This evening I saw the world premier of The Unbelievers, a documentary that follows a speaking tour of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. As a super added bonus, Dawkins and Krauss were there and spoke and answered questions after the screening. Wow, am I starry eyed over Richard Dawkins! He is perhaps the most well known evolutionary biologist alive. I’ve read three of his books (The Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype, and The God Delusion) and they are of my favorite books ever. I find his clarity of thought and consistent brilliance inspiring and enlightening. Anyways, on to the film.
The director of the Unbelievers said before the showing that it was a “rock ‘n roll tour film”. This of course makes Krauss and Dawkins the rock stars–I think that designation is appropriate! The witty charisma of Dawkins and Krauss were the primary strength of the film, which essentially is a series of soundbites of them talking about religion, science, and atheism. (I would have preferred to see more deep conversations and debates because this approach was fairly superficial, but I suppose atheist evolutionary biologist (like myself) are not the target audience.) At one point Dawkins is shown debating an Australian priest on TV and the priest asked something like “if evolution is non-random can you explain how it results in life”. Dawkins immediately answers, with his British wit, “of course I can, it is my life’s work”. The audience cheered.
The films follow Krauss and Dawkins as they speak at halls, conventions, and other events. A common theme was the general distrust and disregard of atheist in societies. For example, they discuss a poll where atheist are as distrusted as rapist! Gesh, no wonder why only one member of congress has admitted to being atheist. The final speech by Krauss was at an atheist rally attended by 8,000-10,000 people in Washington DC. Never heard about it? Well, apparently not a single major news outlet covered it.
This film is bookended with short statements supporting science, atheism, and critical thinking by a series of celebrities: Sara Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin (a bit of this song was in the film), Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz and others. There were definitely lots of good statements in there. One I remember was Ricky Gervaise saying something like “on twitter I often get people saying ‘everyone has the right to their opinion, but you should just keep it to yourself'”, this in reference to outspoken atheist. “That pretty much sums it up right there” he said.
There is one conversation in the film that stuck with me. Krauss and Dawkins were discussing a disagreement about their techniques to persuade people to think critically and dispose of their delusions. It seems Dawkins won Krauss over in being more confrontational. Krauss then said, in support of Dawkins’ approach, that pedagogically it is an effective technique to confront people’s misconceptions. This seems logical to me as long as the person you are trying to persuade has at least some capacity for open mindedness. For staunch believers this approach will likely to be contentious.
Dawkins has always been willing to anger some in order to be maximally factual and compelling. I think in a world where blind belief, misconceptions, cognitive dissonance, and a general disregard for evidence and pragmatism are rampant, we desperately need people who are willing to be contentions in order to promote truth. The problems human societies face are too grave to subtly and politely tiptoe around people’s delusions. For me, this was the take home of the film.