The “Nones” are on the rise, according to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center.1 In the last 8 years, the number of Americans identifying as non-religious has gone up from 16% to 23%. Although the Nones do not consist exclusively of atheists and agnostics (many profess a belief in some sort of god or spirituality, but eschew traditional religious labels), the study does show there to be a growing number of those who claim to believe in no deity. For this increase in unbelief, partial responsibility must be credited to Professor Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of the 2006 bestseller The God Delusion. Dawkins’ Out Campaign, his debates and lectures, and his emphasis on science over superstition have doubtlessly helped pave the way for plenty of men and women to be more open about their disbelief. More recently, physicist Lawrence Krauss has added his voice to the movement with his 2012 book A Universe From Nothing, and has inspired his own share of newly ‘born again’ non-believers.
The Unbelievers is a 2013 documentary that follows Professor Dawkins and Professor Krauss as they go on tour across Sydney, Phoenix, and London, speaking at packed auditoriums, appearing on television and radio programs, and having brief discussions with one another along the way. Directed by Gus Holwerda, the film also features occasional appearances by other famous atheists, including Stephen Hawking, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Werner Herzog, and Woody Allen, to name a handful. The majority of the show, however, covers the talks and travels of the Dawkins-Krauss duo. The Unbelievers is currently available for streaming on Netflix, as well as for purchase through Amazon.
The Itinerant Preachers of Reason
Celebrity atheists kick off the film gushing over science, skepticism, and critical thinking, setting the stage for the two main men to go about spreading the word. From the very beginning, the unmistakeable vibe of an advertisement or fundraising video is present. Want to know about unbelief? Listen to these popular people tell you how awesome it is! Then sit back and watch the crowd-stirring power of Dawkins and Krauss, trotting into arenas and media stations as if for a heavyweight boxing match. You’ll hear the audience cheer, chant, and applaud, and you’ll get to see both professors proudly and confidently doing what they do best.
Unfortunately, though, there isn’t much else to The Unbelievers, which plays more like a travelogue for a rock band or comedian than as a provocative look at the rise of atheism. Getting some deeper insight into the lives of the leading men would even have made for an intriguing documentary, but this is nothing of the sort. For over an hour, we get Dawkins and Krauss making many of the same quips, claims, and arguments they’ve made in their published writings and other appearances available for free online. Worse still, here in this condensed and edited form their discussions have less context, less eloquence, and less impact. If one has never before seen or heard either scientist speak, this film could be enjoyable and mildly informative. Otherwise, it comes across as rather repetitious and dull. I say this as someone who has not only met both Professor Dawkins and Professor Krauss, but as someone who also hasn’t gorged himself on so much material by the duo as to be over-exposed. Really, if you’ve heard even one or two lectures before this, you’ll find precious little here that is new.
Perhaps most disappointing, however, is the absence of any balanced counter-point to the absolutist remarks of the main mouthpieces. Believers featured in the show are presented as either uneducated imbeciles or raving fanatical protesters. Richard and Lawrence wax lyrical on their devotion to truth, to science, to reality, to free thinking, and to many other favorite buzzwords without the slightest consideration of how perilously close they are to similar rhetorical propaganda uttered by the Religious Right, or to how hotly debated such concepts have been in the history of Western thought. That kind of open conversation may not be what the two want, on the other hand. Near the start of the film Dawkins bemoans a moderator for asking him to clarify some of his comments. He then goes on to speculate that once evolution is properly taught to the faithful, they will abandon their gods with nary a shrug.
What exactly the purpose is behind The Unbelievers is difficult to ascertain. It certainly won’t lead anyone out of their faith, since there is barely a single argument for or against theism covered in it. It doesn’t follow the emergence of New Atheism, nor does it make much effort to paint any particular portrait of the average unbeliever. Even as a promotional effort it’s quite poor, showing what looks a lot like hero worship and scientism, not to mention that it lends a disturbing amount of credence to the ‘atheist evangelist’ tags that were mockingly applied to the Four Horsemen nearly ten years back. If we’re to believe the presentation in the film, this movement hasn’t just been about preaching to the converted, it’s been about cheering on public figures in the same way you show up and support your favorite band at their concert. And maybe this is the essence of the message in the documentary: unbelievers are united and growing.
Still, one can’t help but feel there are better ways of illustrating that message. The last chunk of the movie shows a string of clips from the 2012 Reason Rally, before launching into end credits accompanied by more celebrity atheists sharing their opinions. Sadly, The Unbelievers plays like a B-sides compilation, not capturing enough of the stronger points of either Dawkins or Krauss to warrant even a Greatest Hits collection. If you’re looking for a good documentary on atheism or with Professor Dawkins, check out A Brief History of Disbelief and The Atheism Tapes. For Professor Krauss, see his 2009 lecture A Universe From Nothing at no charge on YouTube. Then maybe, if you’re still hankering for more and know what to expect, give this film a try. Though ultimately unimpressive, it is visually appealing, has a decent soundtrack, and can serve as some casual fun.
1. Michael Lipka, A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones’, Pew Research Center (May 13, 2015). Retrieved July 22, 2015.