With the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the emotional whiplash that followed, the monotheistic religions of the West took a more stridently political turn. It was in this context that Jonathan Miller, the British theatre and opera director, felt compelled to create a three-part documentary tracing the history of religious skepticism and disbelief.
Broadcast by the BBC in 2004 under the title, Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, the series wasn’t broadcast by PBS in America until 2007, and only after “Atheism” had been removed from the title and the word “rough” changed to “brief.”
“I’m rather reluctant to call myself an atheist,” Miller says at the outset. “It’s only in the light of such current controversies with regard to belief that I’ve found myself willing to explicitly articulate my disbelief.”
Miller goes on to guide the viewer through the historic evolution of religious doubt, from the skepticism of Greek and Roman philosophers to the Deism of Enlightenment intellectuals and the emergence of explicit atheism in the writings of the 18th century French aristocrat Paul-Henri Thiry, the Baron d’Holbach, who wrote in his Système de la Nature:
If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them; and that custom, respect and tyranny support them in order to make the blindness of men serve its own interests.
Miller also talks with a number of well-known contemporary atheists, including playwright Arthur Miller, physicist Steven Weinberg and philosopher Colin McGinn. Episode One: Shadows of Doubt appears above, in its entirety, with the other two episodes: “Noughts and Crosses” and “The Final Hour.”
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