Sunday, July 29, 2007

The New Victims

Tonight concluded PBS's airing of the BBC's atheism documentary. I think I was supposed to be frightened by the spooky man in the dark who, by the glow of a flashlight, quoted Thomas Paine, Shelley, Darwin or Freud; but it was hard not to laugh.

Then they searched a hospice to find a dying atheist, making for perhaps the first televised "deathbed non-conversion." The host Jonathan Miller held her hand, as if conferring some kind of anti-sacrament, then laughed to make light of the occasion; but this was actually the scary part.

To be fair, there were a few concessions such as the admission that some of the best minds in science are believers, and that atheism has been "indelibly stained" by its 20th century totalitarian excesses. Still, the show seemed to ride, like most anything does nowadays, on a sense of victimology. Atheistic arguments almost played second fiddle to the idea that we should feel bad for atheists because they're not listened to enough. If they had better arguments, perhaps they would be.

There was such a personal appeal at the end that I felt I should have called the host myself in sympathy to apologize for not having lost my faith.

On the positive side, the show did give me a chance to tally some previous millinerd material on atheism. I heard Paul Vitz in person this summer, and must admit his depiction of Nietzsche's übermensch as the unpopular kid's comic book fantasy was rather humorous. The Dawkins reviews need to be supplemented by the latecomer Marilynne Robinson, and Hart's dismantling of Dennett is still worth a read. More recently, here's Ross Douthat on Christopher Hitchens.

But why bother? The documentary concluded with a puppy-dog-eyed Jonathan Miller admitting that the efforts of the new atheists would be "in all probability a completely ineffectual resistance."

My heartstrings were plucked, but I agreed.