WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. SO IF YOU'RE SENSITIVE TO THAT SORT OF THING, NOW IS THE TIME TO CLICK THAT LITTLE RED BUTTON AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE.
Well, I'm still bleary-eyed from a late night, getting home at midnight after the EXPELLED screening in L.A. It was only the second screening in the country. The film opens three weeks from yesterday.
First, the good. EXPELLED is quite likely the most wildly entertaining "documentary" I've ever seen. Possibly ever made. It's fast-paced, humorous (what else would you expect from Ben Stein?), provocative, and profound all at the same time. Even though there were some things I didn't agree with, I still found myself laughing out loud - often.
Philosophically speaking, there is a lot to like in EXPELLED. It touches on profound worldview questions and practically every aspect of origins in less than 2 hours. That's not easy to do and still have it be entertaining! It brings up subjects that I care about, but practically no one else knows about or understands. So, in that sense, I thought it was fabulous.
To my surprise, this isn't really a film about science vs. intelligent design. It's actually a film about freedom of speech and freedom of thought as basic American rights, and that these rights are being abridged within the scientific community. And if our First Amendment rights are being eroded in science - which is typically supposed to be the place where free-thinking and questions are the most welcome - then what's to stop those rights from being eroded in other facets of public life as well? So, in a way, the film is not even really about religion, as it is about being patriotic. Censorship is unAmerican. The filmmakers use the Berlin Wall as an illustration of this. It acts as a symbol for the "thought police" who are silencing those scientists who want to talk about Intelligent Design. The "thought police" keep the acceptable thoughts in, and freedom of thought out.
EXPELLED will have a strong visceral appeal for conservative Christians. The culture war has taken its toll on us in recent years and there are a lot of Christians who are sick of being pushed around. I think EXPELLED gives Christians a symbolic way to push the bully of secular progressivism back. Christians will finally have something to cheer about. And EXPELLED does paint Christians as intelligent and academically articulate, which is nice (for once!).
Now, for some of my issues of concern.
Personally, I'm not convinced that many evangelical Christians actually value freedom of thought. Freedom of speech? Yes. Freedom of thought? Not so much. Evangelicals tend to be more interested in people thinking just like us. Freedom of thought can be kind of scary, largely because it allows room for people to switch religions or become atheists. So, I'm not sure how much emotional pull freedom of thought will have for evangelicals. Maybe it will. I could be totally wrong. But I just wonder...
The film highlights a handful of university professors who have lost their jobs from speaking out in support for ID. And, just as I predicted, the film exploits a few anomalous cases of "censorship" by labeling them "academic persecution" (like the Gonzalez case at Iowa State) and then make it sound like all Christians working as scientists are being censored. But this simply is NOT true. For every situation the filmmakers site, I can think of an alternative example where a Christian has not been fired, despite the fact that their supervisor is aware of their religious convictions. I've even heard of university science professors holding Bible studies in their campus offices!
But it's even worse than that. The film very clearly implies that the scientific establishment is participating in a collusion to cover up evidence for intelligent design. Maybe this is happening. It probably is in some cases. But I don't believe it is as pervasive as the filmmakers make it appear. It can't be. Otherwise, the work astronomers are doing on the anthropic principle and biochemists are doing on molecular motors could not proceed forward. Certainly, I think the case can be made that the Darwinistic challenges are likely greater in the biological sciences. But I think we need to be careful about generalizing to all disciplines.
The whole film leads up to the climax of Ben Stein visiting a former Nazi mental hospital. He is very careful to clarify that Darwinism did not cause Nazi population cleansing practices. But the film makes it clear that Darwinism is a necessary condition for Nazism. Stein is Jewish and after the film, during the Q & A time, he said that his major motivation in getting involved with the project in the first place was its connection to the Holocaust. Apparently, he is a huge Holocaust advocate. He described himself as the "greatest advocate for the Holocaust that there is." And he certainly was noticeably more passionate when that subject came up.
EXPELLED even briefly touches on the little-known reality that eugenics was practiced in the U.S. in the early 20th century as well, and that the founder of Planned Parenthood was a committed follower of eugenics philosophy. That will probably shock some people.
In the end, I am faced with the sad reality that EXPELLED is NOT a documentary. It is a highly entertaining propaganda film. (Here is the Wikipedia definition of "propaganda": "concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of large numbers of people. Instead of impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience.") EXPELLED does contain a lot of truth in it. I just wish the filmmakers had made a more honest effort to represent the scientific establishment in a fair and balanced way.
Although there are a lot things in EXPELLED that I agree with both philosophically and scientifically, I simply cannot endorse their adversarial approach. Sadly, EXPELLED could very well ruin future opportunities that are currently open simply for Christians to dialogue with the scientific community because we are ratcheting up the debate in an confrontational way.
I have a deep concern that many Christians will jump on the EXPELLED bandwagon just because it bashes Darwinism. But when Christians paint the scientific community as a bunch of God-hating Darwinists, they are not accomplishing anything productive. If anything, they are throwing up more emotional barriers to bring the Gospel to scientists, making them even more distrustful of our motives.
The truth is, most scientists are NOT active atheists. They are normal people who are trying to make a living just like everyone else in the world. They are sinners in need of God's love and forgiveness, just like you and me. People like Richard Dawkins make up a very small percentage of the academic community. So when all scientists know about Christians is that we hate scientists or that we think all scientists hate God, that's just not helpful to our evangelistic efforts.
I think EXPELLED could very well have the very opposite effect that the filmmakers hope it will. They want it to stimulate a new level of open dialog. The overall conspiratorial tone of the film, along with the Darwin-Nazi connection, will most likely so deeply offend scientists that it will do great damage to the debate between religion and science. Kind of ironic - the filmmakers use the imagery of taking down the Berlin wall as a metaphor for free speech and free thinking, but the way they are approaching the dialogue will most likely erect a bigger wall between science and religion. Maybe not. Maybe people will start talking more and reacting less. But I'm skeptical.
All things considered, I still think people need to go see EXPELLED. Its provocative message has great potential to at least get people talking about some extremely profound worldview questions. And that's not a bad thing. Just please do me a favor and offer your friends a counter-perspective to the whole "scientists hate Christians" thing.