During the June 5 Republican presidential debate, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer took various opportunities to grill the candidates about their faith. Jonathan Miller happened to be directing an opera in Tokyo at the time, and came across the debate while watching television in his hotel room. The knighted neurologist, humorist and scholar was more than a little surprised at the line of questioning. "I was astounded that anyone would have the impudence to ask people about their faith in a political context," Miller tells TVGuide.com. "It plays no part whatsoever in European politics."
The fact that religious belief does play a larger role in American life makes it all the more interesting that Miller's essay on the genealogy of atheism is finally being aired in the States. Throughout the summer, PBS stations across the country will be carrying his three-part documentary, A Brief History of Disbelief (check local listings), which originally debuted on the BBC in 2004. Though the program was well received in the U.K., it caught Miller off-guard when independent producer Alvin Perlmutter sought the rights to Disbelief for American public television.
"When we first made it, it was inconceivable that it would be broadcast in the United States," says Miller. "I think the success of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion shows that things have slightly changed. I don't know why, but something has happened to usher in a certain hospitality to controversy on this subject."
American audiences may not have been considered during production, but many sections of the documentary explore atheism's history in the United States. The first installment, "Shadows of Doubt," touches on how the founding fathers — particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — were deists schooled in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers who questioned the existence of gods. Skeptical of organized religion's influence on government, these early architects of American democracy specifically laid out a separation of church and state in the Constitution.
More recent events, including the September 11 terrorist attacks (which Miller describes as "the most powerful expression of religious fanaticism" of our time), are also examined in Disbelief. "The World Trade Center attacks are one of the reasons I thought it was important to do it," he says. "I just thought it was a good place to begin, because of the impact fanatical religion has on our world. I suppose the most dangerous right now is Islam, but fanatic Christianity has also done a great deal of damage to people. Not to mention the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the idea of bringing democracy to these countries has this sort of Christian conviction behind it."
Miller's own rejection of faith is at the heart of Disbelief. Discussion of his Jewish upbringing is interwoven with anthropological theories behind why past societies created poly- and monotheistic faiths. Miller explains that as a young man, he was not attempting to be rebellious but simply felt no reason to believe in the nonmaterial. "I scarcely think of myself as a disbeliever. To me, it's not worth thinking about any more than believing in ghosts," he contends. "I only thought it was worth writing about because there are so many people who are so passionate in their conviction; not only that there is a god that created the world and everything in it, but also because they have such a profound suspicion of people who don't think that."
This isn't the first time Miller has taken on controversial subject matter. In 1978 he caused a stir with the BBC series The Body in Question. Drawn from his experiences as a physician, the documentary showed the dissection of a cadaver, causing outrage amongst conservative types. Miller maintains that he has never courted controversy, and has only looked to explore important topics in a frank manner. With Disbelief, the approach was no different.
"It's just part of my interest in Anglo-American linguistic philosophy," says Miller. "The nature of belief is a question that has been addressed by the philosophical community for the last 60 years. English and American philosophers have deeply influenced my thinking. I've been reared in a long tradition of linguistic analysis, and this is just an extension of that."
Miller is fervent about the questions raised in his various television series but is not so impressed with the changing medium of television. Throughout Disbelief, there are cutaways to an actor providing dramatic readings from religious skeptics throughout history. Other times, Miller is shown watching the documentary on a laptop before looking up to address the camera. These directorial choices left the septuagenarian longing for a simpler, more straightforward style. "If I were directing... I would have just talked straight to the camera," claims Miller. "But these days, talking straight to the camera is thought to be an offense against an audience that's got a clicker in their hand. Television is obsessed with its own technology. I remember the days when the great historian Alan Taylor could stand in an empty studio without any decor and talk straight to a camera for 50 minutes. Now you can't do that. It's 'boring.'"
Despite Miller's feelings about the dumbing-down of television, he still sees TV's potential as a tool for communicating ideas. "I would like to have been much more scholarly about [A Brief History of Disbelief] than I was allowed to be, but at least it gives a sketch of the subject," he says. "It was an opportunity to think historically and show that there are many more people who are disbelievers than the believers like to imagine."
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