THE HUMANIST INTERVIEW A Brief History of Jonathan Miller

As he approaches his seventy-third birthday on July 21, British intellectual and Renaissance man Jonathan Miller continues to enjoy an uncommonly varied career. Born to a psychiatrist father and a novelist mother, he went on to study science and medicine at Cambridge and elsewhere. But he also helped write and produce Beyond the Fringe, a comedy stage revue that played in London and on Broadway in the early 1960s, serving as a precursor to the comedy of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. He then worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation and, in the 1970s, without knowing how to read music, began producing and directing operas. Yet, early in that same decade he held a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London and, in 1985, was a research fellow in neuropsychology at Sussex University. The 1980s further saw Miller produce, direct, and write for the BBC and emerge as one of the world’s leading opera directors. On May 4, 2007, Miller appeared on the PBS series Bill Moyers Journal. This served to kick off the PBS airing of a controversial documentary, A Brief History of Disbelief, which Miller had written and narrated for the BBC in 2004, and which led to his appointment as president of the Rationalist Association in 2006. I interviewed him in New York City on April 4, 2007.

The Humanist: Your three-part public television documentary, A Brief History of Disbelief, when originally released in Great Britain by the BBC, was entitled Atheism: a Rough History of Disbelief. Do you regard yourself as an atheist?

Jonathan Miller: Let me say right at the outset that I’ve always been very reluctant to use the word “atheist,” not because I’m embarrassed or ashamed of it but I think that this view scarcely deserves a title. No one has a special name for not believing in witches–I’m not an “a-hexist”–and I don’t have a word for not believing in ghosts or anything of that sort. So the idea of there being a special name for what I’ve never had–which is a belief in God–seems to me to be odd, to say the least.

Still, my attitude toward the notion of a supernatural being is identical to that of those who do call themselves atheists, though I hold this view without any sort of vehemence or enthusiasm or evangelical drive. In that sense I’m rather unlike Richard Dawkins, for example, who is a zealous proselytizer for atheism. And I think one of the reasons for the difference is autobiographical–that he is what I call a “born-again atheist:” he started his life as a Christian, was a Christian until he was about sixteen, then read Charles Darwin and, as a result, became an atheist. I come from a Jewish family but was never brought up with any sort of Jewish practices at all. And I don’t even know what being a Jew is–I’m a Jew for anti-Semites and that’s really all. So I’m what I would call a “cradle atheist,” insofar as I am an atheist.

The Humanist: How did this outlook affect you when you were young?

Miller: As a young man I don’t think I ever really addressed myself to the problem of the existence of God–it didn’t seem to me to be an issue at all. I only began to think about it when I heard so many other people talking about God and affirming the existence of him, her, it, or whatever it was. Therefore I began to think about my arguments against such a proposal. But until I was sixteen or seventeen, and perhaps even later, I don’t think it ever crossed my mind.

The Humanist: Once it crossed your mind, did you ever become open about it? Did you talk to others about your nonbelief?

Miller: I don’t think more than occasionally. If I was talking to boys who attended Christian services, I found myself asking about what it was that they believed in. But then I never gave it a second thought, really, because it seemed to me so patently absurd that I didn’t even want to carry on the conversation.

The Humanist: So would you say that you didn’t suffer any kind of discrimination because of your views?

Miller: I think you have to realize the very pronounced difference between England, or indeed between Europe, and the United States. I get the impression that, until very recently, Americans have had to be cautious about coming out in the open and saying they are atheists or disbelievers. At no point was I in any way embarrassed or ashamed or inconvenienced or disabled because of my views. It isn’t an issue in England–and certainly hasn’t been for probably the last thirty years.

This is in contrast to the, admittedly for me, very occasional problem of being Jewish. I think that in England there is a sort of subterranean current of upper middle class anti-Semitism, so that I would always feel some sort of caution when it came to talking about being Jewish.

The Humanist: Much of what we’re taking about here assumes we both understand each other when we use such terms as belief, disbelief, atheism, God, and so on. But let’s dig a little into this. Speaking philosophically, is theism false or is it incoherent?

Miller: I frequently invoke Thomas Hobbes in this respect. It isn’t that the idea of God is wrong, in the way that one might say it’s wrong to claim that water at ten thousand feet boils at this or that degree centigrade. That’s something one can prove experimentally. Rather, it’s that most of the claims or assertions that are made in religion seem to me logically incoherent. They don’t make sense. For example, it isn’t wrong to say you don’t know for certain that there isn’t a circular rectangle–because you haven’t been up to the very highest mountaintops where, in fact, the conditions are extremely favorable to the existence of such geometrical anomalies. Rather, it just doesn’t make any sense to talk about circular rectangles. It’s built into the logic and definitions of circles and rectangles that they can’t be one and the other.

The Humanist: When you first offered the BBC Atheism: a Rough History of Disbelief,
did you meet with any significant resistance?

Miller: Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, very much as broadcasting in the United States, has been increasingly dumbed down. So the only resistance we met wasn’t because there was anxiety about the specific subject matter but because it actually had subject matter.

The Humanist: After the documentary first aired in the United Kingdom, what was the reaction? Did it cause a sensation? Was there a lot of public discussion afterwards?

Miller: No. I think it was approved of. And then I think it was left alone. There may have been people who said, “Oh, wouldn’t you know it? He would be bound to be one of those–a disbeliever.” But I never heard about anything like a sensation or controversy at all.

The Humanist: How about when you offered the program to public television in the United States–did you meet with resistance then?

Miller: Well that’s interesting. We never did offer it because we had the impression it would be a waste of time to even pitch it. And although we said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have it shown in the United States?” we took it for granted that it would be inconceivable it would be accepted. And, in fact, I’d forgotten about it until I was told that Bill Moyers had actually pushed for it, and others had pushed for it. Then I was told, to my surprise, that it was actually going to be done.

But I became less surprised in the light of all sorts of information which came my way to the effect that somehow the atmosphere had changed in the United States. People were discussing disbelief; Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, was a bestseller; and there was a long article in Newsweek about disbelief. But I never originally thought there was even the remotest possibility of the program being broadcast here, mild though it is.

The Humanist: What do you anticipate will be the response in the United States, particularly in light of the opposing factors of the political clout of the religious right on the one hand and, on the other, the declaration by Publishers Weekly that for the week of March 12, 2007, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation were the country’s top two bestselling hardcover books on religion?

Miller: Judging by how well the Dawkins and Harris books have sold, I think the reaction will be an increasing sense of relief on the part of the, previously unacknowledged, large minority of unbelievers who have never come out in the open, who will suddenly say, “Well, things are getting easier now.” I’m certain that amongst the evangelical religious right it will be regarded as “typically European.” They’ll say, “One of the reasons why we don’t like Europe is that disbelief prevails in that corrupt, secular part of the world.”

I sometimes wonder whether it will compromise the ease with which I get a work visa here and whether I have to stand at immigration with some guy saying, “I see here that you express disbelief. Would you like to elaborate on that before we let you in?”

The Humanist: Ha ha. You do a good American accent!

Your producer and director, Richard Denton, said in a September 2004 interview with BBC Four that one thing he would have liked to explore in the program, but didn’t, was “the absence of the atheistic point of view in the modern political world.” He was specifically referring to the fact that there is a “difference between not having religion in your politics and actually having atheism in your politics.” Do you share his interest in this topic as an important area for further inquiry?

Miller: Not really. I take it for granted that any aspect of belief or disbelief really ought to have no part to play in politics whatsoever. I think that, with the exception of Tony Blair–who must have been the first prime minister we’ve had to explicitly express his commitment to religion, and for it somehow to be seen as part of his politics–it just doesn’t come into English politics at all. And even religious people, except for perhaps the extreme and zealously religious, find it rather objectionable for someone to talk about religion as part of political discourse. It would almost be as rude to talk about how often a week you have sex with your wife.

The Humanist: In A Brief History of Disbelief you argue that it was philosophy, not science, which was the first to effectively undermine theism. But isn’t it the case that the atheists of the past could only negate, could only say that the god idea didn’t answer anything? Weren’t they still without a viable alternative explanation to a god or gods as the source of all things until Charles Darwin offered a new scientific narrative to replace the older mythic ones?

Miller: No, I don’t think it was Darwin who actually provided the clinching argument. And I think that the clinching arguments have nothing really to do with science at all. They are, in fact, philosophical. As I’ve said, it isn’t that the claims made for the existence of a god are scientifically implausible; it’s that they’re logically incoherent.

The Humanist: Yes, but many people will next ask, “So how did everything get here?” And isn’t this what Darwin provided?

Miller: No, because Darwin isn’t talking about how everything got here, he’s only talking about the gradual development of biological complexity. He isn’t talking about how the cosmos got here; he’s talking about this comparatively late arrival in the universe of organic life and its capacity to sophisticate under the pressure of natural selection, given the existence of unsolicited variations upon which selection exerts its effect. He made no remarks about the origin of the world or the origin of the cosmos at all.

The Humanist: Just the origin of species.

Miller: So with Darwin we’re dealing only with a comparatively narrow segment of the problem of what there is. Now, of course, we’re all faced with the problem of what there is, and we become increasingly more sophisticated about the physics of origins. But it may be that the religious have got hold of the wrong end of the stick because they misunderstand the notions of both time and space. They think that over the huge distances of time and space there must be, nevertheless, origins and ends. And I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent, as our mathematics becomes more sophisticated, that once you get into the area of gigantic dimensions, the notion of “the beginning”–followed by things like “Thursday” and “Sunday,” and February followed by March–doesn’t make any sense. So to talk about origins as if there was an infinitely remote starting point is to misunderstand the nature of both time and space.

And I think that long before science got a grip on this you have Greek philosophers, four or five hundred years before Christ, perfectly happy to accept the idea of things being permanently there. Therefore they didn’t have to think about something as if it were decided that there should be something. And those who did conclude that there must be some entity that decided there must be something, failed to ask, “What decided there had to be something which decided something? What was there before the decider got going?” They didn’t seem to be puzzled by that.

The Humanist: I’d like to mention that you’re not only a physician by training and experience but you’re also a neurologist. Do you find that neurology offers us any useful insights as to the cause of religious belief and the forms it tends to take?

Miller: No, I don’t think that neurology is in the least bit helpful in that way. There are people who are saying there must be a neural, religious module–that by using CAT scans or MRIs we could actually identify a center or a module that seems to be responsible for it. I just don’t think it works in that way; we aren’t a mosaic of modules, one of which includes the tendency to be religious.

I think evolutionary psychology is sometimes helpful, that it’s part and parcel of the way we get on with one another. I think that beliefs, if you go back to a philosopher like Gilbert Ryle, aren’t states of mind, on the whole, but are dispositions to do things. And the dispositions to undergo and undertake and participate in religious or other rituals are simply expressions of our collaborative character, which often requires symbolic images through which to dramatize our collaborativeness.

And some of those symbols aren’t clearly practical–they may have a bearing upon practical outcomes but they aren’t themselves practical. For example, you go to what we used to call primitive societies: preliterate tribal societies, and they cook and they hunt and they plant and they garden and do all sorts of things almost invariably to the accompaniment of ritual activities, whose connection to the outcome–favorable or unfavorable–isn’t clearly apparent. It’s quite obvious that those rituals are what we would call “religious.”

Now, I don’t think that anyone would give up hunting in favor of the rituals which accompany hunting, in that the rituals are what bring about the death of the animal that they wish to eat. Ritualistic and religious though they might be about their hunting, these people would always sharpen a spear and hurl it at the running animal. They wouldn’t go down on their knees and wish the animal to stop running; they would always stop it running if they could by a mechanical device. But they might, in what they think, ensure the success of their practicality by accompanying it with things which don’t seem to have practicality built into them. These fit together in some way: they dramatize and give significance to practical life.

The Humanist: How does any of this relate to Sigmund Freud’s view that religion is a “thought disorder”–something you address in A Brief History of Disbelief?

Miller: I think Freud was rather naïve about that. I don’t think it’s a thought disorder; I think it’s a characteristic idiom of human thought. I think it’s condescending and anthropologically simpleminded to see it as a disorder from which we’re getting better, from which we’re recovering. I think you have to take into consideration the anthropological circumstances in which this or that system of rituals exists, and the conscious beliefs associated with these ritual systems. We must ask what this life is like in that it tends to be associated with rituals of this particular sort–even assertions of a particular sort.

I don’t think that Freud was enough of an anthropologist. But then he was born before anthropology made its practical appearance. Most anthropology was conducted, as it was by Freud, from comfortable armchairs in European capitals, receiving information from district officers and missionaries who were out in the wild. But once people actually went and sat with these guys, and raised tents out in the bush, we began to see that religion of primitive culture was something other that what we thought it was. It wasn’t just simple-minded people doing bad science because they weren’t sophisticated enough to do good science. Early anthropology misunderstood and misinterpreted the nature of the enterprise.

The Humanist: What would you say is the future of disbelief in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in the world?

Miller: I think one would be very rash to make predictions about the progressive disappearance of religion and its replacement by disbelief. I suspect that, humans being the way they are and being the political creatures they are, religious rituals and structures and institutions will continue to exist notwithstanding the fact that disbelief, now free from persecution, will be much more out in the open. I don’t think it’s something that will eliminate the religious–there are all sorts of reasons why religion survives and flourishes, and why it often has regrettable associations with political power. I don’t think there’s a single tendency that religion will eventually prove to be a primitive state of mind that will be replaced by something which is much more sophisticated. That would be anthropological naiveté.

The Humanist: To add a dimension to our discussion, I’d like to turn to your work in the arts. Between 1980 and 1982 you produced for the BBC a series of twelve Shakespeare plays. You had earlier, in 1974, directed Lawrence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice. So what is your take on Shakespeare’s religious beliefs? You can answer this from the standpoint either of Shakespeare as a person or Shakespeare as a personification of the themes evident in his plays. Do you find him a freethinker, an atheist, a humanist?

Miller: I think it’s very hard to make up one’s mind about this. There are those scholars who claim that Shakespeare might in fact have been a crypto-Catholic. But there are other things which make one sense that he was perhaps a disbeliever as well. The way in which King Lear talks about our being the plaything of “the gods,” as opposed to “God,” makes it look as if, in one way, Shakespeare didn’t conceive of a creator. But I suspect that, as a creature of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, like his successors in the Royal Society, it was simply part and parcel of growing up in England that he was Christian by virtue of his birth.

I have always said that if you get to a child before its cognitive immune system is working, the child will be religious. It’s no accident that, when you consider the demographic distribution of religions, it has to do with who talks to you early enough. Otherwise there would be Methodists in Tierra del Fuego–or more of them than there are–and large deposits of Muslims in Greenland. And it can’t be an accident that they’re distributed according to the cultures. The cultures determine what a child gets told at an early, susceptible stage.

The Humanist: In the BBC series Great Composers of the World you appear in the episodes covering Johann Sebastian Bach and Giacomo Puccini. Does your knowledge of musical history and your experience as one of the world’s leading opera directors give you any special insights as to the prevalence of belief and unbelief among the great composers? Who would you say count among the great composers as nontheistic or at least skeptical?

Miller: I don’t think there are any nonbelievers–serious nonbelievers–amongst any of the great composers until you get to the beginning of the twentieth century. And I don’t know what the religious beliefs of people like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg were. Schoenberg, after all, was Jewish and then converted, and then regretted his conversion. But I think that anyone writing music, particularly those like Bach and Mozart, who wrote music for the church, were affected by their time and place. That’s what they were surrounded with. Every hour of the day bells were rung and matins were instituted. It would have been extremely hard to escape from the religious beliefs which were corollaries of this complicated ritual practice–unless, in fact, someone were a peculiarly original person who, by virtue of his or her temperament, decided that this was nonsensical.

Though I think that disbelief has probably existed forever, it was under very, very tight and often ruthless and cruel constraints until the end of the nineteenth century. As a result, people were reluctant to admit it when they were in fact disbelievers.

The Humanist: Then again, in the end, does it ever really matter what a composer privately believes about the universe? Would Bach’s musical accomplishments have differed had he not viewed his works as written for the glory of God or had Beethoven not been a child of the Enlightenment?

Miller: I suspect that something about the quality of the music of people like Bach and Verdi and Mozart, who wrote religious music, was in fact determined by the spiritual tone which was brought about by a belief in a creator–yes, I think it would be foolish to deny that. And I think it isn’t that our culture would be the poorer were these artists not to have been under the influence of Christianity, or whatever religion–but particularly Christianity–though I think it would have undoubtedly been very different.

I suspect that our tendency to be awestruck–and to use this ghastly New Age terminology, spiritual–would have existed in human beings for reasons which have nothing whatever to do with the existence of a deity, but just simply because we have, by virtue of our evolutionary history, a tendency to have reactions to others, to their births and deaths, to bereavement, and to procreation and so forth–and also to the mysterious magnificence of what surrounds us. So I suspect that even if there hadn’t been a series of institutional religious beliefs, spirituality as it’s called would have survived or grown in its characteristic way in a nonreligious environment.

The Humanist: You wrote, produced, and directed a BBC adaptation of Alice in Wonderland back in 1966. What do you think is the source of the fascination that the works of Lewis Carroll have had for so many generations? Why have this curious man’s writings interested both children and intellectual adults to the degree that they have?

Miller: Probably because Lewis Carroll was enormously sensitive to the philosophical principles of nonsense. It’s easy to forget that he was perhaps just as famous–not to the general public but certainly to the intellectual community–as a logician as he was a writer of these two entertainments (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) which, after all, were thrown off as amusements for the children of his Oxford friends.

The reason why I think these survive is that, first of all, he had a literary sensitivity to the charm of dream. He actually is one of the first people to reproduce what it’s like to dream. He gets it right in a way that someone as vulgar as Salvador Dali does not. I mean, I don’t dream–and I don’t think anyone dreams–about limp watches. What we dream about is alternations in our size, alternations in the difficulty we have getting in or out of rooms or doors which are too large or small for us, and so on. And also Carroll was a master of dealing with the mysteries of being a child, of growing up, and with the possible disadvantages of growing up.

The Humanist: In The Atheism Tapes, a six-part BBC series made from discussions too lengthy to fully include in the original documentary, you argue with Christian theologian Denise Turner as to whether there’s any need to ask the question, “Why is there anything rather than nothing?” Bertrand Russell, in his 1948 BBC debate with Jesuit theologian Frederick Copleston, brushed the question off as pointless. What’s your conclusion?

Miller: I think it is pointless. I don’t think that the existence of something or other, or of anything, is something that requires some sort of originator. That’s the way things are and it doesn’t puzzle me that there are things. I think people would be much less inclined to put that question in that particular way were they to be confronted by the way things were before things became as interesting as they are now. When it was just a world of hydrogen atoms and even simpler things than that–just subatomic particles–I think people would be rather uninclined to say, “something must have meant there to be mesons.” Seeing how boring and discouraging a world made of mesons is, I think one might have felt that it couldn’t have been anything intelligent that wanted that.

The Humanist: Switching back to the United Kingdom, do you know any atheists in the UK besides Dawkins? Who would you think that other atheists, particularly in this country, should be aware of?

Miller: I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it in that way. Most of the people that I know, some of whom are distinguished intellectuals, are in fact disbelievers. But it never comes up in conversation, we never talk about it. We’ve talked about it more recently than we might have because it’s become a publicly debated issue, partly as a result of the religious right in the United States and its impact upon practical politics. It’s become a topic. But I can say that, until about three or four years ago, most of the people that I knew, distinguished people like Isaiah Berlin, for example, who I’d think would probably be a disbeliever, never brought it up. I think there are lots of very distinguished thinkers, artists, scientists, and intellectuals for whom it was scarcely–and is scarcely–an issue.

As for me, I don’t feel all that evangelical about it. I just don’t feel it’s worth getting up there and making a fuss over. It’s only worth making a fuss about when it gets associated with political power, as it is in this country. Otherwise it seems to me to be as little worth talking about as it is worth talking about haunted houses.

The Humanist: That’s another popular belief in this country!

Miller: Well I’m astounded that anyone who can read without moving his lips would actually be interested in haunted houses. It’s true to say that there is an increased interest in all those sort of New Age things like haunted houses and telepathy and so forth, but that’s because human beings are constitutionally greedy–they want things to be more sensational and interesting than they are–and that’s because they don’t open their eyes and see that things are as interesting as they are anyway, without having to invoke this sort of cabaret which supposedly accompanies practical, ordinary, daily life. Daily life seems to me to be so fascinating and so peculiar and so interesting that to start having ghosts and witches and telepathy and energies and crystals and things seems to me to be vulgar greed.

The Humanist: Now when it comes to social and political issues, would you describe yourself as a progressive?

Miller: No, I don’t think in those terms. They’re almost late-nineteenth-century ideas. There are people who might use the word “progressive” pejoratively, however.

That said, I suppose I’m in fact of the left. I believe we should make every effort to correct unfairness and injustice. Now there are those who would say pejoratively, “That’s typically progressive, typically liberal.” It seems like George W. Bush feels you have to use this euphemistic term called “the L word,” as if “liberal” was as dirty as “fuck” and had to be bleeped.

The Humanist: We don’t bleep. Now, further in this context, you’re no doubt familiar with the British Humanist Association, so in taking your lack of belief in traditional religion broadly and drawing in your views, ethics, and politics, would you identify yourself as a humanist?

Miller: Only I think in the light of what’s been going on in the United States. I don’t think I ever joined the humanist association; I didn’t think it was necessary. I think I only agreed to take the presidency that I did because of the rows that there have been in the last three or four years about religion, mainly in the light of what happens in the United States. I think in England it’s not an issue, not a serious issue anyway.

The Humanist: Given the fact that you find the idea of God incoherent, and given that you want to increase the amount of fairness in the world, if humanism were defined to you as those elements, is that something you would feel that you could attest to?

Miller: No, I think it would be wrong for humanists to lay some sort of superior claim to philanthropic, just ideas–conspicuous by their absence, as they might say, amongst the religious. I’ve often been struck that some of the most profound and sympathetic upholders of social justice have been Christians. And it’s often their Christianity which mobilizes their charity and mobilizes their decency. And I think it would be very stupid, narrow-minded, and grudging to assume that notions of social justice and fairness and so forth were the peculiar province of the liberal disbeliever.

The Humanist: Well by the same token would it be narrow-minded or unfair to say that one cannot be altruistic unless one believes in God?

Miller: That is just as unjust and narrow-minded and sectarian as it would be for the disbeliever to claim it. I think it’s something peculiar to our social character and, though I hate to invoke the more naive forms of evolutionary psychology, I think the way in which we have evolved has favored altruism and decency–though often abused, denied, and contradicted by the way we all tend to behave selfishly and non-altruistically. But a lot of it has to do with being the cooperative sort of species that we are–and also being the astoundingly culturally creative creatures that we are. But I don’t think that’s got anything to do either with believing in God or not believing in God.

The Humanist: So do any owe their virtue to their secular views?

Miller: I don’t think they owe it to their secular views, they owe it to temperament. There are lots of things that people owe to their temperament, including belief and disbelief. And I think it’s very hard to identify the sources of this or that peculiar style of moral behavior and to say this must be due to liberal humanism and this must be due to Christianity. But I am often struck, as a quite ardent disbeliever–my ardor gets stronger in recent years–but I am often struck, and I am pleased to have the ability to be able to acknowledge that some of the more touching forms of decency, propriety, and generosity quite clearly, amongst these people in which I’ve noticed it, arise from their religion.

The Humanist: Well, would religion in that sense be a good thing worthy of promotion or not?

Miller: I wish I could be certain about that–I wouldn’t want to promote it because, if promoted, it often furnishes and legitimizes narrow-minded improprieties and lack of generosity. So I’m puzzled by it. I’m puzzled by the fact that it actually underwrites the meanness of human beings and it also underwrites the generosity of human beings.

Fred Edwords is director of communications for the American Humanist Association.