When I saw the announcement for this service, my first thought was "I wonder what poor sap they are going to get to volunteer for that."
Then I thought about it for a minute, and I wondered "if I were going to volunteer, who would I put forward as my teacher?"
Pondering my long philosophical journey from the theistic Lutheran fundamentalism of my childhood to the naturalistic humanism of my present, I tried to think of one dominant influence -- one teacher, one author, one experience that would have been the prime factor in my deconversion. But it was a long, gradual process for me, with many stages or steps along the way. Every book, every author, every conversation, every experience gave me a little bit more to think about and moved me a little farther down my path. Looking back on it now, I have the sense of having been placed in a deep hole by my childhood upbringing, and having to pull myself up a ladder one rung at a time. Carl Sagan may have provided a rung, Christopher Hitchens may have provided another rung, and Charles Darwin another, and the Dalai Lama still another, but I had to climb all those rungs to get to my current perspective.
Now that I've climbed out of that particular hole and had some time to look around, I've noticed that the landscape seems familiar. Many of the moral and ethical positions that I'm arriving at are ones that I've seen before, in stories from my childhood. Not so much the stories I heard from my parents and relatives, but stories I saw on TV.
The stories of one particular storyteller stand out in my recollection. These stories center on the crew of a spaceship as they trek from star to star and encounter civilizations that were supposed to be strange and alien, but were actually all too human. Let me give you a few examples:
In one episode, the crew comes upon a planet inhabited by a powerful, advanced alien. This alien offers to return to earth and restore an earlier, nostalgic golden age of paradise with all humanity had ever desired: health, happiness, comfort, and safety. All that is required in return is for humanity to welcome the alien, agree to become his slaves, and worship him as a god.
In another episode, the crew comes upon a planet inhabited by a race with equal parts black and white pigmentation, sharply divided down the center of their bodies. These people are at war with each other, and are on the verge of total annihilation. When asked what the conflict is about, one of inhabitants points to his opponent and says "isn't it obvious? HE is black, on the left side. ALL HIS PEOPLE are black, on the left side. (I am white, on the left side.)"
In still another episode, the crew comes upon a planet with a shining city, not on a hill, but actually in the clouds (in low orbit.) This cloud city is inhabited by a gentle race of scholars, artists, poets, and other sophisticated types. Meanwhile, the planet below is inhabited by a violent, brutish race of limited intelligence. These surface-dwellers are only suitable for domestic help, or working in the mines which produce the precious ore which pays for the cloud city. But it turns out that these two races are actually the same. Originally they had planned to rotate between leisure time in the cloud city and work on the surface. The surface-dwellers behave as they do because of exposure to toxic fumes in the mines, while the privileged cloud-dwellers who benefit from the surface labor are secluding themselves behind the walls of the ultimate gated community.
As a boy, I was more impressed by phasers, force fields, and photon torpedoes than by the underlying morals of the stories. I grew up in an all-white, all-Christian community where thinking of a god as a petty, narcissistic slave-master would have been sacrilege. I had little awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination, and the phrase "we are the 99%" was decades away. Women and minorities in leadership positions, the first interracial kiss on network television -- all lost on me at the time. I also didn't sit through all the closing credits back then, so I didn't know the storyteller's name. I only knew the names of the actors who played the leading characters: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, George Takei. It was only much later, when I had climbed many rungs on my ladder, that I learned it had been Gene Roddenberry (recipient of the American Humanist Association's 1991 Humanist Arts Award) who had shown me the preview of my ongoing mission to boldly seek out new truths and deeper community.