The Atheism Tapes
With Jonathan Miller
Distributed by: alive MIND
Production year: 2005
DVD release date: February 22, 2008
Copyright: 2004, 116 Films Production
2 disc set - 166 minutes
Review by Jim Walker
In 2007 the BBC aired the highly-acclaimed series by Jonathan Miller called A Brief History of Disbelief. It presented the first television show ever that explored the idea that a god does not exist. (Watch it on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2 ). Although the original series comprised of four programs, Miller said that he felt embarrassed to find a large proportion of it that ended on the cutting room floor because the series would last 24 hours otherwise. But as it happened, the BBC agreed with Miller that the conversations were too interesting to be junked. So began the idea of The Atheism Tapes as a sequel, if you will, from the original series. The two disk set comprises of six interviews with five famous atheists, and one theologian, all conducted by Jonathan Miller, a British neurologist turned theatre director.
I feel that The Atheism Tapes provides a more personal and thought provoking look into atheism than A Brief History of Disbelief because it goes deeper into the arguments than does the original series. Johnathan Miller provides pointed and relavant questions that gets to the core of the arguments.
In the first interview, the English philosopher, Colin McGinn, who calls himself an anti-theist instead of an atheist, provides reasons for not believing in god and argues against the reasons for believing in a god. For example, he describes the ontological argument by the 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury. McGinn calls it "a brilliant argument but wholly unconvincing," and describes why it doesn't may any sense.
Steven Weinberg, the American Nobel laureate winning physicist, describes aspects of the Anthropic principle and how believing in a god doesn't help us understand the universe. He touches on St. Augustine's concept of the beginning of time and who first grappled with the question of what occurred before time. Weinberg also discusses Galileo and how the start of scientific inquiry made irreligion possible. Lastly he describes how his fellow physicists view religion (and especially their lack of interest in religion), the harm of religion, and his views on fundamentalist religions.
Daniel C. Dennett
The wonderful philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett, explains the reason why Darwin's theory presents a danger to religion in that it comes primarily because of its simplicity of understanding (thus the reason why he titled one of his books, Darwin's Dangerous Idea). Unlike quantum theory, a very difficult theory to understand, but a theory that equally destroys the god idea and provides an explanation for why something can come out of nothingness, any non-scientist can understand Darwin's theory of natural selection and see the implications against the god idea.
Dennett also explains the scientific concept of the soul, not as an ethereal spirit, but as mechanical and understandable in scientific terms. He also speculates on why religious people believe in incorporeal souls. Very interesting. In the end, he gives a possible reason to keep religion that might even excite the religious viewer. I will leave it for the believer to discover it.
Arthur Miller, the famous American playwright and essayist, talks about antisemitism, especially in America, and why Jews seem more prone to atheism and liberalism than Christians. He describes the antisemite Catholic priest, Father Couglin, a Hitler sympathizer, who quoted Goebbels (Hitler's Propaganda Minister) on his daily radio show in the 1930s. Miller also discusses the concept of life after death and the mystery of the loss of consciousness. Miller explains that the afterlife exists not as a ethereal soul, but as art and in what a person leaves behind for others to remember.
Sadly, Arthur Miller died shortly after interview from a congestive heart failure at the age of 89. Indeed, his works (his soul) will live on as people will remember him as one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century.
Richard Dawkins, the British biologist, talks about his early religious upbringing and his travel on the "road to Damascus" toward atheism. He also provides a brilliant nutshell explanation of natural selection that I think even a naive theist could understand (well, maybe not). Dawkins surprised me in his confession that one should use religious words to describe religious feelings but to reserve a different kind of language for the similar types of feelings that nonbelievers feel where they might call it a, "sense of wonder." I wholeheartedly agree, but I found this surprising because you would think that he should also apply this to all words that one might misconstrue as religious. One thing I find frustrating about Dawkins language comes with his, sometimes, use of the word "faith" and his admission to certain beliefs. I would recommend, within the "different kind of language" concept, to substitute "think" for "believe" and to never use "faith" because faith describes a very unscientific form of belief without evidence. It comes from his very use of words like these that has gotten Dawkins into trouble with religionists in the past.
Denys Turner, a British theologian represents the only theist in the interviews. Turner has an interest in the question of "why there is anything at all," and which questions prove legitimate or not. He thinks that nontheists have ignored this question and avoided it (for fear of falling into the god question, I suppose). I found his concern rather odd because the question of why something exists rather than nothing has occurred many times by philosophers and scientists in the past, including Martin Heidegger, Stephen Hawking, and many atheists. Turner's explanations appear confusing and I couldn't help but to chuckle when even Jonathan Miller appeared frustrated when he confessed, "As you can see, theology can be maddingly obscure." Turner also tried to explain that instead of thinking that everything comes given, he believes that everything comes "gifted," which, of course, implies a giver (god). Interestingly, he admits, in the end, that he has no assurance that he could succeed in explaining why everything comes as a gift from a loving god, but that it would "have to be revealed to be believed," only because there exists so much counter evidence. Well now, could his questions have no legitimacy? This steers us right back into the familiar faith vs. reason argument which appears to contradict the very argument that he wishes atheists to engage. You have to see this segment to fully get the flavor of his confusing arguments. I certainty didn't understand it but perhaps someone else can.
These interviews provide thought provoking ideas by some of the most intelligent, humane, and compassionate atheists of the 21st century. The Atheism Tapes should appeal, not only to atheists, but to theists as well. In a non-threatening manner, the interviewees treat religion with respect. It will also demonstrate to our religious friends that atheists do not act like immoral monsters (as the stereotype so often portrays). These disks would serve as an excellent gift to religious friends or family members, especially to those who do not like to read. It may not convince them but, at the very least, it might make them think and (perish the thought), who knows where that may lead.
A few quotes from The Atheism Tapes:
One of my deep feelings is that there is no god and it's a bad idea to believe in god and it's been very harmful.
There's no theory that you need to postulate god in to explain some natural phenomenon which can't e explained by some other theory. People sometimes say miracles were performed. There's never any good evidence that miracles were performed. The judgment that there were is usually based on a prior opinion that god exists rather than being an independent source for believing that god exists. So there's no evidence in terms of what anybody has ever observed; there's no fact about the world that can't be explained without postulating god, so there's no reason to believe in god anymore than there's reason to believe in Zeus or any of the Greek gods.
Looking at nature in the past, the impression of design must have been overwhelming. It's such a comfortable and pleasant earth and things work out so well. But as we learn more and more about the universe, it seems not such a friendly place and we appear most to have been winners in a cosmic lottery.
Much of the early bases for religious belief was dissolved by science. It wasn't that scientific discoveries made religion impossible, it's that they made irreligion possible. It became possible to understand how things worked without the religious explanation.
Yes we have a soul. But it's mechanical. But it's still a soul. It still does the work that the soul was supposed to do. It is the seat of reason, the seat of moral responsibility. It's why we are appropriate objects of punishment when we do evil things, why we deserve the praise when we do good things. It's just not a lump of wonder stuff.
--Daniel C. Dennett
I think of the source of the idea of the immaterial soul that lives on after death is probably largely connected with the fact that the purpose of our living souls, the purpose of our brains, is to project into the future. It's to foresee the future and to have plans and hopes about the future . . . It's this forward looking, future producing activity of the nervous system which we can't just turn off when somebody [we know] dies.
--Daniel C. Dennett
This country was founded by people who where, really, escaping domination of a governmental religion and who breathed freely with gratitude because they didn't have to obey a churchly government.
The wedding of Christianity or Judaism with nationalism is lethal in my opinion.
There's a fatal weakness in any argument that says I cannot understand how X could have happened, therefore it must have been designed.
I prefer to use words like "religion," and like "god," in the way the vast majority of the people in the world would understand them and to reserve a different kind of language for the feeling that we [atheists] share with your clergymen in the laurel.
--Richard Dawkins, on the sense of wonder
You've either got to accept everything, in some way or another, reveals God, including failure. . . or else your position [atheism] is correct.
I don't think there's any rational argument which will settle the question between you and me. I mean, I think it is a question of faith and whether one can accept it or not. . . you either accept my position or you don't.
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