Creationism vs. Atheism at the Box Office

Posted on October 16, 2008 at 8:32 pm

As the pro-intelligent design film Expelled comes out in DVD this week, the ads crow that it is the top-grossing documentary of the year. But its record has been eclipsed by the anti-religion film Religulous after only two weeks in fewer than half the theaters “Expelled” was shown in.
According to the LA Times:

“Expelled,” hosted by commentator and character actor Ben Stein, opened April 18 at a whopping 1,052 theaters and grossed a total of $7.7 million at the domestic box office during its full run, according to data tracker Box Office Mojo.

That was nothing like the breakout blockbusters “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119.2 million), “March of the Penguins” ($77.4 million) or even “An Inconvenient Truth” ($24.1 million), but nothing to sneeze at either: It was the 12th-highest gross ever for a documentary….

“Religulous,” playing at 568 theaters, is benefiting from positive word of mouth. The controversial documentary, hosted by comedian Maher (“Politically Incorrect”) and directed by Charles (“Borat”), dropped only 35% in its second weekend, compared with the industry average of about 51%. By Monday it had topped $7 million, on pace to surpass $7.7 million by Friday and ultimately to a spot in the all-time top 10 for the documentary genre.
Both are unabashed advocacy films starring popular television figures who have appeared both as comics and commentators. “Expelled” urges schools to add the religiously-based intelligent design theory to biology classes and argues that excluding it is a form of harassment. “Religulous” argues that religion is responsible for anti-intellectual, fundamentalist behavior that is a serious threat to human survival.
Imperfect as these films are, the good news is that there is an audience for this kind of provocative material that challenges assumptions on all sides and gets people talking about faith, science, and politics. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Posted on October 14, 2008 at 8:00 am

There may be a good argument to make on behalf of teaching Intelligent Design in science class, but this documentary from Ben Stein does not make it. The movie itself is an example of design by faith and emotion rather than intelligence, defined as rationality grounded in proof. Instead of making a straightforward case for Intelligent Design as a scientific theory, Stein employs misdirection and guilt by very tangential association to try to make his case.

Intelligent Design advocates believe that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected or random or mechanical process such as Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Stein begins by interviewing scientists who lost their jobs for even mentioning the theory, baits some Darwinian scientists in selective clips from interviews, and then visits Dachau and the Hadamar euthanasia center, where the Nazis murdered thousands of disabled people. Stein tells us he is not saying that Darwinism leads to mass murder, but the connection he draws is unmistakable.

Like the tobacco companies once they could no longer question the legitimacy of the scientific evidence connecting cigarettes and disease, Stein quickly shifts the debate from a head-to-head assessment of analysis of data to frame the issue as one of freedom of speech. The movie opens with archival footage not of science labs or the animal life on Galapagos Island, where Darwin first began to develop his theory, but of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Stein tries to draw a parallel between the wall that divided Germany and the impenetrable wall that keeps Intelligent Design out of the science establishment. But he is also associating Darwinian science with Godlessness, communism, and totalitarianism, with detours into Nazi atrocities and atheism so over-the-top that it becomes shrill and irrational.

And irrationality is the opposite of scientific inquiry. Stein says that freedom of speech requires that both Intelligent Design and Darwin’s natural selection should be taught in America’s classrooms. But he never subjects Intelligent Design to the kind of scrutiny required by scientific analysis, which is based on observation and experimentation. Intelligent Design is based the fact that (1) there are questions that natural selection does not answer — which Darwinian scientists admit, and (2) therefore, some intelligent force must be behind creation — which cannot be proven by scientific means and therefore is more appropriately considered within the fields of philosophy or religion.

Science is all about challenging, refining, and refuting established theories, as the movie concedes, with Albert Einstein’s improvement of the theories of Isaac Newton as an example. But both Newton and Einstein agreed on what science was and how to evaluate scientific theories. As presented by Stein, Intelligent Design and Darwinian theory make the same observations, but come to different conclusions. Darwin says that life forms evolved through random mutation and natural selection, the survival of the fittest. Intelligent Design says that life is so complex that it is all the evidence we need to show that some intelligent (conscious, intentional) force must have created it. Stein never shows that Intelligent Design can go from theory to explanation as it must to be considered science. As a lawyer, he should understand that freedom of speech also guarantees the freedom not to have to listen to mangled, manipulative, and disingenuous rhetoric like this.

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