Movie Review: The Nature of Existence

(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.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew Hall

    Sounds interesting. The problem with the interview format is that it’s just a buch of talking heads so I can see why giving crazy people more screen time would make the piece more appealing to a general audience.

  • Leon

    I can see where it might seem a sad omission that he didn’t ask the oh-so-tempting question “How do you know that?”, but when I think about it, it would complicate his interviews substantially. A lot of interviewees might get belligerent and uncooperative, which kind of puts an end to the useful part of an interview. And those who responded honestly to the question would mostly give unsatisfying answers (“I know He’s there”, “I feel it in my heart”, “It’s written in the Bible”, etc.) which just beg for follow-up questions that might make these interviewees uncooperative as well.

    I do wish more people would ask “How do you know that?”, but I can see why he didn’t do it in this movie.

  • Rieux

    Well, Leon, he could have saved that question for last. If Nygard is finished getting the discussion he needs for the film, it wouldn’t be a big deal if a subject reacted badly to “How do you know that?”.

  • Paul

    How does Ann Druyan find happiness?

  • Ebonmuse

    How does Ann Druyan find happiness?

    Loosely paraphrasing, since I don’t have the disc in front of me at the moment – the beauty and wonder of science, the company of family and friends, and smoking large amounts of marijuana. :)

  • jack

    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.

    I think this is really what the film is all about. At least, that’s how I took it. I found this DVD completely by chance in our local library a couple of weeks ago and picked it up without having heard anything about it. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it, because it’s consistently entertaining and funny. She had been preached to by Brother Jed, in person, during our grad school days many years ago, so that alone aroused interest. She’s also an apatheist and normally falls asleep during documentaries that have anything to do with religion. This one kept her awake and laughing. How can you not love “Wrestling for Jesus” and “Drag-racing for Jesus”?

    Anyway, in a coincidence that any believer would instantly recognize as a sign from God, a few days after we watched that video I went off to a day-long Humanist conference here in San Diego, and there in the flesh was Roger Nygard, giving a talk and hawking his DVD! I told him what’s in the preceding paragraph, and he said he wanted to reach people by making them laugh and by being gentle.

    I give it two thumbs up!

  • CharlesInSoCal

    Calvin and Hobbes explain why we’re here.