Atheists Caught on Film

The film, The Unbelievers, now playing in theaters, documents a world tour of speaking events by a pair of scientists opposed to theism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss.  They take the refreshing approach that tolerating nonsensical beliefs establishes damaging habits of thought, and that therefore nonsense like religion should not be continued.  They’re also quite optimistic that it won’t be.

And when you watch these guys speaking to large crowds and selling millions of books, it’s possible to imagine that they’re right. In their view we are surrounded by closet atheists, including many politicians. So, the advance of atheism could involve coming out as much as coming around.

Belief is a muddled concept.  I believe I’m typing these words. I believe the earth revolves around the sun.  Everyone is, in this sense, primarily a believer.  I also “believe in” my team, my family, humanity, loyalty, honesty.  That is, I place confidence and trust in things, devote myself to principles, wish people well, and am sometimes optimistic about something.

But then there is the notion of “believing in” the existence of imaginary beings or places or events, in contrast to simply “believing” that something exists, precisely because we don’t believe it, the evidence being all against it.  We see death and “believe in” eternal life.  We see a world with no god and “believe in” a god.  In this sense we should all be unbelievers.  And once we are, then, as the film suggests, atheism will become unnecessary, because theism will be as unthinkable as belief in the ancient gods of Rome.

One person in the film says that Romans used to call Christians atheists for refusing to believe in all the gods, and so an atheist today is someone who just believes in 1 fewer god than a Christian does.  True.  And an atheist can place irrational belief in other things.  But an unbeliever in the sense I’ve described above is someone who strives to reject wishful thinking.  Such an unbeliever can be a good, caring, strong, admirable person.  Or such an unbeliever can be a greedy, arrogant, destructive jerk.  But the effort to be honest in understanding the way things are is itself admirable and important.

The criticism of atheism that this atheist or that atheist is flawed in this way or that way hardly hits home — as if we don’t have religious role models and religious mass-murderers.  Another criticism is that atheism lacks “meaning” or “awe” or “mystery.”  The film counters this line of thinking fairly well.  The protagonists argue that being able to create your own meaning in life is better than having to find it in a religion.  And both of them are in awe of the wonders of the universe, which they consider to be revealing itself as ever more remarkable with each new advance in scientific understanding.

The choice the film presents between religion and science is not beyond questioning, however.  Many of us are not much attracted to science.  While astrophysics and evolution may be particularly relevant to debunking the myths that religions create, a great many people — including myself — don’t want to be scientists.  And of course a great many theists are scientists, so that being scientific most of the time hardly seems to prevent being theistic too.  I don’t think theism/science is the only contrast that should be presented.  What about theism/active-political-engagement-to-improve-the-real-world?  What about theism/care-for-humanity-and-species-and-ecologies-beyond-just-humanity? What about theism/history? Theism/art?

Some of us believe that science, in combination with greed and arrogance, has a lot to answer for, that there is in fact a danger in prioritizing learning more, regardless of the risks.  I would prefer that nuclear energy and weaponry had not been figured out, at least not yet.  I would prefer that the science behind the consumption of fossil fuels had never occurred to anybody.  To its credit, The Unbelievers suggests that global-warming denial is part and parcel of reality denial, of the sloppy sort of wishful thinking that Dawkins and Krauss are opposed to.  Beyond that, the film has disappointingly little to say about the advantages of atheism, beyond its just being right — which, in fact, may not be a higher value for a every member of our species than being sustainable.

When you listen to global warming deniers, they’ll tell you that arrogance is the problem: the arrogance of believing that mere humans can impact the earth.  But reality-based global warming commentators blame the arrogance of believing that humans can expect nothing to go wrong as they plow ahead recklessly disregarding their enormous impacts on ecosystems they’ve barely begun to comprehend.  We’re all against arrogance, and we’re all a bit arrogant, I’m afraid.  So the imperative to base our understanding of things on evidence rather than pleasant fantasies is indeed crucially decisive.  I just wish we wouldn’t get carried away with the notion that knowing ever more is more important than living with more wisdom and kindness.

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  • diogenes23

    the philosopher Feyerabend, once a student of Karl Popper came to believe that science was just as much as religion as christianity. In fact he found it the most dangerous because it was such a successful one.

  • kimyo

    it’s like a convention of strawmen in that last paragraph.

    in the ‘carbon will kill us’ debate, i think you’ll find it’s the ‘build nukes now to save the planet’ crew who are the most fervent believers. it’s the climate skeptics who are most like the atheists.

    the arrogance problem is claiming to know the outcome when you’ve only just barely begun to gather the raw data.

  • Yulek

    Atheism is a religion in itself. You believe there is no god. Most people are not closet atheist but closet non-religious people (that means we don’t care), who due to conformism join one religion or another. And the best part in your essay is “the film has disappointingly little to say about the advantages of atheism, beyond its just being right”. The same thing can say any other religious person following their own faith. “My faith is right.”

  • Lars P.

    The “science” of global warming is on thin legs.
    The “denialists” point to facts, they do not ignore science:

    – as far as we know the Earth has had many times (10x and more) the current CO2 % in the atmosphere and the climate switched between hot and cold without direct relationship to the CO2 levels, there must be other factors that are more relevant then CO2
    – the actual warming from CO2 doubling – as calculated – would be benign – question is if we are able to really measure it?

    – catastrophic warming happens only in flawed models – models which have built in a positive feedback based not on science but on nose picking
    – models do not correctly model the heat transfer throughout the column of air giving wrong results for the lapse rate (long ago Maxwell explained the creation of the lapse rate – ignored by greenhouse theory):

    – satellite measurement do not support global warming theory
    – CO2 has so far only improved the biosphere – NASA satellites show over the last 3 decades a greening of the planet effect – convenient ignored by alarmists

  • Dino Fancellu

    Wow, lots of scientism rah rah here. Maybe watch/read some Sheldrake.

    Longer version

  • Tsar Caustic

    It’s wonderfully ironic how an article extolling atheism descends into worship of Climate Alarmism by talking about “climate deniers” a/k/a heretics. The extreme supporters of the view that we’re rapidly bringing about climate catastrophe show very little difference from any number of “end of the world” cultists, even calling for death and imprisonment of un-believers. Relying on set of “beliefs” based on mathematical models that have not yet (and may never) represent reality to whip up such a frenzy of hatred for “deniers” seems no different than any fundamentalist religion.

  • Science has become a religion. Saying something like Einstein’s relativity model is wrong(which it is) and you will be branded a heretic.

    David will suggest that the willful conflation of descriptive and prescriptive tenets in modern science, especially but not only in mathematical physics, has led to some dire consequences for science itself.

  • colinjames71

    The irony here is that Lawrence Krauss “believes” in the Big Bang and Black Holes and other Standard Model astronomical theories which either have no observational evidence or are directly contradicted by it, are consistently wrong in their predictions, based on purely mathematical fantasy, or constantly need to invent new and unseen forces to save them. The Big Bang itself relies on a miracle, a magical moment of creation, and it’s persistence is almost entirely due to it’s being analogous with biblical creation myth. The inventor of the myth himself was a priest, and admitted as much. Then there’s the fact that no Big Bang model or black hole theory can exist in the same hypothetical version of the universe which the math used to justify them is based on.

    Hard core atheists and religious zealots are similar in my opinion- convinced only THEY have the answers, only THEY know what is or isn’t there, then preach and proselytize- and get paid for it. Both these dicks are celebrity scientists who love to hear themselves talk and get on TV as much as possible. To sell more books. Books about theories which are being challenged by new observations and fresh ideas, which are poo-pooed by the scientific establishment they themselves are a part of, just like the Church in Galileo’s time. That’s what I believe.

    As for the article itself I think it’s pretty much a good analysis of the subject matter and similar to my thinking about it. Believe or don’t believe in God, fine by me. Just be a good person, live and let live, care about the earth and your fellow residents, flora and fauna alike.

    For anyone interested in astronomy, and truly open-minded, intellectually integrous science, Thunderbolts Project YouTube channel is friggin awesome. The Electric Universe model is gaining momentum by the day, challenges the orthodox theories, and affects many other areas of scientific inquiry, and even human history. Really fascinating stuff, and these are serious, credentialed people, not way-out-there fringe theorists. Also there’s a documentary called “The Universe: Cosmology Quest”. Two part series. A little dated but essential for understanding the major objections to the Big Bang, and illustrative of how the astronomical establishment has become an entrenched, essentially theocratic institution which kills new lines of thinking and inhibits progress. Science and scientists aren’t always what we imagine, or are led to believe.

  • Catlove

    I shouldn’t be surprised to see atheism preached anywhere, but I am surprised to see global warming religion preached on this blog.

  • Lone Wolf

    Must watch the film when it comes out !

    One point on comments here though:

    We must make a distinction between “climate change” which is universal and been going on since the dawn of time and “global warming”, which *should* have been debunked by now.
    Global warming advocates claim there’s only a small minority of people who deny it.
    Well, try again!

    That is just one of many organisations dedicated to educating the masses, and awakening them form their mobile-phone-hugging detached from everything existences…

    Now factor in all the other scientists and researchers worldwide who dare not speak the truth for fear of losing their jobs or having funding cut if they fail to tow the government lies of “warming”, which in reality is just the well know and documented global government cash-grab to prop up the old Ponzi FIAT money system just a bit longer..

    Time to live in the REAL world people !

  • paul

    Science is a religion

  • Deb915

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  • John Baker

    “I would prefer that nuclear energy and weaponry had not been figured out, at least not yet.” In other words you would prefer to remain ignorant of how the Sun shines, how heavy elements form, how old the Earth is and so on and on. Ant colonies are “sustainable” but they lack science. I personally would prefer to understand the Universe even if doing so destroyed it.

  • ClubToTheHead

    Science says that I should not be able to walk on water and that I should drown when attempting to do this in a storm.

    Well, non-believers, I regularly walk on water, walk on hot coals, and handle snakes.

    So, why should I fear global warming?

  • Gotham Knight

    Washingtonsblog has gone to the dogs. Global warming is happening while I’m freezing my ass off. What a twit. Swanson discredits himself in the face of truth.