Comment: Expelled generates more heat than light in evolution debate

By Peter T. Chattaway

CANADIANS are making their mark on the evangelical movie scene -- but unlike our brethren south of the border, most of us may have to wait until the movie in question comes out on video to see what all the fuss is about.

The latest Christian film to crack the all-important top-ten list at the box office is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary on the Intelligent Design (ID) movement hosted by Ben Stein, a former speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford who is best known for playing a boring teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The film opened at #10 when it was released to American theatres April 18, but as of this writing, there are no plans to release it in Canada, even though producer Walt Ruloff lives on Bowen Island and writer Kevin Miller, a former critic for Hollywood Jesus and an occasional contributor to BC Christian News, lives in Abbotsford.

As with a number of recent films, Expelled owes much of its success to controversy -- beginning with the accusations made as far back as last September by atheist scientists Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, who claimed they were interviewed for the film under false pretenses, and had no idea of its religious inclinations.

Whether that's true is not for me to say. But the film itself -- which I saw at a local post-production facility in downtown Vancouver -- certainly plunges into its controversial subject matter in a way that is designed to get attention, provoke laughter, stimulate outrage and generally produce more heat than light.

In many ways, Expelled follows the template set by Michael Moore and his imitators. Stein injects his interviews with deadpan humour -- telling one ID theorist that he was tossed out of the academic establishment for being a "bad boy" -- and occasionally he wanders around, looking lost outside the Discovery Institute in Seattle or being turned away from the Smithsonian by a security guard.

The film, directed by Nathan Frankowski, also uses cheesy archival footage to mock some of the atheists' claims; and the closest it ever comes to explaining what ID theory actually is, and thus whether it deserves any sort of scientific attention, comes via a cheeky animated sequence on 'The Casino of Life' that is similar in feel and tone to the history-of-guns bit in Moore's film Bowling for Columbine.

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Alas, the film also cherry-picks quotes in a way that will be disappointing to anyone who is familiar with the debate over ID and the origins of life. British scientists-turned-clergymen Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne are dropped in for a few seconds to explain that religion and science can get along, but no mention is made of the fact that both men subscribe to evolutionary theory and are critical of ID.

And Stein's climactic interview with Dawkins includes an exchange that is treated like a major 'gotcha!' moment, yet if anything it suggests there is something fundamentally dishonest, or at least disingenuous, about the ID movement.

Put simply: To assure people that ID really is science and not just religion in disguise, ID theorists have been insisting for years that they make no claims about the nature of the Intelligent Designer himself. He could be natural, like an alien, or he could be supernatural, like a god; all they want to do is look for evidence of design itself. But the moment Dawkins runs with the possibility that aliens might have created life on Earth, the movie pounces as if to say the very idea is absurd.

Matters are further confused by the fact that the film never acknowledges that some ID theorists actually believe in evolution, albeit perhaps only to a point. Instead, the film allows the viewer to think that ID and evolution are natural enemies -- an idea deepened by the film's efforts to link Darwinism with the Holocaust.

The problem is, evolutionary theory -- which is both older and newer than Darwin, by the way -- is either true or it isn't, and it doesn't matter much whether people have abused the theory, any more than it matters whether people have abused, say, the teachings of Jesus. Within the film, Dawkins links the Bible to genocide just as surely as Stein links evolution to genocide, so what good does that tactic really do?

What we need is a film that can explore the limits of science, the nature of scientific research, and the interplay of science and faith in a way that makes us all better thinkers. But would anyone want to be involved, and would it get so much publicity from the media, and would it do as well at the box office? Probably not.

April 24/2008