Darwin Drama Raises Questions for Both Sides

I seldom go to the movies. It’s as expensive as a Washington Nationals’ game and has about the same (overwhelming) chance of being a flop. I am nearly alone in this sentiment, however; the Los Angeles Daily News recently reported that movie theatres “are one of the bright spots in the recession,” with receipts up 10 to 16 percent over last year.

Given the booming, albeit saturated film industry, how was it that a major motion picture receiving rave reviews seemed unable to find U.S. distribution? The movie in question is Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. Quoted in the September 11, 2009, Daily Telegraph, the film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, lamented: “The film has no distributor in America…because of what the film is about.” And what, exactly, is Creation about? According to the film’s website, Creation is about Charles Darwin’s “love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.” Oh yeah, there might also be some stuff in there about his writing On the Origin of Species.

While I have a prurient interest in anyone’s relationship with Jennifer Connelly, I hardly think a biopic that’s sure to take artistic license should be of great concern. But the Darwin film became a big deal. At least ten mainstream press articles echoed the Telegraph line that Creation would “prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.” Was it unreasonable to surmise that the beliefs of a majority of Americans were preventing the release of a dramatic film? Humanists of the Year PZ Myers (2009) and Richard Dawkins (1996) reacted vociferously. The American Humanist Association drafted and electronically disseminated a petition claiming censorship. I was part of that effort, but a little alarm soon went off in my head; Bill Maher’s film Religulous had no problem getting into U.S. theaters, and that film was a complete slap in the face for people of faith. So how could it be that a historical drama about Darwin’s life wasn’t welcome?

I made a call to England, straight to the desk of a very nice person at HanWay films, the movie’s marketing firm. She informed me that, while there were concerns, negotiations were ongoing. The news stories appeared to be sensationalized; they’d taken the producer’s quote and run with it. Shortly after I got off the phone a new story came out reporting that a bidding war had begun over the film. Then, on September 25, Variety reported that Newmarket Films (best known for releasing The Passion of the Christ) had acquired the U.S. rights to Creation. Good news, indeed. But to stop here would be to ignore a much larger matter.

Beyond the admission that many of us jumped to conclusions about a Creation controversy, the fact remains that a majority of Americans reject the theory of evolution by natural selection to explain the diversity of life on Earth, and this continues to make us extremely jumpy.

In Europe, where many countries have state religion, evolution is simply accepted. In fact, Creation was developed by the UK Film Council and BBC Films, both government entities. Yes, this film is a product of Queen Elizabeth II, who of course is also the head of the Church of England. No problem. What is it about Darwin that makes him so explosive in this country?

The religious side I get; Darwin proposes an alternate set of events leading to humankind which, for those who literally interpret the Bible, is perceived as a threat. But it’s not just the religious who have a visceral reaction to Darwin. It’s also nontheists, who risk tarnishing their credentials as staunch supporters of the First Amendment when he enters the picture.

Let me explain. Nonbelievers who jumped on the Creation controversy are now gearing up for a big fight with Living Waters, a religious group with plans to distribute 100,000 copies of On the Origin of Species at dozens of universities nationwide in November (coinciding with the 150th anniversary of its publication). Leading the campus outreach is Ray Comfort (known as “the banana guy” for arguing that the attributes of a supermarket banana are evidence that God exists) and actor Kirk Cameron, who co-hosts the evangelical Christian program, “The Way of the Master” with Comfort. The special edition of Darwin’s book, co-sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, the Alliance Defense Fund, and Answers in Genesis, includes a fifty-page introduction which, according to Living Waters, “gives the history of evolution, a timeline of Darwin’s life, Hitler’s undeniable connections to the theory, Darwin’s racism, his disdain for women, and his thoughts on the existence of God. It lists the theory’s many hoaxes, exposes the unscientific belief that nothing created everything, points to the incredible structure of DNA, and the absence of any species-to-species transitional forms.”

Despite the absurdity of Living Waters’ assertions, we must be very careful how we respond. To brand Comfort and Cameron’s campaign an outrage and call it unethical, as many pro-evolution nontheists have done, is to destroy our credibility. We as humanists must not be in the business of condemning people who try to argue against evolution. Evolution always has been, remains, and always will be a theory; albeit one for which we have mountains of evidence. But to say that it is irreproachable truth and that it is unethical for anyone to attempt to discredit a major scientific work is to say that On the Origin of Species is infallible. To be infallible is to be divine and, if nothing else, what humanists are here to do is challenge anyone proclaiming anything as divine. Instead, we should be applauding a campaign to distribute a powerful book that contains a very banal and easily refuted introduction.

Cameron, in the Living Waters release video for the special edition of On the Origin of Species, claims that “one by one our God-given liberties are being stripped from us…the Gideons are not even allowed to give away Bibles in schools.” The video continues: “At UC Berkeley anyone is free to distribute non-commercial materials in any outdoor area of the campus. Besides, what are they really going to do, ban The Origin of Species?” I contend the best outcome for the group is just that, to be stopped on a college campus. Their website quotes George Bernard Shaw: “All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions.” Evangelical Christians believe they’re being censored, and that’s just what Comfort and Cameron are out to prove. According to a note on Comfort’s website, when nontheists “found out that I was writing an introduction to this book they threatened lawsuits, book burnings, and even tried to organize themselves into gangs with the intent of tearing the introduction out of the book.” I must admit, ripping the fifty pages from the book’s spine was exactly my plan. He hit the nail on the head. But are we really going to drive it in?

If Living Waters successfully hands out 100,000 unabridged (yes, they are unabridged and unaltered) copies of On the Origin of Species with a mediocre theist introduction, an opportunity for debate arises. But if one school stops them from handing out the book or if one student group goes Fahrenheit 451 on it, the spotlight goes on Comfort and company who will use it to prove their point about Christian censorship.

This brings us back to the film. Creation will never live up to nontheists’ expectations to lend a new cultural understanding to a man and his theory, nor could it ever quell religious fears. But the delay in securing a distributor wasn’t an incidence of censorship, nor was it for wont of a market. Rather, both stories reflect just how controversial and critical Darwin remains for all of us.