In a recent study that gathered religious people to determine which groups they found to be trustworthy, atheists ranked at the bottom, surprisingly on par with rapists. This anecdote is only briefly discussed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss in The Unbelievers, but it’s nonetheless indicative of the type of ignorance from the general religious population that fuels these two prominent atheist activists. As the doc chronicles their journeys from Sydney to Phoenix to London, Dawkins and Krauss strive to create a free-thinking public discourse, where religion is openly doubted and scientific debate is routinely engaged. The film ably captures the provocative open forums that the men conduct, but its uneven nature occasionally dulls the effect of these intellectually stimulating conversations.
Dawkins and Krauss are charismatic and alluring speakers who deliver compelling arguments from troves of data, and director Gus Holwerda captures their extended lectures with a patient eye. But while the charm these two speakers emit is quite obvious, it’s still surprising and pleasant to see the rabid fanbase that has formulated in the wake of discussions on dense evolutionary and cosmological theory. Holwerda frequently refers to this, as if to stress the growing population identifying themselves as nonbelievers—and, perhaps, a not-so-subtle challenge to religious institutions, whose members are dwindling.
While Holwerda proves himself adept at presenting his subjects in their element, his shrewd approach fails to inform other areas of the film that indulge in high-minded posturing. Dawkins and Krauss’s lectures are welcoming as to allow anyone to engage in their debates, but the film’s images of vitriol-spouting protestors supporting their respective religions carry a whiff of condescension. Yes, religion is losing out to science with the public, but by showing the demonstrators only in their disorder, seemingly incapable of lucid thought, the film loses its grip on objectivity—the same sort of objectivity that defines Dawkins and Krauss’s work.
Holwerda even manages to collect an impressive array of celebrity atheists as subjects, only to undermine their involvement by relegating them to the film’s pre-credits and end-credits sequences. In this regard, their inclusion seems likely to make it easier for people to fearlessly “come out,” as it is, and formally label themselves atheists and proponents of science and reason. The facts and debates featured are certainly absorbing and fascinating, though The Unbelievers itself isn’t as galvanizing as it would like to be.