A Rough History of Disbelief Revisited

A Rough History of Disbelief Revisited December 10, 2019

The New Atheist History Channel beats Comedy Central every time.

Jonathan Miller died last month, and I was sad to see another of the Beyond the Fringe folks—as well as a groundbreaking Shakespeare director—leave us while so many hack writers and comedians are still around. My wife and I watched the videos of Miller’s appearances on Dick Cavett’s show from back in the day, where they traded quips about Miller’s interest in mesmerism. We also watched the video of his 2004 BBC documentary Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, where the atheist Miller discusses religion and nonbelief with writers, scientists and intellectuals.

Unfortunately, Rough History hasn’t aged well. And it’s because New Atheism hasn’t aged well either.

The program was produced in 2004, before the Four Horsemen codified New Atheism into a cultural phenomenon. But it articulates one of the central dogmas of New Atheism: religion is about people believing in God, that’s all. Even though Miller is seen sitting in the synagogue his parents took him to, talking about how his family attended services there more out of guilt over their relatives in Europe perishing in the Holocaust than out of devout belief, he insists on reducing the entire historical phenomenon of religion to belief-in-the-big-G. Why ignore all the other facets of religious belief and the institutions it serves, and concentrate on what’s pretty obviously the least important aspect of religion?

Post-Traumatic Disbelief

To answer that question, we need to see the historical context of Rough History. After the introductory material is over, Miller starts the program in New York City. He visits Ground Zero and talks about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It’s pretty clear that the fear and confusion that followed those events are still fresh in Miller’s mind and the people he interviews (many of whom also reference the terrorist attacks). So what we have here, and what New Atheism has always been, is an attempt by white Western men to externalize blame for civilization’s problems. If their audience will accept any oversimplification as long as it exonerates them from responsibility for the state of the world, then they’ll lay it on as thick as they can.

The problem is that this presentation mangles history in order to serve an agenda that lays the blame for the world’s violence and oppression squarely at the feet of religious people. How could we skeptics ever have swallowed such a transparent whitewash?

The show hasn’t even hit the six minute mark before Miller is on the Staten Island ferry, voicing his certainty that religion is a prerequisite for suicide bombing:

It seems quite odd to think of [the disappearance of the Twin Towers] in the light of religion, but [the Towers’] absence now reminds me of the religious implications of what one saw on television on that hideous day… [I]t was perpetrated by people who sacrificed themselves in the certain knowledge of their forthcoming death. It’s inconceivable that it could have been done without religion, for it’s only in the name of some sort of absolute assurance of a permanent life after death that someone would be willing to undertake such an act.

That’s spectacularly wrong. During the Sri Lankan civil war of the 80s, the Tamil Tigers were a secular terrorist group who pioneered the use of suicide attacks against their ethnic and political rivals in the Sinhalese majority. Miller may be right that there’s a religious aspect to the way young men are radicalized in the Middle East, and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were trained and inspired by a religious nut. However, to completely ignore the politics of the development of modern terror cells, or the political aims of al Qaeda, is outright idiocy.

Weapons of Mass Delusion

Not only does Miller want to blame religion for 9/11, he also wants to blame it for the invasion of Iraq that followed the terror attack. He says to Arthur Miller in the first episode:

The enterprise in Iraq had a sort of faith-based patriotism. It wasn’t just patriotic, it was Christian and patriotic.

I can’t see why anyone who isn’t already desperate to dodge responsibility for the world’s problems should accept that religion defined the invasion of Iraq. This was Western imperialism plain and simple, a corporate raid carried out under false pretenses whose repercussions are still causing suffering for millions of refugees. Miller parrots the same they-hate-our freedoms chauvinism as the Bush-Blair brigade did in the run up to the Iraq War, so it’s disingenuous of him to distance himself from the imperial project when it suits him.

There are plenty of other annoying things about the program, not least of which is Bernard Hill’s recitation of quips from ancient thinkers, delivered in a portentous and stagy manner while staring meaningfully at the camera. Evelyn Glennie’s percussion soundtrack, on the other hand, is wonderful.

The Wrong Answer to Every Question

I can’t help but think this is why New Atheism flourished in the early years of our not-so-new-anymore millennium: people needed a simple way to define the most pressing problems of their day, so they decided that religion was to blame. How ironic that a mindset that supposedly prized objectivity and reason developed out of the paranoia and bigotry that followed a traumatizing terrorist attack. A few years later when the economic meltdown took place, it should have become clear that anti-theism has absolutely no explanatory power with respect to our most intractable social problems. Nowadays there are still desperate people who blame religion for everything from climate change to income inequality. I’d be inclined to say that when the only tool one has is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. However, even a hammer is a useful tool. Anti-theism is just a ploy.

Coming soon: 2020 is the Year of Reading Philosophy!


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