A Brief History of Disbelief

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A Brief History of Disbelief is a BBC documentary series presented by Jonathan Miller, a doctor, theatre director and television presenter. Originally broadcast on BBC FOUR, the series traces the rise of atheism in the modern age, and the historical predecessors of modern atheists. It also features snippets of a number of interviews with a variety of scientists and philosophers.


Episode 1: Shadows of Doubt

After the credits and opening scenes, Miller starts in New York, and discussing the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September the 11th as being a symbol of religion and being perpetrated by people with an "absolute assurance of a life after death", and pointing out that the events of 9/11 would be inconceivable without the faith of the hijackers. The conflict between the Muslim world and the Christianity of the US should make us concerned.

Miller points out the reason behind the programme - to track the history of athiesm - but describes a certain bafflement as to why the idea of atheism should exist at all. Miller discusses his family's Judaism and visits the New London Synagogue in St. John's Wood that his father sent him to as a child out of a sense of community loyalty.

Miller visits Dr. Williams' Library in London and discusses the philosophical and theological sources of freethought - pointing out the slightly paradoxical point that theologians - in a quest to test their own faith - often attempted elaborate arguments against their positions, which would then be used by sceptics to point out the problems with their position. Colin McGinn is brought in to discuss the philosophical definition and analysis of what a belief is - implicit, dispositional and non-episodic, but changeable, and expressed in the form of tendencies and rituals. He also discusses common sense beliefs, authority and supernatural beliefs.

Pascal Boyer discusses what he percieves to be the common denominator of religions - a belief in unseen agents as the primary cause of things unexplained or unexplainable - and the possibility that this is a beneficial evolutionary adaptation.

Miller then goes on to discuss the current political situation in the United States with Arthur Miller (who notes "There are a lot of Americans... who are aching for an Ayatollah"), and then discusses the political practices of the American founding fathers.

Having briefly visited King's College Chapel in Cambridge, Miller notes that it is philosophy and not science which led to a conscious awareness of his disbelief, and traces this philosophical tradition back to lesser-known Greek philosophers, Democritus and Epicurus.

Episode 2: Noughts and Crosses

The second episode starts with a discussion of the rise of Christianity and it's opposition to the Greek philosophical schools - tracing the Italian frescoes and using art to try and penetrate the mindset of the Medieval era.


Extended interviews with the following people were broadcast, and are now available on DVD:

The series also has snippets of interview with the following people:

Notes on the Arthur Miller interview

In the interview with Arthur Miller, he discusses the often-held idea that Jews are atheists, and his personal and family religious background. Miller describes how he doesn't "have the talent to believe" and says that it seems obvious that God and religious ideas are human projections.

Also discussed is the connection between secular Judaism and left-wing politics, which Miller describes as a reaction to anti-semitism (Jewish quotas in universities, Father Charles Coughlin etc.).

Miller goes on to discuss The Creation Of The World And Other Business, a play about Genesis - and the story of Cain and Abel. They carry on to discuss Iraq and the taboo of rationalism/atheism in the United States, and the way that a "religious overlay on patriotism" has increased since September the 11th - specifically new efforts like the Faith-Based Initiative and religious language being used more heavily by the Bush Administration to justify and promote policy. Miller then notes the huge contrast that this has with the Founding fathers views on religion.

Finally, they discuss the idea of an afterlife. Miller hopes for an afterlife, but sees that the only way that humans can outlast their own death is through the art one has created, the deeds one has done and the children which one has raised. The afterlife that the religious promise would be akin to "the subway at five o'clock - you'd want to get off".

Notes on Richard Dawkins interview

Topics discussed:

  • Iraq, and the way that a personification of evil was used to sell the war to the American public
  • the mental causes of religion
  • Dawkins' personal loss of faith
  • the design argument and the way that Darwinism explains the origin of life brilliantly
  • a basic instruction to evolution
  • the source of novelties, and the process of natural selection and odaptation
  • the Argument from incredulity
  • "Vital principles" and the nature of explanation
  • the importance of atheism, and the fact that religious explanations are ideas that need to be understood scientifically
  • leaps of faith
  • the misuse of words by liberal religionists, and the disconnection between academic theological use of language and common use

Notes on Daniel Dennett interview

Topics discussed:

  • the simplicity of Darwinism
  • the knock-on effects of Darwinism on belief in God and belief in human uniqueness
  • Descartes, the mind-body problem, the soul, consciousness and materialism
  • living with the mechanical nature of human beings
  • belief-in-belief-in-God
  • Politeness and the question of whether we should actively ridicule the religious?
  • Should we attempt to eliminate religion if people use it as a moral crutch?


Throughout the programmes, a variety of quotes are placed on screen or read by the actor Bernard Hill. These include passages from the following authors and sources:

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