Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Atheism Tapes

Alive Mind was kind enough to send me a copy of The Atheism Tapes to review a few weeks ago. I gave them a plug to help sales, but I was unable to do a review. My work schedule has been too busy to dive into 180 minutes of content in one go. Fortunately, I'm on vacation this week. Finding a few hours to sit in front of my Mac is easier when my mind is uncluttered by work.

I had prejudged The Atheism Tapes as a tedious exploration of atheism through informal interviews with the luminaries of the atheist community. As with most things, what I thought I was getting into was far from reality. Take the initial interview with Colin McGinn (blog) Besides not knowing who he was, besides not understanding the significance of his work, I managed to hang on his every word. The host, Jonathan Miller, elicited deeply meaningful responses from a cooperative McGinn. I was captivated by a brilliant man and his ideas. I watched the interview twice while taking notes. it was a pattern i would repeat for each interview.

My only complaint is that the interviews are dated. Richard Dawkins in 2003 is a much different man than he is in 2008. His fame and many years of controversy are in his future. What we have is an early look at a major player. You can see some of his ideas starting to form, but any connection to current events is limited to the start of the Iraq war (which is now in the ancient past). This pattern holds true for each interview. It is a mild annoyance, but an annoyance none the less.

I also want to comment on the photography. I did not realize The Atheism Tapes was a BBC production. The photography is superior. I found myself looking for imperfections, like Arthur Miller with a spot on his right shoulder. The photography is second only to the sound quality. It too is amazing. The video is well made and could pass as a best of breed documentary. Of course, that is precisely what this video is.

In another segment, Jonathan Miller interviews Arthur Miller. Again, I watched the segment twice, book marking segments as I took notes (like - read a Miller biography). At one point Miller says "The immortality notion is simply past my capacity to really believe in". A simple statement delivered by a brilliant man just a few short years before his death. His wife of 40 years had just died about a year earlier. He talked about how she was dead but her soul lingers on in his memory because it is hard for him to believe consciousness is gone.. He lived surrounded by her belongings. She survives by what she leaves behind, her art, works, and perhaps her children.

Author Miller was old enough to compare and contrast how atheism, religion and anti-semitism has changed over the last 50 years. His insightful understanding of history highlights the lethal hypocrisy of religious nationalist and the dangers of mixing religion with politics. He states clearly, "you cannot be both a Catholic and a Protestant". Meaning that the religion that is in power does not tolerate competitors. It becomes reasonable to wage war for your religion. In our case in the name of nationalism and the Iraq War.

The Atheism Tapes provided this introduction in the press kit:

In these off-the-record interviews, neurologist turned playwright, filmmaker, and self-described atheist Jonathan Miller filmed conversations with six of today's leading men of letters and science: the New York Times best-selling author Richard Dawkins, philosophers Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn, distinguished playwright Arthur Miller, theologian Denys Turner, and Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who discuss their personal intellectual journeys and offer illuminating analysis of non theism from a wide range of perspectives.

Theologian Denys Turner is offered as a theist counterpoint to the atheists. Turners assertions are interesting. However he seems stuck on how the universe is something rather than nothing. I enjoyed the segment, but went brain dead on several of his complex leaps of faith.

You can buy The Atheism Tapes here.

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Hallq said...

I'm really at a loss to understand the notion that Dawkins' ideas were largely unformed back in 2003. His ideas about memes were from the 70s, Blind Watchmaker came out in the 80s, Climbing Mount Improbable in the 90s, and Devils Chaplin came out the very year he was interviewed, containing essays that had been written before then. I've seen him used as an example of a notorious atheist in the philosophy of religion literature in pieces written well before The God Delusion. Are you really ignorant of all of this?

Mojoey said...

I know of his earlier work. I was writing about his work in the God Delusion. I guess I should have been more specific. The years after the interview are when he hit the mainstream. What he talked about in the interview is a prelude to what was to come.

I was aware of him as an atheist then, but he was in no way the rock star he is today.

theuncrediblehallq said...

He was a rockstar in popular-science circles, even if for atheists he didn't have the same level of prominence. But ideas-wise, I think most of it was already there. I didn't notice anything incompletely-formed in the interview.