Expelled, Atheism & Apologetics

Note: In his hilarious and satirical book, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, the late Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) presents us with a scene in which one of the patients of a mental hospital is able to predict the stock prices as for the previous day, having neither seen a newspaper nor TV report, nor having heard any radio news on the stock market nor having had any human contact to give him the information. The hospital administrators recognize this as unusual but are not willing to spend any time researching this phenomenon since the patient is predicting the past instead of the future: old news rather than anything anyone could do anything with. In a sense I feel like this with this post since it involves the film Expelled which came and went a couple of months ago. Yet, I believe the issues touched are still relevant although definitely not cutting edge news. For this reason I am posting this brief article which was featured in the Sacred Saga Spring Newsletter which went out last month.

In this post, I focus on a phenomenon in which we as North American Christians find ourselves embroiled every day: the hostility at the powerbase of our culture to not only the Judeo-Christian God, but to any concept of God. Recently I have written a blog about The New Atheism and the intellectual status of the movement. While Atheism as a movement has according to Alister McGrath (in The Twilight of Atheism) by and large spent its intellectual capital it is still a powerful political force in academia and the media. The whole Politically Correct (PC) movement may in fact be a testimony to the fact that there is no intellectual vitality left, so to hang on to dominance, atheism must resort to the power of coercion rather than persuasion.

Recently, Kay and I went to see the new movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary co-written by and featuring Ben Stein as the interviewer and narrator.

Expelled is not a film about ner-do-well high school students who cross the line. It is instead a look at the PC intellectual climate in the American scientific/academic community which insists that there is only one viable side to any controversial issue (Global Warming, Abortion, Homosexuality, etc.) and hypocritically espouses freedom of thought and speech while actively striving to crush any contrary opinion from being heard let alone entertained. Expelled’s particular focus is the adamant rejection of not only the idea of Intelligent Design (ID) but of even allowing the term to be printed in scientific literature or mentioned in the classroom. Stein’s entree into the debate is through the lens of several prominent scientists who declare that they have lost their teaching positions and been blackballed for their discussion about or support of Intelligent Design.

While the lens of discussion in the film is Intelligent Design, the broader subject is intellectual freedom to explore unpopular ideas, specifically ideas that transgress the reigning scientific orthodoxy. Throughout the film the Berlin Wall acts as the recurring metaphor for the wall that has been erected in academia with those on the East (academia) being monitored by the thought police (adherents to the reigning evolutionary paradigm).

The most controversial section of Expelled explores the connection between Darwinsim and the Holocaust implying a causal relationship between the two. Particularly moving in light of Stein’s Jewishness is his visit to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp where over a quarter million Jews and other enemies of the state were killed in the name of purifying the master race. Stein contends that the justification for the Holocaust is ultimately rooted in the Darwinian mantra the “survival of the fittest.” Hitler and the Nazis were merely helping evolution by removing the unfit to make room for the strong to breed.

As an exploration of Darwinism (evolution) vs. ID, Expelled paints in broad brushstrokes—so broad that nuanced yet vital distinctions are lost. In this way Expelled presents a distorted perspective. Specifically, the way the material is presented seems to imply that the issue is ID vs. evolution. There is little time spent on the distinction between evolution as a mechanism and Evolution as a materialistic philosophical worldview. While this idea is addressed in passing by John Lennox, Oxford University Mathematician and Philosopher of Science, who discusses briefly the concept of worldview, his contribution is lost in the on-going presentation.

Another problem is that there is no definition of intelligent design—particularly ID as a technical term employed by the movement championed by William Dembski, Michael Behe, Philip Johnston and The Discovery Institute (which is featured in the film). While all scientists who are Christians must theologically embrace the reality of the creator and of design, a great many disavow the program of the Intelligent Designmovement because they see that program as leading ultimately to a “God of the gaps” mentality.

The phrase “God of the gaps” has been used to describe the invoking of God as a direct causal agent apart from natural processes (i.e. a miracle) to explain a natural phenomenon for which science is unable (yet) to account. The problem with this strategy is that when further scientific research discovers a heretofore unknown natural mechanism to explain that which had previously been ascribed directly to the hand of God, God gets smaller and less involved in creation.

Apologetically this “God of the gaps” strategy has time and again become an embarrassment to Christians when new scientific discoveries have discredited claims that God had directly intervened in the natural processes. Theologically the strategy involves a practical deism on the part of believers. Day to day, Creation operates by divinely established natural laws. God is transcendent above creation but uninvolved day to day (a practical denial of divine immanence). He occasionally breaks in from above to do a miracle.

I find it highly ironic that one of Expelled’ s major interviewees, evangelical Anglican theologian Alister McGrath, Oxford Professor of Historical Theology (who also has an earned D.Phil. in molecular biology) is a theistic evolutionist as is fellow interviewee John Polkinghorne (Anglican theologian particle physicist, and fellow in the Royal Society). In fact, Stein himself does not reject evolution as a mechanism—rather he rejects that is a process driven by blind chance as opposed to being guided by God.

Christianity Today gave Expelled three stars (out of four). This assessment, I believe, is a bit generous. The framework of the film is purposefully provocative and inflammatory. It employs black and white Cold War footage, particularly the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for the intellectual climate produced by the entrench academic establishment. The film does not plow any new ground, or give any new ammunition for apologetic debates; it does soberly document the suppression of those who question the reigning orthodoxy of atheistic evolution in academia. What is more, Stein gives opportunity for the opposition, many nationally recognized figures whose opinions are regularly sought out for sound bites by the national media, to fully vent their opinions. There is no patching together of clips here. Instead there is extended uncut footage that leaves no doubt as to the position of the interviewee. As one reviewer noted: “They become sputtering ranters, openly championing their sheer hatred of religion.”