Friday, April 4, 2014

My Growing Disappointment with the New Atheist Movement: A Review of "The Unbelievers"

Tonight (Thursday Apr. 4) I went to a screening of "The Unbelievers" which was followed by a live Q&A with the stars, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.  The event was held in the UNLV event center (Cox Pavilion) and it was very well attended.  Almost all the seats were taken.

I wasn't particularly motivated to go; mostly because I didn't think I'd be hearing anything I hadn't heard before (I was right).  However, I decided to go since one of my life goals is to take knowledge that is typically confined to academia and bring it to the public in a way that is engaging and understandable.  Since Richard Dawkins is probably one of the most well-known popularizers of scientific knowledge, I figured I could probably learn a thing or two from watching him live.

Some background:
I'm a Dawkins fan from way back.  "The Selfish Gene" is as good as it gets when it comes to popular science writing.  "The God Delusion" single-handedly kicked me off my perch on the fence of agnosticism and onto the atheist side.  It would have been silly for me not to go see Dawkins live and in the flesh.

The Good Parts:
Before getting into the things that disappointed me, I'll quickly mention the main things I thought were good:

1.  It is good that even in a city like Las Vegas, a couple thousand people happily elected to spend their Thursday evening listening to two scientists.  I think even Penn (of Penn and Teller) who organized the event was surprised by the turn out.  Maybe there's hope for humanity after all.

2.  There were a surprising number of women in the audience.  Generally, in science-y and atheist events women tend to be under-represented.  It wasn't quite 50-50 but it wasn't far.  Maybe 40-60.

3.  There were no religious fundamentalists picketing the event.  (This isn't true of some other cities where they gave their talk).

4.  The audience seemed fairly diverse in many respects (although, the crowd was overwhelmingly white).  Nevertheless, the audience wasn't dominated by curmudgeon-y old white men.  There was, however, a higher-than-usual prevalence of men in black Tshirts and jeans with pony-tails.

The Not So Good Parts
Lets start with an overview of the movie.  "The Unbelievers" is to atheists what (I've heard) "God Is Not Dead" is to Christian fundamentalists.  It was basically one big circle-jerk.  The movie begins with Dawkins and Krause seemingly trying to outdo each other over who can make the most disparaging remarks about religion.  Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up the movie.

While atheist and Christian bloggers alike have criticized "God Is Not Dead" as presenting straw men of atheist arguments and caricatures of atheists, much of the same can be said of the "The Unbelievers" (in respect to the religious). To the credit of the "Unbelievers" they used clips of actual debate footage with theists presenting their own arguments and demonstrating their complete ignorance of science, but I suspect the editing was such as to include only the "gotcha" moments, the worst and least sophisticated theist arguments, and the examples of most profound scientific misunderstanding.

The vehemence and mean-spiritedness of the film and the live audience's self-congratulatory cackles throughout literally made me sick to my stomach.  I wanted to leave so badly.  I don't want to be associated with meanness.

I expect this type of attitude from people who are new to atheism.  When you first discover all the evil that has been (and continues to be) committed in the name of religion, and you read your first systematic account of all the hypocrisy, moral outrage, and nonsense that fills the Bible, it is hard not to be indignant.  I know because that was me too.  But it subsides.  Or it should if you actually care about changing people's minds.

My journey through atheism and confronting theists led me to understand that adopting an attitude of meanness and condescension is a fruitless way to engage someone.  You might walk away feeling smug, but you will not have changed anyone's mind.  If anything, beliefs end up even more entrenched.

I agree with the new atheists in that religious fundamentalism is a genuine problem for humanity.  But this is true of fundamentalism of any kind (unless you are a fundamentalist about being kind and compassionate to people).  The problem is fundamentalism, not religion writ large.  Fundamentalism of all kinds looks the same: it is impervious to reason and evidence.  This is the true enemy.

I'm sure more than a few members of the audience were members of the Ayn Rand cult.  Atheists on the left often demonstrate the same traits of fundamentalism when it comes to GMOs, vaccines, and nuclear energy. Such fundamentalisms are just as dangerous as any religion.

Religion gives meaning and purpose to the lives of most of the people in the world.  It engenders community and strong social bonds both of which are necessary for a meaningful life.  Religion can be a force for good for many people and it often is.

Lest you think I've gone soft on religion, there are many religious beliefs that do need to be confronted. But this is true of any harmful belief that isn't grounded in any kind of evidence or reason.  What's important is how we confront the belief.  If we truly want to engage people, we must do so in a way such that they won't go on the defensive and dig in.

I don't think this means we always need to be uber respectful.  There's a way to criticize and poke fun that isn't totally belittling.  Humor can be good.  It can open peoples eyes to things in ways that rational discourse cannot.  Meanness and condescension are bad, however; and reenforcing the stereotype of the angry atheist (true or not) doesn't do much for our image either, not to mention dialogue...

One last point.  When Dawkins and Krauss weren't ridiculing and belittling religion their remaining dialogue went something like this:  "Science, science, science, science is the best, science will save the world, if people only followed observable evidence the world would be better, do you haz science? I like science, you should like science, science is da best, science is amazing, science has all the answers...blah, blah, blah."

If Dawkins and Krauss are representative of the atheist movement, it's no wonder that religious people accuse atheists of treating science just like a religion.  I've heard more enlightened conversation about the role and limits of science from my first-year students.  What I was hearing was literally blind faith.

Atheist like to cherry-pick all the harm that religion has brought about.  Theist can easily play that game too with science and technology.  The failure to acknowledge the short-comings of science reeks of the same confirmation bias of which we accuse the religious apologist.  If Dawkins and Krauss truly practiced what they preached about forming beliefs based on evidence, their conclusion would have been a bit more humble.  There are plenty of instances where science has had a negative effect on human well being.  Also, if Dawkins and Krauss are so concerned about following the scientific evidence, they might follow their own advice are read the recent psychological literature on effective strategies for changing peoples beliefs.  Spoiler alert: berating them and calling them stupid isn't an effective strategy.  Science says so.

What was particularly shocking about this attitude is that every scientist I've spoken with or have heard interviewed is very modest about what science can and cannot do to improve the human condition. They will almost always hedge any optimistic claims.  Most nobel laureates, when interviewed on the role of science in society, are in this camp. In "The Unbelievers" however, here were two world-renowned scientists showing the philosophical understanding of the limits and role of science that we'd expect from a undergrad in the 1920s who just discovered logical positivism.  I literally wanted to scream.

Which leads me to the next thing that made me want to scream.  All though it was never explicitly stated, it might as well have been.  Science is the savior.  It will save us from all our problems.

NO! NO! IT WON'T!!!!  Science cannot tell us what to value.  It cannot tell us what constitutes a meaningful life.  It cannot tell us where we should draw the line between individual rights and freedoms and communal rights.  It cannot tell us which technologies to pursue or anticipate how new discoveries and technology might be harmful.  It cannot tell us how we should organize our societies or how resources should be allocated within a society.  It cannot tell us what our responsibilities are to our fellow human, the animal kingdom, and the environment.  It cannot tell us how long we should keep a terminally ill family member on life support.  Science cannot tell us right from wrong.  Science cannot tell us what kind of punishment someone deserves or if we should punish them at all.  Science cannot tell us if and when we should forgive. Science cannot tell us what knowledge is.  Science cannot tell us what makes a life worth living.  Knowing how things work cannot tell us how we ought to live.

For that you need philosophy.

*drops microphone and walks off stage*


  1. Good read, Palmer. However, the flowing statement is not logically coherent.

    There is plenty of evidence to show that in some cases science has had a negative effect on human well being

    Peace and love,


    1. I agree. The sentence structure could be better. I'll edit it. Thanks!

  2. I have to agree with the article as well. I'm an atheist and I'm a big fan of both Krauss and Dawkins. But, all the film accomplished, in my opinion is to make atheists appear as fundamentalists. To make things worse; the film was done very poorly. I honestly had to turn it off. I was about 30 minutes into it and I'd say 20 minutes of that was footage of commutes. Cab rides, airports, backstage prep, and the list goes on. As scientists, I have a lot of respect for both of them. As atheists, not so much. There arguments are strong and validated. But, all too often they go above and beyond to belittle the opposition rather than educate them.

    If you haven't seen the film you're better off going to youtube and watching some Q & A's. Personally, I'd rather watch Krauss' lectures on physics.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I also wanted to leave (before) the first 30 min but since I paid for my ticket I though I'd hope against hope that it would get better. We have all held views that turned out to be wrong. Ridiculing people for this does nothing to lead them to better positions and it most certainly doesn't help the public image of atheists! It's possible to explain to people why their views are poorly justified without being an asshole about it.

  3. Thanks for this. You articulated a lot that I haven't made time to. I posted this to my Facebook page for the edification of my many atheist lefty friends who engage in the sort of behavior you describe.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! Hopefully this article will give your friends pause.