A Brief History of Disbelief

By Sean Carroll | November 22, 2005 6:36 pm

Abbas Raza at 3 Quarks Daily, just before kindly linking to my martini post, mentions a recent BBC documentary, Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief. Not sure how I will ever get to see it, but it sounds great; very similar in spirit to the Moments in Atheism course I taught with Shadi Bartsch some time back. The synopses look about right:

Shadows of Doubt
Monday 31 October 2005 7pm-8pm
Jonathan Miller visits the absent Twin Towers to consider the religious implications of 9/11 and meets Arthur Miller and the philosopher Colin McGinn. He searches for evidence of the first ‘unbelievers’ in Ancient Greece and examines some of the modern theories around why people have always tended to believe in mythology and magic.

Noughts and Crosses
Monday 7 November 7pm-8pm
With the domination of Christianity from 500 AD, Jonathan Miller wonders how disbelief began to re-emerge in the 15th and 16th centuries. He discovers that division within the Church played a more powerful role than the scientific discoveries of the period. He also visits Paris, the home of the 18th century atheist, Baron D’Holbach, and shows how politically dangerous it was to undermine the religious faith of the masses.

The Final Hour
Monday 14 November 7pm-8pm TBC
The history of disbelief continues with the ideas of self-taught philosopher Thomas Paine, the revolutionary studies of geology and the evolutionary theories of Darwin. Jonathan Miller looks at the Freudian view that religion is a ‘thought disorder’. He also examines his motivation behind making the series touching on the issues of death and the religious fanaticism of the 21st century.

I’m happy to see Baron D’Holbach in there, although a little surprised that Hume’s name wasn’t featured more prominently. And it’s too bad that he discounts the role of scientific discoveries; my own theory is that the mechanics of Galileo and Newton was actually much more influential in the development of atheism than people tend to believe.

Also interesting was this quote from the interview with the director, Richard Denton:

BBC Four: Were you surprised to find the first American presidents were so sceptical about religion?
RD: I was incredibly struck by their quotations – these guys wouldn’t even get considered as candidates if they said anything like that now. And I was depressed by that because it made me feel that we have not made a great deal of progress since the Age of Enlightenment. If anything, we’re going backwards at the moment.

Ain’t it the truth.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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