Inspiration, Sci-Fi, and the Importance of Driving Your Own Bus

Actor John de Lancie is a a graduate of the Julliard School who has appeared in numerous films and television shows. He’s perhaps best known for portraying the all-powerful character Q on Star Trek (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager series). He was co-owner, with Leonard Nimoy, of Alien Voices, a production company devoted to the dramatization of classic science fiction. Since 2010, de Lancie has voiced the character Discord on the animated show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and has produced a documentary on the show’s large following of older male fans who call themselves “Bronies.”

De Lancie has acted in numerous theatrical productions as a member of the American Shakespeare Company, the Old Globe, and other repertories. He has performed narration with a number of prestigious orchestras and hosted both youth and adult concert series with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition, he’s written and directed ten symphonic plays and has directed several operas in major US cities.

On Saturday, May 28, 2016, de Lancie was awarded the Humanist Arts Award at the American Humanist Association’s 75th Annual Conference. The following is adapted from his acceptance speech.

I AM HONORED to be here. I thank you, and perhaps more importantly, my eight-year-old self thanks you from the bottom of his heart—that eight-year-old who was sent home from the Cub Scout meeting because he refused to pray. (“No praying—no donuts!” said the infuriated den mother.)

That same eight-year-old who was asked, two years earlier, to leave Sunday school. Apparently, the teacher, whose appreciation of her subject didn’t go much further than “because the Bible tells us so,” didn’t like being interrupted with the constant refrain, “But that doesn’t make any sense!”

Contrary to what you might be thinking, I was not a Damian with yellow eyes and a penetrating stare, nor did I have anything to do with the lightning rod that mysteriously fell from atop the library and impaled that poor Sunday school marm.

I was a polite, well-mannered little boy who—when it came to praying to imaginary beings; or listening to stories about living inside a whale; or blowing trumpets until the walls fell down; or coloring fat, winged cherubs sitting on puffy clouds—just didn’t buy it!

How did I come by this skepticism? You would be mistaken to think me precocious, as I went on to flunk out of two schools by the age of twelve. So, why did I consider these stories not only untrue, but threatening? Was I protecting myself—fearful of losing myself? Or, perhaps, was I just overly sensitive to being manipulated?

It might be worth noting that around this time there was, in Philadelphia, an outbreak of encephalitis—sleeping sickness. The horror of becoming a living corpse, frozen in time, kept me up at night scanning the skies of my bedroom for mosquitoes.

For reasons only an eight-year-old boy could concoct, I equated getting bitten by a mosquito with succumbing to God. Let’s not forget, it was 1957. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was on a double bill with Invaders from Mars and my friend Spike and I had seen both films. Nothing—and I mean nothing—was going to penetrate my body and infect my very being without me putting up a good fight.

The authors of these films might have thought they were writing about Communism but for me the fear of being taken over by a “God” who entered my heart and lived in my soul was more terrifying. Thanks to science fiction, I got the tip-off just in time: “whatever you do… don’t get probed.” The summer of ’59 provided some of my fondest memories: of running behind the DDT truck and arguing with Spike that heaven was for weenies.

But by the age of twelve my blissful life had changed. It was discovered that I didn’t know how to read and the ugly truth was finally out. I was on the verge of flunking yet again, and life had gotten pretty serious around the house.

One cold, depressing winter’s night, as I was sitting in my bath watching the bubbles circle the drain, I had an epiphany—that it was me! I was circling the drain and about to disappear!

Photo by Carissa Snedeker

Photo by Carissa Snedeker

As I got out of the tub, I made a decision that was to inform the rest of my life. I decided that I would not turn to my parents for help, nor to my teachers, and under no circumstance was I going to turn to God. That left only me. Mind you, I didn’t quite know what that meant, but at least I knew who was responsible. I was now a free agent—desperately in search of direction and inspiration—and, as luck would have it, I found that inspiration in a book (a story) that was to mean the world to me: Mysterious Island by Jules Vern.

It’s the tale of five men and a dog who escape a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in an observation balloon. They get caught in a great storm and are swept across the Pacific to the uncharted island.

What so fascinated me about this story was how knowledgeable and self-sufficient these men were. They looked at a hillside and saw iron ore, so they built a blast furnace. But first, they fabricated bricks—firebricks, no less—and made bellows! Their world was both wondrous and threatening but because they were knowledgeable, skilled, and daring, they succeeded.

They didn’t fall for magical explanations of why things happened—angels going up and down ladders. When they found a sea chest on the beach, crammed with tools, they didn’t think God had put it there. That would have been too easy. They asked questions. And when the answers didn’t make sense, they asked more questions until they ultimately uncovered the mystery of Mysterious Island.

They would never have accepted, at face value, the notion that the world was created in 4004 BC… but I get ahead of myself.

The men of Mysterious Island insisted on seeing the world as it was, and through science and industry, they made it better. By their example, I began to see a path for myself. They were my heroes! In fact, I recently sailed my own boat 14,000 miles from California to the South Pacific and back again in no small measure because of them.

Now, let’s jump from my impressionable years to just a few years ago. I was touring the country in a show about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Ed Asner was playing William Jennings Bryan and I played Clarence Darrow.

This was not Inherent the Wind. This was the actual 1925 trial transcript arguing the teaching of evolution in the public schools—an argument, I’m sorry to say, that’s still raging today for all the wrong reasons.

We were on the college circuit, but performances were open to the general public. During our month of touring, we were picketed, yelled at, and booed—most of the time before the show even started. At one of the universities, I was finishing up a Q&A for a group of 100 or so students when the teacher said he’d seen the play the night before and highly recommended it.

Then, with a wink in my direction, he turned and asked the class, “With a show of hands, how many of you believe the earth was created on October 22, 4004 BC?” Seventy-five students raised their hands. I was stunned. Speechless. My head dropped as I silently bore witness to the death of knowledge, the death of curiosity—wiped out in an instant by some religious nonsense—yet these college students believed it. And they were secure in their belief, you could even say smug considering the enthusiasm with which their hands shot up into the air, affirming: “I believe.”

In the green room that evening I told the cast about my experience. There was a young theater “groupie” hanging around, and I asked her if she would have raised her hand like the others.

“Oh yes,” she said.

“Why? In light of everything we know today, why?”

“Because I believe God is my bus driver.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know what that means.”

“That I can sit at the back of the bus and party-hearty because God is driving my bus. And if the Bible says 4004 BC, who am I to disagree?”

“4004 BC is not even in the Bible,” I said.

“Well… I don’t know. That’s what I believe.”

“But that doesn’t make sense, you idiot. Next, you’re going to tell me that you believe vaccines give you autism; or that Obama is a Muslim; or that not having healthcare makes you free; or that AIDS is a punishment for being gay; or that Sandy Hook was staged.”

Of course, I didn’t say any of this. I just looked on in despair and half-heartedly asked her if God required exact change to get on the bus. She didn’t get the joke.

“God is my bus driver” precludes any and all critical thinking. It exposes this young woman to a lifetime of nonsense both benign and dangerous. It typifies the mindset of a segment of our population who can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction because they’ve wasted their formative years focusing on whether Adam wore flip-flops or walked barefoot in the garden—with his dinosaur.

The willingness of these twenty-first-century college students to believe the calculations of a seventeenth-century prelate, in spite of indisputable evidence to the contrary, is astounding. And because they’ve gone down this path, these young people are entering a world woefully unprepared for the challenges they’ll encounter. They will look at a hillside and see, perhaps nothing—certainly not iron ore. In their youth, they’ve not been encouraged to understand the world they live in, but rather have been directed to explore an imaginary world. They will enter adulthood with neither the disposition nor the skill to untangle complex, earthly problems. Healthcare, global warming—too complicated. Same-sex marriage, bathrooms—perfect.

This current election cycle, in many ways, gives us a glimpse of the storm clouds ahead. As a sailor, you want your best crew on deck. People who are incapable of updating their beliefs are dead weight, and dead weight typically gets left behind or thrown overboard.

Stories are powerful things—origin stories, in particular, when taken literally. My heart goes out to many of the eight-year-olds of today who are so susceptible to getting bitten by the superstition mosquito and seeing the world through the smudged windows of a church bus. As a parent, I was always on the lookout for alternative explanations to religious stories. I was always on the lookout to refute magical thinking.

When they were young, I gave my kids context. I wanted them to understand that “In the beginning…” was just one of hundreds of origin stories. And that humans, through the ages, had written each and every one of those stories. I wanted to convey that these ancient storytellers tried to answer the unanswerable as best they could with the information they had at the time; but today, we know better—and that is good.

I also wanted to make sure my kids understood that humans have come up with all the ideas ever thought—both good and bad. And that, as humans, we are responsible for all the actions we will ever take—both good and bad. I took particular delight in explaining to them that most ideas are born out of plain practicality.

As an example, one night the boys came home from school with the story of how God told Abraham that there was only one god and Abraham didn’t question God but rather went about smashing idols and that’s how monotheism came about.

Seeing an opening, I asked the boys if this made sense to them and might there not be a more believable explanation that didn’t include a god? Perhaps, a more practical explanation? Being future humanists, they were willing to listen.

John de Lancie as the character Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation

John de Lancie as the character Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Try this,” I said: “Abraham had a wife and two kids, and he was on the move a lot. One day he’s loading up the donkey cart with all his possessions—just like when I load up the car for a long trip. Things were packed really tight in the donkey cart. And just as he’s securing the last bolt of cloth, his kids run out with about six or seven clay gods in their arms. There’s an action figure of Baal and Tartarus and Amun, to name just a few. Abraham looked at the gods, and he looked at his overstuffed cart, and he turned to his kids and said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, just pick one!” And that, my children, is the probable origin of monotheism.

Today we have—as a result of human curiosity, passion, creativity, and resourcefulness—a new origin story that gives many more answers than was possible 5,000 years ago. It’s not the final word, by any means. It’s a story in progress, but it has the advantage of uniting all the cultures on Earth: taking us from the Caves of Lascaux and the Aboriginal Dreamtime, right up to the Cern particle accelerators; from “10 to the minus 43,” to the genetic understanding that “all life is one.” We can still honor those first attempts to tell our story as long as we understand that they were just that—first attempts. Because the greatest story ever told cannot be truly great if it’s locked in time.

We live in a creative universe, and we are one of its creations and one of its creators. This is our story, and it’s time we tell it the way we know it today—with all the splendor and majesty we’ve spent the last 200,000 years unlocking. I want to devote my time to making our story—humanity’s extraordinary progress and achievement—the story eight-year-olds get to hear, so that they can enter the world with their eyes wide open to the extraordinary potential that awaits them. Thank you.

Excerpts from the Q&A

Q: I was curious why you weren’t able to read when you were twelve. Was it because you weren’t interested? Did you have dyslexia?

A: It was just before they understood what dyslexia was. Right about twelve or thirteen, I went to a new school, and the headmistress said, “I think your son has specific dyslexia.” I thought that was great as long as they weren’t calling me stupid anymore. But nobody really knew what to do about it. A year or so later I had a wonderful teacher. It was a tiny school—nineteen or so kids in the graduating class. He would enter in a burst of energy and say, “We’re going to do Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro!” Or “Handel’s Messiah, we’re going to do that this year!”

One particular time he came in, it was in the spring, he said, “In two months we’re going to do Shakespeare’s Henry V and de Lancie, you’re going to play Hal.” I could barely read it but when I finished doing it, there was a man in the audience who was the editor of The Pelican Shakespeare. He took my father aside and he said, if your son has an interest, you should encourage him because he has a flair for this. It was the first time I had ever been successful at school. So I began to read.

Q: What scares me is that the girl on the back of the bus is going to be voting, and all of her friends are going to be voting, and I’m not sure I want those people in the voting booth, quite frankly.

A: I agree. It’s hard to explain what’s going on now for all of us who I think are very sensitive to it. “Wacky” is the nice way of saying what is perhaps a really dangerous time, as the world seems to be slipping into authoritarianism.

Q: Your father was a great oboe player. I heard him many times when I was living in New York. Did he encourage you to study oboe or music in general?

A: Yes. My father was very straightforward about these types of things. About six weeks into studying the oboe, he said, “Let’s come in to the studio and I want to hear a lesson.” After I finished ten minutes of playing he said, “You will never be a musician. Find something else to do.” I’m sure that when that gentleman told him he should encourage his son to be an actor, it really was any port in a storm.

Q: Did you know Gene Roddenberry?

A: One day I got a call from my agent and she says, “You have an audition tomorrow at 4:00 for Star Trek. Oh dear, there’s something wrong with the facts here. It’s just the letter, a single letter—Q.”

“They’re doing Star Trek again?” I asked. “Well look, I’m in a play and I don’t think I can go. I’ll try but I don’t know.” I didn’t go. A week later my agent called again and said, “There’s a producer who keeps calling for you and he says please come.”

I said, “Look, if you’re going to make the audition at noon, I’ll be able to get out during my lunch hour. I’ll run over there. I’ll knock it off and then I’ll come back down.” Interestingly enough, the character in the play, Roald Amundsen, was not unlike the character I was going to audition for. Amundsen was the person who got to the South Pole first. So, I had a lot that character in me, a lot of testosterone going. I went up there and I did the audition. A guy walked out with me afterward, a big guy, a little larger than me. He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “You make my words sound better than they are.”

“You’re the writer?” I asked.

“I’m Gene Roddenberry,” he answered. I hadn’t watched Star Trek when I was a kid because I wasn’t allowed to watch television because I didn’t know how to read. “We’re going to be seeing more of you,” Roddenberry said, and I thanked him and told him I had to get back to my rehearsal.

Now, this was still during the time when there were dailies. Today you can see what’s recorded immediately in the video village where the screens are running all the time. But back then, they’d have to develop the film and then it would go into the screening room. And you always knew when you started a show that in about two days or so, the suits were going to be coming down. If they liked you that was great, and if they didn’t like you, things could really get unpleasant.

Well, Gene Roddenberry came down and said to me, “You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.” I asked what he meant and he smiled. “Oh, you’re going to find out,” he said, “you are going to find out.” I have to say, here I am looking out here and I’m thinking, Gene, twenty-nine years after you said that, this is what I’m doing right now. So it’s quite extraordinary. Thanks.