Media Review: The Unbelievers

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The Unbelievers
Starring Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

I am not a brilliant guy.  I struggled through my logic courses in college.  Science is way outside my field of expertise.  I can keep up with some philosophical conversation…but not for very long.  So, to be fully honest, I get nervous when it comes to defending my faith against scientists and philosophers.  I doubt my abilities to answer their questions or deal with their presuppositions, let alone make Christianity sound convincing.  I know it is the Holy Spirit who converts.  Of course.  My fear, however, is that I won’t be able to keep up in the conversation.

This makes watching a documentary like The Unbelievers intimidating for me.  You see, when I come to a film of this nature, I am expecting intelligent, penetrating challenges to the faith.   I expect philosophical difficulties to be raised, the resurrection of Christ to be deconstructed, or origins of the universe to be made so complex that creationists have no leg on which to stand.  I am not expecting crass, agenda-driven fundamentalism. But apparently, I am naïve.

The documentary follows “new atheist” mega-stars Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they tour parts of Australia, the United States, and England proclaiming the liberating gospel of science and reason.  The documentary begins with some of your favorite (or, in my case, least favorite…Bill Pullman…ugh…) celebrities praising Dawkins and Krauss for their efforts in helping us see the light of science.  (Those scenes are shot in black and white, so you know it is serious.)  After hearing Ricky Gervais (whom I like) tell us that “Science seeks the truth without prejudice,” we find Dawkins and Krauss proclaiming that both explaining science and destroying religion must go together. From there on out, our heroes travel the world in an effort to do just that: explain (and, frankly exalt) science and destroy religion.  They begin with giving highlights from debates they have had with theists (can you honestly, with any level of integrity, show a debate without showing the whole thing?). They then decide, ironically, that those who chair debates get in the way of intelligent dialogue (kind of like God…get it?).  So, they set out to do a speaking tour, presenting their ideas, and winning the masses.  Throughout the film, various caricatures are made of theists, but especially Christians and Muslims.  Atheists come out looking reasonable and correct.  Theists look reactive and ignorant.  We are left to realize that if there is any hope for our world, it is found in science and the human will. OH…and then more black and white celebrity interviews.

I have a number of problems with the movie.  But, there are some things I appreciated.  First, they did a great job using REM in the soundtrack.  Second, they exposed what is not good in religious fundamentalism. I am not a fan of blind following.  I too, as a conservative, Lutheran pastor, have a difficult time with street-corner prophets holding signs and berating the heathen masses.  That gets you nowhere.  The atheist is not some subspecies of human that we can speak down to and expect to win them to Christ.  Rather, we show respect to the people we are talking to in order to understand their position and show the love of Christ. (Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 1 Peter 3:15)  Third, I appreciate the emphasis on scrutinizing ourselves and the ideas we hold.  Dealing with hard questions is actually a good thing for our faith and it teaches us to love our neighbors when they are searching.

But, here is where my big critique of the documentary comes.  My biggest critique is not the atheism (but, trust me, I don’t like the atheism), but rather, the hypocrisy.  The Unbelievers wants to demonstrate three ideas:
1) Theism of all sorts (especially Christianity and Islam) is foolish/dangerous/unreasonable and should be belittled…er…open to critique.
2) Atheism is the only reasonable view of the universe and it is held by intelligent people (and some celebrities).
3)  Open minded, reasonable discussion is to be promoted and will help us find the truth.

Now, notice here, that because religion/theism is unreasonable it is open to critique, but isn’t really allowed in on the conversation.  So, as soon as someone wants to talk about the amazing universe we can discover through science and research, if a theist comes along with a different perspective, it is already ruled out.  After all, we’ve established theism is unreasonable and dangerous.  Those who hold to theistic ideas are blind fideists (believers in their belief) who don’t use their brains.  Since they have already been ruled unreasonable and unintelligent, they cannot sit at the adult table with the scientists unless they are willing to change their mind.

They can’t really think that this creates a world where intelligent conversation can exist, do they?  I mean, just because you are really good at physics doesn’t mean you can dismiss thousands of years of philosophical and theological insight from the conversation, does it?  If the answer to that question is “yes,” then you are not actually promoting an open dialogue and reasonable thinking, but rather, a new fundamentalist worldview that will merely mock and belittle anyone who thinks differently.  Mocking the other side or using criticism in debates is a form of rhetoric that can have a useful place in conversation.  My problem is that in the name of “open discussion,” Dawkins and Krauss will not let anyone else talk. Be honest.  You don’t want to have a discussion.  You want to win.

If religion and philosophy are open to critique and examination by science, then science must recognize that it is open to critique as well; especially when our new atheists are proposing a new morality and new worldview.  At one point in the piece, Dawkins actually says that atheists should be intelligent designers of a new morality and future. But morality, in fact, is the realm of religion and philosophy, not science.  Thus, if the “new atheists” want to demonstrate any sort of integrity in their “new morality,” I would suggest they do what they say: welcome open discussion, let their ideas be critiqued by the ethicists, philosophers, etc..  Don’t make moral, philosophical assertions and then say ethicists and philosophers only ruin the conversation.  If scientists are allowed to critique everyone else, then everyone else should be welcome to the conversation.  Otherwise, the beloved open-minded dialogue is really just a fundamentalist sermon.

I actually think such an open conversation is possible and helpful.  To the atheist who may be reading this or the agnostic who is questioning everything: If you really want to see this done well, pick up A Place for Truth edited by Dallas Willard.  It is a collection of lectures put on by the admittedly Christian organization The Veritas Forum. They invite various speakers to defend or debate the Christian worldview.  The book models how intelligent dialogue can be debated by both sides.  Two contributions stand out.  First, Alistar McGrath and David Helfand’s debate, New Atheists and the Meaning of Life, is an actual intelligent discussion (except, maybe, when Helfand throws a ball at McGrath) between a new atheist (Helfand) and a brilliant theologian (McGrath).  The second contribution I suggest you read has Peter Singer, Stanford’s great atheist bioethicist, debating Yale’s John Hare on atheism and ethics. Their debate is titled, Moral Mammals: Does Atheism or Theism Provide the Best Foundation for Human Worth and Morality. Long title.  Good read.

My point in bringing this up is to point out that a world where intelligent conversation between opposing views does exist.  And (despite the delightful belittling from new atheists of a theistic worldview) Christians do have a vast treasury of insight to bring to the table. Our celebrities aren’t as cool.  Kirk Cameron is no Cameron Diaz.  But, the church really does have something good to contribute to a conversation about truth, origins of the universe, etc.

At the beginning of the film, Ricky Gervais says, “Facts, if you’re rational, should change your beliefs.”  And, Sarah Silverman says “Religion should be open to discussion.” I completely agree! Since celebrities suggest it, and since the rest of the movie implicitly denies it, I think we should bring religion to the conversation.

Let me, then, propose a challenge to those who are truly asking hard questions and claiming that we must allow evidence to shape our beliefs: Let’s  start with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If you are an atheist or just wondering about Christianity, I want to challenge you to examine the claims of Christ’s resurrection.  The body was missing from the tomb that Sunday morning after He had been crucified. So where is the body?  I challenge you to examine the claims that are made and the history surrounding that incident.  Where do the facts lead?  What conclusions do you draw?  Let’s talk about it!

You can start the conversation below in the comments section. Also, I’d love to get your feedback on the movie itself. Let’s talk.

Published June 10, 2015

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