When Mitt Romney was running for president, and there seemed a reasonable chance that the White House would soon be occupied by a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, much was made of the fact that opinion polls traditionally rank Mormons low on the list of religious denominations tolerated by the American electorate. In fact, the only group that ranks lower is atheists. But compared with atheists, Mormons are Mom, the flag and apple pie. And baseball. And the Fourth of July.
What the ever-frantic, 24-hour news services seldom had time to mention was: 1) who was being polled, 2) how the questions were phrased and 3) whether people really answer polls honestly. If one looks at the gun argument currently raging, there seems a wide disparity between how people answer pollsters and how they actually vote. The newsreaders never got around either to addressing why atheists attract so much loathing among voters or the hypocrisy of it, given that atheism likely exists far more widely than admitted by people in polls or, most assuredly, by members of Congress.
This last point is raised regularly in The Unbelievers, a documentary film that follows the two superstars of neo-atheism—Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, and Larry Krauss, a theoretical physicist/cosmologist—as they tour the world promoting what they consider a reality-based view of the universe and creation. It is a trippy, snappy film, one that digresses regularly into musical montages featuring its subjects in this setting or that, augmented by clever cutaways and the occasional shameless juxtaposition. In one sequence, frothing, fundamentalist Muslims protest at an atheist convention in Melbourne while, inside, the dynamic duo attend a very civilized-seeming cocktail party, replete with string quartet and acolytes; it’s a calculated portrayal of “us” versus “the crazies.”
In introducing his first feature-length film to a packed house at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto recently, the director Gus Holwerda said, “The goal of this film is not to offend anyone, although it certainly will.” He’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks.
The artistic merits of “The Unbelievers” can be summed up pretty easily and just as easily dismissed. Black Chalk Productions, which Holwerda runs out of Phoenix, where Krauss teaches at Arizona State with his brother, Luke, has up until now concentrated on music videos and commercials. One can tell. “The Unbelievers” is worshipful—one might even say idolatrous—in presenting Dawkins and Krauss, who seem to be fairly likable people but are not given a real chance to exhibit their powers of thought or debate, because what they are part of here is a sales pitch.
“We wanted to make a rock and roll movie about science,” Holwerda told the Hot Docs crowd. And that’s what they have done, with all the intellectual rigor one would expect from, say, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” Dawkins is the Anglo Elvis of atheism; Krauss, a native New Yorker, is more like Keith Richards. They swagger, they parry, they deliver the high-brow wisecrack and they nobly co-exist with the handicapped, i.e. those afflicted with the disability of a religious belief system. It is hard to imagine even the atheistically inclined not being put off by the smugness of it all.
It would no doubt pain the participants to hear it, but the audience to whom “The Unbelievers” is targeted is the same that switches to Fox News or MSNBC for its political reporting—to have pre-existing opinions corroborated. There are pronouncements, but no real argument. The one moment when something substantial is about to happen—in a debate on Australian television between Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney—the conversation is prevented from, pardon us, evolving.
“I make it a policy not to debate fundamentalists,” Dawkins says, pre-event, and stating a very sound policy. “But it is my understanding that a cardinal of the Catholic Church is not a fundamentalist. If he is, I have been mistaken.” This seems a bit precious—Dawkins certainly must know that his positions on Darwinism, and those of the Catholic Church, are not miles apart, save for the acknowledgement of a deity. Both, for instance, believe that the universe was created out of nothing. But, of course, this would dilute the image of crusader in which Dawkins drapes himself and which the film promotes.
What is doubly disappointing is how abbreviated the ensuing conversation is. Pell’s question to Dawkins, about the current whereabouts of Neanderthal man—Homo sapiens’s evolutionary cousin—isn’t really on point, but it indicates an other-than-doctrinal willingness to debate Dawkins on his own terms. The filmmakers, however, allow it to go nowhere. (Reports of the actual 2012 debate suggest that neither participant came off particularly well.) In any event, the viewer would like to have been provided more of this, especially given how the usually calm and collected Dawkins confronts Pell with considerably more aggression than seems necessary. You have to wonder what that’s all about.
If we cannot question everything, Krauss says, then we will be living in a world where thinking has stopped. Yes, but the thought processes behind “The Unbelievers” are nothing to get excited about. The filmmakers, who are more than anything else naïve, do not know who their real audience is. The film is introduced with a short parade of stars—Woody Allen, Bill Pullman, Ricky Gervais, Werner Herzog, Cameron Diaz and Stephen Hawking—all weighing in on their belief in nonbelief. It is a pop-culture marketing approach to the infinite. When Dawkins assails Christianity for being a religion based on the “blood sacrifice” of Christ and scapegoating, even someone semiliterate in biblical prophecy and the metaphysics of Scripture wants to hear an opposing viewpoint. And one would love to have seen Krauss in conversation with, say, Hans Küng, rather than talking to people who agree with him or are less than his equals in the subjects of either theology or science. The film also features a clip of an interview with Krauss on “The Colbert Report.” Stephen Colbert’s question—“Why are you attacking my God?”—is about as deeply clever as anything gets in the film, which, again, will leave the very people who will be attracted to its subject matter, and thirst for intelligent debate, parched. Movies are supposed to move us. “The Unbelievers” leaves us frozen in place.