At its 75th Anniversary Conference in Chicago, IL, the American Humanist Association will be pleased to present the Humanist Arts Award to John de Lancie. De Lancie, a man of many talents, is an actor, director, producer, and writer, among many other accomplishments. But he is perhaps best known to many humanists for his portrayal of the character Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He is also an atheist and has participated in the Openly Secular campaign, of which the American Humanist Association is an in-movement partner. I asked de Lancie about his atheism, his career, and how his skepticism intersects with his acting.
Though de Lancie said that he became interested in science fiction at a young age, acting on Star Trek was not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for him. “I was not a fan of the [original Star Trek] TV show— I was not allowed to watch TV when I was a kid,” de Lancie says. However, he also states that he knew he was part of something very special, saying of the experience, “It changed my life.” To illustrate the importance of The Next Generation, de Lancie describes a pivotal moment early on in his role on the show: “A few days into shooting, Gene Roddenberry came up to me and said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.’ I asked him what he meant. He laughed and said, ‘You’ll see.’ He was right.” De Lancie also states that he has formed meaningful relationships with many of the people involved in the show. “I’ve made a lot of nice friends because of Star Trek—Leonard Nimoy, for one.”
In the various Star Trek series John de Lancie’s character, Q, appears to humans as a powerful being with access to dimensions that humans cannot comprehend. However, Q is revealed to be flawed. Like many other godlike characters in the Star Trek shows, Q may be more advanced than humans, but he is hardly a deity, despite his impressive powers. “I played the character of Q as an omnipotent being who was too stupid to know it; a god with clay feet,” de Lancie explains. One can’t help but wonder if through de Lancie’s perceptive portrayal, at least some viewers began to question the omnipotence of the gods of the religions they were raised in.
De Lancie himself, however, was always suspicious of the religious claims made by those around him, even when he was a young child. “I was always skeptical,” de Lancie asserts. “As a six-year-old, I was asked to leave Sunday school because, apparently, I kept on interjecting ‘but that doesn’t make sense.’ Two years later I was asked to leave the Cub Scout meetings because I refused to pray. For me, religion and manipulation were one and the same.”
Though he was always a critical thinker, de Lancie credits his first encounter with humanism to a teacher. “My introduction to humanism was when my sixth grade teacher, seeing I had a decidedly secular bent, suggested I look up Erasmus and the Renaissance,” de Lancie explains. He also credits the influence of science fiction to his humanism. “The idea that mankind could create a better future through science and industry was very appealing to me. Organized religion just got in the way,” de Lancie elaborates.
Beyond his work in science fiction and Star Trek, de Lancie has brought his insight and critical thinking to his other roles in his highly successful acting career. His portrayal of Don Margolis in the critically-acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad has profoundly impacted many fans. “On three separate occasions, young men have come up to me and confessed that now, after seeing my portrayal of Jane’s father, they understood what their own parents had gone through,” de Lancie says about his experience depicting a parent dedicated to helping his drug-addicted daughter on the show.
De Lancie has also used his roles to inspire skepticism in others and encourage them to think, not merely believe. In The Tennessee Monkey Trial, a play about the famous legal case in which teacher John Scopes was accused of violating the law by teaching the theory of evolution, de Lancie played Clarence Darrow, Scope’s defense attorney. He poignantly describes the importance of both his role and the play in encouraging critical thinking:
We used the actual transcripts [from the case], and we performed the play all across the country. Ed Asner played William Jennings Bryan and I played Clarence Darrow. I had a Q&A at the University of Nebraska with a class of about 100 college students. Since the play is about evolution, there was reason to get into the issue of the age of the earth. To my astonishment, about eighty kids raised their hands when asked if they “believed” the earth was created in 4004 BC. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I’ve become very wary of the word “believe.” When people tell me they “believe” something to be true, I oftentimes counter with, “I appreciate what you believe, but what do you think?” There’s always a momentary pause and, interestingly, their answer is somewhat different—a little more reasoned.
Perhaps because of his skepticism, John de Lancie has been able to move his audiences in ways that other actors might not. Through his roles, he has elicited a range of emotions from his viewers, from humor to compassion. But he has also challenged people to ask questions, to explore beyond surface-level assumptions, and to think critically. His performances have enriched the arts, and his unabashed atheism has raised the profile of the secular movement. De Lancie is uniquely skilled at both entertaining and edifying his audiences in his roles. His ability as an actor to tap into both emotion and reason embodies the humanist emphasis on empathy combined with reason. For these reasons, he is more than deserving of the Humanist Arts Award, and the humanist community and our society have benefited immensely from his talents.
The American Humanist Association’s 75th Anniversary Conference will be held May 26-29, 2016 in Chicago, IL. Learn more and register here.