What’s The Unbelievers?
The Unbelievers is a documentary featuring the travels, speeches, engagements and so on of two prominent atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, or as the Imdb blurb reads, “Renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss cross the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues – making the world a better place for all. The film includes interviews with celebrities who support the work of these remarkable scientists.”
1. Some Agreeable Aspects.
There is some agreement that I can have with Dawkins and Krauss. Krauss, for a start, says that there’s “no-one whose views are not subject to question.” I find this line hard to disagree with. But this is hardly a line monopolized by atheism. Like the many religious people I know there are atheists just like them who don’t fancy their views being questioned by anyone. Usually those who try to portray themselves as the one’s who possess honest, open inquiry are often the one’s who dislike it the most when their own presuppositions are questioned.
Then Dawkins says that “Science is wonderful, science is beautiful. Religion is not wonderful, it’s not beautiful, it gets in the way…” This is both true and mistaken to certain degrees. Yes, science is wonderful but it’s also the vehicle that has allowed human beings to develop nukes, weaponry, poisons and gas chambers. Alternatively it is beautiful because it advances human knowledge, uncovers medical cures, assists the crippled and so on. So science isn’t entirely beautiful in the way that human beings have made use of it. There is therefore very much a moral dimension to the practice of science. Dawkins’ attack on religion not being wonderful and not being beautiful is somewhat mixed. Religion is beautiful, specifically Christianity, due to the fact that it very much encouraged the development of modern science as we know it, and the science that Dawkins takes for granted. Nearly every historian of religion will back that basic truth. Religion is beautiful in the way that it provides a sense of community, a sense of meaning, a life worth living, and an afterlife to look forward to and work towards (most of these traits seem to lack on atheism). Religion is ugly in the way it has promoted violence, intolerance, and subjugation. In other words, there are two sides to the coin that Dawkins, a scientific fundamentalist, fails to grasp. Moreover, the kind of scientistic worldview that Dawkins adheres to is barren, reductionistic and hopeless. Things so intrinsic to human existence such as meaning, purpose, value, morality etc. cannot exist on such a view. Essentially we’re just clumps of protoplasm bobbing about in the universe, no freewill exists, nothing is good or evil, and we exist as accidents of nature. Of course, as has so often been the case, Dawkins and atheists cannot live consistently with such a view.
2. The Box Office.
If one were to judge The Unbelievers credibility by the box office statistics then it all looks rather dismal. The documentary grossed no more than $14 400. In South African currency that’s roughly R195 552 which is very limited. It’s probably enough to buy a very average car at most. Or compare it to a local South African film, Mr. Bones, that came out in 2001 which brought in $437 798 on its opening weekend (as opposed to The Unbelievers $5 925)! One thing South Africa isn’t known for is its film industry although a local film pops up every now and again. But beyond some low budget products there isn’t much to write home about. Long story short, The Unbelievers brought in but a small fraction of what a local South African film brings in, and doing so within a country (America) that has tenfold the local audience and capital. Moreover, for The Unbelievers it has been marketed as a “worldwide” tour and product, and so on. Obviously it doesn’t seem to be the hit that it is promoted as being. Jules Brenner of Cinema Signals says that “as a documentary, the film leaves something to be desired in terms of boxoffice appeal” (11), to put it mildly.
3. Mixed Reception and Engagement.
However, beyond the box office one can judge by online votes. Imdb gave the documentary a 7 out of 10 based on some 5 577 votes. Compare that to God’s Not Dead, also a dismal film, that brought in 32 024 votes, or Risen’s 13 473, or The Passion of the Christ’s 180 113. On Rotten Tomatoes 44% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 9 reviews. However, there are too few reviews for the site to report a consensus. Metacritic calculated a score of 32/100 based on 7 reviews. Reviews are therefore quite limited in comparison to other titles. However, positively for the film it received a 4/5 on iTunes and Amazon, though most of those votes would just be the views and opinions of an atheist audience as opposed to outsider views. I also wouldn’t read too much into the Imdb rating of 7 considering Bill Maher’s Religulous received a 7,7. Maher’s documentary is a scholarly disaster considering that it takes the position of Jesus mythicism. In other words, these documentaries seem to be preaching to the choir and the votes reflect that.
4. Run Time.
The documentary is also relatively short since it runs no longer than 77 minutes. Compare that to other documentaries of the likes of The Cove (92 minutes), Food Inc (94 mins), Sicko (123 mins), or Super Size Me (100 mins). I suspect it might come down to the directors and producers probably running out of ideas to full a 90 minute slot. This is quite surprisingly since The Unbelievers features short questions and interviews with many “celebrity” atheists of the likes of Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Michael Shermer, James Randi, Sam Harris etc. Liam Lacey of the Globe and Mail takes a similar stance explaining that “There’s simply not enough time given to any meaningful exchange of ideas” (8).
5. The “Celebrity” Tag.
Moreover, I feel hard pressed to call these people celebrities due to the fact that they are atheists. For example, Gervais and Mahler are celebrities primarily because they are both comedians; Diaz because she’s an actress. I’d say that this would be analogous to Francis Collins, a thorough Christian and geneticist. Collins is widely known because he was the leader of the former successful Human Genome Project and not because he’s a Christian. However, he does have some recognition because he defends belief in God from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective (see his book The Language of God), but that isn’t the real reason he is widely known. On the other hand, Shermer, Harris, and Dennett are known because of their atheism, though it would be a stretch to call them “celebrities.” A celebrity is a Justin Bieber or a Lionel Messi with millions of fanatic fans. Harris and co. are only known by a low number of Christians (Christians who only care to be interested which would be minimal at best) and perhaps a fair number of atheists (not all of them since I’ve asked around). But when one realizes atheists are a minority, though a growing American population, the followership of these people isn’t as high as some claim it to be. Dawkins is certainly the most widely recognized atheist in the world for his atheism, but he is hardly a Lionel Messi in terms of popularity. A better term to settle with would be “popular atheists.”
One atheist concedes that The Unbelievers is “a 70 minute self-hooray, which was even for me as an atheist just too annoying after a while… Instead we get a lot of pointless montages with bad cuts, where someone says something and the crowd goes nuts.” It has also been dubbed a “back-patting fest,” whereas the words of a further reviewer Gillan are quite pertinent, “Dawkins and Krauss do make for easy viewing, especially Krauss whose charisma nicely offsets Dawkins dry and erudite persona. The whole film though, is little more than a superficial atheist love-in” (1).
There is also little interaction with opposing views since “The closest we get to an opposing point of view is the painfully cringe worthy discussion between Dawkins and the Catholic Cardinal of Sydney on Australian TV. Of the brief clips shown, Dawkins wins hands down, not because of his great mind, but rather because the Cardinal struggles to make any coherent arguments. It’s designed to illustrate just how clueless religious people are in the face of scientific reason” (2). Lacey also notices this, “the ease with which the scientists demolish a Muslim debater in Canberra and an ill-informed archbishop in Sydney is not impressive, though both Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) and Krauss (A Universe from Nothing) seem exceedingly self-satisfied” (9). This I take to be hardly rational, mostly dishonest, and also ironic. These popular atheists are so much about elevating themselves as being “rational” and “openminded” but then, at the same time, they tackle less than competent religious and Christian opposition. How is that fair on the opposition or to the self given tag of rational? Let’s not forget that Dawkins refused to debate the leading Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. If such a debate was a reality I’m pretty sure Craig would make Dawkins look far less than competent in philosophy and probably even in the scientific domain itself. And I doubt any clips from that would make it into this self-congratulatory documentary.
7. The Usual Arrogance.
Atheistic arrogance is one reason of several that I cite on why atheism remains such a minority worldview. The documentary isn’t, hardly surprisingly, any different to what one would expect. Whatever these popular atheists get their hands on, or wherever they turn up, arrogance tags along whether that be at, or in, Reason Rally’s, Blasphemy Day’s, National Conventions, books, lectures and speeches et al.. Gillan identifies this as the documentary’s biggest flaw, “The film’s arrogant cockiness might please loyal Dawkinites, but it is its biggest flaw. By presenting science as the great hope for mankind and Dawkins and Krauss as overflowing fountains of rational wisdom, it offers little to persuade those who are not fully signed up to the cause to reconsider their ways” (3). Or consider the words of Lawrence Krauss in an interview concerning his role, “More and more people are coming to realize that they can think for themselves. It’s amazing to discover that you’re wrong. In fact, it’s liberating. It’s not a threat. It opens your mind” (4).
Such certainty in terms of what Lawrence espouses is the very thing that fuels such arrogance in the first place. It’s the typical mentality of “I’m right” and “you’re wrong,” and because you disagree with me you’re deluded and closed minded. I suppose such fundamentalism isn’t monopolized by religions contrary to the claims of atheists. Religious believers will also find it insulting for Krauss to insinuate that they can’t think for themselves. Many religious believers will actually claim that it is precisely their critical thinking that has convinced them to embrace a religion and reject atheism. One could hardly charge Francis Collins, William Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Tina Beattie, Richard Swinburne, Alister McGrath etc. as not being critical thinkers. They’re all leaders in their fields and all of them embrace Christianity’s truth claims. Quite illuminating in this regard is former atheist turned priest and scientist Alister McGrath who explains that “Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain” (5).
Then Krauss insinuates that atheists are openminded unlike religious people. This is very much analogous to the problematic “freethinker” concept. I contend that this is very naive for several reasons. Firstly, atheists themselves, like all people, are bound by their own atheistic presuppositions and biases. Such atheists like Krauss and Dawkins are subject to their own anti-religious dogmas. Being an atheist doesn’t somehow exempt one from this. Secondly, many if not most atheists, would hold to determinism. On such a view, namely that atheists are more “openminded” than others, would be illusory since their own thoughts, actions, and dreams are solely determined by genetics, background, and environment. Fellow apologist Daniel Wallace captures this rather well. He says he would point out to the atheist in question whether or not he is “free to consider the possibility that if you were right, and you and your brain are merely the result of matter in motion acting in law like fashion according to biochemistry and physics, you could never know it because you were physically determined to reach that conclusion and had no choice? Isn’t “that” more dogmatic, unreasonable and locked in than free thinkers who have a real foundation that allows them to believe they can reach valid conclusions based on free will, evidence, and reason?” (6)
9. Monopolizing Science.
In the same interview Richard Dawkins explains that “Science is wonderful, truth is wonderful, reality is wonderful. People need to appreciate reality and not hide behind the smokescreen of superstition.” In the documentary a commentator, obviously supportive of Dawkins and Krauss puts it this way, “I see two men out there promoting a scientific worldview [which] is something of great value.
This is the usual attempt to equate science with atheism which I find problematic. Science does not, nor ever will, equate to atheism. Religion, to Dawkins, is obviously the “superstition” and the “smokescreen” behind which many people hide. Firstly, science by itself no more supports atheism than it does Hinduism or Islam. Science isn’t equipped to answer the philosophical questions that underpin religions and worldviews such as atheistic naturalism. Dawkins, who is supposed to be such a man of science, is also terribly naive (a good example would be my analysis of a letter he penned to his daughter). What science works from is the assumption of methodological naturalism which can be said to be congruent with a naturalistic worldview although it is certainly not the same thing in the philosophical sense. Science essentially entertains natural causes and rules out any causes that are not natural. But that is a very different thing to the sort of naturalism Dawkins espouses. Dawkins holds to a philosophical naturalism of which science cannot speak to since such a view involves questions of purpose, life after death, freewill, ethics, meaning etc.; subjects that all transcend science’s domain. One would think that Dawkins would know this but it would seem that his atheistic prejudices warp such an ability.
10. Giving the Wrong Impression.
The documentary is also ironic in the sense that really seems to promote and own that of which it so dislikes. Gillan captures this in saying that “Instead, the film goes out of its way to build Dawkins and Krauss up as modern-day messiahs who have come to save us all from the shackles of religion, presenting a one-sided proclamation that science has defeated religion without providing any suggestion that they may not be 100 per cent correct on this assumption” (7). Thus, although atheism is not a religion its adherents come over as being very religious to onlookers. As Gillan realizes, it is this “brand of atheism, at least as the documentary portrays it, [that] leaves me cold. It relies on an intellectual snobbery that confidently believes it has a monopoly on the truth to put down and belittle those who think differently.” This matches religious fundamentalists to a tee. So, in such a way atheist fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists share quite a bit in common. Ethan Alter of Film Journal International aptly concludes, “The Unbelievers winds up being almost as insular as any dogmatic religious group. Instead of opening viewers’ minds, it’s just preaching to the choir” (10).
1. Gillan. 2014. The Unbelievers – Richard Dawkins’ New Film Makes Me Want to Believe in God. Available.
2. Gillan. 2014. Ibid.
3. Gillan. 2014. Ibid.
4. Kennedy, J. 2013. Dawkins, Krauss Have Faith in ‘The Unbelievers.’ Available.
5. McGrath, A. Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond. Available.
6. Personal correspondence with Daniel Wallace on Facebook.
7. Gillan. 2014. Ibid.
8. Lacey, L. 2014. The Unbelievers: Doc on the debate between science and religion is almost comically superficial. Available.
9. Lacey, L. 2014. Ibid.
10. Alter, E. 2013. Film Review: The Unbelievers. Available.
11. Brenner, J. 2014. The Unbelievers. Available.