“My biggest concern is that with certain religious training you seem to lose any sort of critical thinking in the process. You seem to lose your ability to ask questions.”
—John de Lancie
CSICon 2019 will be a unique experience, at least for anyone like me who was not present at one of the parent organization’s conferences held before 2016. In earlier years, CFI/CSI held several annual conferences having a dual focus: skepticism and humanism. But after 2015, the focus of their conferences shifted back to exclusively cover science and scientific skepticism, seemingly abandoning that mid-decade experiment.
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But this year, the presentations from the podium will once again broaden to include that other area of CFI interest: atheism, freethought, and humanism. And perhaps none of this year’s speakers represents this change more than John de Lancie.
I can hear it now: “Wait … the actor John de Lancie? Why is he speaking at CSICon?” The answer may come as a surprise to those of you who, like me, before now only associated de Lancie with an entertainment career. And I have to admit it: being a huge Star Trek fan, just one of his many superb roles stands out to me. De Lancie is the man who breathed life into what is perhaps the Star Trek franchise’s most fascinating character: the godlike, all-powerful, enigmatic entity known as Q. What I did not know until researching him for this interview is that in recent years, de Lancie has been a featured speaker at several atheist/freethought/humanist gatherings. Could there be some connection between playing a god and speaking against belief in one? Well, at the 2016 Reason Rally in Washington D.C., de Lancie began his rousing address by speaking (sort of) as the personification of Q. Here is short excerpt:
My name is John de Lancie, and I am a god. At least, I’ve played one on TV. And I’m here to tell you as a god that I was created by humans. And the words I spoke were written by men and women. … My creators took great care in exalting me to the position I hold today. And just like all the gods before me—Zeus, Baal, Yahweh—my god creators wanted you to believe that I am the omnipotent one. The alpha and the omega. … Truth be told … I don’t exist any more than the thousands of other gods that humans have created, worshiped, and died for since the beginning of time. But if you insist on believing in me, you do so at your own risk. … I will lead you down the path of ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry. … All because you believe.
After watching this speech (you can view it in its entirety here), as well as some of de Lancie’s other appearances available on YouTube, it was clear that the general topics of his prior addresses to, as well as interviews by, activist organizations were very different from that of the typical CSICon presentations (at least of the past several years). This made me wonder how much he was aware of this. So before we spoke, I sent John some links to Skeptical Inquirer online articles to familiarize him with the topics of interest to the typical CSICon audience, and I asked him to ponder the difference between these topics and the issues he normally addresses.
De Lancie is scheduled to address CSICon at 3:00 pm on October 19 and will also participate in the VIP luncheon on Saturday.
Rob Palmer: Hello, John, and thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview.
John de Lancie: Not at all. So, I read the material that you sent me, and I’m not quite sure what the distinction is that you were telling me about. Tell me what distinction you were looking at so that I understand.
Palmer: Well, over the past several years, CSICon’s focus has been on science and pushing back on pseudoscience and alternative medicine and things like that. They stayed away from religious and humanist issues and that sort of thing. And by the inclusion of you and Julia Sweeney, and some others this year, it was obvious to me that a change in focus was being made.
I don’t know if you know this, but the conference’s parent organization, the Center for Inquiry, is composed of two distinct parts. One part is made up of the Council for Secular Humanism and more recently the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and the other is the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which runs CSICon, deals with scientific skepticism, and publishes the Skeptical Inquirer. The material I sent you is from the scientific skepticism side of the coin. This is the first conference they’re having in a number of years where it will be a mixed program, covering both sides. Did you know any of that?
De Lancie: No, I don’t know any of that.
Palmer: We can discuss that later if you’d like, including any particular articles you found interesting. But I want to first ask about your beliefs and about the turning point that got you involved in all of this. I recently listened to the speech you gave at the Reason Rally. And you related the story about being at a university where seventy or so students out of a hundred expressed the belief not only that Earth was young but that it was created on a specific, known day. So I have to ask you: Was that your turning point?
De Lancie: Yes. I was on tour with a show about the Scopes Trial. We were doing the actual trial transcripts. As far as I was concerned, it was a “historical” event. Boy, was I mistaken! During “talk-backs” (where the audience is prompted to talk about the show) I was beginning to hear all of this stuff: that the universe was created in 4004 BC on October 23 at 10:00 in the morning. When I responded that 4004 BC wasn’t in the Bible, the response was “Yes, it is.” At that point I didn’t know what to say. I had never experienced these types of reactions. You see, I had grown up secular. My parents, for all intents and purposes, were secular. And I just didn’t believe all this religious stuff. I never got any further than the Jonah and the whale story when I was about six.
Palmer: So you started questioning this stuff at six?
De Lancie: Yeah, I was asked not to come back to Sunday school. Mostly, I felt very manipulated by some of the religious people I came into contact with. I remember my parents had some people come over to their house for dinner. Next thing I knew they grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s all hold hands to pray for this beautiful meal.” And I was like, “Excuse me?” You see, maybe because of episodes like that, I’ve always conflated religion with manipulation. As time went on, I began getting into trouble in school because I was not praying and not bowing and not doing any of that stuff.
Palmer: You went to a religious school?
De Lancie: Yes, I did. It was in Philadelphia. We had chapel, but I don’t think it was religious at the level of a Catholic school. It was sort of a WASPy religion. I just felt manipulated.
Palmer: So, you spoke at the Reason Rally. Have you also been to any atheist or freethought conventions such as the American Atheists convention just held in Cincinnati?
De Lancie: I spoke at the Freedom From Religion Foundation in San Francisco. I think you can see that speech online. My talk was about lying. Given that our current president is such a prodigious liar, I felt compelled to take the audience through what it was like to play dishonest characters. As actors, it’s our job to get into what that’s like to be these types of people. So I spoke about that and about how corrosive it is. And then I moved over into the work I’m currently doing: a script about the Dover Intelligent Design trial. And how ironic it was to me that the fundamentalists, with their “corner on morality,” were lying through their teeth to get what they wanted. Lying for Jesus.
Palmer: I have heard you refer to yourself online as “openly secular,” but I haven’t actually heard you self-identify using the “A” word. Would you define yourself as an atheist?
De Lancie: Well, it’s become a political term. I’m sort of having to do that because it’s the code word that allows one to become part of the club, as it were. But I find myself just as suspicious of the people who will argue vehemently that there is no god as I am of the people who argue that there is a god. To me it’s sort of a non-question. It’s one of the reasons that I found sermons where they’re telling me what’s happening on the other side of the mountain a waste of time. The discussion of god is a waste of time. Because it just doesn’t go anywhere. For me, even as a kid, it was a waste of time.
Palmer: But it’s an important topic to many.
De Lancie: Comfort is one thing. Proof is another. I would never take away the “comfort” that a religious belief might afford. I have a friend who went through a terrible divorce. He would go to mass three or four times a week to make himself feel better. Wonderful. I have another friend whose mother derived great solace from her belief that a god looked after her. Again, wonderful.
But that’s not for me. A case in point: I’m 2,500 miles off the coast of California, essentially in the middle of the Pacific, and I had an equipment failure on my boat. It’s 2:00 in the morning. For thirty-six hours, it’s really scary. Never once did I think of God. I just thought, “How am I going to get out of this.” If believing in God helps you bail faster, good. Whatever. My biggest concern is that with certain religious training you seem to lose any sort of critical thinking in the process. You seem to lose your ability to ask questions.
One of the things that’s helped me is that I have embraced the notion that things change. I’m wondering if one of the things at the core of believing in God, or not, has to do with change. I have grown to embrace change. Personally, I love reading the science section in the paper every morning. I’m in awe of humankind’s boundless curiosity. I see something new and say, “Oh, look at what we discovered.” But there’s a part of me that knows, in ten years or a hundred years from now, that might not be correct. But it’s just part of the journey of getting to know more. And I love that. I just love that. I’m not wedded to the fact that it’s absolute. But I think there are many who need the security of things being “absolute.” That’s the part about God that attracts them.
Palmer: And science is never absolute. So, getting back to CSICon: It’s about four months away. Have you thought about what you’re going to say at the conference?
De Lancie: There is an idea I want to develop. And maybe I will for this conference. That subject has to do with “cold comfort.” One of the things about skepticism, or being an atheist, seems to include saying “You know that god stuff is just silly!” But, when you think about it, what have we given them instead? Not much. At a soup kitchen, at least you get fed.
[At this point, I told John about a secular organization I am familiar with due to their many productions including The Atheist Experience: the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA). The show’s hosts often discuss the ACA’s community service programs, exemplifying that religion has not cornered the market on helping people. John had not heard of the organization.]
Oh, would you send that information to me, please? I’d be very interested because, well, in my little community here in South Pasadena, there’s an old theater: the Rialto. It’s no longer playing movies. Rather, it’s become a secular church. So, being one who hasn’t been to church many times in my life, I thought maybe I’ll stop in and see what they’re doing. Because I am struck by the fact that when I leave a conversation about some of these things, people are just going to say, “I don’t know; it’s so bleak. Everything you’re saying is so bleak.”
[Next, the conversation turned to the Skeptical Inquirer online articles I had sent John earlier concerning scientific skepticism. One article he mentioned catching his interest was the one on the harm cause by belief in psychics. (You can read it here.) John said that he had never before taken psychics seriously.]
Palmer: So it seems I may have given you something interesting to think about—regarding the topic of your speech at this conference, I mean.
De Lancie: Oh, you’ve given me a lot of things to think about. I’m going to go back and look at the [other] articles you sent me.
Palmer: Great. When you do that, feel free to contact me with any questions. CSICon is having a costume party on Saturday evening because it’s just before Halloween. And I’ve noticed that, in these pre-conference interviews, they always ask the speakers “Are you going to attend the party?” So, this being my very first pre-conference interview article, I’m not going to break tradition: John, are you going to attend the party?
De Lancie: My answer is that, as an actor, I only dress up when I’m paid. [Laughing] But Rob: the joke only works if you include “as an actor.”
Palmer: Final question: I’m sorry, but as a Star Trek fan I just have to ask you: Harkening back to what is perhaps your most famous role, if you could use your godlike powers—the powers of the Q Continuum—to change one thing about the world, irrevocably, what would that be?
De Lancie: It would be the same as the wish I had every time I blew out my birthday candles. And that was that everybody would be happy. I don’t know… [laughing] as a kid I just wanted everybody to be happy.
Palmer: Well, you know, you’re never supposed to reveal your birthday wish, so now that you have, that’s never going to happen.
De Lancie: [Laughing] Well, it never happened anyway, so …
Acknowledgements: I want to thank John for his participation in this interview. You can learn more about this sailor, educator, and father and about his wide-ranging career as an actor, director, producer, writer, and voice artist from his Wikipedia article or from his personal website.
Note that parts of this interview have been edited for continuity and clarity with the subject’s consent and participation.