Those who don’t recognize Ben Stein’s name will probably recognize his voice, best known for intoning “Bueller? . . . Bueller?” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. However, Stein has also been a speechwriter for Nixon and Ford and a conservative economics columnist. In his newest role as actor and co-writer in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, he uses Michael Moore-esque tactics to raise important questions about Intelligent Design, academic freedom, and the power of ideas. However, the movie can’t decide which of these Big Questions it’s about and ends up giving us flippant and/or irrelevant footage instead of deep inquiry.
Of course, Expelled is a movie, and part of its purpose is to entertain. However, Michael Moore’s films at least manage to make huge logical leaps and false analogies and yet remain funny. Expelled’s non-interview footage—from the black-and-white clips of a 1950s-era schoolteacher addressing “boys and girls” to the inexplicable, seemingly endless animated footage of a protein (at least I think it was a protein) journeying through a cell accompanied by weird techno-music—makes you scratch your head more often than laugh.
Expelled begins with footage of the Berlin Wall, Stein’s central metaphor for the hostile wall erected by the academy and the “scientific establishment” to keep ideas other than evolution out. (Don’t push the metaphor too far, because then you’ll start thinking about how the Wall was really intended to keep people in.) However, you won’t be given time to think, because Stein quickly flits to images of Civil Rights marchers, who are supposed to somehow represent Intelligent Design proponents being persecuted by academia and organizations like the National Center for Science Education.
Now, I don’t doubt that ID supporters are being persecuted. I’m a part of academia. I know how having the “wrong ideas” can destroy your career. However, I think it’s disastrous to the cause of true academic—and religious—freedom to compare academic pettiness to legalized racial discrimination.
Stein also does a disservice to the cause of Christians and others who have gotten the cold shoulder from academia by overstating the case of the particular individuals he has chosen to interview. For example, Stein claims that Baylor University shut down Professor Robert Marks’s research web site because it promoted Intelligent Design. This doesn’t seem terribly egregious to me, as the site seems like the sort of thing that should have been hosted on a personal site rather than a university server in the first place. Stein fails to mention that Marks remains a Distinguished Professor at Baylor, and his site is still up on another server. Stein offers other, harsher examples of professors being denied tenure, but, the thing is, it’s hard to prove with certainty why any professor fails to receive tenure or have a contract renewed. Academic politics are extremely fuzzy and filled with phrases like “not productive enough” and “a candidate who is a better fit.” It could be because of their beliefs, but you can seldom prove it.
After the section on academic freedom, Expelled launches into interviews on the topic of whether Intelligent Design can be considered valid science. Stein interviews both Intelligent Design proponents and detractors (including famous anti-religionist Richard Dawkins). The latter group has claimed that Stein used misleading interview tactics, and that may indeed be the case. I have to admit that I don’t feel much pity for Dawkins, because the evidence from multiple sources leads me to the conclusion that he is a jerk, but I do wonder if the dishonest and exaggerated aspects of Expelled will do more harm than good to Intelligent Design and other attempts to reconcile faith and science.
The most flawed—and yet most interesting and compelling—part of Expelled begins when Stein interviews a scientist (and atheist) who argues that Darwinism inevitably leads to the belief that there is no God and no life after death. This scientist said, proudly, that if his brain tumor recurred, rather than suffering and waiting to die, he would shoot himself in the head. It’s a heartbreaking scene, and it introduces the section in which Stein ponders whether the theories of evolution and natural selection lead to euthanasia, abortion—and, yes—the Holocaust.
I’m torn about this argument. On the one hand, I’m afraid that this kind of thinking (Hitler believed in Darwinism; therefore, Darwinism led to the Holocaust) is exactly the sort of logic Dawkins and his kind use to argue that Christianity inevitably leads to the Inquisition. If Christians support this logic, it could come back to bite us in the backside.
On the other hand, I think the most valuable contribution of Expelled is to point out that ideas are not morally neutral. True, this is not a new observation; it was made by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, where philosopher Ivan’s belief that “Everything is permitted” leads to his half-brother’s murder of their father. It’s hard to trace the chain of events leading from an abstract idea to a concrete action, but this doesn’t mean that ideas dwell in their own little harmless realm.
The moment that most particularly struck me in this section of Expelled is when Stein asks two people—one the curator of a former Nazi “hospital” that had executed the mentally ill, and the other the author of the book From Darwin to Hitler—if they thought Hitler was insane. Both answer “no,” that Hitler was absolutely rational about what he was doing, and that he believed he was doing right. His ideas—and actions—were deeply, deeply evil, but he was convinced they were right.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the disastrous potential of an idea, even a seemingly harmless idea like “tenderness,” once it is separated from God. “It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chambers.”