Jonathan Miller has begun, on BBC-2, a televisual ‘History of Disbelief’. Punctuated by absurd clips from silent movies ands thoughtful peregrinations of the philosopher through bosky St John’s Wood, New York restaurants and a North London synagogue, the talking head talked on and on.

I have always liked Miller – his earnest dilettantism – and, some minutes into the programme, began to feel thoroughly comfortable with his fearless spirit of enquiry. It is true I am a believer but I am also a free-thinker and rejoice in honest search, from which faith only benefits, and intrepid questioning, which it can only encourage. But sure enough, halfway through the programme, he identified as the point of departure, from his adolescent conflict between meaningless Judaism and cricket, towards rejection – modern linguistic philosophy!

There was then a certain amount of formal manoeuvring – dressage – regarding the possible meaning of ‘belief’ and the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘thought’.

But there are two objections to all this. First Miller gives no indication that any of it is important, that, indeed, for many people the question of what kind of person they are and what kind of universe they live in is, literally, a matter of life and death. Miller is not serious.

The second objection is that all these intriguing considerations are a matter of ideas. The most revealing remark Miller made was early on when he said, “I personally find all these [Judaeo-Christian] religious ideas uncongenial, alien and frankly incomprehensible.” However, wandering round the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, he concedes that such ideas are both beautiful and enriching. We would be imaginatively poorer without Christian narrative and imagery. One might note, in parenthesis, that this poses a problem for him – or ought to do so: ideas that are rubbish are not enriching.

Miller feels at home with ideas and inhabits very nonchalantly a Hampstead world of intellectual saltimbanques and cultural effervescence. But faith is not about ‘belief’ but experience; it is not an idea but a fact. However securely we live inside our cultural capsule, we will have, sooner or later, experiences that we would prefer not to have, we will be taken to the edge of what reason and analysis recognise and we will encounter there the limits of ourselves. This meeting cannot be indefinitely postponed. When once we realise that we are not the sources of our own being, as we do in the case of near-death experiences, then we discover that we are alive and must die. This experience is a fact and nobody whose mental outlook is grounded in facts will be shifted by the puff of ideas.

From a notebook entry dated 6th November 2005

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