Atheists Caught on Film

The film, The Unbelievers, now playing in theaters, documents a world tour of speaking events by a pair of scientists opposed to theism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss.  They take the refreshing approach that tolerating nonsensical beliefs establishes damaging habits of thought, and that therefore nonsense like religion should not be continued.  They’re also quite optimistic that it won’t be. 

And when you watch these guys speaking to large crowds and selling millions of books, it’s possible to imagine that they’re right. In their view we are surrounded by closet atheists, including many politicians. So, the advance of atheism could involve coming out as much as coming around.

Belief is a muddled concept.  I believe I’m typing these words. I believe the earth revolves around the sun.  Everyone is, in this sense, primarily a believer.  I also “believe in” my team, my family, humanity, loyalty, honesty.  That is, I place confidence and trust in things, devote myself to principles, wish people well, and am sometimes optimistic about something. 

But then there is the notion of “believing in” the existence of imaginary beings or places or events, in contrast to simply “believing” that something exists, precisely because we don’t believe it, the evidence being all against it.  We see death and “believe in” eternal life.  We see a world with no god and “believe in” a god.  In this sense we should all be unbelievers.  And once we are, then, as the film suggests, atheism will become unnecessary, because theism will be as unthinkable as belief in the ancient gods of Rome.

One person in the film says that Romans used to call Christians atheists for refusing to believe in all the gods, and so an atheist today is someone who just believes in 1 fewer god than a Christian does.  True.  And an atheist can place irrational belief in other things.  But an unbeliever in the sense I’ve described above is someone who strives to reject wishful thinking.  Such an unbeliever can be a good, caring, strong, admirable person.  Or such an unbeliever can be a greedy, arrogant, destructive jerk.  But the effort to be honest in understanding the way things are is itself admirable and important.

The criticism of atheism that this atheist or that atheist is flawed in this way or that way hardly hits home — as if we don’t have religious role models and religious mass-murderers.  Another criticism is that atheism lacks “meaning” or “awe” or “mystery.”  The film counters this line of thinking fairly well.  The protagonists argue that being able to create your own meaning in life is better than having to find it in a religion.  And both of them are in awe of the wonders of the universe, which they consider to be revealing itself as ever more remarkable with each new advance in scientific understanding.

The choice the film presents between religion and science is not beyond questioning, however.  Many of us are not much attracted to science.  While astrophysics and evolution may be particularly relevant to debunking the myths that religions create, a great many people — including myself — don’t want to be scientists.  And of course a great many theists are scientists, so that being scientific most of the time hardly seems to prevent being theistic too.  I don’t think theism/science is the only contrast that should be presented.  What about theism/active-political-engagement-to-improve-the-real-world?  What about theism/care-for-humanity-and-species-and-ecologies-beyond-just-humanity? What about theism/history? Theism/art?

Some of us believe that science, in combination with greed and arrogance, has a lot to answer for, that there is in fact a danger in prioritizing learning more, regardless of the risks.  I would prefer that nuclear energy and weaponry had not been figured out, at least not yet.  I would prefer that the science behind the consumption of fossil fuels had never occurred to anybody.  To its credit, The Unbelievers suggests that global-warming denial is part and parcel of reality denial, of the sloppy sort of wishful thinking that Dawkins and Krauss are opposed to.  Beyond that, the film has disappointingly little to say about the advantages of atheism, beyond its just being right — which, in fact, may not be a higher value for a every member of our species than being sustainable.

When you listen to global warming deniers, they’ll tell you that arrogance is the problem: the arrogance of believing that mere humans can impact the earth.  But reality-based global warming commentators blame the arrogance of believing that humans can expect nothing to go wrong as they plow ahead recklessly disregarding their enormous impacts on ecosystems they’ve barely begun to comprehend.  We’re all against arrogance, and we’re all a bit arrogant, I’m afraid.  So the imperative to base our understanding of things on evidence rather than pleasant fantasies is indeed crucially decisive.  I just wish we wouldn’t get carried away with the notion that knowing ever more is more important than living with more wisdom and kindness.