Alive Mind // 2004 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 22nd, 2008
A ground-breaking series that will challenge your basic beliefs.
In 2004, the British neurologist/television personality/knight/atheist/author Sir Jonathan Miller created the television miniseries Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief for the BBC. The series attempted to trace the history of atheism and included interviews with a wide variety of noteworthy atheists and historians. However, much of what Miller filmed for the series was not included in the final cut. "Otherwise," Miller informs us, "the series would have lasted 24 hours." However, the BBC determined that the missing material was so interesting and substantial that some of it should be compiled into another program, The Atheism Tapes.
The Atheism Tapes has a very simple structure. It's six half-hour interviews that Miller conducted with some of the more well-known and respected atheists of world. The series attempts to get different perspectives on why these individuals decided to become atheists, why they are convinced that there is not a God, and what being an atheist means to them on a personal level. In collecting a diverse series of viewpoints and opinions, the series attempts give viewers an understanding of what atheism is and hopes to deflate some of the stereotypes that surround those who do not believe in God.
The series is presented in a two-disc DVD set, with three interviews on each disc. On Disc One, we start with English philosopher Colin McGinn, who talks at length about the arguments people make for why they do or do not believe in God. He fantasizes about a "post-theist" society, where the idea of God and religion is looked upon as a curiosity of the past. One of the more compelling interviewees is physicist Steven Weinberg, who discusses why he feels Darwin's theory is the strongest argument for atheism, and the connections between violence and religion. Wrapping up Disc One is the genial American philosopher Daniel Dennett, who was raised as a Christian and later converted to atheism. He discusses the reasons for this and also talks about the potential existence of a soul.
Disc Two kicks off with someone from the world of art, acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman). Miller examines why Jewish individuals seem more likely to become atheists than members of other religions, and also talks about the difficulty of giving up the idea that there is some kind of afterlife. Next is perhaps the world's most well-known (and controversial) atheist, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has been described by his peers as "Darwin's rottweiler," and he clings very closely to an unadulterated version of Darwin's theory. He attempts to explain natural selection in laymen's terms and also discusses his own conversion from Christianity to atheism. Finally, balancing the scales a bit, we have the British theologian Denys Turner, who suggests that the arguments being made by both sides are quite close-minded, as individuals only seem to be asking questions for which they have pre-determined the answers.
Almost all of these speakers are quite engaging and interesting, each one bringing his own perspective to the proceedings. I particularly liked hearing from Weinberg and Dennett; both provide very rational and reasonable examinations of atheism. I also really liked theologian Turner, who makes some very persuasive arguments for the idea that there actually is a God. Miller and McGinn are fine, if not as deeply thought-provoking as the others (though admittedly, this is tough competition). Finally, I've never particularly cared for Dawkins, who seems to take a very close-minded fundamentalist approach to both evolution and atheism, refusing to concede any ground to anyone with a different opinion (this why he was chosen to represent evolutionists in the controversial pro-intelligent design documentary Expelled). That said, he seems to have dialed down his extreme tone just a bit here.
Now, before I continue, I feel it is my responsibility to reveal my cards, lest you think that I am trying to subtly sway you one way or the other. I do believe in God, and I do subscribe to a particular religious belief (Christianity, specifically). Nonetheless, I found this series to be fascinating and thought-provoking. The series will undoubtedly be well-liked by serious atheists who are interested in hearing the perspective of fellow non-believers. However, I think the series could be of even more interest to those who do believe in God. It represents an ideal opportunity to examine your own faith, to determine what you believe and why you believe it. There are a lot of valid and engaging questions being asked here, and I think they are questions that deserve to be answered.
It is not hard to understand why the individuals in this series chose to become atheists, and why they believe what they believe (or rather, what they don't believe). If only more religious individuals had such a firm grip on the reasons they hold their beliefs. I know that some will disagree with me, but I firmly believe that any religious belief that will crumble to pieces when seriously questioned is not a religious belief worth having. Additionally, in a world where we thrive on assumptions and insinuations rather than knowledge and facts, it is important to know and understand what people of other persuasions believe, and why they believe it. It's hard to imagine a more well-rounded and engaging portrait of modern atheism than what is presented by The Atheism Tapes. While I would have preferred a more well-rounded debate that included intelligent individuals on both sides of the argument discussing these issues (the ratio here is 5-1 in favor of atheists), that is not what this series is about. The Atheism Tapes attempts to provide an intelligent-yet-accessible examination of atheism, and it succeeds. Thus, this series comes highly recommend to those who take philosophy, theology, faith, or atheism seriously.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Alive Mind
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site