There’s an argument to be made that atheists are one of the last groups of people (along with vegetarians and gingers) that you can still verbally discriminate against without fear of reprisal from society’s yappy watchdogs. “Hate” speech against Christians, African Americans, midgets, or the obese will be quickly and publicly chastised, if not charged with legal action, but atheists can be derided with little to no backlash. A 2011 North American study found that non-believers are considered less trustworthy than just about every other option, from Muslims and Jews to feminists and homosexuals. The only other group (in the study) to come close to that same level of mistrust? Rapists.
Not so coincidentally, recent years have seen a surge in high profile and very vocal opponents to religion, faith, and the concept of creation. Christopher Hitchens found a late-career boon from the topic, Bill Maher welcomes every opportunity to crack wise against the faithful, and Ricky Gervais seemingly started a Twitter account solely for the purpose of annoying religious folks incapable of finding the “Unfollow” button.
Journalists and comedians aside, there have also been more than a few scientists willing to wade into the very messy pool of public opinion to express their own. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and Lawrence Krauss is a theoretical physicist, and both have become regulars on the lecture circuit and bestseller lists thanks to their arguments against religion in the face of what science has to offer. The Unbelievers follows the duo along 2012’s “Something from Nothing?” tour featuring them in shared conversation on the topic of science offering answers (both factual and theoretical) where religion can only demand faith.
“I contend that we are [all] atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” ‐ Stephen Roberts
An inordinate amount of the film, and possibly of the duo’s tour, takes place in Australia where there seems to be a somewhat more receptive culture to the ideas they’re pushing. After a brief intro we see Dawkins debating an Australian archbishop while Krauss tackles a Muslim college professor before the pair meet up to compare notes and move on to the next engagement. Dawkins is clearly the bigger draw, but they’re both very much at home on the stage presenting their thoughts and ideas to roomfuls of curious and frequently rapt onlookers.
And that’s pretty much it.
Imagine Steve Coogan’s The Trip but with fewer laughs, meals, impressions, or emotional implications. We change location, they converse with each other or an audience, we change location, they converse some more. Both men are interesting, and as evidenced by their works elsewhere they have a lot to say, but it frequently feels like instead of the real meat of the subject we’re being asked to survive off the aftertaste alone.
Woody Allen opens the film with a quote recycled from one of his own films (“Everyone knows the same truth, and our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.” Deconstructing Harry), but he’s far from the only recognizable talking head featured here. Some, like Stephen Hawking, Sarah Silverman, and Gervais, make a certain amount of sense, but what are we to make of the presence of Bill Pullman and Cameron Diaz? The film runs a brisk 77 minutes, and it seems disingenuous to give so much of it over to “celebrities” who lack a scientific background and instead simply espouse opinions the same as anyone else.
Dawkins is well known for his aggressive stance on the subject to the point that he’s been accused of being no better than a pushy proselytizer himself, but the only evidence of that here is Krauss calling him out on it as their first disagreement. Krauss suggests to Dawkins that he’d have better success with his argument if he didn’t begin by telling people everything they believe is wrong. The Brit replies that sometimes people need to have their intelligence insulted. YouTube is filled with examples of him doing just that, but there’s none of it to be found here.
The highlight instead becomes the film’s final act where we visit 2012’s Reason Rally in Washington D.C. where 30,000 people showed up to hear Dawkins, Krauss, and others (including Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Eddie Izzard, James Randi, Adam Savage) speak on the subject of reason and rational thought in the face of fundamentalism and the religious majority. “How is it necessary to have a rally for reason? How can anyone rally against reason?” They’re legitimate questions, particularly with the knowledge that the event wasn’t covered by any of the major news networks.
Ultimately, and especially for a film dedicated to the wonderfully ornery and cantankerous Christopher Hitchens, this is a remarkably tame and toothless affair. There’s little in the way of quotable barbs to be savored and used in discussions, and, snippets of a debate and a few minutes with protesters aside, there’s no time here for opposing viewpoints either. Instead we only see Dawkins and Krauss preaching to the choir (so to speak) and being praised in return. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as we still get a tantalizing glimpse into their ideas, and for many viewers it may be enough to get them to pick up one of the duo’s many books on the subject. (This is only slightly suspect when you discover that Krauss is both a co-writer and executive producer on the film…)
The Unbelievers isn’t designed to sway opinions or shatter beliefs and instead seems content simply shining a light on two men who’ve taken it upon themselves to stand up for not just what they believe, but what they know. Or at least what they believe they know.
The Upside: Interesting topic; Krauss is charismatic and unafraid to stand up to Dawkins when necessary
The Downside: Lacks bite; lacks conflict; surprisingly short runtime; weird selection of talking heads who don’t matter
On the Side: Director Gus Holwerda is in a band with his brother Luke called Smokescreen, and they provide most of the film’s music tracks.