Atheism: A Brief History of Disbelief - Shadows of Doubt

In this very respectable and provocative first episode, Shadows of Doubt, renaissance man Jonathan Miller meditates on the question of religious faith against the backdrop of the religiously motivated attack of September 11, and ponders whether such an attack could even be conceivable without religion. This reminds me of something Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg once said:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
The episode starts with a recitation of Epicurus' formulation of the problem of evil:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is God both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Then, after having provided some personal background on his own disbelief, Miller starts to analyze the concept of belief, against which it is necessary to understand disbelief. At their bare minimum, he argues following McGinn, beliefs are subjective dispositions or tendencies rather than mental states one experiences at any particular point in time. Unlike the concept of knowledge, which carries a strong sense of objectivity and truth behind it, belief refers exclusively to the subject of experience and his or her dispositions, rather than what the dispositions are about or refer to.

As he tries to trace a history of atheism or disbelief, Miller confronts the problem that even in preliterate societies, religious belief has been unequivocally associated with social and political authority, rendering those who question it as having demonic origins and becoming dangerous to the establishment. Interestingly enough, in our own time, although the Bush administration has bombarded a sense of Christian patriotism on its population, Miller notices that many of the Founding Fathers (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc.), the very symbols of American patriotism, could not possibly hope to win a presidential race today. Some interesting food for thought...

Historically, it was not until the advent of literacy that ideas became stable enough objects that could be formally questioned, and this unprecedented phenomenon led to the genesis of philosophy in ancient Greece, starting with the materialism of Democritus and Epicurus, whose atheistic, materialistic metaphysics was best articulated by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius.

A few centuries later, the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire led to a few hundred years of politically sanctioned ignorance and human oppression ordinarily known as the Dark Ages...

Among the erudite interviewees we find philosopher Daniel Dennett, playwright Arthur Miller, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author Gore Vidal, physicist Steven Weinberg, and philosopher Colin McGinn.


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