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.

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  • Michael Neville

    I have a good enough background in economics, political science and history to know that religion isn’t the sole or even the major cause of distress and oppression in the world. So what? Religion, particularly organized religion, is a source of societal problems. This is particularly shown by how various religious people try to force their particular beliefs on the rest of us. It isn’t the 1% who want to get abortion outlawed. Economic plutarchists aren’t the ones trying to get same-sex marriage overturned. The corporate world doesn’t want science education replaced with teaching mythology.

  • abb3w

    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.

    In so far as “New atheism” was a philosophical fad among atheists, maybe.

    However, if you’re talking about how irreligiousity increasingly flourished, that view would seem to neglect that post-millennium developments appear to be merely continuation of trends begun back in the 1970s.

  • Kaja

    Pew research poll taken on the day of the 2003 Iraq invasion (March 19, 2003) – support the invasion: 77% Evangelical Christian, 62% Mainline, 62% Catholic, 44% secular.

    A previous Pew poll on Feb 20, 2003 gave these results – support the invasion: 85% Evangelical, 70% non- Evangelical Protestant, 71% catholic, 66% secular
    I guess some were having second thoughts at the last minute but too late.

    Please notice the overwhelming support of the religious in both polls.

    So you’re trying to tell me that the invasion would have occurred anyway if religious support had been – lets say below 50% or that religion had nothing to do with the invasion ? I actually had a co-worker at the time coming into the lunchroom everyday lecturing us on how the invasion was going to bring about the rapture. Virtually every religious person I knew supported the invasion except for a couple of people who attended more liberal mainline churches (we’re mostly Southern Baptist down here in the South). Most seculars that I knew (myself included) saw through the scam. When I looked up polls, they reflected almost exactly what I actually observed.

  • Raging Bee

    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.

    In what way, exactly, has history been “mangled?” We certainly don’t have to mangle any history to see how blatantly religious irrationality is causing — or at least exacerbating — so many major problems today, from barbaric misogyny and bigotry to terrorism to anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism to deliberate misrepresentation of scientific and historical facts…the list goes on.

    I think a lot of us were perfectly happy to accomodate most religions — but then Bush Jr. got elected (sorta) and suddenly all the craziness of religion started coming out everywhere.

  • rationalobservations?

    The “four horsemen” of “new” atheism were merely outspoken and intellectual representatives of the general headlong exit from religionism that has occurred all across the better educated free predominantly godless non-religious developed world. They always spoke and write exclusively for themselves but we’re convenient quote streams for lazy and/or incompetent journalists.

    Some quotes are simplistic but may contain profound truth?

    If “religion poisons everything”, it is apparent (from the accelerating decline in religionism and increasing number of empty redundant churches) that education and free secular democracy is proving to be the antidote to that poison?

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Indeed, “antitheism” is often the correct word, as Camus said in “The Rebel” nearly 70 years ago. Thot you’d died or something, Shem.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    As modern populism throughout the west has shown, education and free secular democracy aren’t guaranteed to be an antidote to anything. Here in the US, Trump himself is essentially irreligious, after all. In Britain, Boris Johnson is an irreligious yob and toff who went to the elite schools.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Speaking of fundamentalisms, as I know Shem has heard me say before, Gnu Atheism can also be seen as atheist fundamentalism.

  • rationalobservations?

    Religionism is a blight on humanity. Being against anti-humanitarian doctrines and activists is a worthwhile and positive thing for a better, more egalitarian and peaceful future for mankind.

  • rationalobservations?

    Response awaiting approval for some reason?

  • Raging Bee

    Actually, I suspect that the followers of such populists are NOT the ones benefiting most from all that education and free secular democracy — they’re the ones who have been left behind, either because of policies or non-policies they and their leaders supported, or because someone else cheated them out of the loop.

    Also, remember that two right-wing fake populists “won” elections in which tens of thousands of people were systematically kept out of the polls by various means. Education and free secular democracy CAN cure most of our ills, if we stop others from breaking and undermining it.

  • Raging Bee

    Their criticisms wrongly treat fundamentalist or self-labeled literalist versions of different religions, or even the strictest versions, as more authentic or pure than other versions.

    Which played directly into the hands of all those said fundamentalists and literalists, by reinforcing their narrative that they were the “true face” (Harris’s words, said about the Taliban) of their respective religions.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    That’s why I don’t have a problem calling out the anti-humanitarian stances of Gnu Atheism / antitheism.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    As a third-party voter, who under old Twitter account, has run into you before, Bee, BOTH duopoly parties work to exclude people like me. So, I’ll agree that free secular democracy can cure our ills, as long as Doinks and Rethugs alike actually agree to stop breaking and undermining it.

  • Raging Bee

    Bull$h1t. Most of the voter-ID and other voter-suppression policies are devised and enacted by Republicans, and clearly and consistently benefit Republicans and their constituent interest-groups. We can blame Democrats for not opposing such policies vigorously enough, but phony “equivalency” rhetoric has no place in public discourse.

  • rationalobservations?

    The only thing “new” about the third largest and fastest growing human demographic of the godless/non-religious is that we are no longer a small minority persecuted, terrorised and murdered by religionists.

    Humanitarian humanistic atheism is the reaction to the anti-humanitarianism of religion.

  • rationalobservations?

    “Each of us has the right to follow the dictates of our conscience and the demands of our religious conviction.”

    President Donald J. Trump

    I sincerely hope that you are correct and that the next political leader of the UK is a non-religious humanitarian humanist who removes the last vestiges of power from religion and religionists who would bring back discrimination and persecution if they could.

  • Ellabulldog

    Religion is more than a belief in a god. It is cultural. It is also about mind control. It primes people to follow authority.

    911 happened for many reasons. Religion is a part of why it happened but history is much more complex.

  • This can’t be your first dance with the Patheos nannybot, can it?

  • Mosquitoes are only ever the carrier for the organisms that cause malaria, dengue, yellow fever, tularemia, and viral encephalitis, but even still, mosquitoes are indeed that enemy of all mankind.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Many, many of the “nones” are not atheist, or even agnostic, first.

    Many, many atheists are not Gnus, second. Keep trying.

    Or, maybe, don’t keep trying.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Bullshüte back. Right now in New York State, Cuomo et al are trying to restrict third party ballot access. In Texas, Dems opposed HB 2504 because it would make it easier for Greens to join Libertarians in keeping statewide ballot access.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Of the Four Horseman, Snitchens became a maudlin drunken neocon apologist for Shrub Bush invading Iraq.

    Harris became a strident winger Islamophobe.

    Some “humanism.”

    I’m also posting this on main thread level.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Of the Four Horseman, Snitchens became a maudlin drunken neocon apologist for Shrub Bush invading Iraq.
    Harris became a strident winger Islamophobe.

    Some “humanism.”

  • Raging Bee

    That’s not the same thing as depriving people of the ability to vote.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    It’s the same spirit. Even if the letter of the law is not the same, depriving people of the right to place on the ballot the candidate of their choice is depriving them of the full exercise of their right to vote. https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2019/07/third-parties-sue-texas-over-hb-2504.html

  • Raging Bee

    “Same spirit” does not mean the same consequences. Voter suppression is FAR WORSE than depriving some irresponsible minor parties ballot access.

  • Raging Bee

    Greens joining with Libertarians? That’s two parties who have openly served Retrumplicans. So that’s two parts of the voter-suppression problem becoming one.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    “Irresponsible”? Now I remember why I loathed your bullsüte squared before. We’re about to say goodbye to you again. Gatekeeping, political elitism, political classism, more.

  • What insulting sentence might you be reduced to, if one were so inclined?

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    One less insulting than the one someone else might be reduced to? 🙂

  • rationalobservations?

    The slander you post fails to recognise that no individual thinks, speaks or acts for the third largest and fastest growing human demographic of the godless non-religious who are doing good as its own reward and shunning the bigotry , prejudice and discrimination of religion.

  • rationalobservations?

    Although your wishful thinking and recycled religiot propaganda is unsupported by evidence, many anonymous exit polls among the rapidly declining congregations of those declining churches that remain open reveals that many habitual or social religIonists do not believe in any of the millions of undetected and undetectable gods goddesses or god-men and dismiss magic and ressurection as mythology.

    Your personal delusions and dishonest wishful thinking appear to be bunkum.

    Your fantasies decline in the face of civilization and education.

    Have a super Saturnalia and a real cool Yule.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    The slander that you post calling my truth slander — because IT IS ALL TRUE, Gnu-bot — is enough to say goodbye. As in, won’t be seeing you again.

    Like many Gnus, you’re as tribal as religious fundies.

  • Fmr ATrealDonaldTrump

    Ahh, another bit of slander by a Gnu-bot claiming I post slander.

    Your delusions aren’t personal, they’re Gnu tribalism.

  • rationalobservations?

    So hilarious!
    Thank you for this example of ignorance and denial.

    You can run from the truth.
    You can block (only yourself) from reading the truth.
    You can deny the truth and delude yourself with lies.

    The truth remains for the growing majority in the developed world and the third largest and fastest growing human demographic of the godless non-religious regardless of your personal choice to ignore it.

    Good riddance but much sympathy to you.

  • rationalobservations?

    Most appear in reasonable time. Only a few disappear never to appear.
    The censor fails to stop the truth.

  • One always hopes. 😉

  • “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”

    Not so plain and simple. Yes, Western Imperialism is responsible for a lot of the horrible things the United States has done, but that’s oversimplified. The United States supports Israel not because it’s a democracy, but because Evangelicals, who generally believe in some flavor of millennialist doctrine, think that Jesus is going to show up in Israel and establish an “earthly kingdom” any day now, and that if the US isn’t a supporter of Israel then Jesus or God is going to destroy us. I’ve actually had Christians tell me this.

    In fact, the nation of Israel might not even exist were it not for Evangelicals in England encouraging immigration of Jews to Palestine after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

    What does that have to do with Iraq? Well, in these people’s eyes, all majority Muslim countries are enemies of Israel, and therefore must be enemies of the US.

    Now that doesn’t explain all of our military actions over the years, or even the last few decades. We were on the side of the Muslims in Bosnia! We were on the side of the Muslims in Afghanistan when they were rebelling against the USSR. The CIA really wants to control the whole world’s politics, and not entirely for religious reasons.

    But religious zealotry seems to be increasing as motivation for the actions of the United States. Even though Evangelicals are a minority in this country, they have gained outsized influence over our policies. Those whose motivation is pure imperialism were more than happy to get them on their side, but they’ve unwittingly opened a brand new can of worms. (The CIA has always opened cans of worms — this is just the latest one.)