richard dawkins

Now Available: The Unbelievers with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss

After a long wait, the anticipated documentary, The Unbelievers, is now available on iTunes, Amazon, etc. If you’re not familiar, it follows two scientists and well-known religious skeptics Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they travel around the world debating apologists, delivering lectures, and having public conversations about science and reason in enormous concert halls (what makes me giddy is that these halls are all full). The best description of the style I’ve heard is a rock-documentary for scientists. The film is fast-paced, moving from hotel to hotel, city to city, event to event – and culminates during the 2012 Reason Rally in D.C., which turned out to be the largest secular gathering in recorded history (and was somehow completely ignored by the major media).

You can see the trailer below. I rented the flick last night ($4.99 in the US on iTunes) and did really enjoy it, despite being – appropriately – skeptical. I read some initial reviews, like this one in the NY Times, that seemed to focus too much on what the reviewer wished the movie had been instead of what it was (if I recall correctly, John Updike had a rule about book reviewing where he would try to avoid doing just that, no doubt because he found it annoying when his own books were reviewed that way). In order to move at its breakneck speed, The Unbelievers assumes the viewer is already familiar with the standard arguments for and against religion, and so there are no prolonged or deep discussions of the issues. Maybe a bit more character or issue development would have been nice, but that wasn’t what this film was trying to do. And no, none of the “good” arguments for or proponents of religion are featured, but the movie only covers a short tour and I think was intended to simply be an accurate representation of that small slice of time. Richard did have a debate with the Archbishop of Sydney – supposedly a sophisticated theologian – during period the film covers, but it’s pretty clear in the film (and if you watch the full debate below) that he’s far from deserving of that adjective.

In addition to the travel scenes, the movie is book-ended by interviews with a few celebrities commenting on unbelief, including Woody Allen, (the always brilliant) Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Werner Herzog, Sarah Silverman, and many more. I had assumed they would be interspersed throughout the film since their names were used so blatantly for advertising, but they come in just two small segments. Finally, if you stay through the credits, you’ll see a moving tribute to Christopher Hitchens, when the following scrolls up on the black screen amidst the music and slowly stops, right centered:

“For Christopher.”

Krauss has a similar touching scene in the movie, where before a debate with a Muslim apologist he retires to read “his Bible”, a paperback edition of Hitchens’ god is Not Great, saying a bit longingly that  “Christopher always inspires me.” The two were good friends prior Christopher’s passing and you see immediately how much Krauss (and the entire secular movement) misses him.

The film debuted at #1 in several outlets yesterday.

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Christians lie for their faith, and I get a personal email from Lawrence Krauss…

A few months ago, I attended a talk hosted by the local chapter of William Lane Craig’s apologist organization, Reasonable Faith. The discussion was centered on whether or not science has disproven God (admittedly no…but it doesn’t seem to point to one either) and was given by a local engineer and nice enough guy with an undergraduate degree in physics. I’m fairly informed of the stock arguments for and against God, particularly as they regard science, and was perhaps naively expecting to learn something. Instead, I was forced to squirm in my seat through an hour and a half of what could at best be called misrepresentations and at worst be called lies.

The presenter took countless quotes from scientists (most of them confirmed atheists) out of context in support of his particular Christian theology, attributing connotations not present in the original formation. He also inserted helping after helping of meta-physics, which is not science, and shouldn’t in my opinion have been part of the discussion since it quickly delved into attacking atheistic arguments that had nothing to do with science – again, not what the promised discussion was supposed to have been focused on. I’m not sure why, but nobody in the audience asked the speaker why 93% of NAS members remained atheists despite all this purported evidence for God…one would have to assume that the best scientists in the world are simply too dim to see the theological implications of their own work, but that you, lucky you, are special enough to see them.

I’m having trouble finding a link to the original physics slides online (you can download the biology version here), but I’ve posted the introductory slide below. You may note that of the three photos he chose to put up, only Dawkins has ever actually been a practicing scientist (and this was from the physics lecture, not biology). Daniel Dennett is a renowned philosopher, and Sam Harris has a neuroscience degree but is essentially an essayist. And really, a 75% youth exodus? Might that be helping to justify the lying?

Does Science Disprove God?

But my point is that the kind of dishonesty I witnessed should be troubling for any genuine Christian who is also committed to scientific and intellectual integrity. There are people out there who are so defensive about their faith that they are literally lying for it, and it reflects poorly on a large segment of believers.

Anyway, knowing physicist Lawrence Krauss had just finished debating William Lane Craig in Australia, I thought I would share with him the dishonesty that WLC’s organization is committed to spreading, so I tracked down the PowerPoint I had downloaded from the meeting and sent it to him via email. He responded almost immediately, and I now have what I consider almost better than an autograph – a personal email from Larry Krauss. Thanks, WLC.

Reza Aslan calls Dawkins a “fool” and a “buffoon” … and you’re probably wondering who Reza Aslan is …

Reza Aslan, my friends, is the author of a few books on religious history, including his most recent, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, now a bestseller on Amazon. He’s been catapulted to what may or may not be brief fame for Zealot’s pretty sophisticated PR campaign, helped inadvertently by this dastardly interview on Fox News, where commentator Lauren Green attacked his credibility to pen a historical work on Jesus because, of all things, he’s a Muslim.

Aslan correctly pointed out to Green that one’s personal religious beliefs do not disqualify someone from writing a work of historical scholarship, and that he has several advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in religion (even though he refers to it somewhat slyly as a doctorate in the “history of religion” which actually doesn’t exist at the university where he studied), making him well-qualified to write such a book. I defended Aslan in a previous post here, prompted by the unconscionable campaign of defensive Christians to review-bomb Zealot on Amazon, even though they had clearly not read a single page of the book.  I’ve now read Zealot, and it was fine, though, exactly as I suspected, it’s mostly a popularization of other peoples’ work, namely Schweitzer and Meijer. Aslan is much more of a writer than a historian or scholar (his current professorship is in Creative Writing, not any type of history or religious studies, for instance), and he doesn’t put forward any new ideas. In fact, he rather bizarrely treats many events in the Gospels as historically reliable in order to complete his narrative, even though that’s far from the modern consensus (see critical review of Zealot’s scholarship here). All in all though, Zealot is a fun read – he does a good job of summarizing the historical events leading up to the time of Jesus, including the complexity of Jewish culture, and has a very interesting section on the theological divisions between Paul and James, and why Paul’s view ultimately won out (which differs greatly from that of the historical Jesus…at least as best as we can tell, which we can’t very well).

But I won’t be defending Aslan anymore. Reacting to a controversial tweet from Richard Dawkins the other week (see post here), Aslan goes on to call him a “fool” on twitter and then a “buffoon” in a recent interview . This baffles me, particularly when one compares the professional accomplishments of one to the other (go ahead, just google it). Even Dawkins’ critics, and my goodness he has many, aren’t so silly as to say he’s not an intelligent person. If there’s anything Dawkins is not, it’s a fool. But I suppose when you’re just a lowly creative writing professor enjoying his first bestseller, there’s no better way to get attention than to attack the man just voted the world’s top thinker.

As Washington Post columnist Manuel Roig-Franzia notes in this fairly critical piece on Aslan, he’s a bit over-eager to be taken seriously as a scholar, often exaggerating his credentials (see Fox News article above, and note his slightly pompous self-assertion that he’s “actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States”) and academic expertise.

Hm, I’ve never seen Dawkins exaggerate his credentials. I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t need to?

Ahem…Islam is not a race.

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins set off another twitter frenzy with this factual but taunting tweet: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

This is of course true, and astonishing when you consider the sheer number of the world’s Muslims, some 1.6 billion. Dawkins point was similar to that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson in this 2006 lecture: Something has set science back in the Muslim world from their once preeminent position (they named most of the stars, for instance), and it’s likely fundamentalist adherence to religious dogma and the rejection of facts that disagree with their holy book.

In any case, you can find Dawkins’ blog post here defending his tweet and further explaining his intentions. He also responds to the most frequent criticisms from the twittersphere, in which large masses of users seem not to understand that:

1. Islam is not a race (rule of thumb, if you can convert to it…)
2. “Your” and “You’re” mean two different things.

Can an atheist’s favorite song be about Jesus?

Those familiar with my personal views of the divine (agnostic) are usually a little surprised when I tell them my favorite song is “Denomination Blues Pt.1” by gospel singer Washington Phillips. How, with lyrics like these –

. . . It’s right to stand together, wrong to stand apart
When none will enter heaven but the pure at heart
And that’s all, I’ll tell you that’s all
‘Cause you better have Jesus 
I’ll tell you that’s all . . .

– can you find that song appealing, they ask. Well, the short answer is that it’s beautiful. Phillips’ voice, the instrumentation, the melody, even the scratchiness of the recording all add up to a truly moving aesthetic experience – an experience unhindered by any disagreements over the lyrical content. Beauty, whether expressed through a painting, a song, or a play, is available to everyone, not just to those of a particular faith. You’ve probably seen Richard Dawkins hold back his frustration when asked how he can appreciate Christian-themed literature or music – “it’s like saying I can’t appreciate a work of fiction because I know the characters are made up,” he’ll usually respond.

Good art is good art, good music is good music – it matters little what inspired the creator, so long as she was inspired.

Take it away, Mr. Phillips:

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.