded sense of awe and wonder, frequently expressing his admiration for “fascinating” new discoveries. He also explored the structures and strictures of pure logic – and, in his case, concluded that the discipline was too constricting within a wider social context. His approach to life therefore incorporated a healthy respect for logic balanced with ethics and humanitarianism, reflecting his own inner struggle to balance his humanity with other aspects of his personality. Spock was capable of ignoring emotive considerations when there was a need for cold, hard logic; but he was also capable of great loyalty and self-sacrificial dedication to his science, his captain and his crew. His words to James Kirk echo his sentiment to millions of fans: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.“
Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock for nearly fifty years, spoke of his character’s widespread appeal:
“Here is an ET of superior intelligence and abilities. Capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure, and emotional needs. Dealing (supposedly) only with the facts in each case and the logical conclusions. The period in which Spock arrived was one of polarization over major political and social issues. The war in Viet Nam, the drug culture, the black revolution, assassinations, etc. Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans could turn for solutions to thorny problems.” (Nimoy, 1975, 93 & 94)
In this era of science denialism, Trumpism, Brexit and conspiracy theories, perhaps we need Spock more than ever. We should all aspire to be more like Spock. It’s only logical.
Science is Golden
In the series, Spock (representing science and logic) provided life-saving scientific data so that he and McCoy (a character representing raw emotion) could help Kirk (the decision-maker) to weigh up options and determine the most logical and ethical response to each of life’s challenges. Jeremy Nicholas affirms that ‘Kirk is caught between Apollonian Spock (rational, logical, ordered, controlled) and Dionysian McCoy (emotional, instinctive, passionate). In every episode Kirk faces a decision whereby he gets conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile.’ Stephen Fry also examines this duality within Star Trek.
The conflict between Spock and McCoy might also be seen as an exploration of the gap between what CP Snow calls, ‘the two cultures‘ i.e. science and the humanities/arts – a gap that I argue is bridged by science fiction such as Star Trek.
The impact of the Spock character upon popular culture cannot be underestimated. It is acknowledged that Star Trek inspired many people – including women – into a career in science, innovation or technology. Nimoy recalled in 1995:
“On a recent visit to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who warmly shared with me their gratitude towards Star Trek and Spock. It always amazes and touches me to discover how deeply the series affected so many people’s lives – people who chose careers in science, astronomy, space exploration, all because of one television show called Star Trek.” (Nimoy, 1995, 332)
May this cultural influence – like the fictional Spock character itself – live long and prosper.
Outer and Inner Space
This duality between logic and emotion, between science and humanity, was internal as well as external. The Spock character struggled – as might we all at times – to balance his emotions with rationality and logic. This was encapsulated in one of his famous sayings: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’, which revealed his internal fight between seeking significance for the individual ego versus a willingness to subvert ego in order to serve the wider community – a common human struggle. Spock’s internal conflict was declared as resolved by creator Gene Roddenberry in 1968:
“Spock’s stoic temperament, his refusal to say anything or do anything not based solely on logic, is… a reflection of his Vulcan heritage. Complete adherence to logic is the primary motivating factor in the Vulcan mental process. Of necessity, complete suppression of emotions is required, lest logic be influenced in any way.” (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968, 225).
“All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.”
Therefore, we must be careful to consider the logic/emotion binary with an appropriate amount of nuance and depth; and be mindful that ‘Star Trek’s logic illustrates weaknesses in pop psychology’s models of emotions, intuition, logic, and morality.’ Blogger Hannah G gives a good reinterpretation of Spock’s internal logic/emotion binary:
“It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account.”
In pondering the inner confict within each of us, Spock was able to exercise intellect while also extending respect and empathy, as demonstrated in this conversation about Kirk, which took place between Spock and his Vulcan protégé Saavik: Saavik: He’s so – human. Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.
The Alien Within
As something of an alien and outsider – as we all are – Spock not only celebrated diversity, but he epitomised the nobility and dignity that we all seek as we explore our own place within the cosmos and seek to make a difference. His culture contained the IDIC emblem – a mix of shapes combined to create a divergent symbol for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.
Spock is an ‘Everyman’ figure for us all: he served as a metaphoric combination of alien and human. Spock gained pop culture significance in the 1960s and beyond because of this ‘Everyman’ status. He was literally an alien hidden in plain sight, particularly for adolescents/adults seeking role models:
“The teenager coping with the fiercely complex problems of adolescence often feels very much alone… Spock easily resolves this dilemma. He has superior insight. He can quickly understand the nature of the problem. He has studied the human race. He is a pure authority on the problem… He is future. He can be compassionate in his judgment and dispassionate in his help. To the young female, there is no sexual threat. Spock is asexual.” (Nimoy, 1975, 97 & 98)
I have previously written that ‘many fans upheld Spock an an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness’ (Allshorn, 2020, 90); I have similarly paid tribute within my 2015 eulogy to actor Leonard Nimoy:
“Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair.” (Allshorn, 2015, 13; also cited in Allshorn, 2020, 91)
Or, as James Kirk said more concisely: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”
We all seek heroes. That is part of our human condition – to explore, emulate and aspire towards our role models, heroes and leaders. Across literature, heroic archetypes are often reboots of time-honoured templates. In this instance, Spock might be seen as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, or Odysseus. His captain, James Kirk, might be King Arthur, Jason (of Argonaut fame) or Robin Hood. Superman might be seen as a secular revisitation of religious figures.William Indick examines the Lord Raglan Hero Pattern and other cultural heroic archetypes, and examines how modern secular heroes are reworkings of old tropes:
“While science has replaced divinity and the superhero has replaced the demi-god in the expression of the hero myth, the basic archetypal structure of the hero pattern has not changed – and probably will never change, as the hero character serves the same function today as he did thousands of years ago. Heroes are simply ourselves projected outwardly. Their stories are our stories…” – Indick, 2002, 20).
To this end, we might examine how Spock shares characteristics of ancient heroic templates according to the Raglan mythotype:
Mother is a royal virgin (secular reworking: Amanda, Spock’s mother, was a homely school teacher; his step mother was a Vulcan princess) Father is a king (Sarek was an ambassador) Unusual conception (first Vulcan-human hybrid) Hero reputed to be son of god (child of human mother and male from celestial domain) Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather (Spock ‘rejected’ by Sarek as being ‘too human/emotional’ during infancy? Rejected by Sarek for many years after joining Starfleet) Hero spirited away as a child (taught how to suppress emotions and hide his inner feelings from the outside world) Reared by foster parents in a far country (adopted by ‘Enterprise’ family?) No details of childhood (except for losing Sehlat as child) Returns or goes to future kingdom (travels into space) Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast (is victorious on many alien adventures) Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) (is betrothed to T’Pring) Becomes king (becomes science officer, Starfleet captain, and ambassador) For a time he reigns uneventfully (successful career in Starfleet) He prescribes laws (he enjoys command as Starfleet officer and science officer) Later loses favor with gods or his subjects (falls out with father over career choice, tension with some Vulcans who reject his emotional facets, killed by adversary Khan Noonien Singh) Meets with mysterious death (‘Kobayashi Maru’ and Genesis resurrection following Khan space battle) Often at the top of a hill (Enterprise engine room/Mount Selaya) His children, if any, do not succeed him (His apprentices, Saavik and Valeris, do not succeed him as he had hoped) His body is not buried (put in coffin/torpedo on Genesis planet/resurrected on Vulcan) Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs (Katra travels from McCoy to others then back to Spock)
According to my interpretation, Spock has more archetypical attributes of a mythical hero than does King Arthur, Jesus or Moses. As Spock might say: ‘Fascinating.’
What does this tell us about humanity? It is said that, ‘One of the chief purposes of literature is a means of exploring what it is to be human.’ In pondering the fictional Spock, we can examine ourselves.
Author’s Note: I have not included any examination of the Spock character from the reboot movies and timeline. These other versions have insufficient background and character detail at this time to enable any informed assessment. They also appear to lack the archetypal nobility of Spock Xtmprosqzntwlfdb as presented in the original Star Trek series and movies.
Allshorn, Geoff, 2015. ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931—2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12—13.
– – – – – – – – -, 2020. “Life, but not as We Know It: Star Trek, fan culture, slash fiction and the queering of Starfleet Command”, Bent Street 4.1, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 89 – 100.
Blair, Karin, 1979. Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.
Gerrold, David, 1973. The World of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.
“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead. ” – Kurt Vonnegut
Based on a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria,
and recorded at Future Salon in Melbourne in 2013.
As I celebrate a significant birthday, I pause and reflect upon my life as an amalgam of past, present and future. Like the multiple birthdays we find in the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, life itself is full of births and rebirths and reboots. Every day we experience new opportunities and observe new directions in our personal and collective journeys towards the future. Like a modern Vitruvian Man, we can stand in a landscape vista and spread our arms wide with joy and wonderment at glimpsing myriad variations on the theme of life and cosmology.
In my case, I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year – perhaps not surprisingly – but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.
A fortnight before my birth, Humanists Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.
More than that, 1961 might ultimately be seen by future historians and anthropologists as ushering in a new era of human evolution. The epoch of human spaceflight might prove to be as significant as the change brought about by the arrival of the Holocene era some 10,000 years ago (?), in which humanity was learning to transition from hunter to herder, from nomad to settler. In 1961, maybe we began our next human journey as cosmic nomads hunting for new places to settle.
Such transition is visible in both mega and mundane forms: the human animal evolves both collectively and individually. As a species, we appear to have undergone a philosophical and intellectual growth spurt about two millennia ago – known as the Axial Age. When individual humans go through a similar period of intellectual transformation, we call it puberty. Like all children going through that transition in my own life, I came to a realisation that our personal dreams do not match external reality, and that for all our wishes that we might live in the best of all possible worlds, there are many indications that reality falls far short of that ideal. After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood – in particular, its treatment of LGBTQIA+ people, culturally and racially diverse communities, women, refugees and others living in deprivation, and the natural world around us – I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming, and in my case I began a life journey as an atheist – full of yearning to express my optimism through activism.
“ Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.
Along those same lines, possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.
The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that although we are all a product of our time and culture, we can evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution.
But it also exposes the need for a reality check.
We Are The World
When Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned the title, ‘We are the World‘ in 1985, they probably had no idea how correct they were. Despite our speciesism and our propensity for believing ourselves to be ‘spiritual’ and somehow superior to our material world, we need to recognise our place alongside the flora, fauna and geology of our biosphere. Professor Robert M Hazen presents us with a view of the cosmos that is both awe-inspiring and as humbling:
For the past four billion years, life and minerals have coevolved in astonishing ways… the epic, intertwined sweep of life and rocks, with such dramatic innovations as the rise of algae that produce oxygen by photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells with nuclei, the near extinction of life during episodes of extreme cold, the emergence of multicellular animals and plants, the gradual transformation of the land to an emerald planet, and ultimately to the modern world that is being shaped in part by human activities. (Hazen, 2013, 3).
Despite tending to think of ourselves as constituting some higher plane of existence, we need to recognise our place among the rocks and critters and furnishings of our world. That connection includes sharing life and life rights with the flora and fauna that inhabit our biosphere – not only humans. Author Andrew Boyd conflates this commonality with compassion:“When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others.”
Instead of perceiving ourselves as being the owners and sole occupants of our cosmic drawing room, we should – in the words of the old song – consider ourselves part of the furniture. This reassignment of perspective not only assigns us equality with our constituent atoms and with all organic life that comprises our biological cousins, it ennobles us as part of the cosmos. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Amidst this dualism – within which we are both murky stardust and lofty ambition – humanity still enjoys a significant place within our cosmic biosphere. Our history as a species is replete with religions and philosophies that encapsulate our quest for significance, whereas the answer is actually to be found within our common humanity and our common organic sentience with other living things across biosphere Earth (the very existence and suffering of which provides strong evidence against a deity).
The Human Adventure
Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or disembodied life in metaphysical heaven – “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there” in the material heavens, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might somehow, eventually and in a most ironic way, ultimately fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently discount: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or downloaded into some virtual hell. Instead of facing an afterlife in which we sit on a cloud and play a harp, perhaps we will one day sit in the cloud and synthesise orchestral symphonies of cybernetic synaethesia?
Possibly echoes of such a future can already be heard. In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of augmentation technology today. I am one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.
Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (in the 2010s), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise the human condition. When my parents were young, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic concoctions in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.
Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.
In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we likely cannot anticipate? Will technology lead us to devolve into tech-reliant simpletons or evolve into a tech-empowered singleton? What will it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly (and somewhat arrogantly) regard neanderthals or denisovans?
I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke (Clarke, 1984, 4), in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace all sentient life, and cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?
Daniel Dennett records possibly the ‘first robot homicide’ as taking place in 1981, when a Japanese workman in an automated factory failed to shut down a robotic arm and was crushed to death (Dennett, 1997, 351). Similarly, a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was killed by an experimental self-driving car in 2018, some 121 years after another pedestrian in London became the first pedestrian to be killed by a horseless carriage. Such incidents foreshadow the fear of future sentient AI wreaking death and calamity upon humanity, if/when they should develop capabilities beyond that of automated and mindless computers aping human error. Even this week, I note concerns being expressed about robots that date back to the original invention of the term ‘robot’ and mirror the fictional experience in the Robocop franchise. Such fears actually mirror our own human frailties and imperfections – particularly the current problem with AI development in that it largely excludes the participation of women and other traditionally excluded cohorts: ‘There is mounting evidence that without the input of women, the technology has been left vulnerable to an alarming number of biases.’ Similarly, we see the evolution of technology as corresponding to the rise of empowerment for Africans and Latinos and Indigenous cultures.
I believe that whatever happens in the future, exciting times lie ahead – and I am not alone in this view. Humanist Alisdair Gurling writes about the rise of Artificial Intelligence as ‘adaptive digital prosthetics’ to assist us in our own evolution. This, he proclaims, could lead to ‘a second renaissance – the intelligence renaissance. The impacts could be profound, irreversible, and far-reaching’ (Gurling, 2020, 10). By extension, if we aimed to fulfill the dreams of science fiction author Isaac Asimov by creating robots who are ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’ (Asimov, 1973, 11), wouldn’t we in fact also be guiding ourselves towards betterment? I say bring it on.
I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.
“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” – Edward Said
However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Humanism in Australia, some years ago I undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that in past times, maybe local Humanism relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I understand that much of traditional Humanism focussed heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represented a ‘qwerty’ mindset that was at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change. Today, I hope to see Australian Humanism focus more on Greta Thunberg and diversity, global justice and sentientism; instead of debating the minutiae of dusty theology and perpetuating forms of affluent white culture and privilege. To capture its truly universal human flavour, Australian Humanism needs to incorporate what US scholar Anthony B Pinn cites from Martin Luther King as somebodyness, or a refusal to be ashamed of being black (Pinn, 2015, 70) – which I take by extension as claiming pride in every form of difference and diversity, particularly those who are oppressed or marginalised.
A colleague once asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as working interactively to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world. I can hardly wait to see what is birthed next.
Which of course, brings us back to birthdays, which is where we began. Happy birthday to the 20 million people who likely share my birthday, and more than that, happy birthday to the world and the chance for renewal and a fresh start every day. What future is being born today? That surely depends upon us, and whether or not we are willing to anticipate the future that we want (or do not want) and take steps accordingly. It is up to us – AI notwithstanding, we will get no help from elsewhere.
Personal Birthday Request: Don’t just read or think – do!
Please help change the world for hundreds of people
by supporting this cause with which I am connected: Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees Thanks for your humanity and compassion.
An earlier version of this article, based upon the original talk, was published in the Australian Humanist and Victorian Humanist magazines in 2013.
Isaac Asimov, 1973. I, Robot, London: Granada (Panther) Books.
Arthur C Clarke, 1984. 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto: Del Rey (Ballantine) Books.
Daniel C Dennett, 1997. ‘When HAL Kills, Who’s to Blame? Computer Ethics’, in David G Stork (ed.), HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 351 – 366.
Alisdair Gurling, 2020. ‘The Intelligence Renaissance: The Coming Era of the Artificial Muse’, in Australian Humanist #140, Humanists Australia, Summer, 8 – 10.
Robert M Hazen, 2013. The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, The Great Courses: Course Guidebook, Virginia: The Teaching Company.
Anthony B Pinn, 2015. Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury.
Atheist Day was originally about a fictional case of an Atheist who had decided to sue the government. The reason for the fictional lawsuit was a simple one—unlike all the major religions, there was no day for Atheists, to which the judge said that April 1st (i.e. April Fool’s Day) was their holiday. While this case was just a hoax, the story spread quickly and was actually accepted as fact.
The Atheist Republic website explains that the circular symbol (above) stands for a null set (as in zero belief in god) and a fertile wholeness of completion that results. In a city that recently celebrated ‘donut days’ (days when our COVID cases dropped to zero – or a donut) perhaps we should celebrate Atheist Day as Cosmic Donut Day, giving it an almost Australian vernacular.
A central component of Atheist Day is raising awareness of the discrimination and stigma faced by atheists around the world. Atheists are your loved ones, your friends, your doctors, your social workers, your teachers, your police officers and in short, the people in your life who are hiding in plain sight.
Having a day to celebrate and commemorate a lack of belief might seem to be somewhat frivolous or vexatious. After all, we do not (yet) have a day to celebrate those who disbelieve in Santa Claus or aliens with anal probes. And yet the right to celebrate atheism is as fundamental as any other right to freedom of thought, belief or religion.
To me, atheism represents non-conformity with tradition and faith; it demonstrates a willingness to be different and to think divergently. It resists tradition and dogma for their own sake, and potentially offers an open-minded approach to diversity of race, sexuality, gender and gender identity. Atheism and agnosticism and freethought and secular humanism demonstrate a wish to think critically and autonomously, and hopefully exemplify a keenness for seeking evidence via science and rationality. Free from the shackles of anthropocentric religions, atheism inspires the courage to admit that our human existence is pretty insignificant within a cosmos that is wondrously awe-inspiring, but vaster and stranger than we can possibly imagine:
“There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.“- Carl Sagan, Planetary Exploration (University of Oregon Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1970), page 15
Agnostic astronomer Heather Couper acknowledges that there is plenty of discovery still to be made in our human quest for knowledge:
“Have we discovered our Galaxy yet?” And I think the answer to this question is “No, not quite”. There is plenty of work ahead for the next generation of astronomers.”
Amidst this immensity, it is up to each of us to find or create meaning in our own lives.
“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
― Carl Sagan, Contact
Happy Atheist Day – may you enjoy whatever meaning you create for yourself.
Originally published in Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.
The Universal program ran
with cosmic swirls,
with violent explosions,
with timeless passings of time,
and coalescence into novas and galaxies.
The sub-programs ran
and evolved into stars
just a fraction.
And as he grew,
he became aware of computers
……..and he loved. He followed his own programming
and began to imagine
and to see that it was good.
He wondered at his world,
at the others who shared his walk,
at their sameness –
and at their diversity. He queried their humanity,
and their fears.
He studied their religions,
and their conformities. And they struggled to learn
their own programming.
His biology ran,
and he learned
and headed towards termination of his program.
And as the lines of programming
began their loop,
to define and shape his last few lines,
he began to wonder:
They say we make god in our image –
but maybe it’s the other way around.
The Universal computer
runs and plans and programs
…………….and terminates mistakes
and allows other sub-programs to run their full term.
His own life work
had been with computers,
and evolve a new life form.
Ashes to ashes,
……..stardust to stardust,
…………….the divine evolution:
from Computer we came, and to computer we shall return.
Maybe Life itself does this.
It studies our responses,
……..our needs and reactions,
…………….our heroes and villains,
and it judges the success of our programming.
just a fraction.
And the Universal program runs on