Intellectuals on a Mission
‘The Unbelievers’ Chronicles Road Tripping Scientists Promoting Reason
Two years ago, a pair of scientists set off on a barnstorming tour to save the world from religion, promote science and reason, and sell a few books.
Their adventure is now the subject of “The Unbelievers,” a documentary out just in time for Christmas, opening for a week in Manhattan on Friday.
If you think a road trip with a pair of intellectuals wielding laptops is likely to lack drama, you haven’t been keeping up with the culture wars. A reviewer in The Los Angeles Times called it “a high-minded love fest between two deeply committed atheistic intellectuals and their rock-star-like fan base.”
The Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of this road movie — alas, there is no Dorothy Lamour — are Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, recently retired from the post of professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University, and Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State University. They are among the most outspoken of the “new atheists”: scientists and other intellectuals who have tired of having sand kicked in their faces by the priests and mullahs of the world. So the scientists are indeed mobbed like rock stars at glamorous sites like the Sydney Opera House. Inside, they sometimes encounter clueless moderators; outside, demonstrators condemning them to hellfire. At one event, a group of male Muslim protesters are confronted by counterprotesters chanting, “Where are your women?” In between, there are airports and taxi rides and endless cups of coffee.
They make an engaging, if contrasting, couple. Dr. Dawkins, perhaps the world’s best-known atheist after the success of his books “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion,” cuts a dapper figure, often in a suit and flowery tie, a shock of silver hair falling across his forehead. “Science is wonderful; science is beautiful,” he says in that irresistible English accent. “Religion is not wonderful; it is not beautiful. It gets in the way.”
Dr. Krauss, the author of “A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing,” is more rumpled, peppery and casual; his wardrobe often features red sneakers. He comes across as a tireless fount of ideas and quips, with a puppy-dog enthusiasm for science and the spotlight, dancing on the stage in one affecting moment and eager to provoke. At one point, Dr. Krauss asks his companion which he would prefer: “a chance to explain science or destroy religion?”
He is blessed with a professional’s sense of comedic timing.
“I’ve told you that you are far more insignificant than you ever thought,” he tells an audience, after explaining that the universe can spring from nothing, with no recourse to a God or a miracle. “And that’s what I want you to celebrate,” he continues, to laughter. Instead of being depressed or looking to God to give your life meaning, “You create your own meaning and enjoy your moment in the sun,” he says. Gus Holwerda, the movie’s director and co-writer with his brother Luke and Dr. Krauss, said he got the idea after attending a symposium in 2009 on the subject of origins, organized by Dr. Krauss. The university auditorium was packed and sold out for 12 hours of talks by scientists like Dr. Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.
“I was like a fan boy, ranting and raving,” Mr. Holwerda recalled. “We’ve been in bands. It felt very rock ‘n’ roll in a way.” He pestered Dr. Krauss to make what he called a rock-tour film about science.
As it happened, Dr. Krauss had just arranged a book tour of Australia with Dr. Dawkins. Dr. Krauss found funding for the film, which made him a producer.
So off they went for six months, Australia to England and points in between. This is a road warrior movie. True to its intended genre, there are many airports and hotels, lugging of laptops and scenes in quiet backstage rooms that end with the passage into warm thunderous applause by the audience. A few quips and we’re off again on another airplane, helped along by a lively soundtrack, gazing out the window at another set of clouds and landscapes.
You don’t need to know much about biology or physics to follow what amounts to highlight reels of the speeches the scientists gave, although an explanation by Dr. Dawkins about why there was no “first man” or “first rabbit” could be worth the price of your ticket.
Evolutionary change is simply too slow and imperceptible for humans to notice, he says, adding, “Nobody ever goes to bed middle-aged and wakes up and says, oh no I’m old.”
Nor should you expect to hear much about the other side of the culture wars, either from the religious establishment or from scientists and thinkers who argue that the new atheists are too abrasive or naïve about theology and philosophy.
Dr. Krauss’s last book received a rocky reception from some philosophers, who said it left unanswered where the laws of physics themselves came from.
George V. Coyne — an astronomer, Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory, now a professor of religion at Le Moyne College in Syracuse — wrote in a 2000 book on religion and the evolution of life, for example, that the success of modern science has trapped many of us into thinking of God as explanation, thus the notion of finding the “mind of God” as the ultimate goal.
But he wrote, “We know from Scripture and from tradition that God revealed himself as one who pours out himself in love and not as one who explains things.” God, he goes on, is primarily love: “Even if we discover the ‘Mind of God,’ we will not have necessarily found God.”
In the lectures presented here, however, Dr. Krauss and Dr. Dawkins are preaching mostly to the converted — or if you like, the unconverted — people hungry for plain, honest talk about the universe and the plight of humans in it.
The movie ends at the Reason Rally in Washington, billed as the largest convention of atheists in history. Dr. Dawkins looks out at the crowd standing in a light rain and pronounces it “the most incredible sight I can remember ever seeing.”
Dr. Dawkins, who we have seen earlier speculating on which recent American presidents were secret atheists, declares that too many people have been cowed out of coming out as atheists, secularists or agnostics. “We are far more numerous than anybody realizes,” he said.
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FFRF recently halted the practice of compelling convicted offenders to attend Miracle Lake Christian Training Center and other similar institutions as a condition of probation in Tennessee. Forced attendance for probation did not offer alternate non-religious, non-spiritual treatment options.
FFRF, a state/church watchdog from Madison, Wis., has over 20,000 members nationwide with over 300 in Tennessee.
FFRF received a complaint from an offender in Tennessee and sent letters to the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole on Feb. 22 and the Department of Corrections on May 9 and July 12.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott explained that the core components and philosophy of the Miracle Lake Christian Training program are religious in nature since it is comprised of five phases: repentance, faith, mind renewal, life in the church and “life beyond.”
Elliott wrote that state must offer non-religious options, and explained why religious programs can be detrimental:
"Our organization receives a substantial number of complaints about religious drug treatment programs. Our complaints often express concern that they are being subjected to religion and pressure to conform to the religious practices of such support groups rather than receiving neutral, scientific assistance. Many describe experiencing ostracism after abstaining from participation in such overtly religious acts."
Derrick D. Schofield, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction (DOC), sent FFRF a letter on Aug. 22 stating,
"I can assure you that the state of Tennessee and its agencies of government are committed to the lawful separation of church and state and of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to practice religion as each citizen sees fit. That right includes the freedom to refrain from the practice of any religion or to be forced to attend any religious programming against their will."
Schofield added that the DOC acknowledged its responsibility to offer non-religious treatment alternatives.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.