The Unbelievers: An unbelievably missed opportunity at diversity


EDITED: I was reminded that Cameron Diaz’s father, of course, was of Cuban descent, so I updated the total number of persons of color to ‘two’ to avoid erasing her heritage arbitrarily.

So a couple of weeks ago I caught the documentary, ‘The Unbelievers‘, described as following:

…renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

As to these particular statements, I don’t find huge disagreements with these men or the documentary on the veracity of religion, science and reason, and only some disagreements on what to do about these issues. But I had a problem with this documentary not specifically on its stance on atheism (though I didn’t find it compelling for a number of tonal and aesthetic reasons). Rather, I had a problem with the makeup of the featured individuals.

First off, I understand wanting to utilize two of the big names in atheism in Dawkins and Krauss, both of whom were traveling with and around each other over the globe, in order to make a bigger draw for what is a niche type of film. Secondly, I also understand wanting to fill up much of the other speaking slots with celebrities and well-known people in the atheist world to add even additional buzz. Finally, I get that documentaries are expensive and tough to do, and that it’s potentially why this film ran so short in terms of running length (though there seemed to be a LOT of padding by way of establishing shots). What I don’t get is how in this modern era, as discussions have been ongoing and notable among atheists about the lack of diversity and representation in our ranks, they ended up with only three women, one of whom was the only person of color, but a pretty uniform representation of affluent white men.

Let’s look a the website’s own list:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Bill Maher
Stephen Colbert
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

Now, there’s something disingenuous right from the beginning. While Stephen Colbert is a fine comedian with skeptical sensibilities, he is well-known for being a practicing Catholic despite his progressive stances on things, and he only appeared in the film in the context of a segment from his own TV show as an interviewer. Also, the ‘and more’ is just plain silly, consisting mostly of crowd shots (including myself at the Reason Rally hilariously enough), background individuals and folks just caught up in lengthy montage sequences.

So, here are the only women given significant screen time to speak: Cameron Diaz, Sarah Silverman and Ayaan Hirsi-Ali. Diaz and Hirsi-Ali are also the only persons of color (Diaz being half-Cuban in terms of heritage). James Randi is the only one who identifies as being gay. The only other minorities of color who had a “voice”? Angry Islamists.

Again, this is despite the fact that it’s been a longstanding criticism that the atheist “movement” has been almost as diversity-challenged as the Republican Party here in the U.S., there didn’t seem to be much of an effort in this film to change that perception. The prominent white male faces are counterpointed by the fact that there were, of course, more diverse elements in those establishing crowd shots. But, large scale identification, involvement in atheist/skeptical issues and leadership visibility has still been something slow in terms of growth among varying minority groups for a secular community that desperately needs to address these issues in the face of rapidly changing demographics in the U.S. (just like the GOP).

Filling up on mainstream individuals is all well and good, yes. Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette are all very prominent faces in terms of notoriety. That still left room for figures in the atheist circles that you could have emphasized or introduced to, what was likely, the “choir” of atheist viewers who would watch this, such as other women who spoke at the Global Atheist Conference like Eugenie Scott, Annie Laurie Gaylor or Kylie Sturgess, or a person of color such as Lawrence Leung, an Australian comedian. At the Reason Rally, they could have squeezed in some soundbites from Taslima Nasrin, Jamila Bey, Greta Cristina, Victor Harris or Hemant Mehta. Just a couple of one-liners and/or introductions would have been nice.

I wouldn’t rail on this except it’s now 2013, and there was every necessity to make the conscientious effort to be more inclusive, show-off a little more diversity. Instead we get a plodding, incoherent film that panders mostly to those who already “unbelieve”, and does little in the way to depict atheists as something other than a mostly white men’s club.

Final count of unbelievers who get a voice in this movie: 18 white men, 3 women, 2 persons of color, 1 queer person. Is there an extended version that can come out on Blu-Ray like a Peter Jackson movie with some bonus features that include marginalized voices?

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