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Jonathan Miller’s “Atheism” BBC Program

Physician and playwright Jonathan Miller has produced a BBC program titled Atheism: a Rough History of Disbelief. This program has the pluses and the minuses one might expect from life-long atheist Miller.

On the plus side:

Miller’s honesty in praising the beauty and the rich imaginative appeal of religious imagery; his feeling that his perspective would be the poorer without such imagery.

Miller’s detailed treatment of Thomas Paine’s story and his influence in the origins of America.

Miller’s pinpointing of the French writer Holbach as the first modern atheist, and how his “strong” atheism differed from the disbelief of Hobbes and Hume.

On the minus side:

Miller’s treatment of rationalism as an unmitigated good.  He praises Thomas Paine’s promotion that commoners take rationalism to heart and do their own thinking, rather than taking the socially correct choice of submitting to external authority.  As a rationalist, Miller is not interested in people developing their non-rational (not their irrational) functions.  From a holistic perspective, one would think that the  balanced psyche ought to investigate both rational as well as mystical alternatives – both without superstitious regard for authority’s tyranny.

Miller’s repeated citing of the cliche, “Fear is the mother of religion.”  Surely this is only a partial truth. Most religions begin in the mystical experience of their respective founders.  Jesus’ spirituality begins in his mystical oneness with his “Father in heaven” and his subsequent vision of the Kingdom of God.  The Buddha’s spirituality begins in his meditative union with the states of Bodhi and Nirvana.  In the proverbial mists of forgotten eons, the shamanic experience of soul-journeying and identification with theriomorphic spirits was the oldest form of spirituality, and “shamanic enlightenment” was the original form of that much-used and abused phrase.  If Miller wants to dismiss such experiential knowledge of God as expressions of “temporal lobe transients” or other neurological etiologies, he is welcome to do so, but first he must acknowledge the experiential elements that form the core of every religion.

Miller too easily takes the reductionist path in boiling religion down to a primal , primitive fear and ignorance of the world.  It is perhaps for this reason that Miller begins his religious critique with the all-too stereotypical example of the 9/11 attacks.  Fear based religion and its consequential hatred are disproportianately blamed for the horrors of that bright September day.

I say “disproportionately” because it can be argued with equal probity and force that “Islamic” terrorism is really inspired by Western – particularly American – imperialism in the Middle East.  Granted, radical Islam does provide a practical means of acting out the often quite just feelings of hatred toward a corrupt and corrupting nation-state whose fanatical support for Israeli terrorist policies makes it both a puzzle and a laughing stock to the more sensible nations of the world.  But in any case, Islam’s revolt against the West is as much political and cultural as it is religious.

Miller also errs in thinking that radical Islam wants to topple America, simply because it is viewed by such Islamists as a corrupt secular, “infidel” state.  Miller leaves out of the equation the fact that America’s religiosity – inasmuch as it is not radical Islam – is itself “infidel”, and therefore begs for the purifying blade of Islam’s sword.

Miller’s critique also suffers from a disporportionately negative view of religion.  In this regard, the phrase, “Who would Jesus bomb?” is much more than pithy aphorism.  It becomes a serious evaluation of the integral vision of inclusive, unconditional compassion at the core of every religion.

Miller seems unaware of the dire statistic that, in America, the greatest support for the Bush Administration’s pre-emptive attack on Iraq came from white male evangelicals, who in this particular case at least failed to live Jesus’ ethic of compassion.  He also ignores the grass-roots Christian protest movements which rallied against the war, and which now and in the past have rallied for civil rights and a host of other social justice issues.  Miller uncritically – and unfairly –  permits white male evangelicals to speak for Christianity at large.  He also ignores the fact that for its first three centuries, Christianity was resolutely pacificistic, refusing to support Imperial wars and to serve as combatants in Imperial armies.  Moreover, Miller disregards the Christian teaching of the “just war” whose essence states that it is never – never – permissible to start a war – a principle that is in complete opposition to the actions of the Bush administration.

Miller mistakenly identifies religion with the Abrahamic faiths.  He makes no mention of Buddhism, Taoism, or Hinduism.  Worse, he makes no mention of the radical mystical – and often pacifistic – movements within Western traditions, such as the Sufis in Islam; and as a corollary, he makes no mention of individual mystics such as Meister Eckhart and the pacifist icon Francis of Assisi.  It is difficult to say whether Miller is here painting with too wide or too narrow a brush.  It is as if Miller thinks that by refuting or denigrating the organized Abrahamic faiths, he has therefore done away with religion as a whole.

A similar principle applies to Miller’s treatment of God, whom he uncritially identifies with a creating sky-father.  He thinks that if the creating sky father can be done away with, God is done away with, since -obviously! – the Creator is God.

In one sense, one can hardly blame Miller for the narrowness of his God-definition.  After all, the Abrahamic – and some non-Abrahamic (though, again, Miller ignores them) faiths do posit God to be a creator who is functionally equivalent to a cosmic father.  However, Miller claims to be examining God and religion.

The narrowness of his definitions falls far short of portraying this wide, even stellar,  field.  It completely ignores definitions – even within the Abrahamic faiths – of “the God Beyond God”, the Godhead, God as Isness, Pure Being, the Ground of Being, No Thing Ness, Non-Existence, the “eye” which sees the soul, and the “eye” by which the soul is seen… etc.  Should the Abrahamic faiths one day lose their “God as Creator” definition, they would still have a myriad of other definitions left intact.  But all this escapes Miller’s parochial and rather myopic vision.

The same holds, somewhat less so, for Miller’s view of the soul.  He spends little time with this profound and centuries-old controversy, other than to say that he is a materialist, and to valorize materialist philosophers.  He does not even deign to consider the very interesting question that if matter is everything, how is it that matter, through the thinkers in many religious and philosophical systems, questions its own materiality.  Saying that “we are the brain, and sometimes the brain makes mistakes” is a trivially inappropriate reply to this really large question.

Along these lines, Miller makes huge assumptions, for instance, that belief in ghosts and the afterlife is somehow odd, strange, and/or weird.  But the briefest historical view tells us that, if anything, it is reductionistic materialism that is the odd man out, since, relatively speaking, it is the alien newcomer in the consciousness of the West.  The ghost report – as opposed to the venerable ghost story – not only continues unabated in today’s materialistic, scientifically-imbued societies.  It continues to be experienced as a deeply disturbing, uncanny intrusion from elsewhere.  It does not conform to Miller’s wish that the ghostly  merely be a result of a fear of death that therefore implicitly serves as a comforting clue that we survive bodily disentigration.  As long as the ghostly terrifies and baffles, it cannot be invoked as a  comforting palliative to universal death anxiety.

Moreover, Miller’s attitude is unscientific.  Ghost reports and the possibility of psychic survival of biological death – like most things under the sun – are potentially investigatable and discussable scientifically.  Miller seems unaware of, or at least inexcusably uninterested in, the field of parapsychology.  He does not mention it, even if only to refute it.  He also does not mention even the reductionistic research into paranormal claims, for instance, the theory that NDE’s (Near Death Experiences) might be a toxic, dying brain’s last-ditch efforts to maintain bodily and psychic integrity, or that certain ghostly manifestations might be due to little-investigated electrical events, or the nervous system’s reaction to certain plasma-type phenomena (per Deveraux and Persinger).

As with the soul, Miller treats paranormality with a suspicious lack of curiosity, although the present writer does recall another program in which Miller attempted to dismiss the OBE (Out Of Body Experience).  He said that the experience – though probably unreal – must in any case be thought of as physical, since the percipient claims to (for example) rise “above ” his/her body, therefore retaining a spatial orientation and kinetic capability.  But discounting an arbitrary a priori materialism, there is no good reason to think that the perceiving consciousness itself is a space-time object expelled from its body in the same manner, say, as a belch.  Again, these are questions that a truly rigorous skeptic would pursue much more thoroughly than does Miller.

Miller also defines faith and belief much too narrowly.  He is unaware that, prior to the Sixteenth century in the West, faith was belief, but that belief did not mean intellectual assent to a set of credal statements and ecclesiastical doctrines.  Rather, “belief” was much closer to the “beliefen” from which it was derived and which it connoted, namely, “beloved”.  To believe in God was to belove God – another nuance that escapes Miller. Moreover, Christianity delineates seven or eight differing types of faith, only one of which is the (modern) sense of faith as “belief in” – a facet of religion of which Miller seems ignorant.

Finally, Miller spends a significant amount of time discussing and interviewing people about the purportedly strange case of religionists spending an inordinate amount of time trying to eradicate a social type which they say really doesn’t exist, namely The Atheist.  But Miller completely ignores the plain fact that cavorts under his nose:  the strange case of atheists who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to eradicate a religious entity they say really doesn’t exist, namely God.

To conclude, Jonathan Miller’s atheism is too myopic to be taken seriously.  Although he rightly gains points by refuting the probity and the existence of a creating sky father, he has by no means discredited the idea of God, the mystery of the soul, or the field of religion – a field much more vast than his miniature lens can measure.