The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith. See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here). Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989. The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.
While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue. These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s: it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.
The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute). These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”. The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.
The film’s imagery is occasionally over-the-top (the Berlin Wall pops up again and again), but Stein’s argument has merit. He interviews heavyweights among the neo-atheists, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, as well as faculty members at the universities that dismissed the pro-design scientists.
The vehemence of those attacking the intelligent designers is striking, especially contrasted with Stein’s dry persona (“Bueller…Bueller…Bueller”). Dennett and Dawkins at times seem to froth at the mouth (“…not genuine scientists…” “…just propaganda…”), while others warn ominously that intelligent design is nothing but creationism in disguise and a step toward (gasp!) prayer in schools. Biologist Will Provine objects that intelligent design is “so boring I can’t even stand to think about it.”
This last statement seems to summarize Stein’s point rather nicely: that the opposition to intelligent design is so shrill and vehement because the theory raises uncomfortable questions Dawkins & Co. would prefer not to think about. One of those questions is, of course, how life began. Prominent Darwinist Michael Ruse, who dismisses intelligent design as “really very stupid,” explains that life may have begun with molecules piggybacking on crystals, but when pressed by Stein to explain what that means he replies, “I’ve just told you!”
Stein’s interview with Richard Dawkins is particularly telling—and also free from the sort of gotcha juxtapositions that are usually a staple of the genre. Dawkins dismisses religion as a “primitive superstition” and declares himself 99 percent sure that God does not exist, but when it comes to the question of how life began on earth he quite seriously entertains the idea of aliens putting it here.
When Stein asks Dawkins directly how life began, he replies, “Well, by a very slow process.” When he points out that Dawkins hasn’t answered the question, the atheist admits that neither he, nor anyone else, has any idea. The interview perfectly encapsulates the combination of vicious polemic, blind certitude, and logical non-sequiturs that characterize the “new atheist” propaganda.
The part of the film likely to be most controversial is that dealing with social Darwinism, the ideology underlying both the Nazi eugenics program and the founding of Planned Parenthood. Defenders of orthodox Darwinism will object that believing in evolution does not entail accepting the moral principles of social Darwinism, and of course they’d be right. Darwin’s theory, as far as it goes, seems right to me.
But what Stein’s film shows is that evolution is sometimes used as a proxy in larger religious and social conflicts. Some of those who defend it so, well, defensively do so because they really believe that the “primitive superstition” of faith in God must be stamped out.
Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is a case in point. He couches his most recent book Breaking the Spell not as an attack on religion, but as a plea for a rational, scientific attempt to understand religion. But toward the end of the book, he tips his hand, suggesting a program of worldwide reeducation to teach children the truth about all the world’s religions. Parents, he argues, should not be allowed to “indoctrinate” and “brainwash” their children with their own religious views and any contrary talk of “parental rights” is simply irrational sentimentalism. Ben Stein could not have come up with anything more Orwellian than Dennett’s own words.
In the end, Expelled doesn’t shed much light on the question of how life began, nor does it disprove that species evolve into other species. But it does suggest how the irrational and unfounded beliefs of some people can and do lead to the stifling of intellectual discussion with potentially repressive, even violent, social consequences.
In this case, the irrational belief in question is that God does not exist.