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.