director Gus Holwerda
Following last week’s terrorist attack by Islamic extremists on the offices of the French comic magazine Charlie Hebdo, which were perpetrated in response to a depiction of the prophet Muhammad on the covers and pages of the magazine, my thoughts, as doubtlessly many others thoughts did, turned to the absurdity and horror wrought onto the world in the name of religion. The people who perpetrated, planned, or colluded in this atrocity are by no means representative of the average Muslim. In fact, they are by definition radical and fundamentalist, extremes of which exist in most if not every religion. And this was an extreme thing, murdering 12 people in cold blood, sparking a huge manhunt, bloody takedowns, and sparking rallies globally.
In other words: success for the terrorists.
I have been an atheist most of my life, since my teens. Maybe for a long time I clung to the “agnostic” label, not so much because I didn’t know what I thought but I appreciated the idea of acknowledging an aspect of the “unknowable”. But in recent years, maybe the past decade or more, I’ve come to reconfigure how I frame my beliefs, which is essentially a-theism, atheism, the absence of a belief in a god or higher power, which is actually, literally what I believe.
I’ve come to appreciate the strategies and process of science, which is a constant struggle to understand everything in the natural world by measurable testing, observation, analysis and theory. I came to this on my own, through the multitude of information streams: books, television, movies, internet, newspapers, magazines, personal experience. And frankly, it’s not something that I talk about with people. I do try to respect others’ beliefs. It shouldn’t matter to anyone else what I think.
This documentary, The Unbelievers, focuses on scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss who have drawn a lot of attention for their science-based dialogues pushing for a de-stigmatization of atheism, a greater appreciation for the work and process of science, and even radical statements about the end of religion. Director Gus Holwerda follows the two across the globe from one speaking engagement to another and he interviews them and a bunch of celebrities who share their views.
Unfortunately, it’s a lot of following them around, watching them shake people’s hands, climb into taxis or airplanes, sit around hotel rooms. Of the 80 or so minutes of the movie, at least half of it is just useless shots of filler. For two well-spoken guys with a lot to say, I have no idea why Holwerda wastes his time with all the other junk. Even the end credits of the film are vaguely better than parts of the middle. At the end, the celebrities talk more, not intercut with filler. Sadly, it’s a really pretty badly edited and constructed movie about two people who are actually saying and doing some interesting things.
Dawkins is perhaps the more famous of the two. With his book The God Delusion, he’s certainly attracted a lot of attention and potential backlash. He’s got a confrontational and sometimes condescending style, though ultimately he states a lot of things with which I agree.
Krauss has a more tempered demeanor and, while approaching the discussion from a Physics basis rather than Dawkins’ evolutionary biology background, addresses the same issues and audiences, culminating in a “Reason Rally” in Washington, DC in 2012.
Interestingly Dawkins predicts an end of religion, that technology, perhaps most specifically the internet and its access to information, will give rise to a massive cultural change in which religion will eventually die off. He even cites the radical events and attitudes in religions of the present as the first signs of its death throes. Now, I don’t know about that. It’s hard to imagine a post-religious world. But other societal change has happened that I didn’t think possible so who knows? I’ve never been one to predict the future in any way.
Despite this terrible documentary, my appetite is whetted to read more about Dawkins and Krauss or by them. I was initially put-off by Dawkins’ confrontational style when I’d read about him, but some of his points have sunken in more with me.
I used to believe more in the idea of respecting other people’s beliefs systems, but I have encountered certain quandaries and situations in which beliefs of ignorance go against my own moral judgment. The attack on Charlie Hebdo or the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria are examples of extreme actions based in specific belief systems.
The issues are not unique to Islam. I have serious disagreement with many issues driven by the Christian right in the United States and elsewhere as well. Pushing laws and ideologies based on belief systems of mythologies.
So, I am changing. I think, if anything, hearing certain perspectives better articulated gives me more clarity on my own thinking and my own approach to the world.