Reader Joyce called my attention to Neil Genzlinger’s review in the New York Times of a t.v. show that will be shown tonight on HBO (Home Box Office). I present the review in its bizarre entirety:
“Questioning Darwin,” a documentary on Monday night on HBO, starts out with a refreshingly unusual approach to a polarizing subject, then finds a way to deepen it.
The film, by Antony Thomas, traces Charles Darwin’s personal evolution as he slowly formed his theory of evolution, fleshing out the portrait with excerpts from his writings (read by the actor Sam West). These biographical segments are juxtaposed with comments from creationist Christians, presented nonjudgmentally. Mr. Thomas for the most part lets these opposing worldviews speak for themselves.
This type of Christian, holding to a literal interpretation of the creation story and the rest of the Bible, might be expected to be camera shy, since these beliefs are so often mocked. But Mr. Thomas gets an array of them to speak forthrightly by treating them respectfully. Even viewers who feel these people are living their lives with blinders on might admire their conviction.
But the film works its way around to a weightier type of compare and contrast. Some of the creationists interviewed are undergoing personal crises that would try anyone’s faith. One family is shown reciting hymn lyrics at the bedside of a teenage girl who was severely injured in a car accident.
Darwin, too, had his trials. The film focuses in particular on the death of one of his daughters in 1851. “This was a watershed, because Darwin no longer felt it possible afterward to believe in a good, loving, Christian God,” says James Moore, author with Adrian Desmond of “Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.”
Whether either belief system offers meaningful comfort in the face of calamity is left for us to ponder.
That review suggests the film is fairly evenhanded, although I have to admit that it’s not a great review. How, for example, can evolution be called “a belief system”? And even an evolutionist like me can’t credibly claim that evolutionary biology offers meaningful comfort. Interesting employment? Yes. Truth about the diversity and change of life over time? Certainly. Awe and wonder? Yes, if you’re the type who gets that from science. But “meaningful” comfort (I guess that differs from “meaningless comfort”)? Naah.
Now go over to Slate and read a review of the same show by Mark Joseph, a piece called “The Cruelty of Creationism.” Reading that piece next to Genzlinger’s is a Rashomon-like experience. Here’s Joseph’s take:
. . . it’s the terror of doubt that fosters the toxic, life-negating cult of creationism.
That fear is on full display throughout HBO’s new documentary Questioning Darwin, which features a series of intimate interviews with biblical fundamentalists. Creationism, the documentary reveals, isn’t a harmless,compartmentalized fantasy. It’s a suffocating, oppressive worldview through which believers must interpret reality—and its primary target is children. For creationists, intellectual inquiry is a sin, and anyone who dares to doubt the wisdom of their doctrine invites eternal damnation. That’s the perverse brilliance of creationism, the key to its self-perpetuation: First it locks kids in the dungeon of ignorance and dogmatic fundamentalism. Then it throws away the key.
And that dungeon is much darker than most Americans realize. The creationists interviewed in Questioning Darwin—including their abominable doyen, Ken Ham, a wily businessman who is already fundraising off his ill-conceived recent debate with Bill Nye—returned again and again to the same depressing subjects. Death, suffering, pain, sorrow, disease: These, creationists inform us, are what await any skeptic, anyone who questions the word of God. Pastor Joe Coffey neatly sums up their objections to natural selection. .
And so on and so on and so on. Joseph isn’t so much reviewing the show as fulminating about creationism. And that’s fine, for his article’s title implies it’s an attack on that delusion, using the HBO show as a platform. But Joseph doesn’t say anything that we don’t know already: creationists are ignorant, they poison their children’s minds, they’re in an intellectual prison, etc. etc. Anybody who’s read an attack on creationism will know this stuff already, and that includes the readers of Slate. His review is “politically correct” to those of us who accept evolution and fight creationism, but his review also fails to live. It’s much more educational to read some thoughtful analysis of creationism, like the kind you can find in Jason Rosenhouse’s book, Among the Creationists.
While I suspect I’d agree more with Joyce than Genzlinger, who has pulled his punches in his review, I’m just bored with straight ranting against creationism. Maybe I’m too close to the topic. Or maybe I now see religion as a far more serious problem—the root cause of creationism, but of more debilitating results as well .
If I had HBO (I’m a poor cable-less boy) I’d watch the show, for it’s always interesting to see creationists display their full plumage. I’d urge readers, then, to watch it and report back here. The show, again, is on HBO, and airs tonight, Monday, at 9 pm Eastern and Pacific times, and 8 Central time. Let your kids watch it, too, and see how they react.