So, what does a purely humanist civilization look like? What do people do and need, when it is taken as given that life is material and beyond it lies nothing?”
For decades, the best we could do in answering this question as to the lived-in feel of a prospective humanist society was to point toward Star Trek and say, “That.” There, in Roddenberry’s foundational vision, were many of our core principles set loose among the stars. Racial and gender equality. Galactic-scale curiosity fulfilled by scientifically literate explorer-heroes. The balance of rigorous logic with Yankee cunning. As against the popular image of atheists as cold, depressed, angry loners, here was, for everyone to see, a group of secular friends and comrades living life with a capital “L,” laughing and struggling and thereby showing just what humans might be when allowed their full humanity at last.
Well, nearly full. Though Star Trek brought a vision of a future secular society into our living rooms, it never quite rose to the complete truth of just what we would get up to, as a species, when fully unencumbered by religion, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and mortality. For that, for a human galaxy that felt like a full realization of all we could and might do, we had to wait until 1987 and a writer named Iain M. Banks (1954–2013).