Documentaries, ordinarily, explore some issue. The tackle a big question or wrestle with hidden aspects of some individual. Unbelievers is no ordinary documentary.
Despite being an atheist, I didn’t have high expectations for this film. Pop-atheists are an annoying breed of irrational non-thinkers. Slogans replace critical thought as the pop-atheists try to craft and protect their self image. They are the enlightened ones, rejecting dogma and authority. They are the rational ones, rejecting superstition and fairytales. They are the inheritors of a bright, new, secular future where science is the peak of human endeavour.
Richard Dawkins has struggled with his public image in recent years. An embarrassing history of bizarre comments about abortion, Islam, and honey has eclipsed his history as a leading public intellectual increasing public knowledge of evolution. In year seven, I was inspired by his books on science and hoped for a later career in science.
I struggle to see that writer in the man Richard Dawkins has become, and I hoped that Unbelievers would reconnect me with that childhood faith.
Unbelievers is an incompetent waste of film. The director, Gus Howldera, is a virtual unknown and seems more starstruck than analytical in his presentation of Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. Most of the film is establishing shots: highways, roundabouts, airports. The result is an eerie sense of loneliness. Here are two men who roam from hotel to hotel. Their interactions are with adoring fans who see nothing more than the two-dimensional mouthpiece of atheist slogans. But the hotel rooms are always empty. There’s little human affection — Dawkins seems hesitant to accept a hug from Krauss at an airport.
There are no women in their world. Krauss talks about Miley Cyrus’ Twitter feed, licking his reptilian lips, but femininity is entirely absent. There’s nothing gentle about their world — they exist only to preach to the converted, they exist only to attack the stupid, they exist only to reassure their adoring public. This is a nightmarish half-life, but only Dawkins seems to be aware that there’s something missing from his world.
As the film progresses, the difference between Dawkins and Krauss becomes increasingly clear. Dawkins just has wrong assertions, but he thinks through their implications, adapts them in light of new ideas, to come at completely incorrect conclusions. Krauss, on the other hand, buffoonishly repeats slogans. It’s like an episode of Pinky and the Brain.
But we never really get inside the heads of these two guys. We don’t know what makes them tick. They just agree with each other and smugly talk about religious opponents they’ve vanquished in the past. But there’s clearly something going on with Dawkins — a sad moment when this old man falls asleep reading on his laptop, the sun setting behind him.
What we do know is that they are never going to change their opinions. Being open to change is something they demand of their opponents; they’re not interested in exploring their own intuitions. Commonsense is garbage, they say, which is why we need scientists. Yet their crutch-like reliance on commonsense to muddle their way through difficult areas of philosophy is never questioned. They never explore the foundations of their beliefs. Their role is to echo, not to inquire. These are fundamentally incurious people, willing to accept at face value that which they intuit to be true.
This results in some (I suspect) unintended strangeness. After a sequence of snippets where Dawkins and Krauss interview each other, are interviewed by men, then engage in sham debates with other men, then walk among overwhelmingly male fans, the film criticises Muslims for their treatment of women. ‘Where are the women?!’ shout the mostly male audience at a bunch of Muslim protesters. After a series of soundbites from Krauss preaching at a mass of atheists huddling in the rain, followed by Dawkins reading chapter and verse at the same event, it cuts to Christian street preachers being heckled by an atheist throng. Did Howldera intend to suggest that Dawkins and Krauss were just like the people they were denouncing? That seems too intelligent for this film.
The sheer lack of depth to this film makes me think fairly sinister thoughts about its motive. Was this anything other than an unabashed dash for cash? Who is the intended audience of this film? It’s clearly not the believer who wants a better understanding of atheists — all they will see is the most obnoxious aspects. It’s not the atheist who wants to get a better understanding of the intellectual problems with atheistic belief — there’s no exploration of issues at all. It has to be the people who already agree with everything Dawkins and Krauss already say, but what are they getting here that they haven’t already purchased five times before?
Pop-atheism now works more like a televangelist company than a serious intellectual movement. People pay fabulous amounts of money to be a member of Dawkins’ fan club. It is hard to see this film as yet another way to monetise disaffected people. People don’t pay money to have their views challenged, and this film will not challenge anybody’s beliefs.
Which leads me quite naturally to the most worrying aspect of this film: the consistent message is that everybody is welcome to be a membership-paying atheist, no matter how stupid, wrongheaded, obnoxious, and out right incorrect your reasons are for being an atheist. The celebrity comments that open and end the film are the ten most painful minutes of 2014, and I was hospitalised earlier this year when my guts erupted. Cameron Diaz, Tim Minchin, Ricky Gervais, et alia, all think that they are making insightful, intelligent, and witty comments, but it is like listening to nails scratching down a blackboard. Minchin perhaps takes the award for the stupidest comment, claiming that empirical science is a neutral starting point from which to begin discussions. Science, apparently, occurs in a prelinguistic vacuum free of ideological commitments and springs up from the ground self-evidently justified. Oh, wait. No it isn’t, which is why we spend so much time and effort trying to work out why empirical evidence works. It is complicated and difficult to be an atheist, but none of these nitwits wants to engage with that beautiful intellectual history.
Pop-atheists hate dissent because that would require them to engage with ideas and they no longer have the requisite skills. As a result, Unbelievers is a vapid romp through a world where Krauss and Dawkins are worshipped by a fevered bunch of cretins. Avoid this film.