Susan Sackett is best known as a production associate and writer for Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as the assistant to Gene Roddenberry, with whom she worked closely until his death in 1991. She has written or co-authored 10 books, several about Star Trek, such as Letters to Star Trek, The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Inside Trek. Her other books include You Can Be a Game Show Contestant and Win (and, indeed, after the book was published, she appeared on “Jeopardy,” where she won $10,000 in cash and prizes), and Say Goodnight, Gracie!, about George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen.
She has been the president of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix since 2000, and in 2002 founded HUMANICON SOUTHWEST Inc., a 501 (c) (3) corporation to promote Humanism throughout the Southwest. For many years, she has been an advocate for animal rights. She is a member of MENSA, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the Writers Guild of America. She has been a certified Humanist Celebrant since 2001 and currently serves on the board of the American Humanist Association .
MW: Thanks for allowing me to interview you, Susan. Like millions of other people, I’m a fan of Star Trek, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, for which you co-wrote a couple of episodes, served as a production associate, and in which you made a walk-on appearance. (I saw some of your photos on the Web, in fact, in which you’re in costume.) Star Trek was a milestone in your life, but for the infidels.org readership, I’d like to find out more about your humanism and how you came to adopt that lifestance. So let me begin by asking you about your childhood. Were your parents at all sympathetic to humanism and secularism, or were they religious? What were the early influences that shaped your worldview?
My parents had been brought up as Orthodox Jews. But they became more liberal in their Jewish practices after my grandmother (my mother’s mother) died. She lived with us until I was 12, and after her death, my mother permitted us to buy non-kosher food and even to have bacon in the house! My parents sent me to a religious school at the Reform temple, a fairly liberal branch of Judaism. But they were definitely God-believers. It was simply hard for them to see past the traditions of their upbringing.
I adhered to a vague concept of a God until well into adulthood. It just never occurred to me to question this ingrained belief, or to give it much thought. I imagine there are millions of people out there who are in this same situation. Then, in 1974, I began my association with Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek). Over the 17 years I worked with him, we had many exciting and profound dialogues on philosophy, religion and the nature of life and the universe. Gradually, I began to question religion and realized that there was no place for a biblical-based belief in a rational worldview, and I came to accept his humanistic concepts.
In 1989, Isaac Asimov, a good friend of Gene’s, sent him a copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I read it in its entirety, and was totally captivated! Dr. Asimov, who was then the honorary president of the AHA, sent Gene more literature on Humanism, which he shared with me. And I realized this was also my philosophy. After that, I joined the AHA and began attending their conferences (along with Gene, up until his death in 1991).
MW: From your biographical information that’s available on-line, I read that your first career interests were in education and teaching. In fact, you received your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. How did your studies influence your writing for television and film?
I really don’t think my education studies had much of an effect on my career in the entertainment industry! I suppose no university education is truly wasted, but I probably got more out of my English, writing and speech classes and other electives than my classes in elementary education. I do think that my learning to do lesson plans helped me to become a more organized person. And being able to stand up in front of a group of children gave me the confidence to address an audience or other groups of people. This proved especially useful in my many Star Trek convention appearances as well as in my Humanist leadership. Of course, I had a good teacher in Gene Roddenberry, who was a multi-talented and prolific writer! He saw abilities in me that I was not aware of, and he encouraged me to spread my wings.
MW: You’ve written about Gene Roddenberry’s humanism and how he influenced you, but did you already have leanings toward humanism before your career in television began?
Really, no. See above answer about how I became aware of and interested in Humanism.
MW: I’m curious about any ideas you might have to share regarding conflicts between feminism and humanism. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, two authors of the recent book Manifesta (a reevaluation of feminism), claim: “Using humanism as a replacement for feminism is also a misuse of the term–theologically, humanism is a rejection of supernaturalism, not an embrace of equality between men and women.” What is your opinion about their analysis or of opinions similar to theirs? I recall that Gloria Steinem once suggested that when we’re discussing feminism, we’re really talking about humanism.
This seems to be a logic problem – all Humanists are feminists, but not all feminists are Humanists. I don’t really see the two as being equal. Support of rights for women is a value that is part of Humanist ethics. However, one can be a feminist and still be very religious. So I don’t see how the two can be equal.
MW: You’ve been involved with a local chapter of the American Humanist Association in Phoenix, Arizona for many years, and served as that society’s president. Tell us something about the group, and the work it’s done and the influence it’s had on the culture and politics of Phoenix. Is humanism on the rise in Arizona? I’ve traveled the state a few times, and sensed the influence of libertarianism there. Are there intersections between libertarianism and humanism that you’ve noticed?
The Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix is in its 37th year! I’ve been president since 2000, and we’ve been growing by leaps and bounds – from 50 then members to over 250 today! We were fortunate a couple of years ago to receive a huge donation of a building on nearly an acre of property from one of our generous members. This has really helped us pull together as we have worked together to raise thousands of dollars for its renovation. While it’s taking longer than we had anticipated, when the building is completed, we hope to become much more of a presence in the community.
Is Humanism on the rise in Arizona? I’d love to say “Yes!” But the truth is, I don’t really know. Our group has grown in membership, and I know there are many more Humanists who are unaffiliated. But while our group is going strong, the AHA group in Tucson disbanded due to burnout of its leadership, and the AHA group leader in Prescott has been ill, so I don’t know if they are very active. On the other hand, Phoenix is now the fifth largest city in the nation, and that’s not including Scottsdale, Mesa, and other large cities in Maricopa County. So our group here is enjoying extremely good health. Also, we are beginning to network with other “progressive” groups, such as local chapters of Planned Parenthood, ACLU and several others. As a 501 (c) 3, we cannot do much to influence local politics, but we feel that our affiliation with other like-minded groups will go a long way towards that.
I’m not an expert on Libertarianism. We do have several members who are politically Libertarian, but the vast majority, I would say, are Democratic and seem to vote that way, primarily because that party is much more open to separation of church/state issues, among others. But – we are apolitical and do not endorse any political party, and I believe we have some members of the Republican Party in our numbers.
MW: You’re a strong advocate for wildlife conservation and animal rights. How do these two concerns impact on your humanism? Do humanists pay enough attention to these important issues? Have you written anything about these subjects that we might find on the Web?
I don’t think there is much intersection between my personal support of animal rights and my Humanism. I think most Humanists in general naturally support environmental issues, including animal issues. I’m really not any sort of radical animal rights advocate – I eat meat, although I once gave up red meat for 12 years. But no, I’m a carnivore again! On the other hand, I oppose such things as oil drilling in our protected wildernesses, killing wolves that have been reintroduced into the wild, canned hunting – that sort of thing (actually, the thought of hunting anything is repulsive to me). I do my small part – eating only eggs from uncaged hens, never eating veal because of the way they are raised, etc. Is this Humanistic? Probably, although I’m sure there are Humanists who would disagree.
MW: Where do see the United States headed with the supposed “feud” between–what Bill O’Reilly has termed–the “secular progressives” and the “traditionalists”? How do you view this cultural divide?
Don’t get me started on O’Reilly! How dare he define what a “secular progressive” is? Are all secular people progressive? Are all progressive people secular? Not necessarily. And why do these terms have to be used in a pejorative sense? Is there a cultural divide? If so, he’s contributing to it – trying to “divide and conquer.” And I think it’s a very dangerous thing, trying to polarize the country that way. O’Reilly and the Fox (Faux) News Network are basically the Bush Administration’s “Ministry of Propaganda.” Goebbels would be so proud.
MW: Many humanists and freethinkers look at the growing percentage of people who profess no religious affiliation as a good sign, but what trends or indicators give you hope that humanism can thrive in the near future?
I take heart when I see the rise of Humanism in Europe, and I can only hope that this can spread exponentially and have an effect on the movement in the U.S. When books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation can make the national best seller lists, I think it shows that many people are curious about Humanism and atheism. Perhaps with the curiosity will come understanding and, dare one hope, acceptance. On the other hand, I’m not sure that “militant atheism” is the answer. I am hopeful that at the very least, Humanists and atheists will be tolerated and welcomed in political office, and that those in Congress and other positions of influence will soon be out of the non-believer closet. There are no doubt already several elected officials who profess belief because it is helpful to their careers – and I hope they will “boldly go” where no politician has gone before!