Written by Tara Alatorre Category: Valley News Issue: November 2013
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A controversial film by two Valley brothers follows famous atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss on a global mission for reason.

Got God? Most Americans do. According to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, roughly 80 percent of the population defers to some sort of deity. So a film that follows famous atheists on tour espousing the virtues of science is bound to ruffle feathers.

Currently in pre-release, The Unbelievers is uniquely poised as a lightning rod in the religion/science debate, and it’s planted firmly  in the Valley. Directed by a pair of local filmmakers, the documentary follows best-selling authors, world-renowned scientists and atheist duo Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss on an international science tour, where they discuss – among other topics – why it may be reasonable to shun centuries-old monotheistic belief systems. A 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that one-fifth of the U.S. population is “religiously unaffiliated,” the highest percentage ever in Pew polling. Yet statistics also show that less than two percent of the population identifies as atheist, making them the enduring minority. “The purpose of the film is to create a broad discussion among the public about important issues of science, reason and religion,” Krauss says.

Krauss, a professor at Arizona State University, is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who authored the books A Universe from Nothing and The Physics of Star Trek. English biologist Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, which sold more than 2 million copies, and started the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which posits the importance of science and education over religious fundamentalism. The film also includes interviews with screen stars including Cameron Diaz, Stephen Colbert, Woody Allen and Sarah Silverman.

The local filmmakers behind the project, brothers Gus and Luke Holwerda of Black Chalk Productions/Shirley Films, met Krauss in 2009 at a symposium he put on as director of the Origins Project, an ASU initiative that gathers the world’s top scientists to explore the question of where the universe and life originated. With all-day events drawing sold-out crowds of more than 3,000 people, the event felt more like a rock concert than a science lecture, according to the Holwerdas. Similarly, Krauss was impressed with the pair’s film projects, which included a short horror film titled The Girl in the Woods. “I was convinced [the Holwerdas] were really talented, and we talked about ways to try and do interesting projects together,” Krauss says. A few years later, the Holwerdas started following Dawkins and Krauss to speaking engagements around the world, and filming them.

With Krauss as co-producer, The Unbelievers was shot and edited in eight months, had a prescreening this past April at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, and officially debuted at Toronto’s Hot Doc Festival in May. “We want this film to start a conversation. People say they can’t stop talking about the topics, and they don’t find it attacking even if they are religious,” Luke Holwerda says.

The Holwerdas tried not to take a stance in the film, and say they knew they succeeded when their dad, a conservative Christian, said a believer could have made it. “It’s not like most documentaries,” Gus Holwerda says. “It’s a fun ride where science is the star, and you will be amazed how many people are willing to take that journey.”

The Unbelievers will screen in Australia at the Sydney Opera House for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in November, with limited theatrical runs planned in Los Angeles and New York. Finalizing a distribution deal has been tricky. “It’s kind of hard to say if the subject matter is having an effect [on distribution]. We tend to forget how small of a percentage of people in this country are ‘non-believers,’” Luke Holwerda says. “It’s probably not out of the question to think there are people who would prefer this didn’t come out – not because the film is ‘damning’ of religion, but just because they don’t agree. And it’s easy to forget how central belief is to people’s world. It’s what identifies them.”

See the film trailer at