Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief on BBC Four

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.

25 thoughts on “Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief on BBC Four

  1. Les, just curious, but I’ve seen mention before that most of the early presidents were atheists or at least nontheists.  The US Constitution has no mention of god or religion except that the government can’t declare one.  The Declaration of Independance mentions the words Creator and God, but in more of a passive sense.

    So, where do all the godidiots get the presumption that this country was founded as a Christian nation?

  2. Christian revisionism and avoidance of cognitive dissonance combined with an apathy on the part of the populace toward learning their own country’s history. The reasons are similar to why the majority of Bush supporters still think Iraq had anything to do with 9/11.

    I need to correct a misstatement in your comment though: The majority of our early presidents were neither atheist or nontheists, but they weren’t Christian either. Most were Deists. Which is also not to say that there weren’t any Christians among their numbers, but the idea that this country was started by people who were by and large Christian and who intended the country to reflect Christian ideals and morals is a complete falsification of history.

  3. A coworker said to me yesterday, “The constitution was based on the teachings of the bible.” I asked where she got that information from. She validated her reasoning with by quoting the pledge of allegiance.


    Oh why can’t we smack idiots?

  4. It’s a pity but BBC Four is one of the least-watched public service channels over here. It concentrates on documentaries and high-brow drama, although it does have the most excellent panel show called QI with Stephen Fry (aka Lord Melchitt from Blackadder).

    But then I suppose most of its output is generally of interest to a minority of people. Though it is good to have a channel free of cheap and tacky game shows.

  5. Les, you should read Freethinkers, A history of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby, if you haven’t already.  I saw her on NOW a few months ago and got it from the library, she’s really good.

  6. I’ve got that book on my wishlist  and I’m hoping to pick it up before too much longer. Or maybe get it for Yuletide. I’ve heard nothing, but good things about it.

  7. Thanks for the explanation Les.  If I find time I’ll have to give the book just mentioned a try.

  8. When I was exploring one of the links provided by Les, I came across one called Devout Skeptics. Here is a description of the show.

    In this series Bel Mooney interviewes a prominent person each week. Each believes that the big ideas concerning God, religion and spirituality are very important but are unconvinced by traditional explanations.

    The page provides links to 27+ min audio clips of shows dating back to 2002. The one that I sampled featured Emma Nicolson a human rights activist who, among other things, has been working to help resettle the Marsh Arabs back into their traditional environment.

  9. And all these years I thought it was just an abreviation for, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.” LOL

  10. Devout Sceptics kind of sucks. And I say that as a Radio 4 listener. Moral Maze is good. In Our Time is good (it’s in MP3!!!). Law in Action is good. And Today in Parliament makes me wretch, but in a “I want to kill me some politician” way.

  11. Devout Sceptics kind of sucks.

    Perhaps, I’ve only listened to three so far – no real turn-offs yet. I did find the one with Paul Davies (Physicist) very interesting.

    Thanks for the other program suggestions.

  12. i knew jonathan millar when i was a boy. i knew his father too, i used to help him and other top harley street specialists train med-students (not all work: the girl-students had a competition going for them as to who could insert their arm the furthest up my…ahem… yes, the mind boggles, my eyes certainly did!) the millar’s were very deep thinkers, deeply interested in mankind, genuine people.
    on a visit to ‘private eye’, the subversive magazine based in the sex-quarter of london, soho, i was later suprised to find jonathan sitting there with the degenerates, peter cooke and dudley moore, dryly cracking jokes in that languid manner we now know so well. jonathan and alan bennet were the real brains behind the magazine, cooke the bricklayer with the (not always so) smooth pen, dudley the ‘tinkerbell’ darting about, directing the repartee. the perfect team. millar had found a forum to ventilate his views on the underprivaliged, downtrodden, society around him, hoping it might help them get a better deal in life. but the people who rule us (this applies to the usa too, you don’t think you actually have a democracy, do you?) are far too entrenched and powerful for us to budge, and they have been able to keep us the slaves we are, now under the yolk of dept, not the sword. far more effective, less messy, and they even let us stupid workers pay for it all!

  13. I’ve just watched the last episode.

    There’s not much about the US Founding Fathers, apart from discussing Thomas Paine. He does talk about the effects of the American and French revolutions. He talks more about the influence of Freud, Darwin and Marx on attitudes to religion and the decline of faith, and the last quarter of the programme is about religious fundamentalism and attitudes to mortality.

    There are various “talking head” quotes interjected during the programme, some of those are from American thinkers. It’s generally UK-centric though.

    There’s a bit of a cop-out near the end where he talks about the mysteriousness of conciousness as a ‘trump card’ for religion, but otherwise he comes across as a sceptical materialist.


  14. Another good UK programme criticising the effect of religion was just shown – “Religion – the Root of All Evil” by the scientist Richard Dawkins,on Channel 4.

    For a good discussion on the programme and issues related see here –

    Root of All Evil

  15. While were on atheism in the broadcast media.

    BBC have a drama serial called Waterloo Road, set in a school (not a teen soap). In this it was going for ‘Acadamy Status’ (The Government puts in £25m, a private individual/company put in £2m, they get some form of control) It mirrored a real life story of about a year ago. In “WR” a US fundementalist was the sponsor, and he was giving some of the more impressionable kids the ID/Creation line, which finished with them burning school books.

    The Deputy Head teachers then gets into a major argument with the IDiot at school assembly, and the Yank is told eventually to sling his hook after the Head reads the creationists web site.

    What I’m getting at is not whether you thought this was good drama, but would such a story line have appeared in a US serial. I suppose we’ll find out if ever they do “Gettysburg Road”

  16. I find that the problem of the religious is that they have defined what are considered pertinent questions and discussion topics about religion for millenia.  The question “Do you believe in God?” is not a reasonable starting place.  Belivers act like I must defend my views when they have made a claim that in truth THEY must support.  I feel it is necesary to take control of the discussion from these people.  If I claimed I could fly about the room by waving my arms these same people would make me prove it before believing.

  17. This show seemed very interesting when it came on the air. I sat and tried to watch it but one thing became clear very quickly. Jonathan Miller is one of the most boring people who have ever lived. Despite this, I managed to sit through the last hour of it; maybe he wasn’t in it as much. I have researched extensively the evidence for biological evolution and it appears clear that some process of this type formed the myriad species of the world. In addition, my studies of anthropology and Jungian psychology have brought me to the belief that humans created God. However, I am just about ready to throw out all this well held reason and logic and join up with the Christian Church if it means keeping this guy off the airwaves.

  18. ** When is God not God at all? **

    U.S. courts have consistently held that ‘God’ as in the notorious “In God We Trust” refers to a one-size-fits-all deistic divinity—creator, sustainer of the universe consistent with Western tradition. ‘He’ (really It) is the minimum standard god. (And, “tradition” is also androcentric and paternalistic.)

    I expect U.S. courts to trot out this precedent for the pledge of allegiance case—the MSG is today invoked before each Supreme Court session and each house of Congress opens with a prayer. However, no one is obligated to identify the MSG with the moral monster embraced by the late (unlamented) “Rev.” Falwell.

    The MSG leaves open any god hypothesis, except of course denying the existence of a single god, however bland. (Secular humanists, Theravada Buddhists, Chinese ancestor worshipers, Shintoists, Hindus, Vendantists still be damned, quite literally.)

    The pressing issues leading to social control have nothing to do with religion per se, but religion used as a front for political ideology.

    Undermining the Constitution, trashing biological science, and perverting education to suit ideologies of cultural domination by right-wing political-religionists are what we have too much of in America. The first amendment guarantees freedom of conscience. (Thus, each person is free to deny even the MSG of blessed tradition and to seek the foundations of morality in philosophy rather than theology.)

    Home grown Xian Taliban frighten me much more than Osama and all Islamic mullahs combined. Pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to preview a likely future under the sway of corporate elites and Xian mullahs.

    As Pogo (the comic strip character) once opined: “We have met the enemy. And he is us.”

    copyright asserted 2007

  19. Reminds me of my favorite Carol, “Deck us all with Boston Charley, Walla Walla Wash and Kalamazoo . . .” Pogo is my hero. I agree the home grown Xian Taliban if much more frighetening than Osama.

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