April 7, 2008



Expelled from where? What kind of intelligence is not allowed? Why not? Ben Stein single-handedly takes on science, academia and "the new atheists" in this very ambitious, entertaining and information-packed documentary expose. So what's Stein's beef here? That scientific and academic freedom are being supressed. He's got proof, and he's not going to take it any more! Stein names names and institutions, and documents case after case of high-level scientists and/or professors who have lost jobs (even tenured positions), grant money and credibility on account of their investigating even the possibility of "intelligent design" (which ID-backers claim is not necessarily synonymous with God/Creator) as an explanation for the diversity and complexity in nature. They are blacklisted for even mentioning "ID" in a non-pejorative way. Secular journalists also find themselves beholden to the party line, that is, "intelligent design" is on no acccount to be taken seriously. "Expelled" raises the question: Is a biased worldivew preceding open scientific investigation? "Expelled" is a goldmine of discussion starters, and this is its intended purpose. Check out the film's two websites (commercial: www.expelledthemovie.com and educational: www.getexpelled.com). It's impossible to catch everything on the first viewing, so I, for one, am looking forward to the DVD.

This Michael Moore-esque documentary begins and ends with images of the Berlin Wall—a metaphor for the closed-in minds and policies of "Big Science" and academia. There are amusing doctored clips of old movies inserted throughout the film. Ben Stein-- with his poker face and oversize Bozo sneakers--schleps from city to city, interviewee to interviewee, like Socrates, asking innocent question after innocent question.

The zenith is the last interview: Ben Stein with Dr. Richard Dawkins (author of "The God Delusion" and premier frontman for the whole nouveau "God is bunk and religion is dangerous" movement). Dawkins is made too look like a complete fool, or rather, makes himself look like a complete fool. Why? Because although he is a brilliant evolutionary biologist, he is completely out of his discipline when he wades into even the most basic theology, and hasn't bothered to gain the most rudimentary knowledge of it. Maybe he thinks it's a pseudo-ology and he doesn't need to do that, or maybe he thinks anyone can talk about God—you don't need a degree. Although the latter rationale is true, Dawkins doesn't even seem to grasp what the notion "God" means. He insists that God must be within nature, subject to its laws and processes. As Christian geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins, has tried to tell him (in their many debates): "If the word 'God' means anything, it means a Being outside of nature."

To his credit, Dawkins is more than willing to talk to anyone, any time about his beliefs, not worrying about how he will look. He is willing to be caught off guard and be tripped up by his own statements. This openness is refreshing in a packaged, soundbite world. And I am not convinced of his atheism, and I don't believe he is either. To me, he is a genuine seeker. He has been known to make such statements as: "Well, if there is a God…." I think that people who make emphatic statements and write emphatic books stating their emphatic positions are often saying: "This is what I've got. What've you got?" "I can't get any further than this. Talk to me." Believers shouldn't react with knee-jerk anger and "I must chivalrously defend my God!" Our first pope told us: "Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you…may be proved wrong in the accusations that they bring" (1 Peter 3:15-16 JB). I must also thank Dawkins for the correct use of the much-abused phrase "to beg the question."

Dawkins reads a passage from his book that states: the God of the Old Testament is a sexist, homophobic, ethnic-cleansing bully (along with some other choice labels). It has been such a long while since I pulled myself completely outside of my faith box and honestly looked at that assessment, and I realized I had to agree with him. It certainly does look and sound that way to the untrained eye and ear. May I recommend another book to help "outsiders" with The Book? It's spanking new by British Christian apologist, Amy Orr-Ewing: "Is the Bible Intolerant? Sexist? Oppressive? Homophobic? Outdated? Irrelevant?" Yes, I know, how appropriate! Yes, I know, what a long title! It's an extremely calm, succinct, lucid, conversational book that puts the onus on Christians to take seriously the very understandable and real objections, problems and suspicions of nonbelievers—which will, in the process, inform our own sometimes-less-than-informed-and-maybe-even-blinkered faith.

Does it really matter what the scientific community believes or doesn't believe, what it allows itself to investigate or not investigate, teach or not teach, propose or not propose about the origin of life or the origin of species? Ben Stein wisely pushes the assumption that human beings are no different than the animal kingdom to its logical (and historical) conclusion: the Holocaust. I am always astounded when people groan because the Jews, or anyone else, bring up that bothersome Holocaust again. Folks, it was the crime of the millennium. It was the highest crime of the highly civilized. It just happened. Its survivors are still alive. Genocide is still very much with us. What's there to be over? And guess what? You can get there from here. I was horrified to learn that Darwin himself espoused (human) eugenics—it wasn't just a later outgrowth of his thought: "Would you let your worst animals breed?"

What's also truly frightening is the bizarre myths that otherwise intelligent persons of science are willing to posit (unscientifically) rather than the possibility of (Occam's razor) design. When Stein presses: But how did life begin and how did it all get here?—his hapless subjects should have stuck with their first (true) answer: Nobody knows. But they can't resist adding: Maybe a highly intelligent civilization from another planet "seeded" the earth, or molecules spontaneously sprung up on the backs of crystals. Okee dokee.

I don't care for Stein's "us vs. them" polemic in "Expelled," but according to Stein, there is some major intellectual dishonesty and persecution going on in this country. He never reveals exactly what those who were "disciplined" said or wrote, so it makes it difficult to judge for ourselves if they were out of line, but I'm sure the full story in each case is just a Google away. The film charges that intellectual freedom is being shackled and prevented from doing its job: following the evidence without a priori ruling out any possibilities. "Expelled" raises the question: Is worldview preceding science?

I'm sure "Expelled" went through more or less rigorous fact-checking, but Stein seems to frequently conflate Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, evolution and evolutionism. He mines factoid gems, but doesn't always seem to be able to set them in a larger, coherent narrative. Conspicuously absent from the film is Dr. Francis Collins (supposedly not a big fan of ID) and Michael Behe (although The Discovery Institute of which he is a fellow) is visited by Stein.

"Expelled" is very rich, in spite of its being part propaganda. (The first principle of media literacy: "All media is a construct.") I had to laugh because the person introducing the film at our screening said: "None of the interviews were taken out of context." Ha ha ha.
Ben Stein, himself, may be out of his theological competency, but he pretty much safely sticks to his cause of academic freedom.

The Vatican, when asked to weigh in on this peculiarly American debate declared that ID is neither religion nor science but philosophy (which, for all practical purposes, has gone the way of the buffalo in the public square). Cardinal George of Chicago echoed the contention that ID is philosophy in his fine article in "The Catholic New World":
(Stein gets the European take on ID also: It's not a big problem because "there's not the same political correctness in Europe," and the "courts don't decide what can and cannot be taught.")
Check out also Cardinal Schonborn's 2007 book "Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith." Owen Gingerich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science, Harvard University, and author of "God's Universe," has this to say of the book (although various readers came to a wide variety of conclusions): "Cardinal Schonborn writes with masterful simplicity on profound theological issues. I, as a scientist and Christian outside the Catholic tradition, welcome his wisdom. He argues effectively that there are multiple approaches to reality, and he states clearly that while intelligent design is worthy of human reflection, from a scientific perspective the evolutionary model is the true story."
Any mention of "chance" in evolution is also conspicuously absent from the film, and although Stein admits he doesn't go into all the particulars of the evolution problem, "chance" is too much of a hot button topic to be ignored. Einstein famously said: "God doesn't roll dice," but it seems, perhaps, that "God" left some things to random chance, that so-called natural selection doesn't always make the wisest, most efficient, most perfect choices (cf. "March of the Penguins"). The most beautiful way I have ever heard this explained is that: God is not afraid of other autonomies. And there must be something else at play here: whimsy? beauty? sense of humor? Incidentally, Thomas Merton said that the number one thing wrong with America is precisely "efficiency." On a sadder note: the biggest proof of chance for me (or shall we say, freedom) is, once again, the Holocaust. And what of these creatures who are also willing and able to trash their own planet until it becomes completely inhospitable to them?

As you know, and as is briefly mentioned in the film, Catholics (and mainline Protestants) don't have a problem with the general concept of evolution. Here's what Catholics "believe." Evolution is a natural process by which things change and grow. How this happens is open to debate. Darwin had his ideas about it. Not all scientists agree with Darwin's ideas, or believe that his ideas can explain all evolution. Catholics believe that God could have had the world and human life unfold in any old way He wants because He is very smart and unlimited. In 1996, Pope John Paul II publicly acknowledged that evolution is more than a hypothesis, but a bonafide (scientific) theory, or rather several theories. Catholics believe that if our bodies evolved from primates, then at some point in time, God began endowing what was now human with an "immortal soul." The soul did not evolve. Human beings are not so much capable of "self-consciousness" or "higher consciousness," but "God consciousness." They can be aware of, and in a conscious relationship with God, the source, summit and sustainer of all life and love. Humans are made in the image of God.

Some Christians freak out at the very idea of evolution, thinking there's no room for God in it (and they also don't want to believe that their bodies might have had "humble" beginnings as fish/monkeys). These Christians also think they take the Bible literally—but they don't because they have all sinned with their hands and haven't cut them off yet, and because (to quote G. K. Chesterton), they know that Herod wasn't really a "fox," and Jesus wasn't really a "gate."

My firm belief is that when your science rattles your faith or your faith rattles your science, there's the same root cause: your God ain't big enough.

I could go on forever about this film and these vital and exciting topics, but I haven't even scratched the surface. But do allow me the indulgence of paraphrasing bio-ethicist, "St." Leon Kass: Some say that the belief of certain human beings that human beings have a special dignity is the result of their genetic pre-disposition. But those who say this cannot possibly claim to be "right" about anything, including their own belief that humans don't have a special dignity, because they are simply speaking out of their own genetic development. And we shall be as intransigent in our belief as they are in theirs.

 "Expelled" ends in a grandstanding blaze of American flags, and let freedom ring rock music. But if, as the movie claims, free speech is being squelched, there's always the digital marketplace of ideas—in this case, film—where it is just getting off the ground….

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:44 AM

    I wrote about the raging battle today between evolutionists. Check it out: