The history of religion(s) is a fascinating subject, one that should be covered, in my humble opinion, as an integral part of every liberal arts education. But the history of atheism—of disbelief—is a subject that only emerges piecemeal, in oppositional contexts, especially in the wake of recent fundamentalist uprisings in the past decade or so. We covered one such history recently, the 2004 BBC series Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, made by director Jonathan Miller and featuring such high-profile thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Arthur Miller, and physicist Steven Weinberg.
Miller’s series originally included much more material than he could air, and so the BBC agreed to let him produce the outtake interviews as a separate program called The Atheism Tapes. It’s a series in six parts, featuring interviews with English philosopher Colin McGinn, Weinberg, Miller, Dawkins, Dennett, and British theologian Denys Turner. At the top, watch Miller’s intro to The Atheism Tapes and his interview with Colin McGinn. It’s an interesting angle—Miller gets to quiz McGinn on “what it means to be a skeptical English philosopher in such a seemingly religious country as the United States.” Many readers may sympathize with McGinn’s difficulty in communicating his unbelief to those who find the concept totally alien.
Directly above, watch Daniel Dennett (after the intro) discuss the relationship between atheism and Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Miller is a wonderful interviewer—sympathetic, probing, informed, humorous, humanist. He is the perfect person to bring all these figures together and get their various takes on modern unbelief, because despite his own professions, Miller really cares about these big metaphysical questions, and his passion and curiosity are shared by all of his interviewees. In the introduction to his interview with playwright Arthur Miller (below), Jonathan Miller makes the provocative claim that Christianity believes “there’s something peculiar about the Jews that makes them peculiarly susceptible to profane disbelief.” Watch Arthur Miller’s response below.
One would hope that all manner of people—believers, atheists, and the non-committal—would come away from The Atheism Tapes with at least a healthy respect for the integrity of philosophical and scientific inquiry and doubt. See the full series on YouTube here. Or purchase your copy on Amazon here.