John de Lancie: Secular grads, the world now needs you

Actor and FFRF “After-Life” Member John de Lancie holds the Clarence Darrow Award which he received at FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco in 2018. This speech was delivered on May 30 at the Secular Student Alliance’s online graduation event. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

By John de Lancie

Greetings — wherever you may be. I’m John de Lancie. Some of you may recognize me from my roles on “Star Trek” or “Breaking Bad” or any number of other shows. Today, I’m speaking to you not as an actor, but rather as a secular humanist — as a person who has far more love and respect for the real world than for the imaginary one.

Congratulations to those of you who have just finished high school. And congratulations to those of you who have just finished college. Bravo to all of you who worked hard and got the grades. And to those of you who barely read the assignments, slept through your classes, pushed the boundaries of goofing off to new levels — like I once did — bravo to you, too. Whether you are graduating summa cum laude or by the skin of your teeth, you’ve made it!

Make no bones about it — graduation is a milestone. It’s a day reserved just for seniors. You might have thought, as freshmen, this day would never come, but it did. It’s a special day. A special week. Getting your diploma in front of family and friends is important. The parties and proms are all part of the celebration. Whether you’re graduating from high school or from college, you are on the launch pad. Fueled and ready to go. Next stop — The Future. Except, hold on…there’s a glitch? A problem? A what?

A worldwide pandemic! Just like in the movies. And all of a sudden, the best part of your senior year is cut short and the springtime ramp up to graduation has been replaced with anxiety, hurried goodbyes, quarantine and Zoom?!

It sucks. No question about it.

Remain optimistic

And yet, in the midst of all this disappointment and tragedy, you need to remain optimistic — as difficult as that may sound. Your future depends on it. Because as dark and scary as things may be today, there are opportunities opening up that only come around once in a generation. A new world is going to get shaped out of this mess, and as a secularist, you are particularly well-suited to do the shaping.

This is not the first crisis to befall humankind nor will it be the last. Each generation has had a particular challenge.

I think about my parents and how they must have felt, at 18 years old, when their lives were suddenly turned upside down. Saturday night, Dec. 6, 1941. They were at the movies, looking forward to Christmas and New Year’s. Their future was all worked out — or so they thought. The next morning, in the blink of an eye, the party was over as a whole new reality came screaming into their lives. 

How frightened and scared they must have been those first months as the world exploded around them, and yet it didn’t take long before they understood the challenge they faced, rose to the occasion and, ultimately, created a whole new world out of the old one. Just like you will do.

My parents’ generation achieved extraordinary things. They built a world in which democracy triumphed over fascism and dictatorship. A world where cooperation and international institutions replaced “might makes right.” Out of the ashes of WWII came an unprecedented period of prosperity both for the victors and the vanquished, where billions of people worldwide were lifted out of poverty. Where parents no longer had to fear losing their children to measles or polio. If that weren’t enough, in a supreme feat of optimism and creativity, they landed on the moon. Pretty impressive.

But along with all those successes was a dark side. Theirs was a world of inequality. A world where people were limited by race, gender and sexual orientation. A world of consumption and extraction without regard for sustainability. A world where one political misjudgment and the push of a button could annihilate the human race.

That’s the world my generation inherited when we graduated. A war in Vietnam, race riots at home and political assassinations. So, what did we do?

Well, like most every generation we started out with the best of intentions. We helped to end the Vietnam War. We fought for the civil rights of minorities, women, gays and people of color. We started the sexual revolution. We innovated and turned the richness of American music, art, comedy, film and television into the world’s most attractive brand. We invented the personal computer, the Internet, and an entire digital economy in which a majority of you will probably make your careers. We traveled the world like it was our backyard.

But, as my own children remind me, that’s not all we did. We happily reaped the benefit from the investment our parents made in education, infrastructure and institutions, then pulled the ladder up behind us. We allowed, and even celebrated, the obscene accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few with no regard for what it does to the many.

We borrowed and borrowed — never wanting to pay the piper. We choked the Earth with pollution and then convinced ourselves that your generation should take care of it. We incarcerated more of our fellow citizens than any other country on Earth. We shrugged and turned away when our own children were gunned down in their classrooms. We corrupted the political system with vast sums of hidden money. We turned news into entertainment and lying into a political norm. Because we didn’t go to the moon ourselves, out of envy we concocted conspiracy theories about how it never happened at all. And as the years wore on some of us became small and petty. There’s a reason we’re called “The Me Generation.”

You are the future

Crises have a way of exposing both the best and worst. And this pandemic is no different. As secularists, these last few months have shown with brutal clarity that the future does not and cannot belong to the liars, the magical thinkers, the bloviators, the science deniers — to those who are too lazy to actually “know” anything except for what their “gut” tells them — as ample as that may be.

The future belongs to you. And the forging of that future will require what you possess in abundance: reason, truthfulness, critical thinking and courage. And also “belief.”

Now I know that’s a strange thing to say about people like us. We are used to being defined by what we don’t believe. “Oh, you don’t believe in God?” “You don’t believe in the bible?” “You don’t believe in the Blood of the Lamb?” You got it! I don’t!

I believe that truth is more powerful than fiction. That ideology, dogma and groupthink is dangerous and should always be challenged. I believe in fairness, tolerance and equality. I’m happy to say that these last few months, as tragic as they have been, have provided us with shining examples of what matters most: Facts, truth and caring — as health professionals and scientists all around the world battle to save us all.

People love to say, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but my experience is that when the shit hits the fan there are no anti-vaxxers or magical thinkers in a pandemic. Well, unfortunately there are, but we all know Darwinism will eventually take care of that.

What’s important for you to know is that my generation’s influence is coming to an end. And that this crisis, positioned a few months before an election, provides you with the unique opportunity not to just clean up, but to clean out.

Today, your graduation day, is an invitation to imagine your future and to achieve it. You don’t like $72,000-a-year colleges? I don’t blame you. You want to breathe clean air and drink pure water? You should. You want to be paid a living wage? I agree. You want health care? Absolutely! Social justice? It’s all within your reach.

As this crisis wanes, there is already a push to get things back to “the way they were.” Here’s your first challenge. If the way they were is not good enough, then you need to do something about it. How you tackle these next six months will impact your lives for years to come.

Remember, good intentions are not enough. “Being” secular is not a lapel pin — it’s a mission. Today, more than ever, we need leaders. We need visionaries. We need a whole new conversation. That’s why you must remain optimistic and active. Your time is now. In the coming months, the forces of bigotry, ignorance and fear are counting on you to remain on the sidelines. Surprise them. Be smart. Be strategic. Be secular. The world needs you.

See you out there!