A Brief History of Disbelief

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A Brief History of Disbelief is a BBC documentary series originally broadcast on BBC FOUR, presented by Jonathan Miller, a doctor, theatre director and television presenter. It 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, and also discusses

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 certain 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.


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

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


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

  • Tennessee Williams
  • Lord Byron
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • President George H. W. Bush
  • John Adams
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Buchanan
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Havelock Ellis
  • Aristophanes
  • Epicurus
  • Lucretius
  • Aristotle
  • Cicero
  • Seneca
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