Reviewing The Unbelievers

The Unbelievers, with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, from Black Chalk Productions.

Photo by Black Chalk Productions

In last week’s buzz, I mentioned The Unbelievers, a new documentary starring Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. The two scientists travel the world preaching a simple message: science is awesome, and religion is not. (If you haven’t watched the trailer yet, it’s worth viewing.)

I watched the movie last week, and have some good news and bad news. Just like the Rock’s character from Fast Five, I like good news before bad news: dessert first, then the veggies.

Dessert

The cinematography is amazing. The documentary is visually beautiful.

Dawkins does a great job explaining why monkeys don’t have human babies. Parents and their offspring are never a different species. Instead, animals turn into new species very slowly. Dawkins explains that none of us go to bed middle-aged and wake up elderly. Similarly, species change slowly over long periods of time we can hardly grasp, with many intermediate forms. (Dawkins explains this idea very well in a five minute clip from a few years ago.)

Penn Jillette has a great quotation: “If you are doing something for reward or punishment, you do not have morality.” Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame, has a point. Doing good deeds for their own sake is better than doing them out of fear or for a reward. Penn has an unlikely ally, though, in theologian J.B. Torrance. He said that fear of hell or reward of heaven are both wrong motivations for belief. According to him, the only correct motivation is gratitude for the grace Jesus has shown all of us. Christians don’t obey to receive forgiveness. God first grants forgiveness, and then we respond with gratitude and obedience.

Joe Pesci makes an appearance. Well, someone at the Reason Rally holds a poster with Pesci’s face on it. The sign says “I pray to Joe Pesci.” Brilliant.

Veggies

Krauss misunderstands the doctrine of creation. Krauss argues that the universe came from nothing. (Although, for Krauss, nothing means quantum fields, which are certainly something.) Does his scientific argument disprove the doctrine of creation? No, the natural sciences can never disprove the doctrine of creation. This is not a cop-out, it is simply acknowledging the difference between metaphysics and science. Theologian William Carroll explains the doctrine well:

Creation is not primarily some distant event; rather, it is the on-going complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns first of all the origin (source of being) of the universe, not its temporal beginning.

Even proving the universe is eternal wouldn’t disprove the doctrine of creation. (Aquinas, for example, thought God could have created an eternal universe.)

Dawkins undercuts the movie’s mission. Early in the movie, Krauss asks Richard a question: “What is more important . . . to explain science or destroy religion?” Dawkins replies that destroying religion is promoting science. While Dawkins’s mission to popularize science is fantastic, his understanding of religion is not. Saying religion and science are incompatible is not only wrong, but it creates as many creationists as it converts. If Dawkins says that accepting evolution means accepting atheism, then many theists will deny evolution, no matter the evidence for it.

“Science or religion?” = “cake or death?” Science and religion coexist just fine, if both are properly understood. Dawkins and Krauss, however, settle for caricatures of both: science is wonderful and religion is obviously horrible. My good friend Russell Johnson, a philosophy of religion doctoral student, said these caricatures turn any dialogue into an Eddie Izzard joke.

For an atheist with a better take on the relationship between science and religion, see Michael Ruse.

Final Thoughts

Even though I have serious problems with the movie’s main argument, it’s worth seeing. It provides a great window into how Krauss and Dawkins think; it’s cinematography and soundtrack rock.

11 thoughts on “Reviewing The Unbelievers

  1. The real bummer that I perceive in many popular secularists (and which both Dawkins and Krauss display no shortage of) is what I perceive to be hubris in lieu of intellectual integrity. To be clear, I do not intend to say that the popular secularists at hand indeed have hubris or that they are without intellectual integrity, rather I am fairly certain that if provided my forthcoming argument both would respond with “well of course, but “, and yet there is my perception.
    The origin of this perception comes from the history of Science itself (which I have no doubt both Dawkins and Krauss understand well) birthing from the nucleus of Philosophy. As such, although a powerful tool (and perhaps one of the most powerful tools ever devised by mankind), science does have its limits, specifically in the realms of its birth: Philosophy. When these men, and popular secularists like them, make swooping claims regarding Science’s corrosive properties against Religion, they seem to be putting the cart before the horse and mis-using the tool of Science as a means to corrode metaphysical arguments that it is ill-equipped (and indeed unable) to do. Mike points this out well with his reference to William Carroll. Since this intellectual oversight is so blatant that I doubt Dawkins and Krauss could overlook it, the aforementioned perception of hubris results.
    When I mentioned earlier that I imagine these men would respond with a “well of course, but…”, I think the justification would very likely continue as follows: that the use of the word “Religion” is indeed too broad, and that instead the focus ought instead turn on a form of “religion”, specifically those forms of religion that are in direct conflict with highly probable scientific understandings of today. For just as Science has no business in metaphysical aspects of Religion and Philosophy, Religion has no place in mechanisms of Science (although taking a religious appreciation, i.e. viewing these mechanisms through a religious lens, is certainly appropriate). To be sure, any religion that oversteps its bounds into redefining these mechanisms contrary to the established scientific view is in jeopardy. Perhaps this is the view that Dawkins and Krauss are taking, and yet, my perception of their hubris remains…

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    • Sean, thank you for such a great reply! I agree with almost everything you said. My sole disagreement is that I doubt Dawkins and Krauss are catching their intellectual oversight. I think their knowledge of the history and philosophy of science really is that simplistic. I came to this conclusion after having dinner with Dawkins two years ago, and watching Krauss respond to atheist critics of his book, A Universe from Nothing. Thankfully, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, a brilliant atheist, is a much better popular secularist. I encourage you all to watch his Bloggindheads.tv interview, which I summarized in this week’s buzz: https://jesusanddawkins.com/2014/06/23/weekly-buzz-62314/#more-275.

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  5. I agree that science and religion are not incompatible, and that trying to undermine religion is actually undermining the promotion of science. it’s perfectly fine to both accept science and believe in a worldview that cannot be explained by science. Otherwise, how can people have hope? There’s a short publication available online I like called “Other Voices, Other Ways” that talks about sources of knowledge. The ‘scientific method’ is only one avenue for knowing things. Calling it out as the ‘one and only method’ above all other forms of knowledge alienates a large segment of the world’s population.

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