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Seeking an Open Inquiry

The Expelled Controversy: Overcoming or Raising Walls of Division?

© 2008 by Jeffrey P. Schloss. Center for Faith, Ethics, and Life Sciences, Westmont College.
Reprinted with permission of the American Scientific Affiliation

“When the banner unfurls, all reason is in the trumpet.”
- Ukrainian Proverb

The movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed has attracted national attention as the most recent and explosive salvo in the battle - sometimes represented as a scientific conflict, sometimes as an all out culture war - over evolution, divine design, and the treatment of these issues in American academia. Critics of the movie and the Intelligent Design (ID) movement it represents view the campaign as part of a “holy war on science,”See, for example, "Onward Christian Soldiers: The Holy War on Science" by philosopher Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptics Dictionary. (www.skepdic.com)that in many respects involves the intellectual analog of terrorism. Having failed to gain ground in a fairly-waged battle for ideas amongst scientific colleagues, ID advocates are criticized as circumventing the rules of honest intellectual engagement by going straight to school boards and legislators. Having failed there, they are now viewed as resorting to a propaganda campaign of misinformation and vilification.See, for example, Expelled Exposed, the website dedicated to critiquing the film by the National Center for Science Education (http://www.expelledexposed.com).

Expelled and the ID advocates it portrays would agree that the battle hasn’t been fairly fought, but attribute this not to their tactics but those of a “Dark Age of totalitarianism” that silences dissent through “Kafkaesque persecution of scientists”Bruce Walker’s review of the film in American Thinker. April 20, 2008. (http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2008/04/post_83.html). This and much of the other support for the film and its claims cited...and others who challenge the system. Expelled portrays those who champion ID or stand up to Darwinism as freedom fighters, struggling against an oppressive intellectual regime that, while it may control the reins of power, does not represent either sound reason or popular sensibilities. The film “exposes the tactics that Darwinists employ to maintain their stranglehold on academia and the scientific establishment.” In fact, it even closes with stirring words from the Declaration of Independence and a celebration of those brave warriors who have given their lives in the fight to preserve the legacy of American freedoms. Producer Ben Stein concludes, “Freedom of inquiry has been greatly compromised, and this is not only anti-American, it’s anti-science.”

Over the course of this increasingly polarized battle, and especially in the bitter criticisms and umbraged defenses of the film, each side contends that the other not only is wrong, but also is committing the destructive error of the above proverb. [It was taken, by the way, from the famous discussion by Nobel laureate biologist Konrad Lorenz of “militant enthusiasm” - the feverish group think in which “rational considerations, criticisms, and all reasonable arguments...are silenced” by being made to “appear not only untenable but base and dishonorable.”]Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression. 1974. Harvest Books. p269. For many of us who value science, biblical faith, and civil exchange, it is very tempting to echo Mercutio’s lament at the tragic consequences of feuding Montagues and Capulets: “A plague on both your houses!...I was hurt under your arm.” Indeed, our students, and the fabric of social discourse, and the very intellectual questions that have been central to western civilization all appear to have been injured “under the arm” of this feud.

But not so fast with a plea for moderation. If it is important to avoid the fallacy of false extremes, it is also important to avoid the fallacy of the supposedly golden median. Maybe we need, as lifetime Darwin critic Tom Bethell claims in his movie review, to “reject what might be called the diplomatic option, [which] seeks to keep everyone happy” by seeing reconcilable truths on both sides. For in so doing “it puts diplomacy before truth.”Tom Bethell’s review of Expelled in The American Spectator, February 2008. (http://www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=12759) Available by link from Discovery. It is of course possible that one side is just plain wrong, not only in claims but also in tactics. For this reason, it is crucial both to hear sympathetically and to assess carefully the film’s claims. It is especially important for Christians to do this, for the internal coherence of our faith and the integrity of our social witness are at stake.

What I want to do in this review essay is carefully assess the claims of the film, plus those made in the recent firestorm of criticisms and defenses. It is not targeted at scholars, but it is offered to the thoughtful. “Is there no shorter way of coming to Geometry...?” King Ptolemy is reputed to have asked Euclid. “Sire, there is no royal road to geometry.” Polemical sound bites criticizing and defending the movie notwithstanding, there is no short way to the truth of these issues. While the following assessment is lengthy, it contains segments dealing with each major claim of the film, which may be read separately.

Before examining the specific claims of the film and its critics, I should make explicit two starting commitments that virtually all Christians will bring (and atheists will reject) in coming to the issues. First, along with all monotheists in the Abrahamic traditions, Christians believe that the earth and the history of humanity are not the accidental byproducts of a purposeless cosmos, but the creation of a wise and loving God. Moreover, God has not left Himself without witness, but His creation bears wondrous testimony of its Creator (in ways not all agree on). Second, and this is a somewhat distinctive and contentious claim of the Christian revelation: human beings are prone to misidentifying the signature of divine artistry, and in fact may actively work to deny it. The scandalous message of the incarnation is that even when the Artist himself entered his creation, its interlocking systems of thought and power not only failed to recognize him, but also despised him. No disrespect intended, but in a sense Christianity is the ultimate conspiracy theory, involving the disturbing proposal that the self-deceiving vulnerabilities of human personality and the self-justifying mechanisms of cultural control are tilted away from God’s testimony, and are largely blind to the direction of this tilt.

At face value, both of these affirmations seem to concord with the film’s major emphases: there is evidence of a purposeful creator, and there is a reigning ideological commitment to excluding, even punishing, those who advocate this point of view. In fact, at a general level many Christians would not even need a movie to be convinced of this. But the film attempts to go beyond the general, by portraying very specific examples of this dynamic. If there is bona fide scientific evidence for design, it’s in the details; and if there is institutionalized commitment to suppressing such evidence, it’s in the details as well. Therefore it’s important to take a hard look at the claims, or as the film encourages, to examine the issues without ruling out one option in advance. In exploring these issues with my own students, I invite them to begin by taking to heart the advice of Proverbs, which exhorts us to unwavering self-honesty: “He who gives an answer without first hearing of the matter, it is his folly and shame.” The importance of this proverbial counsel is amplified by the theological notion I mentioned above, of a delusional conspiracy that resists the gospel. For it is not just Rome, but also Jerusalem that conspires. The community of faith is not immune to misidentifying the enemy, in the very name of orthodoxy. The need here, as always, is to “examine everything carefully and hold on to the good” (I Thes 5:21).

So here we go; maybe we can even have some fun. The film claims that it “exposes the frightening agenda of the ‘Darwinian Machine’.”"What Happened to Freedom of Speech." Expelled press release, (http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/08-22-2007/0004649742&EDATE=) Three grave questions are raised and answered about the nature of that machine.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

Seeking an Open Inquiry

Is Evolution Wedded to Atheism?
Do “anti-science bigots...censor scientists and stifle science”?
Are ID advocates being expelled?
Was Caroline Crocker expelled?
Was Richard von Sternberg expelled?
Was Guillermo Gonzalez expelled?
Should ID advocates be expelled?
Did Darwin lead to Hitler?
Darwin and Hitler: Darwin disavowed selective breeding of humans
Darwin and Hitler: The idea of a master race and subhuman Jews does not fit well with Darwin’s theory
Darwin and Hitler: Prominent anti-Jewish voices rejected Darwin
Concluding Comments: Walls Torn Down?


Dr. Jeff Schloss
Dr. Jeff Schloss

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix