Atheism at half-cock

David Boulton is critical of Jonathan Miller’s series 'Atheism: a Rough History of Disbelief' broadcast on BBC4 on October 18, 25 and November 1st 2004.

Twenty years after Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith series, which described the gradual transformation of Christianity into radical humanism, the BBC gave us Jonathan Miller’s series, Atheism: a Rough History of Disbelief, charting atheism’s evolution from Enlightenment Unitarianism and Deism to the post-Darwinian twilight of the gods and the collapse of supernaturalism. Where Cupitt had bagged some prime BBC2 slots, reaching millions, Miller had to content himself in today’s more competitive and commercial world with digital BBC4, reaching mere thousands. I doubt that we’ll see the emergence of a Sea of unFaith network from this series.

But it had its moments. In particular, we were reminded that the brave and principled pioneers who led the historic campaigns for freedom from religion faced imprisonment, transportation and death at the hands of Church and State, no less than the Quaker, Unitarian and nonconformist martyrs who fought for freedom of religion. Official Christianity treated those who preached a godless morality with the same fearful ferocity it unleashed on those whose take on God was different from its own. The noble army of martyrs includes bolshie atheists as well as dissident theists.

But I found the series disappointing, not least in that I expected rather more from Miller, whom I greatly admire. Some years ago I commissioned for Granada a TV series called My God! which I persuaded Miller to present. In a series of half-hour studio interviews, describing himself as a 'devout sceptic', he questioned radical theologians, philosophers and historians of religion (including Don Cupitt). I think he got closer to the heart of his subject matter as an interrogator, engaging with other minds of equal calibre, than he ever managed to get when he only had a camera to talk to, which could only give back his own reflection.

The biggest weakness of the series was that it remained stuck, from opening titles to closing credits, with the simplistic 'Does God exist?' question. Religion for Miller was simply about believing that God exists and intervenes in human affairs. Science had eroded and finally exploded that belief. All that was left for anyone with any intelligence was Miller’s atheism, defined as not believing in God, or just 'disbelief'. Simple.

At no time in the entire four and a half hours of the series was there so much as a nod in the direction of those thinkers who, from the early 19th century on, tried to shift the question from 'Does God exist?' to 'What do we mean by 'God'?' No Feuerbach or Strauss, no Wittgenstein, no Cupitt. De-supernaturalised religion? God as a symbol of human ideals? God as the fictional protagonist of our human mythologies, stories, poems, dramas? God as Winstanley’s Reason? God as Blake’s Imagination? None of this for Miller: just 'Does this super-person exist or doesn't he?'. A literalistic theism or a literalistic atheism: take it or leave it, tick the yes-or-no box.

I wonder what Jonathan Miller the opera and drama director would say to all that? Suppose, when he is preparing a production of The Magic Flute, some lean and hungry literalist takes him aside and says 'But Jonathan, how can you do this when you know there are no magic flutes or bells, no dancing animals, that the Queen of the Night doesn’t exist?' Or, when the curtain is about to go up on his Midsummer Night's Dream, 'But Jonathan, there are no fairies! Science has proved that Bottom could never be an ass!'

I think Dr Miller might assume his best bedside manner, produce that look of brainy, puzzled exasperation which is his trade-mark, and tell the poor fellow he was spectacularly missing the point. In the world of the imagination, of the heart, of art, of mythos, you don’t take things so literally! Fairies and magic flutes don't exist in the world of touch and taste and microscope, but they are alive and well in the mythologies and stories which help us unravel the complexities of what it means to be human. Titania's fairy sprites, Pullman’s daemons, the ancient world's gods, goddesses, devils and heavenly hosts are projections of ourselves, and help us understand something of who, what and why we are.

The world of magic and the supernatural does indeed have no place in the world of factual reporting, logical deduction, evidential science. In that world, God is as dead as the fairies, as non-real as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But there’s another world, where what it is to be human, to love, to live, to hurt, to heal, to die, is explored by mythos, by creative imagination and symbolism. It is in that world that God can still have meaning as the imagined personification of the values we long to be able to live by; and here neither 'theism' nor 'atheism' is adequate as a defining label. Which is why a four and a half hour series on not believing in a personal God, which never strays from logos literalism, tells only half the story. So which broadcaster will commission a series from Karen Armstrong to tell the other half?

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