And so mssrs Dawkins and Krauss have come and gone from Belfast with their film “The Unbelievers.” I’d heard a lot about this movie before I saw it, admittedly mostly negative. Interestingly the vast majority of this negative publicity came from atheists. In fact, when I tweeted that I had bought tickets for the event in Belfast – which included a Q & A session with Dawkins & Krauss afterwards – the only people who cautioned me against it were atheists.
So, what did I think of it? To be honest the film wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared, though I guess it was only as good as any ego trip can be. There were several scenes that were quite funny. When Krauss went to debate a Muslim and found that he had some time to kill before the debate started he remarked that: “I think I’ll go and sit down for a while and read my Bible” – showing the camera a copy of Hitchen’s book “God is Not Great.” There were several other comic moments, including the scene where an atheist crowd confronts an all male Islamic protest and begins to chant “Where are all the women!?”
Of course, there were other moments which were intended for comedic effect which made me cringe and, frankly, made those in the movie look a tad ridiculous. Comedian Eddie Izzard addressing the Reason Rally in 2012 provided one such moment. Why doesn’t Izzard believe in God? Well, he attempts to demonstrate by calling on God to come and show himself at the reason rally, “Now would be a good time!” But of course, no response. What does that demonstrate? Nothing other than the fact that Izzard isn’t worth paying attention to on the God question. We had some other tired old clichés too: Ricky Gervais telling us that atheism is only believing in one less God than Christians do. Or consider a rather ugly scene in which a (admittedly uncouth) Christian street preacher was surrounded by a group of atheists, who were yelling at him, and few raised their middle finger at him as he attempted to preach. In the audience many people laughed at this – and it was probably intended to cause that reaction – but what message does that send out about atheists? Surely that’s counter-productive to the “atheists are eminently more reasonable than you” message of the movie?
There were a few other cringe-worthy moments. For example, Dawkins – with puppy dog eyes – telling us that he wants people to fall in love with science just as much as he’s in love with it. Or his rather crass dismissal of certain aspects of Christian theology in a phone interview, betraying a mind with little more than a Sunday school understanding of the doctrines in question. But, since he does it in such a blunt and offensive way it’s funny, right? Perhaps we should also include the fact that every single time a religious person or group were included it was either in the context of a rowdy protest – Muslims yelling that infidels will go to Hell, for instance – or a non-expert being shown up as a fool, as in the case of the Australian archbishop who in his debate with Dawkins remarked that we evolved from Neanderthals. There was no attempt to show engagement with any of the better representatives of theism generally, and there’s little excuse since Krauss and Dawkins have both had better opponents than this movie shows.
But, of course, this kind of bias is very deliberate. The movie is not intended to engage people in the substantive issues. It’s far too light and sound-bitey for that. The movie is more of a rally call to atheists to come out of the closet. The message is “religion is ridiculous, you have nothing to fear; and there are thousands just like us, if only we all spoke out like this.”
There were positives in the movie too. Krauss has a wonderful, almost boyish, enthusiasm for the mysteries of the universe. It’s seriously infectious. When he speaks about the wonders of the universe he’s like a child telling his friend about some new toy. This came out in the Q&A session after the screening also. And in fact the Q&A session really challenged my assumptions about both Krauss and Dawkins. I was expecting – particularly from Dawkins – to hear a certain sneering, condescending, angry tone as he addressed the audience. That didn’t happen. Dawkins was warm and reasonable and very pleasant, and I even found myself liking him. There was one incredibly poignant moment during this session when Dawkins and Krauss spoke of their memories of the late Christopher Hitchens, with Krauss praising how friendly Hitchens was even with people he completely disagreed with on every topic – including, according to Krauss, people that Krauss would have a hard time sharing a room with.
One last bone of contention that irritated me throughout the movie and the Q&A was the constant equating of atheism with reasonableness. In fact on one occasion we were offered the contrast between God and evolution as if those aren’t compatible, and totally oblivious to the fact that there are several theistic arguments from evolution to the existence of God. Anyhow, the big assumption seemed to be that “we atheists are reasonable, if you want to be reasonable too you’ll have to be an atheist.” This whole emphasis on atheism is, frankly, unhelpful even to Dawkins’ & Krauss’ own cause. They’d be far better advocating the case for secularism, and would gain a much wider audience and acceptance. For instance, there are many points that I agreed on: religion should not have a privileged position; young earth creationism should not be taught in schools; pupils in schools should not have to sing hymns or join in prayers; it’s obscene that we have an established church in the United Kingdom (I’d add that it’s incredibly bad for the Christian church); it’s horrendous that bishops get to sit in the House of Lords by dint of their religious affiliation. And yet, Dawkins and Krauss and their movement would alienate those who share such views because they’re not atheists.
Lastly, and to finish on a positive note, it was great to be at an event like this in Belfast – the religious protest capital of Europe – and not to have a bunch of religious fundamentalists protesting the event (a phenomenon that does more harm to Christianity than atheism does). A number of fundamentalist preachers had claimed to have bought tickets and would come to “take Dawkins on,” but nothing like this materialized. In my session every person who commented or asked a question seemed to be an atheist, and I understand the same went for the second session. The audience members seemed thoughtful; there was no arrogance, anger, or petty Northern Irish mentality on display (as I feared there might be). I was left to wonder, though, whether they would remain so thoughtful and civil in the face of religious disagreement. My own engagement with atheists tells me that there are many, many thoughtful and civil people out there, but atheism, clearly, has it’s own fair share of loons.
Is atheism to be equated with reasonableness? On that I’m an unbeliever.
Stephen J Graham