“There are no scientific authorities,” the physicist Lawrence Krauss says at the top of The Unbelievers. While there are certainly scientific experts, Krauss says that no expert should be above questioning. So why, then, do so many of us make religion off-limits from critical inquiry and ridicule? Why are we threatened when our religion is challenged by evidence? Are we truly willing to believe something that is wrong just because it may make us feel better?
The Unbelievers is a documentary film which aims to illuminate these very issues. It follows evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world spreading a message of science and reason in opposition to religion and superstition. With a runtime of just slightly over an hour, our subjects have their work cut out for them from the very beginning.
Krauss, with an executive producer credit on the film, comes off as slightly more likable than the often sour Dawkins, and probably with more screen time as well, though he is a lesser known public intellectual. He is shown walking through a crowd at the Reason Rally shaking hands, taking pictures with admirers, and seems always to be wearing a brightly colored pair of low-top Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. You can’t help but be drawn to the guy.
But give Dawkins his due as well. While he does glare incredulously at a religious leader who misinterprets evolution during a debate, and can come across as somewhat grumpy at times, he speaks with reverence of “the poetry of reality,” and with an eloquent turn of phrase alternately commands an audience’s every attention, then quickly sends them into passionate applause. His is a rare gift, and it speaks to both his knowledge and incredible charisma that he has been at the forefront of the science vs. religion debate for so long.
Then again, why shouldn’t Dawkins be angry? I’m downright pissed myself. Whether some of us want to admit it or not, religion is a force which does a great deal of harm. It leads to the cover-up of child sexual abuse, to the witch hunts of Salem in the 1600s, and the Inquisition, to name a few. And let’s not forget the ultimate faith-based initiative of recent memory: the horrific events of September 11th, 2001.
Sure, there are positive elements to religion as well. Religious people will say that they get their morality from their holy books. They learned to be kind to one another, or to give to the poor and support charities. These are good things, I agree. But do we need to believe in a timeless, undetectable wizard in the sky to do them? We don’t. We should do them simply because they are good, not for some perceived reward we may believe we will get in the afterlife. Besides, if you are only being kind because you want a reward, are you really all that moral anyway?
In keeping with the theme that no expert should go unchallenged, there are scenes in the film in which Dawkins and Krauss are at odds, which I enjoyed. Dawkins, for instance, speaks openly about his lack of trust in politicians who do not accept science, comparing them to a physician who believes babies come from storks. Krauss, in opposition, feels that there is a certain degree of privacy that should be respected in these matters. Provided, say, a politician does not wear his supernatural religious beliefs on his sleeve (and if the physician can successfully remove a spleen despite his ignorance of sexual reproduction) they are better kept out of public discourse.
Overall, though, this film was a mixed bag for me. While there are plenty of interesting conversations that occur which left me with food for thought, there was also a noticeable absence of direction. What you will see in The Unbelievers is a collection of vignettes of two scientists talking about science and atheism, both with each other and assembled audiences. What you won’t see, however, is any kind of linear direction or theme that keeps the film moving forward. You could literally re-edit it in a completely different order, and have the exact same experience while watching it. It is a movie that says a lot, but never actually leads anywhere.
As an “unbeliever” myself, this was a documentary I was very much looking forward to seeing. While there is much about it I enjoyed, in the end its shortcomings were too big to ignore, and ultimately held it back from becoming the film it should have been.