Angels with iPods: Ben Stein vs. the Godless Darwinian Conspiracy

A look at the actor’s anti-evolution manifesto, and why pitting science against religion makes a monkey out of everyone.

Somewhere along the line, God ceased to be scientific enough for scientists, and science ceased to be religious enough for the religious. Some say this happened in the Enlightenment; others blame Modernism. Regardless, the split has had dire consequences in society. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in this monkey business debate over evolution.

In his recent documentary film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” actor and social activist Ben Stein seeks to expose what he sees as a conspiracy by the mainstream scientific community to silence those who question Darwinian evolution. The film accuses major universities and institutions of blindly firing scientists who speak out about the perils of Darwinism. The film also argues that Darwinism itself leads inevitably to the kind of sadistic racism that produced eugenics and the Holocaust. At the root of the whole thing, according to Stein, is a scientific community that is committed to atheism. “There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch a higher power, and it can’t possibly touch God,” he says.

It’s not hard to poke holes in the film’s claims, scientific or otherwise. In fact, several groups have already put together extensive responses, including the National Center for Science Education and Scientific American. Much of the film’s impact comes from half truths, woven together with underhanded tactics. Many of the scientists interviewed for the film didn’t know what they were being interviewed for. The claims of mass firings of people who find fault with evolutionary theory are exaggerated at best. And the ominous images of gulags and concentration camps that are woven throughout the film are never materially connected to the discussion of science itself. If a film about puppies and ice cream had this many black and white stills of bodies and barbed wire, it would be enough to keep even the most happy-go-lucky person away from the pet store and the ice cream parlor for a good long while.

But what makes Stein’s movie interesting is not the Michael-Moore-style sensationalism of it. What is compelling about “Expelled” and about the “intelligent design” movement from which it arises are the key philosophical questions they pose: How did life begin? Where did it come from? The film may be clumsy and off-putting, but it adeptly shows these are questions that evolutionary biology cannot answer.

Darwin’s theory explains how life on earth has changed over time, how species have adapted to their environment. The theory asserts that random mutations eventually give rise to new species that are better able to survive in their surroundings. When all of the earth was covered with water, for instance, all living things breathed underwater. But eventually, as land emerged, some creatures developed the capacity to breathe outside of the water. The ones that never developed in such a way either remained in the sea or died out.

Like all scientific theories, from gravity to relativity, evolution is not 100 percent verifiable — but it’s supported by a mountain of scientific evidence, most of which “Expelled” either ignores or misrepresents. Evolutionary theory explains well how species have developed.

But that’s all that it does. That’s all it tries to do.

Yet in some corners of the scientific community today, particularly in the field of biology, there is a growing sense that evolutionary theory contains all the answers, that it is the be all and end all of explaining the miracle of life. Radical atheist biologists like Richard Dawkins have begun to tell us in no uncertain terms that accepting the theory of evolution leads necessarily to casting off the shackles of belief in God. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that evolution led him to believe that God was just another fairytale, equivalent to “fairies” and “the flying spaghetti monster.” He has been making the rounds on talk shows for the better part of a year now promoting his gospel of Darwinian atheism.

Dawkins’ message seems to be resonating. His book is a best seller, and celebrities have been falling over each other to have the chance to praise him. “If this book doesn’t change the world, then we’re all screwed,” says Penn Jillette of the magician/comedy duo Penn and Teller; talk show host Bill Maher recently said that he hoped that some day a copy of Dawkins’ book “will be in every hotel room in America.”

Dawkins insists that his atheism is scientific and rational while traditional religious belief of any kind is simply superstition. Yet when Stein presses him on camera to give some sort of accounting for how life began, how that first spark of being came to exist in the primordial ooze of our planet, the best answer that Dawkins can come up with is that maybe aliens did it. According to Dawkins, it is entirely probable that little green men are responsible for life on planet earth.

Another atheist scientist in Stein’s film suggests that perhaps life was caused by magic crystals. Several posit that we are the result of “mud animated by lightning.” All of these theories are advanced by supposedly rational people who insist that belief in God is beyond reasonable possibility.

Stein is right to skewer Dawkins and others for pretending that evolutionary biology can answer the deep philosophical and theological questions that lie at the heart of our existence. When scientists walk down that path, they sully the importance of Darwin’s work by trying to make his evidence answer a completely different set of questions than it was gathered for. To make such leaps is downright unscientific.

But Stein and the promoters of intelligent design make the same kind of category error when they insist upon dressing up natural theology as science. Intelligent design at its base is nothing more than a philosophical assertion that the complexity and order of the universe points towards the likeliness that some kind of higher intelligence set it up that way. As a philosophical argument, this holds merit. In fact, it may even be difficult to refute. But as science, it’s worthless.

Intelligent design cannot be accepted as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution, since it neither disproves the evidence for Darwin’s theory nor provides any sort of testable hypothesis of its own. Trying to turn philosophy into science works about as well as trying to answer a long division problem with a Shakespearian sonnet. No matter how breathtakingly beautiful or deeply profound the sonnet is, it simply will never be able to tell you how many times 7 goes into 100.

And just as the world would be a lesser place without mathematics or Shakespeare, so too would it be diminished without either scientific or religious inquiry. However, as the debate over evolution rages on, it seems that science and religion are moving farther and farther apart.

If these two great traditions could grow together, informing one another in their pursuit of truth, then we could perhaps learn to see how the elegance of evolving life evokes the mystery of the holy — how the infinite complexity of all those random mutations can awaken us to the depth and breadth of God’s creation. Instead we live in a world where science devoid of religion has lead us to the brink of nuclear annihilation, where religion devoid of science routinely leads to hateful persecution, and where guys like Ben Stein and Richard Dawkins waste their unparalleled intellects fighting wars with phantoms.

Article © 2008 by J-Tron