The six 30-minute episodes of The Atheism Tapes all begin with this introduction by host Jonathan Miller:
"In the summer of 2003, I began filming the series Atheism - A Rough History Of Disbelief. As part of the process, I talked to a number of writers, scientists, historians and philosophers. Having secured their cooperation, I was very embarrassed to find that a large proportion of what went on ended up on the cutting room floor, simply because the series would have lasted 24 hours otherwise.
But as it happens, the BBC agreed with me that the conversations were too interesting to be junked and with these six supplementary programs, they've made the extremely unusual decision to go back to the original material and to broadcast, at length, some of the conversations I had - conservations with people such as English biologist Richard Dawkins, the American philosopher Daniel Dennet, the Cambridge theologian Denys Turner, the American playwright Arthur Miller, the English philosopher Colin McGinn, and the American Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg."
Miller is one of those rare figures found on the BBC for which American television has no adequate counterpart. Miller is a neurologist, author, sculptor, director of theater, opera, and film, and long-time BBC writer, producer, director and presenter. Miller is a confident, articulate, and thoughtful presenter capable of drawing engaging ideas out of his interviewees that never derails into the esoteric, muddled, or mundane. In this series, Miller discloses that he is reluctant to call himself an atheist because the term is treated as being largely synonymous with anti-theist, whereas he simply never believed in God and never understood why anyone else did either, but he's rarely gone out of his way to profess his disbelief.
The Atheism Tapes spends only a few minutes on the well-worn arguments against God. These are handled by the British philosopher Colin McGinn, while Miller and he are kicked back on McGinn's overstuffed couch in his New York apartment. McGinn goes through the No-Evidence Argument, or as Bertrand Russell put it, why there's no more reason to believe in the God of Abraham than the Greek Gods (or to give it a more modern twist, the Flying Spaghetti Monster). After detailing that, McGinn makes short work of the medieval Ontological Argument for God (In short, God is perfect. Existence is more perfect than non-existance, therefore God must exist), before settling on the problem of evil which many regard as the strongest argument against belief in a loving God.
McGinn, like British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and American physicist Steven Weinberg embraces the anti-theist label. "Anti-theism is opposition to theism. I am an anti-theist, because I believe that religion is harmful in human life. So I am an anti-theist. I'm not just an atheist . . . . I'm actively opposed to it", McGinn exclaims.
The second part of The Atheism Tapes was recorded in the Texas home of Nobel prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg. Weinberg laments that it was evolutionary biology and not physics that demonstrated a non-supernatural basis for understanding the origin of human beings. Weinberg concedes that science does not definitely prove there is no God but it obviates the need for one. Like McGinn and Dawkins, Weinberg is not merely non-theist, he is actively anti-theistic:
"I think enormous harm is done by religion - not just in the name of religion, but actually by religion. . . . Many people do simply awful things out of sincere religious belief, not using religion as a cover the way that Saddam Hussein may have done, but really because they believe that this is what God wants them to do, going all the way back to Abraham being willing to sacrifice Issac because God told him to do that. Putting God ahead of humanity is a terrible thing."
Weinberg closes by agreeing with the religious fundamentalists that worry about the effect of science on faith: "[Science] is corrosive of religious belief, and it's a good thing too."
Jonathan Miller's conversation with American playwright Arthur Miller is probably the most wide ranging conversation of the lot. Arther Miller talks about his experience growing up Jewish in America, the interplay of patriotism and Christianity in post-9/11 America, the origin of the doctrine of separation of Church and State, Christian millennialism, and his difficulty of coming to grips with his deceased wife's non-existence.
Richard Dawkins sits down for coffee and conversation in Jonathan Miller's kitchen in part four. Dawkins is perhaps the most visible anti-theist in the world. He's been an avowed atheist for more than twenty years, but it's only since the attacks of September 11, 2001 that Dawkins has become an outspoken critic of religion as "lethally dangerous nonsense." In his interview with Miller, Dawkins seems to confirm what I've long suspected: former zealot theists make for the best zealot anti-theists. Dawkins describes the firm Christian faith of his schoolboy days this way: "Between 9 and 15 I was pretty devout . . . I used to pray, I used to sort have little fantasies at school, in boarding school, sort of creeping down to the chapel and praying and having sort of visions of angels and things." Like McGinn and Weinberg, Dawkins is firmly in the camp of anti-theists actively opposed to theism.
The fifth interview is with the series' only believer, Cambridge theologian Denys Turner. This is by far the most dense of the conversations, and at times it seems Miller and Turner are arguing past one another, but the overall effect of this back and forth is more likely to encourage the viewer to actively struggle to keep up rather than lead to discouraged frustration. For Turner, science is good at answering questions about "How are things, given that we've got them?", but at a loss to answer "Why is there anything at all rather than nothing". Science rules out questions that it can't answer, Turner argues, but these are the very questions that lead to an appreciation of God. For Turner, anti-theists like Dawkins are failing to consider the bigger questions, and consequently are practicing "an inverted image . . . narrowed down theism" drained of intellectual vitality.
The final interview is with American philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett is the closest in thinking to Miller of any of the six interviewees. He likens a belief in God to being fat or ugly. It's an unpleasant personal characteristic that polite people try to ignore. Dennet and Miller agree that "cults" don't get the same kind of polite treatment as "religions" not because they're less kooky, but because they have less members, and hence less clout. They end on the wistful hope that someday there will be a post-theist world where nobody has to look to religion to find meaning.
The six interviews appear to be shot on HD video using a two camera set up. All the segments are well rigged for light and sound. The camera work is generally fine shifting between tight and wide shots without too much fuss. The one notable exception is shaky camera work during the conversation with Arthur Miller. There's a stylistic motif used in The Atheism Tapes of having each episode begin with and repeatedly cut back to Jonathan Miller watching the interviews on a laptop in his apartment. This directorial choice is quirky, but is mostly tolerable when it's used to allow Miller to speak directly to the audience. However, when it's used for no apparent purpose, it's especially irksome.
The Atheism Tapes features six 30-minute programs spread across two discs.
The HD 1.78:1 image is enhanced for widescreen. The image generally looks very good with fine detail. The PAL to NTSC transfer generally looks fine on this visually rather static offering. Unfortunately, the image does suffer from occasional video noise, most often in the form of significant but brief macroblocking.
The 2.0 audio generally sounds crisp and clear, though there is the occasional bit of distortion, most noticeable is a very loud audio burst in the Dawkins interview.
The Atheism Tapes is the thoughtful kind of intellectual discourse rarely seen on American television. Host Jonathan Miller and his learned guests provide wide-ranging discussions in and around the topic of Atheism. While I would much prefer to have seen this released together with Atheism - A Rough History Of Disbelief, it works as a standalone effort.
The Atheism Tapes is recommended to viewers interested in viewing top-notch intellectual discourse generally, and is highly recommended to viewers specifically interested in atheism.