I do love me a good BBC Documentary and recently BBC Four aired one that I hope makes it over here to the states either via BBC America or one of the Discovery channels. It’s called Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief and it sounds like it does a good job of looking at the history of atheism. Here’s the blurb from the official webpage:
- In this first ever television history of disbelief, Jonathan Miller leads viewers on a personal journey exploring the origins of his own lack of belief and uncovering the hidden story of atheism.
The site also features a brief interview with Richard Denton who was the Producer/Director of the three-part series:
BBC Four: What prompted you to make a history of disbelief?
Richard Denton: I’d wanted to make the series for a very long time. I was struck by the fact that nobody had ever done it and I thought it was odd that nobody seemed to know anything about the history of disbelief when there are so many people who don’t believe in God.
BBC Four: Did your own thinking change or develop during the production of the series?
RD: Yes it did. I had come to it with the rather simplistic view that science had been the really big thing that had destroyed faith. Jonathan Miller wasn’t convinced this was true so between us we spent a long time going over original sources to find out where people had touched on the subject. I discovered that it was simply philosophy on its own that had played the very much larger role in the gradual erosion of belief.
BBC Four: The programmes link the development of sceptical thought and scientific discovery to the growth of disbelief. Which do you think had the greater influence?
RD: Philosophy had the most significant influence at least until Darwin. When Darwin comes along I think he wrecks the case for religion because his theory undermines the most convincing reason for believing in God – God as the master-designer. Once you have realised that all living things can have the illusion of design without there being a designer then there’s no reason for God. Philosophy had already reached this conclusion but as the scientist Steven Weinberg says “It’s not that science made religion impossible, what it did was make irreligion possible”.
BBC Four: Were you surprised to find the first American presidents were so sceptical about religion?
RD: I was incredibly struck by their quotations – these guys wouldn’t even get considered as candidates if they said anything like that now. And I was depressed by that because it made me feel that we have not made a great deal of progress since the Age of Enlightenment. If anything, we’re going backwards at the moment.
It’s certainly been my experience that a lot of folks who try to convert me take the approach that my atheism is a result of my buying into the “lies of science” when the real reasons are largely philosophical. Science was never the catalyst for my disbelief and I don’t know of many atheists who feel that it was for them either. A lot of believers seem to have a hard time with the idea that someone else could take a philosophical look at their beliefs and come away with the conclusion that they’re hogwash and even when you tell them that’s the case many will still try to insist that science is to blame for our disbelief while others will then assume that there must have been something in our past that made us hate God.
I’m also interested to see how much the series goes into the American Founding Father’s beliefs. If you spend any amount of time reading the writings of many of our earliest leaders you can’t help but realize they’d be unelectable in a modern Presidential campaign. Jefferson would likely never had made it past the primaries and John Adams would have been flogged alive by the Christian Conservatives as being an intolerant anti-Christian bigot.
It’s just a shame that this documentary, like so many other things, is likely to be ignored by those people who need most to view it. Still, keep your eye open for it. Also watch for The Atheism Tapes which are the full interviews conducted with Colin McGinn, Denys Turner, Arthur Miller, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg for the series. That should be interesting to listen to as well.