We Need Better Atheists: The Smug Humanism of Lawrence Krauss


Among the many transgressive elements in the 1974 American film classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the character Franklin, played by actor Paul A. Partain — still possibly the most offensive portrayal of a disabled person ever committed to film. Franklin’s infantile selfishness is best encapsulated by this moving soliloquy:

If you replace “disabled person” with “atheist,” and “expelling slobbery raspberries into the air” with “displaying open contempt for misinformed people,” you’ll get how offended I am as an atheist by the character Dr. Lawrence Krauss, portrayed by Dr. Lawrence Krauss in the documentary The Unbelievers.

See also: The Unbelievers review

Krauss is an accomplished cosmologist and theoretical physicist who is capable of speaking eloquently on the areas of his expertise, such as quantum mechanics and, presumably, dad-khakis. But this isn’t a film about science; it’s a meta-conversation about unwelcome religious intrusions into science. The film documents a joint tour with Krauss and zoologist Richard Dawkins, who give a series of talks about the importance of rationality, skepticism, and atheism.

The difference between Dawkins and Krauss is that Dawkins can be funny. Krauss doesn’t use humor; he openly mocks people who disagree with him in front of audiences who do. Dawkins effortlessly demonstrates his expertise to his philosophical opponents; Krauss shouts his expertise at people he could be trying to persuade. Where Dawkins is cranky about the intrusion of superstitious religious belief into the public sphere, Krauss emanates wavy, cartoon stink-lines of smugness with his own superiority.

“While you mentioned quantum mechanics,” he sneers at a polite young Muslim scholar during a debate, “I actually understand it.” We don’t have a clip; it helps if you picture Franklin from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre reading from a transcript of Krauss’s dialogue.

Like Franklin — or, really, any villain — Krauss has the extremely uncharismatic tendency to view himself as a victim, referring to his “fight against evil” and describing his work as “under attack.” Let’s be clear: Krauss is a wealthy member of a highly educated and privileged class. He’s influential and well regarded in his field. He travels around the world, he goes on The Colbert Report and gets retweeted by Miley Cyrus. Other than self-satisfaction and the menswear department at Kohl’s, Krauss isn’t a victim of anything, and it’s ironic that an avowed skeptic and atheist would adopt the same rhetorical ploys as the white men on Fox News who describe themselves as victims of poor people with access to health insurance.

So yes, he’s got the Boomer-defining lack of self-awareness; that’s obvious from his “cool” wardrobe and his open confusion about why people call him “strident.” But at one point — after stridently bitching about polls that show atheists are as unpopular as rapists — he draws a rhetorical parallel between believing in religion and believing it’s OK to have sex with animals. For baby Mohammed’s sake, this is one of the arguments often leveled at atheists by smug Christians.

Just as a disabled person would rightfully object to being viewed as a Franklin figure, I would be horribly embarrassed to be viewed by religious people as a Krauss figure just because I’m an atheist. I’m not saying he’s a villain, but he has a villain’s smugness. They’re always sure that their righteousness overcomes their unpleasantness. They lash out at straw men instead of regarding the human beings right in front of them. And they do things like invoke “science” to publicly defend their billionaire friends who confess to child rape. Poor old Franklin didn’t think of himself as a villain, either, but he still ended up with a chainsaw in his gut. I think we can all learn an important lesson from him.