Probably one of my most unpopular opinions is that atheists do have mythology, only we don’t believe our mythology is the truth. While Christian parents read Bible stories for children and Muslim parents read stories from the Quran for kids, etc, my parents found drew from humanist values found in science fiction books, tv shows, and movies. In fact, if you look, the creators of a lot of popular science fiction shows, such as Star Trek and Babylon 5, were atheists.
While atheist describes what I don’t believe, my philosophy of life is based on Secular Humanism, which believes in human potential and the ability to better our lives and the lives of others because it is the right thing to do. And humanist themes often abound in science fiction shows.
Unlike a lot of Americans my age, my first sci-fi show was Doctor Who. Classic Doctor Who. My parents discovered it on our KERA station at around the time my sister was born, which is also around the time I started remembering things from my childhood. So for as long as I can remember, Doctor Who has been part of my life. I remember watching the early, early episodes with William Hartnell and John Pertwee, even one with Patrick Troughton. Of course, my favorite doctor was Tom Baker, followed closely by Sylvester McCoy (who doesn’t get enough love) and my favorite companion was Ace, followed closely by Sarah Jane Smith.
I was too young as a child to appreciate the humanist themes in Doctor Who. I was very aware of the attempt, and self admitted failures, to create female companions who were strong and didn’t need rescuing all the time, and I have always been drawn to stories about strong women (and it shows in my favorite companions, Ace, Sarah Jane, Liz, Romana and Leila). As an adult, I see and appreciate the rampant humanism in Doctor Who. The emphasis on doing good because it is the right thing to do, not because we expect to be rewarded. The fact that the atheist doctor is filled with wonder and, rather than living a selfish life, risks his life constantly to help others. But don’t take my word that Doctor Who is filled with humanism.
Another show that was influential in my life was Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was five when it came out, and my parents were huge fans of the classic series and started watching it. Admittedly, I wasn’t won over. And to be honest, I still can’t watch the first few seasons without cringing. There was one early episode that won my heart, though, which was The Offspring where the android, Data, builds a daughter named Lal. It was one of those tear jerker episodes, but also one of those episodes that explores the nature of being human. And the way the show handled a tragic, early death, without superstition, but by having Lal literally live on in Data’s memory, was not something I saw a lot of as a child where death was really not addressed in shows.
I was probably eight or nine when I got into Next Generation. I remember my dad was working late and my sister and I were being rather clingy with our mother and decided to watch Star Trek with her. The episode was Disaster, where a quantum filament hits the ship and cuts off communication, forcing the crew to deal with various problems in various parts of the ship. There were no appeals to a god, but through their smarts, training, delegating, and resourcefulness, they survived and saved the ship. By this time the show was improving in terms of quality, and my sister and I were sold on it ever since. We became rabid Trekkers, and our parents proudly took us to conventions.
I even bought a communicator pin and pips and wore them proudly…and was thoroughly teased for it. But that didn’t stop me from declaring my love for my show, which quickly became a springboard in my family for starting discussions about ethics and morality. I remember when Deep Space Nine came on, and a very passionate discussion following an episode where the commander goes to questionable lengths to catch a terrorist.
We also watched documentaries about the series and it’s impact, so I was aware of how inspiring Uhura was, and how a list of famous women she inspired includes Mae Jemison (first black woman to go into space) and Whoopi Goldberg and how Star Trek was one of the few shoes that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr would let his children watch because of its positive portrayal of a black woman. Despite knowing a lot of powerful anecdotes from classic Trek and having a lot of respect for the actors, from Nichelle Nichols to George Takei, I was never able to get into the classic series, though.
I remember being excited when they announced that in a new series, Voyager, they would have a female captain heading the ship. Voyager reached new heights in terms of racial diversity of the crew and the number of women in its cast, but by then there was also this sense that Star Trek should be pushing itself further. I remember reading interviews where the men working on the show worried about alienating teenage boys away from the show by having a woman in charge, and thinking, “what about all of the girls who are Star Trek fans? Don’t we matter?”
Further, Star Trek was not at the forefront of depicting a LGBT character (that honor belonged to Buffy, a show created by another atheist, Joss Whedon). And it should have been.
By then it was becoming apparent that the people behind the helm were losing their nerve. I became very disgusted when Enterprise was being developed and seeing an interview with Brannon Braga about how they wanted to go back to sexing up the show because that was what drew people to classic Trek. Star Trek didn’t become a pop culture phenomenon because Captain Kirk slept with a green skinned woman. It did because it showed us a better version of humanity, a version where black women could be respected officers, not confined to being maids. Where Asians and Russians could be good people. Where people with different abilities (skipping to Next Gen with Geordi LaForge, who was blind) can be valued members of the crew. Where humanity had set aside their differences and worked together for a common good and to explore our galaxy.
I barely hung on through the last season of Voyager. I only saw four episodes of Enterprise, and then I quit in disgust. They had the token black guy and an Asian woman in a series of white faces and two female characters, one of whom was extremely sexualized. This was backwards in terms of racial and sexual diversity. And while they talked about having a gay character, it didn’t happen.
There were other shows that captured my imagination. Babylon 5. I loved being able to tell people how Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) and J. Michael Straczynski (B5) were both atheists who created shows that were known to tackle complex subjects of ethics and morality to counter this image of atheists as selfish and immoral.
The other thing to mention here is that these themes by no means appeal only to atheists. I know quite a few conservative Christians who are fans of Star Trek. Humanist ideals transcend religious boundaries.
But there is one final show I can’t leave out. Red Dwarf. This used to air before Doctor Who, and my parents were at first torn between the adult humor of the show (I was probably about 12, my sister 10) and how funny it was. Eventually my parents decided we were old enough to handle it.
Red Dwarf was unabashedly atheistic. One of the characters is a humanoid species who evolved from a domestic cat. OK, the science is not realistic, but is openly embraced evolution as fact when my high school biology teacher did not. This cat species created a religion based off some misunderstandings of the human crew, and the show used this to mercilessly show how absurd religion is. Another episode featured a news clip where archaeologists find a missing page from the beginning of the Bible that read, “To my darling Candy. All characters portrayed within this book are fictitious and any resemblance related to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.”
Considering I lived in the south where religion was constantly shoved down my throat and I got apt at dodging questions about which church I went to, to see it so openly critiqued was liberating. The main character, Dave Lister, was even an open atheist. What took my longer to appreciate, though, was that while he was a slob who had little ambition, he was also extremely moral. In fact, he was the moral compass of the show.
There are many examples of Lister’s morality throughout the series, but one episode, Back to Reality, Lister temporarily loses the will to live when he has a hallucination that he is a the leader in a fascist state and a murderer. Since Lister considers himself to be a good person, being deceived into believing that he isn’t causes such a severe case of despair that he loses the will to live.
These shows were critical to challenging and forming my ideas on morality and ethics, and instrumental in starting discussions in my family on these topics. We’ve already introduced the kids to Doctor Who and Star Trek, and I am hoping that the new Star Trek series coming out will be a return to a show that pushes the limits in terms of diversity and representation. If not, the good news is that there are plenty of other shows that are.