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Divergence over "Expelled"

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Divergence over Expelled
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
28
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2008
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
52–53
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Organizations with a stake in the creationism/evolution controversy reacted to Expelled in a variety of ways. Thanks in part to a zealous campaign on the part of the film’s producers, creationist organizations generally lauded and even helped to promote the film — although there was a conspicuous and honorable exception in the old-earth creationist ministry Reasons to Believe. On the other side, it was generally understood among the scientific, educational, and civil liberties organizations with which NCSE works to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools that NCSE would take the lead in responding to the film: there is no point, it was agreed, in reinventing the wheel. Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Science Teachers Association were thus able to refer enquiries to NCSE and provide links to Expelled Exposed. Additionally, a handful of organizations issued welcome statements of their own denouncing the film.

Creationist organizations

There was not a major effort to publicize Expelled on the part of the traditional creation science organizations. The Institute for Creation Research featured a piece, “Intelligence expelled” (Acts & Facts 2008; 37 [4]: 9), which uncritically touted the film, and the ICR’s John Morris later invoked Expelled in a complaint about Texas’s denial of certification to its graduate school (“Academic censorship, round two,” Acts & Facts 2008; 37 [6]: 3), writing, “What a strange coincidence for Texas to be caught in the act of censorship and institutional bias just after the blockbuster exposé Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed hit the theaters,” but that seems to have been the extent of its efforts. The Creation Research Society, which focuses on creationist scholarship, seems not to have taken notice of Expelled except for a brief mention in its newsletter Creation Matters, where a footnote refers to the Expelled website for further information about Guillermo Gonzalez (2007 Nov/Dec; 12 [16]: 11–2).

In keeping with its brasher approach to creation evangelism, Answers in Genesis hyped Expelled relentlessly, even while warning that the film emphasized “intelligent design” (which the ministry generally criticizes for not being sufficiently biblical) and neglects its favored version of creationism. According to a March 13, 2008, post on the AiG website (www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2008/03/13/meeting-of-minds), AiG’s Ken Ham met with Expelled’s star Ben Stein at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, where “Ken pledged AiG’s strong promotional support to Mr Stein, indicating that AiG will use its multiple outlets to spread the word about his excellent film.” The same post described Stein as “actor/economist/lawyer/presidential speechwriter/science observer — a 21st-century Einsteinian figure.” Ham lived up to his promise: AiG published articles lauding Expelled on its website and in its print publications, and encouraged its supporters to attend the film, lobby theater owners to screen it, and spread the word.

Creation Ministries International — formerly the Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa branches of Answers in Genesis, before the 2005 schism (see RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 [6]: 4–7) — welcomed Expelled with a February 15, 2008 post on its website (available on-line at creationontheweb.com/content/view/5626): “The controversial movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is a documentary that will expose how the Darwinist hierarchy has closed ranks against the rise of intelligent design, a theory that opposes evolution and says that a Designer is responsible for life.” CMI subsequently featured a discussion with Expelled’s associate producer Mark Mathis and a glowing review of the film by D Russell Humphrey (who commented, “But the movie made me realize that our God-ordained right of free thought and speech is under systematic and increasing attack”) With little presence in the United States, where the bulk of the screenings occurred, however, it seems unlikely that CMI was as influential in promoting Expelled as was AiG.

The Discovery Institute, the de facto institutional home of “intelligent design” creationism, enthusiastically promoted Expelled, even devoting a section of its website (www.discovery.org/expelled/) to doing so. Its enthusiasm was no surprise, since a number of the people featured in the film are associated, in one way or another, with the Discovery Institute. A major project was attempting to rebut criticism of the film, especially on the blog Evolution News & Views (www.evolutionnews.org), which specializes in complaining about negative media coverage of “intelligent design” — “The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site,” it explains, apparently oblivious to the unintended reading. But the Discovery Institute also used the film in connection with the so-called academic freedom bills it was promoting in 2008, and it recently was soliciting donations in order to send DVD copies of Expelled to “key policy makers, opinion makers and leaders throughout the country.”

A refreshing contrast to the general creationist embrace of Expelled was the response from the old-earth creationist ministry Reasons to Believe, headed by Hugh Ross. Asked to endorse or promote Expelled, RTB issued a statement reading, in part, “In Reasons [t]o Believe’s interaction with professional scientists, scientific institutions, universities, and publishers of scientific journals we have encountered no significant evidence of censorship, blackballing, or disrespect. ... Our main concern about Expelled is that it paints a distorted picture. It certainly doesn’t match our experience. Sadly, it may do more to alienate than to engage the scientific community, and that can only harm our mission.” A subsequent clarification expressed sympathy for “the pain and discrimination suffered by those scientists featured in the movie” but stood by the assessment of the film’s inaccuracy. (The statement and clarification are available on-line at www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/expelled.shtml).

Non-creationist organizations

The American Scientific Affiliation, a group of evangelical Christians working in the sciences, commissioned Jeffrey Schloss, a professor of biology at Westmont College, to review Expelled. The result — entitled “The Expelled controversy: Overcoming or raising walls of division?” (available on-line at www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Schloss200805.html) — runs over 17 000 words, but its conclusion suggests the tone:

Sadly, the film contributes to an approach that has raised rather than lowered walls between Christians and the surrounding culture. Sadly, it raises the already growing walls of suspicion about any scholarly attempts to explore the relationship between science and faith. Sadly, it raises walls that don’t protect but constrain the spiritual growth of our students, if they are driven to believe they must choose between God and evolution. And most sadly, it is raising all these walls unnecessarily, along a border that is never demonstrated to have been accurately surveyed, much less to be in need of defending.

Schloss’s review ought not to be taken as reflecting the ASA’s official position: according to its website, “the ASA does not take a position when there is honest disagreement between Christians on an issue”; in particular, “the ASA has no official position on evolution; its members hold a diversity of views with varying degrees of intensity.” Its official neutrality apparently extends to Expelled: its website (www.asa3.org) contains links to both the Expelled website and NCSE’s Expelled Exposed website, as well as to commentary from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Discovery Institute, and Reasons to Believe. In addition to Schloss’s review, there are also briefer assessments from Randy Isaac, the executive director of the ASA, and Frank Percival, a biology professor at Westmont College. And Richard Weikart, a historian and fellow of the Discovery Institute, attempts to rebut Schloss’s review’s claims about the supposed connection of Darwinism and Nazism.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general interest scientific society, issued a statement on April 18, 2008 (available on-line at www.aaas.org/news/releases/2008/media/0418aaas_statement.pdf) decrying “the profound dishonesty and lack of civility” of Expelled, which it described as “grossly unfair to millions of scientists in the United States and worldwide who are working to cure disease, solve hunger, improve national security, and otherwise advance science to improve the quality of human life.” The statement also emphasized the efforts of the AAAS and religious leaders to “build a constructive bridge between scientific and religious communities.” Accompanying the statement was a brief film (available on-line at www.youtube.com/watch?v=58UDTq3kaZM) on “Evolution, education, and the integrity of science”, featuring the AAAS’s Alan I Leshner and Jo Ellen Roseman, Francis S Collins, and two biology teachers (Rob Eshbach and Jennifer Miller) from Dover, Pennsylvania.

Focusing on Expelled’s outrageous claims about evolution as a cause of the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League issued a press release on April 29, 2008 (available at www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa_52/5277_52.htm):

The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory. Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness. Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.

Peter McKnight, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun (2008 Jun 21), later asked Stein for his reaction to the statement; Stein instructively replied, “It’s none of their f—ing business.”

Finally, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences issued a press release on May 21, 2008 (available on-line at ctns.org/news_050908.html), declaring, “Evolution and Christian Theology are Compatible, Scientists and Theologians Say,” and adding, “Ben Stein’s New Movie Expelled Ignores Years of Constructive Dialogue.” Citing Francisco Ayala, Francis Collins, and Martinez Hewlett as examples of scientists who have affirmed the compatibility of evolution and the Christian faith, the press release also quoted Robert John Russell, the Ian G Barbour Professor of Theology and Science at the Graduate Theology Union, as saying, “The movie Expelled does a disservice to religious believers and scientists alike by failing to offer a constructive alternative to conflict.”

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org

Glenn Branch is NCSE’s deputy director.