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Cameron Diaz and the Unbelievers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Cameron Diaz

Source: Caroline Bonarde Ucci/Wikimedia Commons

March 29th was Good Friday, and it was no coincidence that Lawrence Krauss, author of “A Universe from Nothing” and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, chose the date as the test screening of the feature film documentary The Unbelievers, starring Krauss and Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion” and founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Art and Science.

The sold-out, 3,000 seat, Gammage Memorial Auditorium at the ASU campus, concentrated a distillation of militant skeptics from the area. As we drove to the event, Good Friday “festivities” were in full force across Tempe. From my car window, I saw a young man drag a life-size wooden cross with surprising ease and at a good pace, while engaging in lively conversation with two friends (perhaps named Peter and John?). Closer examination revealed a pair of training wheels at the foot of the cross. On the other side of the road, another young man vociferated salvation through a loudspeaker.

Inside the Gammage, the atmosphere was equally celebratory of ungodliness. A quick introduction by Krauss launched the film, which followed Krauss and Dawkins through lectures, debates and book signings across the globe, battling religion and making an unequivocally strong stand for atheism, skepticism, and critical thinking.

Budding movie director Gus Holwerda and his brother Luke (the director of cinematography) come from a music video background. In making The Unbelievers, they applied their unique rock’n’roll perspective by depicting  Krauss’s and Dawkins’s travels from one sold-out venue to the next like they might do for a world-touring rock band. Krauss and Dawkins interacted with “groupies” and generated massive amounts of excitement in international audiences in the name of science. The audience at the Gammage was certainly enthusiastic—clapping and cheering made the dialogue difficult to hear more than a few times through the evening!

The documentary started and finished with supporting snippets from popular icons such as Cameron Diaz, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, Stephen Hawking and Ricky Gervais. Anticipation had built about which of these guests might join the panel discussion after the film, and the organizers did not disappoint: Krauss and Dawkins were joined onstage by the Holwerda brothers, Booker Prize winning writer Ian McEwan,  author Cormac McCarthy, and Hollywood megastar Cameron Diaz as Special Guests.

I was very curious to hear Cameron Diaz speak about science and skepticism. Not only because I’m a sucker for famous people, but also because she was the only female in the panel and was introduced as “a model for young women”. In retrospect, that was a peculiar thing to say. (Especially as I doubt that Brad Pitt,  for example, would have been  presented as a role model for young men). While I admire Diaz’s enthusiastic support of science, and appreciate her willingness to participate in the panel—quite possibly having declined other, more glamorous engagements—she was not the intellectual equal to  the others, and since she declared a strong relationship with “her god”, she was evidently not even an unbeliever. She failed to fit in in other ways as well, for instance disagreeing  with one of the main premises of the film by stating repeatedly that science and religion are compatible, whereas the film showcases Krauss and Dawkins arguing vehemently that they are not. All in all, Diaz was an odd and unfortunate choice for the token female in the panel.

Diaz’s outlook would have been fine, and even welcome, had the panel also included other female scientists, writers, and thinkers with a stronger intellectual heft. As it was, she came across as a “ditzy blonde” Marilyn Monroe stereotype surrounded by true intellectuals. Contrary to what some might believe, and despite frequent lack of representation in scientific forums and think tanks, there is no dearth of female intellectual heavyweights that might serve as role models for young girls. Dawkins criticized religion for its subjugation of women, and in a poignant moment  in The Unbelievers, a woman confronts a group of male Islamic activists, asking “Where are your women?” The crowd behind her takes up the chant:  “Where are your women, where are your women?”. Yet, the film itself included but a handful of females, a recurrent problem for which the atheist community has come often under fire. Indeed, the same question could be put to The Unbelievers,  and to the panel that discussed it.

Female shortages aside, The Unbelievers is timely, provocative, fearless, and well worth seeing. The world premiere is on April 29th, at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario.


Susana Martinez-Conde About the Author: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Follow on Twitter @illusionchasers.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Quantumburrito 9:36 am 04/5/2013

    This film sounds like another salvo from two like-minded combative atheists. For a balanced perspective wouldn’t it have been better to pair up Dawkins with someone moderate like E. O. Wilson or Kenneth Miller? Disagreement would have been more interesting.

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  2. 2. sault 11:00 am 04/5/2013

    While discussion on these matters is good, if they want to decrease the influence of religion in the modern world, they’re actually being a little counterproductive. After all, “Nothing is so fatal to religion as indifference.” – Edmund Burke

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  3. 3. LarryW 11:15 am 04/5/2013

    Moderate? There is no moderate, only perhaps differing levels of being politic in expressing one’s opinions. There is no middle ground between theism or atheism.

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  4. 4. M Tucker 1:15 pm 04/5/2013

    I applaud Diaz’s bravery. Not many are willing to be among the militant atheists Krauss and Dawkins and express there religious beliefs. I really don’t think it is fair to characterize her as “ditzy.” She does have what some would say is a confused or awkward way of expressing herself but ditzy has such a negative connotation that I think it should be avoided. She came to the event and that is more than can be said of some truly moronic female personalities. Her point about science and religion is a good one and one that Krauss and Dawkins intentionally ignore. Krauss and Dawkins have faith that God does not exist and that science and religion are not compatible and that is all they have. Since religion is so fantastically diverse it is easy to find radical fundamentalists, especially among the Abrahamic religions, who are a responsible for appalling things.

    How about looking for good examples of coexistence? Well, I know Krauss and Dawkins would not do that since it conflicts with their preconceived conclusion. Even if they were aware of good examples, and I know they are, they would not bring them up.

    I’m sure the film is very interesting but Krauss and Dawkins are so hard to take when they are not talking about science and go on their militant atheist rant that I think I will pass on viewing it. They need to be careful with this “where are your women” thing. Dawkins is well known for making inappropriate comments to women, even women atheists. I don’t think it does Krauss any good to be associated with him on that subject. Dawkins is not a good spokes person for women’s rights or a good advocate for women in science or atheism.

    By-the-way, who is Stephen Hawkins? Is he an entertainer like Allen, Silverman and Gervais?

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  5. 5. Quantumburrito 1:56 pm 04/5/2013

    Maybe, but there’s definitely a middle ground between science and theism. Many prominent scientists like Miller and Collins are accomplished scientists who are also theists. They stand as an effective antidote to the black-or-white Dawkinsian view of the world. I would think that a documentary pairing these scientists with Dawkins would be much more informative and thought-provoking. With Dawkins and Krauss it’s probably more of the same.

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  6. 6. M Tucker 5:11 pm 04/5/2013

    Krauss did an Op-Ed in the NYT on 1/15/13 titled “Deafness at Doomsday”. That piece concludes with, “Until science and data become central to informing our public policies, our civilization will be hamstrung in confronting the gravest threats to its survival.”

    Religion was not mentioned in that article. He did say, “Because the threat of nuclear proliferation is not being addressed, because missile defense technologies remain flawed and because new threats exposed by scientists have been ignored, the Bulletin’s annual Doomsday clock — which was updated on Tuesday — still sits at five minutes to midnight. The clock is meant to convey the threats we face not only from nuclear weapons, but also from climate change and the potential unintended consequences of genetic engineering, which could be misused by those seeking to create bioweapons.”

    Those were the issues he focused on. I wonder if he would get sold-out venues and groupies and a movie if he went on tour about that? Many people do not care about what is truly important and they only care about “The Unbelievers” because it is exciting, controversial, in-your-face Mom and Dad, type of material. Not a single religious fundamentalist cares one bit about Krauss’ and Dawkins’ opinion of their religion. Those two will have no influence on them. They will not end religion and I am willing to bet some of those groupies will turn to religion of some kind before their journey in life is done. According to Krauss’ article in the NYT it would seem that a movie and lecture tour ought to be built around that topic for the good of humanity.

    Krauss, Brian Greene Professor Mathematics & Physics at Columbia, and author Ian McEwan were on the Science Friday radio show on 3/29/13 talking about science in science fiction. Since Krauss cannot help himself the conversation got around to religion and McEwan mentioned that since it had been around for more than 2000 years and had such an incredible influence on humanity he did not think it was going anywhere and ought to be taken more seriously. Greene mentioned he was not comfortable with the militant atheist approach. Krauss let it go and the discussion got back to much more interesting topics. Scientists are at their best and the most persuasive when they talk about science.

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  7. 7. string_beery 10:01 am 04/6/2013

    have to agree with M. Tucker in defending Ms. Diaz…the question of the “compatibility” of science and religion hinges on exactly what is meant…science believes that truth can be ascertained from careful observation of the natural world; religion doesn’t completely reject this view, but does unquestioningly accept certain ‘beliefs’ unfounded in such observation (such as the existence of a creator) – in that sense, science and religion are clearly not (fully) compatible…but can people who accept a wholly (not ‘holy’) scientific view live in (reasonable) harmony with people who do not? – it’s hardly a slam dunk, but i would hope the answer would be ‘yes’, given that the alternative is conflict…i can’t speak for Ms. Diaz, but it may be in the latter sense that she believes science and religion to be compatible…

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  8. 8. syzygyygyzys 12:43 pm 04/6/2013

    M Tucker,

    Yeah, isn’t Stephen Hawkins a sweeper for the Queens Park Rangers in London? Or maybe you mean Stephen Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA.

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  9. 9. bjflanagan 9:37 am 08/17/2013

    Modern science arose in part from a religious impulse to understand the nature of light. What fun, eh?

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