The Unbelievers isn’t a documentary, it’s hubris of the highest order

The Unbelievers isn’t a documentary, it’s hubris of the highest order October 16, 2014

Let me begin by making one point clear: Unlike many of my peers, I really like the New Atheists. I’ve read numerous books and articles by them, watched countless talks and debates, interacted with some of them online (PZ Myers and Steven Pinker), and I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting a couple of them in person (Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett). Their challenges to religion and their advocacy of science and a rational, fact-based approach to reality has been one of the biggest influences on my life over the past decade, helping to purge much of the dross from my thinking. Rather than the sharp rocks at the bottom of the cliff, I see them more like an anvil upon which my approach to religion, science, violence and so many other topics has been forged.

With that in mind, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was really looking forward to watching The Unbelievers, ever since I first caught wind of the trailer a year or so ago.

In case you’ve never heard of the film, The Unbelievers follows Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss as they travel the globe attempting to win people over to their view of the world, which involves casting off religion and embracing reason and science in its place.

A brief caveat: Appearances to the contrary, I don’t buy Krauss and Dawkins’ schtick at all. While I am certainly a huge advocate for science and an evidence-based approach to reality, and I definitely agree that many of the forms religion takes are toxic and dangerous, the relationship between science, religion and philosophy is far more complicated than they realize or let on. That said, I find their arguments both challenging and intriguing as I sort through these issues.

So there I was on Saturday night, all geared up to finally watch the film on Netflix. However, I was put off almost immediately by a string of celebrity endorsements that preceded the  film. Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz (?), Steven Hawking, and my cinematic hero, Werner Herzog. These were all shot in black-and-white, which the film was not, so they were most likely filmed after the fact. Not a good sign. It told me the film was probably seen as lacking something in early screenings, so someone ran out and got this content in order beef it up in terms of length and/or credibility. That feeling was confirmed when I realized the film is actually bookended with these endorsements, with more showing up at the end. (Even with all the endorsements, the film is only 73 minutes long, including credits.) I shrugged it off though and settled in to watch the actual film.

It opens with Dawkins and Krauss talking in a cafe, where they set up the stakes, namely, that science and religion are two competing explanations of reality. Science gives us facts, and religion gives us nothing but fantasy. Furthermore, it is inherently destructive. Therefore, if you truly want to encounter the “poetry of reality,” as Dawkins puts it, and prevent the the self-destruction of humankind, religion has to go. With that, they set out into the world to share this “gospel.” The fields are “ripe unto the harvest,” and they plan to win as many converts as possible.

What follows is a series a public speaking engagements and TV and radio interviews in Australia and elsewhere as Dawkins and Krauss speak separately and together, sometimes to hostile interviewers, but almost always to adoring crowds. I can’t tell you how many times Dawkins and Krauss are introduced to the roaring masses, but if you strung together all of the applause in the film you’d probably fill close to ten minutes. When Dawkins and Krauss aren’t being introduced or applauded or lauded (if Dawkins is Darwin’s Rottweiler, Krauss is certainly Dawkins’ lap dog), they’re giving their “greatest hits” in a string of triumphant, REM-fuelled musical montages.

Apart from a belligerent priest who opposes Dawkins in his first TV appearance, the only other opposition they encounter are a street preacher and number of Muslim protestors who are eventually goaded into chanting “In-fi-del! In-fi-del!” Other than these moments, the film has the dreary sound of one hand clapping (or several hands clapping over and over again for our self-appointed saviors).

The film reaches it’s lowest point when Dawkins addresses the Rally for Reason on the mall in Washington, DC. He expresses his joy at seeing so many people turn out in the rain. “One of the most wonderful sights I’ve ever seen!” he exclaims. Clearly, they have arrived. I am atheist, hear me roar! They can’t hold us back any longer! It’s a textbook victim narrative played note for note. We’re mad as hell (not that we believe in hell), and we’re not going to take it any more!

Despite this brief frenzy of self-righteousness (which includes another montage featuring several other noted atheists), the film ends with a whimper as they remind us of the stakes once again. If we don’t get rid of religion, we’re doomed. Thank God we have people like Richard, Lawrence, Penn Jillette (and Cameron Diaz) to show us the light!

Cue the celebrity endorsements and… we’re out.

I hesitate to criticize a fellow filmmaker, and I don’t usually resort to such heavy sarcasm (at least not in print), but for some reason, this film seems to demand such a response. I’ll throw it a bone for some slick production values, but overall, it really feels more like one of those old K-tel music commercials than a feature-length documentary that takes viewers on an intellectual and emotional journey.

Clearly, all sorts of issues regarding science and religion need to be addressed. However, Richard Dawkins has proven over and over again that he is not the man for the job. Krauss may have potential though. Even though he often resorts to a mocking tone, I got the sense that he truly enjoys dialoguing on these issues, that he’s not out simply to crush the opposition.

But if this film can’t even win me over–someone who is absolutely primed to become a fan–I’m afraid it will forever be the sound of one hand clapping on, and on, and on, and on….

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