The Unbelievers

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.    

28 thoughts on “The Unbelievers

    1. Cool I enjoyed this, and I would recommend it to a friend if I had any, and I agree Richard Dawkins gets his point of view across better than Lawrence Krauss, but who would you most like to be trapped in an elevator with.

  1. I am also torn over how harsh or soft I should be on my theist friends, or Richard Dawkins should be in public. I remember Dawkins being on Chris Hayes show, and saying something like, we should ask Mitt Romney whether he truly believes (ridiculous part of Mormon mythology) and the general reaction from the panel was, and even *I* felt, hey, now, that’s just crossing the line into rude, you don’t do that. Why do we feel that, even when we agree? If a presidential candidate was say a follower of David Icke, would we consider it rude or irrelevant to ask a presidential candidate if he truly believes America is secretly controlled by a race of reptilian shape shifters?

    I hope I can see this film soon, it sounds really interesting. I just hope it’s not too cult-of-personality-y over Dawkins and more about the other stuff like how atheists are treated and regarded in America. Dawkins isn’t a rock star, he’s just a smart sensible guy who goes around writing and talking. It’d be kind of ironic and stupid to turn HIM into a kind of god!

    1. Haha, yeah we should not hold Dawkins up on pedestal. We can enjoy his charisma but that should not keep us from being critical of what he says.

  2. Just as an aside – the clarity of Richard’s thought, and his consistent brilliance, isn’t actually all that consistent or brilliant, outside of the well-groomed persona as a scrupulous rationalist, presented in his books and documentaries.

    Outside of his persona, he is more of a dupe and a bullshitter than you would ever dare imagine – and I think that, despite all his rhetoric about critical thinking and challenging authority – he genuinely expects to be let off the hook for certain misdemeanors on account of the fact that he is, after all, Richard Dawkins.

    Or perhaps he just compartmentalises his own bullshitting so that, in his mind, it doesn’t really count, and therefore doesn’t warrant anyone taking him up on his kind advice to challenge authority boldly and ridicule liars and bullshitters.

    This is a taster of just some of the drivel he talks: http://bit.ly/RvzzBn

    Much, much, much, much more will be made public in due course… and you may be assured that Richard will be in full support of that when it happens, since he positively loves the truth, and reality – according to his rhetoric, anyway!

    1. Specific examples of this “bulshitting” please? That article had nothing to do with him considering himself an unquestionable authority! It’s just criticizing the way he runs his foundation (and I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with that).

      1. It wasn’t just criticising the way he runs/doesn’t run his Foundation – it was also criticising him for bullshitting and being plain negligent about his Foundation’s plans, past and present – and bullshitting about his relationship with the current Executive Director, on whose watch a lot of balls-ups have happened already.

        He still hasn’t answered satisfactorily to those criticisms, and has been characteristically defensive and dismissive via email.

        I didn’t suggest that he thinks himself an “unquestionable authority” – merely that he wants to pick and choose when he applies the standards he preaches, to himself.

        Like I said – more will be made public in due course…

        1. Criticism of how the foundation is run is one thing, and I am in agreement that it should be held up to scrutiny. But really his private life is of no interest. He could be a closet cross-dressing pain fetishist with a penchant for midget porn for all I care – has no bearing on his writing of life changing books and good outreach work.

        2. The reason that Richard Dawkins and others in general agreement with him are so important for the future of mankind is that far too many “Heather Dalgleishs” exhibit their stupidity without public reproach. Stupidity and ignorance are the fundamental cause of most of mankind’s problems. The willingness to believe crap and follow a self serving group without using any degree of empirical based, analytical thinking allows that group to damage mankind’s ability to survive! Over the next few hundred years mankind must solve many extremely complex and potentially extinction-level problems. This can not be done with a significant portion of the human population denigrating analytical thinking in favor of blind faith. We need to adopt three rules – think, think, think.

  3. I was there last night! My first thought about it was that it needed more science. They didn’t actually support any of their statements with factual evidence. But Krauss addressed that in the Q&A session right off the bat – their next film will be about the science, while the point of this one was to spread the message that it’s ok to question and seek answers and there are many of us out there doing just that. My second thought was that they didn’t present any of the debates – it was just soundbites, mostly theirs, as you said. I would have liked to see what points these theists were arguing and how to respond to them. I suppose that there are many clips like that online, but I was left wanting both science and full discussions after this film. All in all, enjoyable, but I didn’t walk away with anything particularly novel to think about. I did enjoy getting to know these two iconic scientists better, and it did make me want to read more of their work. I look forward to the next film.

    1. I agree completely. I originally wrote something similar to what you said saying that it was entertaining but that I didn’t walk away feeling my thinking was stretched much. However, atheist biologist are surely not their target audience. I too hope they make another more intellectually deep film that more fully reflects their conversations.

      1. Also… I couldn’t stop laughing at Cameron Diaz’s comments. It was sweet of her to be included in the film, but her comments were not as well articulated as everyone else’s.

  4. ” I suppose athiest evolutionary biologist (like myself) are not the target audience”

    ATHEIST!

    8,000 to 10,000????? try over 20,000. I was there. It was AWESOME.

    Are you going to the CFI Canada Brunch too? I am……..

    1. Right, thanks! My fingers never like to type E before I :) Yeah, I though I remember the film saying it was more but I went with the numbers I found in an article. I’m not going to the brunch, let me know how it goes.

  5. This reminds me of a “circle jerk” rather than a serious discussion about egocentrics that have a “god” complex and actually believe they know something that as of now, is unknown.

  6. Having seen many if not all of the clips from the movie, I felt as if I was watching a re-run. I’m not able to remove myself from a feeling of “preaching to the choir”; however I will say this: I am genuinely more interested in the fact that we are beginning to see movies like this sell-out and hit a world-stage, sparking the next phase of conversation, rather than the specific content of the movie itself.

  7. It’s absolutely great to have this debate out from under the covers. But for any “real” debate to begin, Drs. Dawkins and Krauss may need to temper their swagger a bit as the scientific theories they espouse are no more proven than the religious beliefs they disparage. Darwin’s Common Descent Theory of man’s ancestry and LeMaitre’s Big Bang Theory of the universe’s beginning are two of the airiest theories in science’s larder; if these theories upon which these two gentlemen hang their reputations were proven, they would today be called “Laws,” not theories. Despite philosophical, theological and scientific opinions advanced since the birth of the written word, the great mysteries of God, man, the universe and death are no closer today to being unraveled than they were centuries ago…and certainly not an inch closer by the unsubstantiated proclamations of Dawkins and Krauss. They should be given credit, nonetheless, for their boldness in tabling the issues in the public forum. Now let the real debate begin!

    1. Actually, evolution as an explanation for the origins of all life on earth (including humans), is flawlessly supported by mountains of evidence. Denying that is an exercise in blatant and purposeful ignorance.

      1. Beg to differ, Nash. Darwin’s Natural Selection Theory is the one that explains biological evolution in the sense commonly used. I have no problem with it. His Common Descent Theory, on the other hand, is quite different, stating that ALL LIFE on Earth…from man to raspberry bushes…evolved from a single primordial bacterium some 3.5-billion years ago. Science has never been able to show how that so-called “biological ancestor of all life” ever, itself, evolved from the then-inanimate makeup of the planet.

        Dona

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