Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Faith in Disbelief

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Faith in Disbelief

Article excerpt


Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief BBC4

THIRTY-FIVE years ago, the government founded the Open University, partly to allow older people to catch up on their missed education via television, but mainly so that redbrick students could display the same snobbish contempt towards it that Oxbridge students had long shown to them.

How glorious were those early years, with bearded lecturers who looked like sex offenders appearing in seedpacket shirts so garish that viewers enjoyed an extra hour of daylight in winter. And the OU excelled in every academic area, except one.

Sadly, the Dean of Carpentry and the Dean of Woodwork weren't fully in control of their faculties, and their department had to be closed down after Jacques Derrida was appointed to the chair in Deconstruction, only for it to collapse when he tried to sit down. "I fear you have not fully grasped the essence of my teaching," the French philosopher informed them tartly, and one only hopes that the same department hasn't now been hired to deconstruct the late, great man's coffin.

Unlike the modern and freethinking OU, Cambridge University is an anc ient institution steeped in religious symbolism. Yet its cathedral-like buildings with their monastic atmosphere and stained-glass Christian iconography have long been put to the service of scientific enquiry and secular independent thought, which is why it was chosen as one of the locations for Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief (BBC4).

It was there during his undergraduate years, he told us, that his growing doubts about religion first crystallised into outright rejection, partly because (as one of his interviewees put it) " science is corrosive of religious belief ", but also because his studies in linguistic philosophy removed any intellectual need he might once have felt for faith in the supernatural.

So who better to lead us on this three-part journey into scepticism than a man who clearly subscribes to Seneca's maxim that "religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful".

While BBC1 (the Special School of British television) is hailing Alan Titchmarsh as the new Jacob Bronowsky, BBC4 prefers to work with genuine intellectuals who actually understand the subjects they're talking about, and have no need of lavish Walking with Dinosaurs-style graphics or a tightly-scripted autocue to support them.

That's just as well, because the channel's programmes are made on a shoestring (a dangerous-practice, because boot polish can clog up the video heads), but visual gimmickry was simply not required last night, as Miller discussed the issues of faith and doubt with some of the most sceptical minds in the English-speaking world. …

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