Controversy sells. It worked for Fahrenheit 9/11, which proved that a documentary could be a hit, especially when it uses wise-ass humour. And it worked for The Passion of the Christ, which proved that there was money to be had in religious audiences. The newest film to prove this maxim is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary that combined Michael Moore irreverence and a Mel Gibson marketing plan to become a small hit among the faith-based crowd when it opened in the United States two months ago.
The film, which asserts that scientists who believe in "intelligent design" rather than Darwinian evolution have been blacklisted, has been attacked on a number of fronts. Its critics include: atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Paul Zachary Myers, who say they were interviewed for the film under false pretences; a scientific animation firm, XVIVO, that says the film rips off one of its cartoons; and Yoko Ono, who argued in court, unsuccessfully, that the film had violated her copyright by using a short snippet from John Lennon's song "Imagine".
Now the film is coming to Canada and provoking a new round of sound and fury. Two weeks ago, about 50 protestors left an advance screening of Expelled in Toronto and went straight to the Royal Ontario Museum, which is hosting an exhibition on the life of Charles Darwin. There, the protestors-led by Charles McVety, the evangelical activist who has championed Bill C-10, among other conservative causes-called on the ROM to "tear down" the "wall that separates truth from science".
For many scientists, including some Christians, such displays are a sign that the film has done more harm than good, contributing to the politicization of science. But for producer and cowriter Walt Ruloff, all this hubbub is a healthy sign that the film-which was written and edited here in the Vancouver area-will continue to have a life beyond the American Bible Belt as it moves into Canada, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
"The Canadians are just hyperaggressive," says Ruloff, sounding both amused and surprised, from his home on Bowen Island. "So we're finding that Canadians are getting very, very excited about it. And I also did a presentation to a group of MPs in Ottawa that was just off the charts, so they're very excited about it."
Despite the belligerent, mocking tone of some of the film's publicity materials, Ruloff insists he and his coproducers haven't been trying to provoke hostile reactions. "None of it was deliberately stoked," he says, "but we knew that there was going to be a very strong backlash to the film, because, you know, that's the premise of our film. The premise of our film is the amount of backlash that exists currently within the academic community. So in its very nature, the backlash proves the central premise to our film."
The film follows former Nixon speechwriter and Ferris Bueller's Day Off alumnus Ben Stein as he roams the world in search of academics, journalists, and politicians who can illuminate for him the connections between science, politics, and religion.
But the idea for the film began with Ruloff, a former software entrepreneur who was thinking of investing in biotechnology. What he found, he says, was "a lot" of scientists who were discovering "new mechanisms" within the cell that "contradict the Darwinian model" but they were afraid to say so publicly for fear of losing their jobs. Ruloff decided to make a movie highlighting their plight.
Ruloff approached Stein about being the star of the film because, as Stein puts it, he is one of the few conservatives in Hollywood. Among other things, they discussed the effects that evolutionary theory had allegedly had on social policies such as eugenics and the Holocaust. "I told him I was especially horrified by what Darwinism's social and historical impact had been on Jews, and that that would motivate me to try to get some involvement in the project," Stein said in an interview late last year.
Several of the key personnel were hired locally. The film is cowritten by Kevin Miller, an Abbotsford-based freelance writer, and Ruloff met his fellow producers, Logan Craft and John Sullivan, while they were working on their master's degrees at Regent College, an evangelical graduate school on the UBC campus. The film itself was assembled in an editing suite created just for this film on Bowen Island.
Some have criticized the film in general, and Stein specifically, for not merely taking exception to evolutionary theory but for casting scorn upon science itself. Stein, promoting the film on Trinity Broadcasting Network last April, said at one point that the Holocaust is "where science leads you.”¦Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place. Science leads you to killing people."
Others have complained that the film oversimplifies things by associating evolution with atheism and nihilism exclusively, and by not interviewing Christians and other religious people who accept Darwinian science. Prior to the film's American release, Expelled producer Mark Mathis told Scientific American that including Christian evolutionists "would have confused the film unnecessarily",
Dennis Venema, assistant professor of biology at the evangelical Trinity Western University in Langley, says it is "very telling" that the film did not include any footage of interviewees expressing belief in both God and Darwinian science. "I felt that omission was very noticeable and also unfortunate. I think the film would have been stronger and a more rounded discussion if their voices had been included," he says.
As it is, Venema says, the film "serves more to confuse the issues than to advance any meaningful dialogue on this topic".
For one thing, he says, the film never quite explains why intelligent design should be taken seriously as a field of science, even though it devotes a fair chunk of its running time to the assertion that ID advocates are being driven underground by the scientific establishment. "You come away with the impression that it's this secret science, but you also get the impression that they're not willing to divulge what it actually is in the film, which seems a rather odd tack to take if you're trying to convince people of the validity of your arguments," Venema says.
Venema also questions the link the film draws between Darwin and Hitler, noting that Darwin's central insight was the concept of natural selection, as opposed to the sort of artificial selection that plant and animal breeders had been practising for centuries. He also notes that European anti-Semitism was stoked by religion long before it tried to claim any scientific validity.
"It would be a much easier case-unfortunately, to Christianity's shame-to draw a straight line from Martin Luther to Hitler," Venema says. "The history of this type of thought goes back, especially in Europe, hundreds of years before Darwin, where you find people compiling lists of races and hierarchies and things like that. You've got Luther condemning Jews as worms and implying that they are subhuman, and, certainly, you can't blame Darwin for Luther, now, can you?"
Venema says scientists of all stripes-both religious and atheist-need to humbly recognize that science cannot test supernatural claims one way or the other.
"Dawkins makes essentially the same error that the ID community makes, except in reverse," Venema says of the outspoken atheist and author of The God Delusion whose interview with Stein serves as a sort of climax to the film. "Most Christian scientists and biologists in the middle would say, ”˜No, science can't answer those questions. Science can't tell you whether there is a God or not, simply because that is a question that is beyond the purview of science to answer.' "
Don't forget to read the Straight's review of the film, too.