Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss are two of the most important figures in the New Atheist movement. So one would naturally have high expectations that their new documentary, The Unbelievers, would present a vigorous, powerful attack upon the rationality of religious belief, featuring interviews with impressive scientists laying out the case against God. Instead, the film turns out to be merely a travelogue of Dawkins and Krauss’ “magical mystery tour” of speaking engagements before their enthusiastic fans. Rather than thought provoking, the film is shallow, boring, and narcissistic.
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24, 2012: Headliner Richard Dawkins, founder of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, speaks during the National Atheist Organization's 'Reason Rally' March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. (Credit: Getty Images North America)
One cannot help but wonder why there is such a paucity of argument in the film. One reason, I suspect, is that the film’s intended audience is not believers but closet unbelievers. The goal of the film is not to change minds but to encourage those who are secret unbelievers to have the courage of their convictions and declare publicly their unbelief. Krauss claims that the reason people cry at funerals is not because they miss their loved ones, but because “they don’t really believe they will see their loved one again.” Similarly, Dawkins boldly asserts that probably 200 members of the U.S. Congress are really atheists, but “they are obviously lying.” These people need to stand up and be counted.
Featuring sound bites from celebrities and film stars in support of their cause fits Dawkins and Krauss’ purpose more than substantive interviews with qualified but largely unknown academics. The film’s purpose is not to present a case but primarily to rally the troops.
But there is a more fundamental reason for the absence of argument against religious belief. Dawkins and Krauss proceed on the unspoken assumption that science and religion are fundamentally mutually exclusive. Therefore, all one needs to do in order to discredit religion is to extol and celebrate the greatness of science. Science and religion are like two ends of a teeter-totter: if the one end goes up, the other automatically declines. Thus, Krauss asks Dawkins which he would rather do: explain science or destroy religion? It is assumed that these are two ways to the same end. Dawkins, of course, chooses to extol science. “I’m in love with science, and I want to tell the world.” His implicit assumption is that one cannot love both God and science.
There is no argument given for the mutual exclusivity of science and religion; rather it is the unquestioned presupposition of the film. This is ironic because one of the repeated emphases of the film is the necessity of critical thinking. No view is off limits to examination; we must insist on permission to question everything. Yet Dawkins and Krauss are strangely oblivious to their own unexamined assumptions. Why think that science, restricted as it is to the exploration of the physical world, is incompatible with the existence of God? Alas, we are not told.
In contrast to Dawkins and Krauss’ indifference to their own unexamined assumptions, there has been over the last fifty years a renaissance of Christian philosophy in the Anglophone world which has produced a prodigious literature critically examining questions like the existence and nature of God, the reality of the soul, religious epistemology, the foundation of moral values, as well as specific Christian doctrines. Dawkins and Krauss are utterly ignorant of this literature. The critical examination of religious truth claims which they call for has been proceeding on the contemporary scene for over a half a century, and yet Dawkins and Krauss take no cognizance of it.
Indeed, given their ignorance of the literature, one cannot help but wonder if Dawkins and Krauss are not, in fact, incapable of engaging in substantive conversation on these matters. Hence, their open endorsement of ridicule as “a useful tool for illuminating reality.” Dawkins’ philosophical gaucherie is on display when complains that his dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury was “ruined” by the chairman (Sir Anthony Kenny, himself an agnostic), who “is a philosopher and so thought it his duty to clarify things,” which led, says Dawkins, to “skewing.” Similarly, Dawkins breezily dismisses “Why?” questions as “silly.”
Now many “why” questions are scientific in nature, e.g., “Why do plants bend toward the light?,” so that a literal application of Dawkins’ stricture would destroy science. What he really wants to exclude, I think, are teleological questions about things’ purposes. For example, he says that the question, “What is the purpose of the universe?” is “meaningless.” One should like to know on what theory of meaning this well-formed, widely understood English sentence is meaningless. The question as to the universe’s purpose is not even silly: if God exists, then the universe doubtless does have some divine purpose. And if God does not exist, it would, I think, be highly significant to discover that there is no purpose of the universe. So why shouldn’t we ask such a question?
John Stuart Mill (a philosopher!) once remarked that it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. Given Dawkins’ conviction that we are just animated chunks of matter, machines for propagating DNA, is it really any surprise that he should prefer the porcine alternative?