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Transcript:

May 4, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Jonathan Miller


BILL MOYERS: Those of us in public television are always advising viewers like you to check your local listings, so here we go again, check your local listings or you'll miss a fascinating series called, "A Brief History of Disbelief," starting on our some of our stations in the days ahead. Its creator is that British man for all seasons, Jonathan Miller, I'll talk to him in a moment but first take a look at this excerpt from his series.

FROM "A BRIEF HISTORY OF DISBELIEF":

JONATHAN MILLER:It's interesting that the Christian faith is such a significant theme in American Public life today because when this country declareed its independence in 1776, it also enshrined in law that the Church and State should be completely separate.

JONATHAN MILLER:The very first President of the United States, George Washington, for example, was a very unenthusiastic church-goer who always walked out of the service before the congregation took the Sacraments and when the Rector of the church admonished him for this, Washington accepted that his sudden departure might after all seem to be a bad example, and so he subsequently never bothered to attend the church at all, and the Presidents who closely followed him in that office, were often, on record, as being considerably less than devout Christians.

Actor as JOHN ADAMS:"God is an essence we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy's got rid of there will never be any liberal science in the world."

Actor as THOMAS JEFFERSON: "The Clergy believe that any power confided in me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly."

BILL MOYERS: Jonathan Miller is the guiding spirit behind the series, which follows him as he traces the roots of atheism, both throughout history, and throughout his own life.

Along the way, Miller talks with historians, anthropologists, scientists and others, trying to fathom the beliefs, and disbeliefs, of everone from the 9-11 hijackers to the philosophers of ancient Greece.

For his part, Jonathan Miller says he never set out to be on television. As a younger man, he was a doctor, when out of the blue, he got a call of a very different vocation.

FROM "BEYOND THE FRINGE":

BILL MOYERS: "Beyond the Fringe" was intended as a one-time comedy show, but it exploded into a four-year sensation. A brilliant satirical revue that Miller starred in along with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

JONATHAN MILLER: "As so we bid you welcome to our court!"

BILL MOYERS: The group's success onstage helped lure Miller away from medicine. He became an acclaimed theater director. He produced television programs. He's written books on everything from anatomy to art criticism. He's directed operas in fourteen countries. But for this latest TV project, Jonathan Miller focuses on a life of disbelief.

BILL MOYERS: How did you decide who you were going to be?

JONATHAN MILLER:I never really decided. I was distracted. I found myself yielding time and time again to unsolicited invitations to come out and play. And my whole life in the theatre has been yielding I've said this many times I to people coming to the door with a Frisbee in their hands and saying, "Do you want to come out and play?" And it's happened so many times, that without ever seeking it, I took up directing, because someone asked me to come and direct a play after I'd done "Beyond the Fringe." And I said the to them, "I don't know how to direct a play." And George Devine, who was running the Royal Court, said, "Well, it doesn't matter. You'll pick it up as you go along." And then I found to my pleasure and surprise, that indeed I had picked it up as I went along. So, my whole life away from medicine has been a series of yieldings, weak-mindedly, to seduction after seduction. So, that by the time five years has passed, my moral fiber had rotted to the point where I probably couldn't have gone back to medicine anyway.

BILL MOYERS::Why did you decide to do this series? To go public with your doubts?

JONATHAN MILLER:I didn't think of it as going public. I just thought that it might be an interesting thing to talk about as a way in the mood of sociology; not in the mood of an evangelical determination to establish the legitimacy of disbelief.

BILL MOYERS: Unlike Richard Dawkins, you're not on a crusade.

JONATHAN MILLER:I'm not. No, I'm not on a crusade. You see, Richard, I think, is what I've always described as a born-again atheist. He was a Christian until he was about 16. And then he underwent a conversion. Whereas religion played no part in my life whatsoever. I came from a Jewish family, which was almost entirely secular. My father had a sort of amphibious relationship to his Jewish origins.

BILL MOYERS: Amphibious?

JONATHAN MILLER:Well, amphibious in the sense that he was a like he was a lungfish; half in and half out of Jewish water, you see.

FROM "A BRIEF HISTORY OF DISBELIEF":

JONATHAN MILLER: I was born in England but my grandparents came here from Lithuania as Jewish refugees.

JONATHAN MILLER:I came here to several services when I was about 11 or 12, on what were called "the High Holidays" but I came here without knowing what I was participating in. It was conducted in a foreign language which I didn't understand, written in a text I couldn't even read. There was singing, but the singing was completely different to the singing with which I had grown much more familiar by virtue of the fact that I was a Prep School boy and attended Christian Prayers. This all happened at a time when I simply felt myself to be an English schoolboy, the only thing that I was rebelling against was, well it certainly wasn't the dogma or the doctrine because that was completely inaccessible to me, and I hadn't been introduced to it earlier, it was simply that coming here on those occasions took up time when I might otherwise be enjoying myself playing cricket.

BACK TO STUDIO:

JONATHAN MILLER: For a very long time, atheism was not an affirmation; it was accusation. I mean, it was talked about, that there were atheists, in those same ways that there were Communists under the bed. You know, there were they were they were around, but no one knew where they were or what they looked like, or and so forth. For me, I am only a disbeliever by virtue of the fact that I'm surrounded by people who make assertions to which I cannot lend my assent.

BILL MOYERS: So you wouldn't be - you wouldn't have done this series unless people were rising up to confront you with beliefs that you found harmful?

JONATHAN MILLER:Well, there are two reasons. I think that I, perhaps felt inclined to undertake the series because I believe there were harmful outcomes from fanatical and overzealous beliefs. But also, I suppose that once the discussion got out in the open as a discussion, I simply was struck by the logical incoherence and inconsistency of what seemed to be a very strong feature of human mental life. And namely, a belief in supernatural agency. It seemed to me to make no sense. And therefore, I wanted to point out its philosophical inconsistency. Long before I became a scientist, long before I had-- knew anything about biology, let alone anything about natural selection, the thought of God never crossed my mind.

BILL MOYERS:: When you hear the word "God," what goes off in your head? How do your brain cells fire?

JONATHAN MILLER:Well, I mostly, I haven't the faintest idea what people are talking about. I mean, I hope and suppose that most of them do not, in fact, visualize it as a white-bearded figure in some empyrean, distant throne room. But in which case, I find it very hard to get out of them what they really mean by it. And or when I do bother to question them, I'm struck by a much deeper form of improbability; the idea of a disembodied intelligence. Of something which was everywhere, omnipresent, omniscient, universal, and at the same time, endowed with something which seemed to be, as far as I was concerned, peculiar to human beings. In other words, filled with intentions. The idea of intentions, and actions flowing from intentions, in something that doesn't have a body, and therefore, doesn't have interests, seemed to me make no sense at all.

BILL MOYERS:: But since you do wrestle with the search for explanations, how do you explain the phenomenon that so many people attribute to moments of epiphany like birth, and death, and sunrise and sunset, or the vastness of the stars, they -

JONATHAN MILLER:One you see, I'm always struck by the what I've always called, the vulgarity of the locations in which the awe-inspiring is felt. Why is it it's got to be sunset? Sunrise? Birth and death? Whereas, in fact, I am not immune to mystery and awe. But it's usually when I'm confronted by negligible things; the fact that there is anything. Not because I am lead, therefore, to believe that because there is something, rather than nothing, that it must have been intended by someone. But nevertheless I get rather impatient when people say that someone who does not believe in God doesn't, has no spiritual experience. I hate the word, "spiritual," anyway because it's been hijacked by this ghastly sort of new age lot, who talk about "spirituality." What I would say is, I have moments of - I suppose you might call them transcendent feelings; feelings which rise above what is immediately in front of me. But on the other hand, they're almost entirely the result of what is immediately in front of me. Not birth; not death, though those are extremely important, and do give rise to very strong feelings. But often, just simply seeing that things are arranged in the way that they are. That there are ripples in the sand once the tide has gone out.

BILL MOYERS: William Carlos Williams found something inspirational and almost sacred in a little red wheelbarrow.

JONATHAN MILLER:In the red wheelbarrow. Yes. Well, I think that if you don't get feelings of the transcendent from the negligible and the impermanent, I think it's because you don't respect the universe enough. If you're not moved by that, and you require a sort of huge, transcendental cabaret in the shape of gods of one sort or another, or of one, it seems to me that it's almost vulgar to be greedy in that way.

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever try to push your mind back to the origin? To before the big bang? Do you have just a little, teenie-weenie bit of curiosity about what your fellow countryman, Robert Browning, called "the grand perhaps"?

JONATHAN MILLER:Not really. And I think the reason why I don't - well, there are several reasons why I don't. One is that I think that it may well be that, as a result of the more complicated forms of mathematics and mathematical physics, developed at the beginning of the twentieth century, we no longer think that time and space are simply infinite dimensions along which the calendar intervals simply extend and disappear into the distance. And therefore, that in the same way as last Wednesday preceded last Thursday - I mean, last Wednesday preceded last Thursday - that there must, therefore, at the beginning of the universe, at the big bang - there must have been a sort of a Wednesday equivalent to the Thursday of the big bang. And that therefore, it could, in fact be pursued to an origin. It may well be that we've got the maths wrong. That we are no longer thinking correctly when we deal with gigantic orders of magnitude. That it isn't quite like the way in which you can organize a calendar.

BILL MOYERS: What is it?

JONATHAN MILLER:I haven't the faintest idea. But well, the one thing I am absolutely certain of that to simply say, by fiat, that because we don't understand the origin, then you suddenly put into the origin something which intended to start it all off at the origin.

BILL MOYERS::God.

JONATHAN MILLER:God, or whatever. Something that said, "Oh, you know" I mean, and not in the Biblical sense, saying, "Let there be light." But something which, roaming around in a state of sort of divine, transcendental boredom, said, "Oh, oh, I don't know. Let there be a big bang. Ah." And then a little voice saying in the far left-hand corner of this uncreated universe, "No problem."

BILL MOYERS:Your anthropomorphizing science!

JONATHAN MILLER:You see, I think it's no good to suddenly say that before the big bang, was the big thought. And it just seems to me, to be nonsensical.

BILL MOYERS: But this is what has led, you know, millions of people, including some reputable philosophers, to conclude watchmaker theory, you know. An agency in the universe that has to be explained.

JONATHAN MILLER:But it's because of the overextension of the notion of agency. I think that - well, when a child matures, it learns to restrict the zone in which it is legitimate and reasonable to impute agency as the cause.

BILL MOYERS: I'm not sure I understand that. What do you mean?

JONATHAN MILLER:Well, look. You look at a child who will talk, often in the early stages, about clouds moving across the sky. And will actually say, "The clouds want to go somewhere." The idea that the clouds are, in fact, going somewhere because of something which, in fact, blows them somewhere, doesn't occur to them. They think that clouds move for the same reason that I move my hand. And I think that what happens as we mature, as we grow up, we learn to see there's an area where it's legitimate, meaningful, and profitable to assign agency, and areas in which agency is not a relevant description. And it is a sign of the mature - non-poetic - simply the mature intelligence to be able to see that when the tide comes in, it's not coming in to meet me in the way that when I go out to meet the incoming tide, I'm going there in order to meet it.

BILL MOYERS: But the movement of the tides, the orbiting of the planets, the motion of the earth, people take those and conclude, "Intelligent design."

JONATHAN MILLER:Well, I think it's an inappropriate extension of the notion of agency. I think that we live in a universe in which there are diverse and often extremely complicated processes. And I think it's inappropriate to see them originating in an intelligence related to our own.

From "A Brief History of Disbelief":

BILL MOYERS: In his series, Jonathan Miller comes to New York City where on September 11th, 2001, the specter of religious fanaticism showed its darkest side.

JONATHAN MILLER: It's some years since I was on the Staton Island Ferry and when I last looked back at it from here the skyline was dominated by the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It seems quite odd to think of it in the light of religion, but it's absence now reminds me of the religious implications of what one saw on television on that hideous day. And we know that the men who did so did it in the name of a religion which they upheld against a society whose lack of religion, as they saw it, they deplored and whose support of Jewish claims in what is called the Holy Land they were implacably opposed to. Therefore, the conspicuous absence of the Twin Towers involving, as it does, the inherent conflicts between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is, I think, one of the most powerful expressions of religious fanaticism in the late 20th and 21st centuries.

BACK TO INTERVIEW:

BILL MOYERS: Do you think those terrorists would have struck those buildings if they had not believed that they were acting with divine sanction?

JONATHAN MILLER:I find that very hard to be certain about. I think that there is a very large section of what happens to be the Muslim world which feels itself disadvantaged by the extraordinary power and success of the non-Muslim world. Not because they feel that there is something about what we've done to Muslims. But I think that they feel that there's something we have done to the people of the Middle East, who happen to be Muslims. There's no doubt about it, that the willingness to sacrifice their own lives in order to cause as much damage to other people's lives, was, in fact, determined by their religious beliefs. But the resentment which gave rise to the action in the first place, I don't think was altogether to do with religion. It's to do with some sort of sense of resentment at having been excluded from what seems to have been the political power of the Western world. And - but on the other hand, I am very surprised by the fact that, if that were the case, if that were the sole explanation, why is it that there are not African terrorists attacking us? Why is it that they are in fact by and large, Middle Eastern terrorists?

BILL MOYERS: Let me come back, in conclusion, to your series. You begin your conclusion to that series by saying, "So, where am I..."

FROM "A BRIEF HISTORY OF DISBELIEF"

JONATHAN MILLER: So where am I, at the beginning of a century, the end of which I certainly won't live to see, posthumously or otherwise? As I said at the outset I'm reluctant to use the word 'atheist' to describe my own unshakeable disbelief and that's not because I'm ashamed, afraid or even embarrassed, but simply because it seems so self evidently true to me that there is no God that giving that conviction a special title, somehow dignifies what it denies. After all, we don't have a special word for people who don't believe in ghosts or witches. But on the other hand, that doesn't mean that I think it was scarcely worth bothering with a series of this length; on the contrary there is a long history of atrocity committed in the name of religion and an equally long history of truly heroic opposition. So, in a sense this series is well, a tribute to those who have won for me and many others the right to stand up and be counted. But nowadays there's another and I think more important reason; in various parts of the world religion has undergone a politically dangerous form of revival So, one way or another I think it's increasingly important for those of us who don't believe to establish an eloquent and in all probability completely ineffectual resistance.

Back to Interview:

BILL MOYERS: Why ineffectual?

JONATHAN MILLER:Well, because I think that most of these movements, which often flow from the irrational part of the human soul, and I'm unembarrassed to use the word "soul" but for the human mind - that there is very little you can do to control them, unless in fact, you can make social and political arrangements which, minimize the mean and maximize the generous. And I see very little in the way things are at the moment which encourages me to believe that we will do very much to maximize the generous, and a great deal to look as if we're maximizing the mean and the wretched and the horrible.

BILL MOYERS:Jonathan Miller, thank you very much.

JONATHAN MILLER:Thank you very much indeed.

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