(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: The documentary equivalent of World Religions 101. Not much new ground is broken in this broad survey of the world’s major belief systems – although there are a few interesting surprises – but what made me happier was the fair hearing given to the atheist and scientific viewpoint in areas that have traditionally been considered the exclusive property of faith.
In The Nature of Existence, filmmaker Roger Nygard embarks on a quest to ask everyone he comes across a set of profound questions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the existence of a soul or an afterlife, and so on. Starting in California, he crosses the country from Texas and Alabama to New York and Boston, stopping to speak with the people he meets along the way. These interviews tend to have more of a rambling, spontaneous character. The second half of the film, where he embarks on a globe-trotting trip to England, Vatican City, Israel, China and India with the intent of meeting representatives of some of the world’s major religions, is more structured and, I thought, tighter and more interesting.
There are a few instances where a hint of skepticism comes through, like the segment where Nygard tries to set up a meeting with the Pope, and is told that His Holiness will be happy to talk with him for 20 or 30 minutes… in exchange for a donation of $20,000. But for the most part, the interviews are friendly and non-confrontational; Nygard asks his subject a question and lets them say whatever they want, generally without commenting on their answer, before moving on to the next segment. For the most part, these interviews don’t break new ground. Anyone who’s familiar with the religions his interviewees represent will probably know in advance what they’re going to say, although there are a few surprises.
There were a few things about his choice of subjects that annoyed me. As PZ points out, the vast majority of religious interviewees are men – a phenomenon that Nygard doesn’t seem to notice, much less speculate on the reasons for. (The two notable exceptions, a pastor’s wife and a lesbian minister at a GBLT-friendly church in Texas, are the kind that prove the rule.) And although no one interview monopolizes the film, he gives a comparatively large amount of screen time to some of his least interesting and most odious subjects, like a belligerent, sex-obsessed preacher named Brother Jed or the raving homophobe and anti-atheist bigot Orson Scott Card. There are Christians whose views are genuinely interesting, some of whom are also present in the film, but these two aren’t among them.
However, there’s more to the film than just training a camera on bigots and crazies and letting them talk. I was happy to see, unusual for a documentary of this nature, that the scientific perspective is treated fairly and respectfully and presented on equal footing with religious beliefs. Freethought stalwarts like Julia Sweeney, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins and Ann Druyan are prominent among Nygard’s subjects, and the film benefits greatly from their presence. When he asks Ann Druyan how she finds happiness, she gives a hilarious, and no doubt destined to be legendary, answer that I won’t spoil here (but I’ll discuss it in the comment thread if anyone really wants to know). Another of my favorites was the Oxford scientist who said that if he wanted to be rich, he’d write a book with a title like “How Particle Physics Proves the Existence of God” that would be total scientific nonsense, but would sell a million copies and enable him to retire in comfort.
But I think my favorite interview, hands down, was Nygard’s talk with his neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter. She’s bluntly honest, smart as a whip, and an unapologetic atheist! Hearing her discuss her views was worth the price of admission all by itself, and was more intrinsically interesting than any number of shots of the filmmaker climbing the steps of yet another ancient temple.
There was one question that Nygard didn’t ask, and that I found conspicuous by its absence: “How do you know that?” He doesn’t inquire into how his subjects acquired the knowledge they claim to possess, and all the clergy, all the gurus and monks and hermits and shamans and so on, are permitted to pontificate about God, souls, the afterlife, and so on without challenge. I can see the point that this is giving them enough rope to hang themselves, that the more you know about all the world’s enormous diversity of religious traditions, the more difficult it is to believe that any one of them is true to the exclusion of all the rest. But still, it would have been beneficial to contrast the claimed sources of religious knowledge with the tested methods of science and reason. It would have been a most helpful comparison in assisting the film’s audience to make up their own minds about who’s most credible.