Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Star Trek: The Wrath of RTK(han)

We recently received this criticism on our blog, and I thought it should be seen prominently on the page. However, he and I get wordy, so it’s behind a cut.

Hi guys,

I watch this show every week and usually enjoy it, but this week’s episode was a real disappointment. First things first, as atheists we have to struggle constantly to show the majority of the population that we’re normal people and not crazy people with delusions. It’s something that I have to face everyday as an atheist; convincing religious folks that, yes, I’m as sane a person as you.

When I turned on the show today (DVR from Sunday) I’ll admit I was upset. What does Star Trek have to do with atheism? “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll watch and try to see their point…” In the first few minutes, “Beardface” declares that most atheists are Star Trek fans; Is that really the case? Has there been a study and can you document that statement? Are we not, as atheists, trying to avoid making unsupported generalizations about belief? Sure, I’m an atheist and I like Star Trek, however, my wife is an atheist and doesn’t really prefer it over any other show and, in fact, her father is a minister and loves Star Trek.

Being on “The Bridge of the Enterprise D” was a pretty geeky move, but “Redshirt” wearing a full Star Trek uniform really pushed things over the edge. To those folks who might be tuning in for the first time you were making atheists look like the same fantasy obsessed geeks that wear their Trek uniforms on the city bus. It makes us all look like less rational people; people who subscribe to a fantasy world that is every bit as imaginary as the ones detailed in various religions and supernatural beliefs.

What followed were five Star Trek clips directly relevant to atheism/religion, however, only one of them favored atheism while the next four favored religion! So you made a fine spectacle of defeating your own point and proposing the idea that Star Trek is an atheist show that has been back-stabbed by its writers. The show is just that, a show, and exists as it was written. Trying to claim it for one side and exclude the parts you dislike as some kind of PR treachery is ludicrous.

It seems that the rest of the clips had little or nothing to do with atheism and neither did the rest of the show. The next time you guys want to do this make sure and mention it on the previous week’s show so that those of us who are interested in atheism don’t waste space on our DVR watching a couple Trekkies (or Trekkers if you prefer) geek out about their favorite TV show. In fact, the enormous amount of geeky pop-culture references on this episode, and several others, robs the show of credibility and by association, robs atheists of credibility.

Don’t get me wrong, I like sci-fi and Fantasy as much as the next guy; Old B-movies, Star Trek, Star Wars, Tolkien, Firefly, D&D, you name it, but bringing it up on the show only serves to make the majority judge us and segregate us even more. Please try to keep on target, TV and movies are just as fake as religion and have very little place in informing others about our existence and defining our philosophy or rationale.

-RTK

First things first, this person DVRs our show. I, uh, wow.

Anyway, here’s my response:

RTK,

First off, I want to thank you for your detailed, well expressed criticism for the show. I hope you don’t mind that I decided to promote a comment to a full post in order to discuss the matter more publicly. It’s also causing me to concretely explain some of the things I think about the show, and I want to thank you personally for that.

I responded because I am the odd one out among the show’s producers: I am no fan of Star Trek. Of course, being who and what I am in the time that I live, I can’t help but be aware of Star Trek, its fans, and some of the apocrypha around it.

First question: What does Star Trek have to do with atheism? In a synopsis of the episode, Star Trek was visualized by Gene Roddenberry as a wholly humanist future for the human race devoid of religion. It stands as one of the first instances of mass media where humanism was given even anything approaching a fair shake. A quick google search, while not a scientific poll, certainly bears this out. Quotes from Roddenberry himself abound.

Atheism in media and fiction is a topic of importance to the folks who put together our show. Important enough that “Atheism in Fiction” was our very first episode.

As far as most atheists being Star Trek fans, I can tell you that expressing deep criticism of the program can be a cold experience at get-togethers. Informal polling in the Seattle area before we broadcast this episode bore out the fan supposition. I support Casey’s statement on this topic, while acknowledging that the supposition lacks scientific rigor. If every single statement we make on a live TV show must be backed by scientific data, I doubt any viewer would have lasted long enough to critique our ninth episode.

The rest of your critique appears to fall into two themes: looking good for the public, and just a general dislike for the episode style and topic. For the latter criticism, I’m sorry that you didn’t appreciate this episode and I hope that you’ll stay with us as we turn to more topics in the future. As our show topics are put together by our hosts, we will continue to focus on heavy, serious issues, as well as the occasional “fun” show such as this week’s episode.

I disagree strongly with the second major theme in your criticism, but I think this stems from a disagreement about the show itself. The most succinct way I can put it is that the show is not about atheism, but about atheists. Atheism is a narrow, very serious-minded topic which must be viewed with the sort of gravitas that you’re requesting here. If the show was about atheism as a subject, I would agree with you 100%.

Atheists, however, are a wide ranging group of people with interesting personal lives, essentially just like theists but with a few, minor differences (from the perspective of the atheist, of course). Personally, it is just as important to expose the public to the less serious side of atheists, to expose atheists as normal folks with (relatively) normal interests, as it is to discuss the defacement of billboards celebrating our secular heritage. It is far more important than discussing the Catholic Church’s latest atrocity or spate of ridiculousness.

Finally, I’d like to point out that you are a fan of Star Trek, as is your father-in-law who is a minister. If you wanted to give your father-in-law a better idea of how humanism might work for you, wouldn’t a shared mythology be a powerful place to start? It won’t work with everyone, of course, but it is one tool that you would have to achieve a greater understanding between you and the theists around you.

-Sam

About the Author: Sam Mulvey

Sam Mulvey is a producer and the technical brain behind Ask an Atheist. He is a collector of vinegar varieties, vintage computers, antique radios, and propaganda.

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9 Comments on "Star Trek: The Wrath of RTK(han)"

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pinkocommie
Guest
I guess I don’t understand how someone who DVRs the show can’t be bothered to learn the names of the hosts, but that might be nit-picky. I feel like there’s a point where no matter what, atheists just can’t win. If we’re silly, people will criticize us for not being serious enough. If we’re serious, the criticism will undoubtedly evolve into an observation that we take ourselves too seriously. I think that’s why it’s important the hosts of the show are free to explore topics that they find interesting because that’s what makes the show personal and ultimately accessible. No… Read more »
spoon
Guest

Try to listen more attentively what the caller actually is saying.

I know the topics are often difficult and the callers are sometimes a bit incoherent. But I think the show will be suffering in the long run when you don’t have any good discussions with the callers.

And for me as a viewer it’s a bit frustrating hearing a long answer to questions that isn’t posed; or a discussion when the caller and the hosts are talking about different things.

Otherwise a great show!
(Sorry about the knit picking.)

RTK
Guest
First, let me apologize; I meant no offense to either Casey or Jerry, they both seem like nice guys and I look forward to meeting them. I called Casey “Beardface” as an expression of AAA street-cred, i.e., I read the comments and know some people from the show and have heard them joke about he and Case being differentiated in such a way. Calling Jerry “Redshirt” was pretty much the same idea, except that I am the one to coin that particular name (as far as I know). As for the rest of it, I can see your point regarding… Read more »
Casey
Guest
Actually, I’m quite proud to be called ‘Beardface.’ Just to let you know, the producers had a prolonged discussion about the possible repercussions of doing a topic that so obviously pandered to the geek culture. We felt that it was justifiable but that we didn’t want to make that our bread and butter. Sure, not all atheists are geeks, and I certainly tried to hedge that assertion in the intro. To allay some of your fears about us falling into a narrow band of inquiry, this side of atheism is only ONE of the sides of the diverse and eclectic… Read more »
Libbie
Guest

I would also like to point out that we can’t discuss anything with callers if we don’t get any.

Please, folks, if you want to see us talk to theist callers, tell the theists you know that you’d appreciate it if they’d call us to talk about their beliefs. We’re generally pretty friendly to talk to, but we can’t give you the kind of show we know you all want if we just don’t have the calls coming in. Encourage folks to call us. It would be a big help.

Steve
Guest
I was just curious, why didn’t the show address stuff like Q or the “prophets” from the wormhole in Deep Space 9? Since they’re major star trek arc storylines Q or Qs are clearly supernatural beings with godlike powers and do fit most definitions of god or gods. How does that fit into a humanistic worldview with nothing supernatural? The “prophets” are sometimes portrayed as wormhole aliens and at others as gods (although usually just for Bajorians) as to leave it ambiguous. Or as some like me might say, inconsistent. Even if they just were wormhole aliens, how would it… Read more »
acapere
Guest

Lawl at Beardface. Casey’s not living that one down.

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