A new index of forbidden ideas?

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.


18 Responses to A new index of forbidden ideas?

  1. “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.”
    – Why is it propaganda? Us Atheists didn’t make such extraordinary claims of divinity in the first place. You religious people make the most outlandish claims without any evidence, and then use it to justify whatever prejudice you deem worthy of the time period (homosexuality seems to be a favourite). We simply say “we don’t know”. That isn’t propaganda. I wish Christianity would stop presuming that anything that slightly questions its apparent monopoly on truth is some evil leftie propaganda machine.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Propaganda because Dawkins gave a misleading answer to Stein’s question, implying that “a very long time” explained how life began.

      Also, the interview contained quite a bit I didn’t quote, much of it along the lines of your answer to William — rather heavy on rhetoric and light on content. Your statement below also has the virtue of demonstrating that when you say “we don’t know” you are in fact claiming to know quite a bit — for example, that God is similar to Hitler, that life has no purpose, that morality is a social construct, and that Darwin is great.

      Since your definition of being religious includes a fondness for “outlandish claims without evidence,” I’m rather surprised you aren’t religious yourself.

  2. William Atkinson says:

    I think Jesus (Jesu) might just turn around and say “Gotcha”. truth is evident that all the 800 billion years we know of earths existence or 7 million years of historical mankind, the unknown is explained in so many different ways, the fact that Abraham, Jesus, and Darwin all have something in common, the explanation of pattern of direction, creation is not caotic, but planned, and the unknown is found to have direction and purpose by Jesus’s explanation of “the Father” God and his Son of Man. Untill something greater comes along this is all we have, our forfathers beliefs and faith in God. I think Pierre Teilhard de Chardin best explains it in his “Phenomenom of Man” and “The Noosephere”. His insight that Jesus Christ will present all of mankind (I rather agree with the ALL) to his father. I like the reference to “Gotcha” kindas like turning to Peter and saying “Get behind me Satan” kind of tells us the mind of Jesus and how we react to the Mahers and and Stiens of today; I rather think if Jesus was walking along with us today he’d be laughing at mans intelect as it has collectively grown thru the centuries. Before Adam religions existed, but more along the lines of philosophy and mythology of the unknown.

    • Did you just link Adam and Darwin?
      The “pattern” you speak of, is the detestable evil present in the Old Testament:
      “Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock.
      – Deuteronomy 13:13-19″
      – Sounds a bit Hitler-esque to me.

      ” creation is not caotic, but planned, and the unknown is found to have direction and purpose by Jesus’s explanation of “the Father” God and his Son of Man. ”
      – Creation is very chaotic. We exist in a small corner of a universe of billions of stars and billions more planets revolving around those stars. There is no “purpose”. Purpose is a man made concept. It doesn’t exist except in the mind of mankind. To suggest the Bible has any monopoly on purpose, is ridiculous. What is our purpose? To appease a dictatorial God who created the idea of sin and then punished us for not being his slaves? I want nothing to do with that purpose.
      Islam would say it has a different purpose to your idea.
      Hinduism would say it has a different purpose to your idea.
      The Roman Gods would have a different purpose to your idea.
      What makes you right?

      “Before Adam religions existed, but more along the lines of philosophy and mythology of the unknown.”
      – When did “Adam” exist? I want concrete fact, given that you’re just inventing history now. When did he exist? Actual proof please.

      God/Allah/Hitler (they are all very similar) demands complete obedience. Which begs the question, what is the point of life? I despise these doctrines, and yet I’m supposed to follow them avidly or be eternally punished? What a horrible life. Atheism does not demand anything of the sort. We do not claim that you have to be moral because you might be punished in an afterlife if you aren’t. We say morality is based on social evolution and the need to survive.

      We as a species are incredible. Morality comes from us, and nothing else. We do not need a vengeful lunatic fairy in the sky to make us perform good deeds. We do it for the sake of good, not for the sake of God. We do not need silly superstitions and rituals in an attempt to please a vindictive bastard in the sky, in the hope that we might go to a nice place when we die. Humanity is great. The discovery that Darwin made, is far more stunning and awe-inspiring (as well as truthful) than anything religion has ever had to offer. The name “Darwin” should be taught to children and heard in classrooms across the World, years before the names “Jesus” and “Muhammad” are uttered.

      Jesus wouldn;t have said “gotcha” because Jesus probably didn’t exist 🙂

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


        The quotation you chose from Scripture is indeed troubling. It is remarkable to me, however, that the only people who would insist on taking such a passage literally are fundamentalists and atheists… and probably more atheists than fundamentalists. Since I am neither, by all means, feel free to continue punching the straw man. If, on the other hand, you are interested in a more nuanced approach to such troubling passages, Nathan O’Halloran has posted on a number, most recently here:


        Your anger at (your ridiculous caricature of) God over such passages seems a bit misplaced, however, since all would agree those passages were written by men, inspired or otherwise. Which means that this “incredible species” is perhaps not so great as you say in your last paragraph… if God does not exist, as you claim, then all the evil you attribute to him falls on humanity. This isn’t such a problem for me, but then I don’t believe morality comes ultimately from man.

        I am, however, glad you found the blog. It might be kind of fun having an angry atheist kicking around here occasionally. At some point I’ll even put up something a bit more substantive on Dennett…

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      William, I would add two notes of caution. First, I don’t think Jesus is the “gotcha” kind of guy. In many ways, he is remarkably straightforward, and claims of hidden gotcha knowledge verge on the gnostic.

      Second, I think we have to be very careful in not conflating our religious beliefs with those of other religions, creating a sort of amalgam. This is a trick that often pops up in neo-atheist writing, creating a straw man called “Religion,” which turns out to be quite ridiculous.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I just watched Expelled the other day and I had about the same response as you. I thought the images of the Berlin wall and the tone of particularly the first half of the movie distracted from some otherwise good questions and arguments.

    I actually found myself a little disappointed in the Richard Dawkins interview. I’ve heard athiests say such postive things about him that I was expecting him to last more than 30 seconds in a debate with Ben Stein before he started bumbling on about aliens.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Oh and I found this quote particularly amusing.

    -Biologist Will Provine objects that intelligent design is “so boring I can’t even stand to think about it.”

    Because something is boring it is without merit? Really? How does that even resemble logic? I picked up an old textbook of my husband’s the other day on electrical theory and was bored out of my skull. Out of my ever-loving skull, I tell you. I happily went back to my previous occupation of watching paint dry. That hardly makes electrical theory a bunch of BS.

  5. ” It is remarkable to me, however, that the only people who would insist on taking such a passage literally are fundamentalists and atheists”
    – I do take it literally! I’m not sure how else it was supposed to be written. I’m not sure the story of Abraham threatening to kill his son, who must have been scared to death by the point, wasn’t supposed to be taken literally. It was supposed to make us fear God. Like pretty much the entire Old Testament, it is violent, dangerous, and glorifies a God that is nothing more than a bit of a crazed dictator. It is not a straw man, when you take your religion for how it has proceeded in the past 2000 years; forcing its way onto the people of Europe through fear of punishment, torture, and death. Taking parts of the Old Testament literally, and ignoring others that don’t suit your life, is what Christians are amazing at. The Catholic Church will happily spend all day condemning homosexuality, yet people wearing clothing of mixed fabric you’re all fine with. Christians cherry pick what to believe, and it often leads to horrific prejudice. I accept that maybe you’re a different kind of Christian?

    “Your anger at (your ridiculous caricature of) God over such passages seems a bit misplaced”
    – Why? There are plenty of passages that make Kim Jong-Il seem quite liberal in comparison.

    ” if God does not exist, as you claim, then all the evil you attribute to him falls on humanity”
    – Yup. Humanity can be vicious. But we can be fantastic too. I certainly don’t attribute all evil to the Devil, when the Devil of the O.T actually doesn’t seem all that bad in comparison to the God of the O.T.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Well, Futile, as is obvious from your comments, Christians aren’t the only ones capable of “cherry picking” Biblical passages to suit their pre-determined ideological agenda. By “cherry picking,” I assume you mean tearing particular passages from their original context as well as from the overall thrust of the Biblical narrative so that one has no sense that some passages are more important than others and, indeed, govern how we interpret other passages. As Shakespeare observed, “The devil can quote Scripture for his purposes.”

      As the example of the eugenics programs of early twentieth century and the Nazis demonstrate, however, the devil also seems to be able to quote Darwin for his purposes — does that invalidate everything Darwin wrote?

      The Bible is an incredibly complex collection of literature written over the span of thousands of years, reflecting the religious experience of the Jewish people culminating in God’s self-revelation in Jesus. That experience was recorded by people who were both vicious and fantastic, to use your terms, and what those people wrote about God reflects who they were — at times even more than it reflects who God is. In other words, our way of describing a painting will be effected as much by the eyeglasses we’re wearing when we view it as by the painting itself. Only one man reveals God as he is without distortion — Jesus Christ. He is the lens through which we interpret everything else in the Bible.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        Hello Anton, I’m wondering if “futile” is for real-reals, as they say. If so, he/she shows a remarkable willful ignorance on the subject of scripture. As you say, even Orthodox Jews do not take the OT as literal; that nefarious honor is held by Fundies and atheists (you nailed it). I actually have some semi-close atheist friends, and it never amazes me to what lengths they will go to “prove” how atheists are smarter than believers. They quote and cite survey after study on the subject. I’m thinking they either have very severe inferiority complexes or they are frustrated by the fact that they are incapable of believing. I always end any discussion with, “believe or don’t believe; it doesn’t change reality.”

    • My main beef with Expelled is that Ben Stein is trying to buttress up the Intelligent Design movement out of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a movement that I think is a dead end and is deeply philosophically flawed. That is why I refuse to show it to my students. I wan to keep them far away from Intelligent Design. But it is otherwise entertaining in parts.

  6. Kevin M says:

    I haven’t watched Expelled in a while. Last time I did, I watched it back-to-back with Religulous. I found Religulous was more entertaining, inasmuch as Maher didn’t seem as defensive as Stein (until the last five or six minutes when Maher got smug — a trait I tend to equate with defensive). In a like manner, Stein seemed to act as though he’d scored a victory in his conversation with Dawkins — he acted smug, but I didn’t see a win for either side of the debate.

    Were I in a position to do so, I’d like to produce a documentary on the non-fringe elements of the debate. I’d like to hear from people who can reconcile science and faith, and I’d like those people to identify the flaws in the extreme views of both factions. Because — personally — I’m tired of extremists and fundamentalists controlling this debate (and so many others). I do not believe the represent a majority, and neither side seems in a position to serve humanity, let alone their own personal agendas.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Kevin – I agree with you to a certain point. Although I guess it depends on one’s definition of “extremist” and “fundamentalist”, which is entirely subjective.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Hi Kevin,

      There were a couple of very intelligent priest/scientists in both films. Fr. George Coyne is a Jesuit and astronomer, who works at the Vatican Observatory, and John Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest and theoretical physicist at Cambridge. They were in Religulous and Expelled respectively… but only for a few moments, for, as you point out, it is the nature of such “documentaries” to focus on the shocking/entertaining extremes. That doesn’t always make for the best thought, of course.

      I mentioned Coyne in my first post on Religulous:


      He’s a class act.

      • Kevin M says:

        I grant you that there were intelligent people in both docs (I think both Maher and Stein are smart in their own ways), but the interviews were skewed (either through the use of editing or leading questions) to endorse either far right or far left views, and I’m not certain all of those interviewed were fairly represented.

  7. Qualis Rex says:

    Kevin, your point to the above (depending on where our posts “meet”) comment is very well taken. Maher was criticised and panned widely after Religulous came out for not giving Catholics more “air time”, since he had something like 14 hours of footage with I believe 3 separate priests, who were apparently spinning gold and had later stated they enjoyed the conversations they had with Maher. But unfortunately, as Anthony states, 99.9% of the footage ended up on the cutting-room floor, since it didn’t lend itself to the premise of all religious people being ignorant, uneducated extremists.

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