I just finished watching a copy of a three-part program that was broadcast in England three years ago — A Brief History of Disbelief, narrated by Jonathan Miller. All I can say is … wow. It’s less an advocacy of atheism than a kind of post-atheism, a historical and philosophical review of this strange, dying idea of “religion” that reveals the progressive growth of atheistic thought. It’s wonderfully dismissive. The real question isn’t how people can disbelieve, but how faith can survive and still linger on.
Here’s a brief summary of the programs:
A Brief History of Disbelief combines an exploration of the origins of Miller’s own lack of belief with historical perspective and interviews with leading authorities, including biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, recently deceased playwright Arthur Miller, and physicist Steven Weinberg.
“In making this series I have inevitably discovered that the history of faith and doubt is a great deal more complicated than it might seem,” Jonathan Miller declares. Among the program’s surprising revelations is that philosophy, not science as often assumed, played a larger role in the gradual erosion of belief. And contrary to what many Christian fundamentalists today consider America’s founding principles, the first presidents were actually skeptical of religion. A Brief History of Disbelief traces the history of the first “unbelievers” in ancient Greece through the role of disbelief in America’s founding to its flourishing today.
Part I: Shadows of Doubt
Miller visits the site of the absent Twin Towers to consider the religious implications of 9/11 and meets Arthur Miller and the philosopher Colin McGinn. He searches for evidence of the first “unbelievers” in ancient Greece and examines some of the modern theories around why people have always tended to believe in mythology and magic.
Part II: Noughts and Crosses
With the domination of Christianity from 500 AD, Miller wonders how disbelief began to re-emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries. He discovers that division within the Church played a more powerful role than the scientific discoveries of the period. He also visits Paris, the home of the 18th century atheist Baron D’Holbach, and shows how politically dangerous it was to undermine the religious faith of the masses.
Part III: The Final Hour
The history of disbelief continues with the ideas of self-taught philosopher Thomas Paine, the revolutionary studies of geology, and the evolutionary theories of Darwin. Miller looks at the Freudian view that religion is a “thought disorder.” He also examines his motivation behind making the series touching on the issues of death and the religious fanaticism of the 21st century.
Now for the shocking news: it’s going to be shown in the US. This is a series that atheists of all stripes should savor — it’s intelligent and literate and thought-provoking. Make sure you catch it on the evening of 4 May.
It should also infuriate and inspire angry denunciations from the religious, except for two things.
One: it’s intelligent and literate and thought-provoking. This is not flashy pap, there are no special effects — it’s a personable old fellow strolling around historic sites and explaining things and having conversations with people. It’s an entirely intellectual exercise, so you will need to be prepared for more thinking, less entertaining.
Two: it’s buried. Try searching the PBS site for any mention of the program; as of this moment, it’s not there! You can find an indirect mention of it under a short portrait of the philosopher Colin McGinn, but otherwise … shhhh. Let’s not stir up the reactionary religious element by making a big deal of their heretical programming. That may change; let’s hope PBS can get a little more aggressive about this fascinating jewel of a program.
For now, you can check the PBS schedule for 4 May, and look for Bill Moyers’ program—that’s where it’s supposed to be shown. We Morris residents will presumably get to see it at 10pm that day.