HBO released a new, hour-long documentary Monday night—Darwin’s birthday is today—called Questioning Darwin, and if you can spare an hour to watch it, I highly recommend it. The documentarians juxtapose interviews with creationists about what they believe and why they believe it with historians and scientists talking about Darwin’s life and work. The movie ends with a quote from Darwin’s eulogy when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, saying there’s no conflict between Darwin’s theories and religion. While the movie doesn’t take a point of view, really, I couldn’t help but think the hour before that suggests, in fact, that there really is such a conflict.
By going back and forth between creationists and Darwin’s life story, the documentary crafts a compelling image of the conflict between two world views: That of curiosity and that of incuriosity/fear. I agree with the New York Times reviewer that the creationists are presented non-judgementally, but as these clips amassed by Gawker make clear, the creationists do all the work for you anyway. There’s a pastor explaining he would have to accept it if the Bible said “2+2=5″ and people talking, over and over again, about the strategies they have to employ to shut down their minds in the event that they’re presented with an opportunity to think more broadly. The major emotion that comes off them in waves is that of fear: Fear of asking questions, fear of the “world” (which is always talked about negatively), fear of difference, fear that thinking might lead them into dark places, fear that they really aren’t special that manifests in making up a God who loves you so you never have to go a moment without that feeling, fear that they will fall into the abyss without blind obedience to authority, and, of course, fear of death.
Meanwhile, the narrative of Darwin’s life is of a man whose insatiable curiosity drove him to disregard very real fears that he would be socially shunned or that he would disrupt his very happy marriage to a devout Christian. Neither happened, which quietly suggests exactly what is so wrong with letting fear rule your lives, as it does for fundamentalist Christians. He comes across, as he usually does (because it’s true) as an admirable man who was a gentle soul and whose courage to do what he did stemmed not from an unusual amount of bravery but more a desire for truth so great that he couldn’t let fear get in his way. That he was a kind, gentle, loving man—and that this part of him is what drove him to reject religion because he couldn’t reconcile the ugliness in the world with the myth of a loving god—always stands out to me in biographies of him. It stands in such contrast to the fear-based slandering of his reputation from creationists, who try to tie the name “Darwin” to horrors such as Nazism. (And also to graffiti, something that Ken Ham seems to fear in equal parts to fascism and something he seems to think evolutionary theory somehow created.) I can’t help but think that if creationists got to know the real Darwin, they’d find that he’s a more admirable man than the fictional god they worship, both in his intellectual curiosity and in his goodness. Of course, they fear that, too—learning about the real Darwin might incline you to stop thinking that freethinkers are evil people—so they’re never going to go there.
That the conflict here is about curiosity vs. incuriosity is incredibly important, because I think a lot of rationalists tend to fall into thinking creationists are just dumbasses. What I really liked about the documentary was that it didn’t hesitate to show how creationists can be articulate and actually quite persuasive, if you accept their premises. Indeed, a lot of them talked at length about how their belief in a loving god who specifically created the universe for them is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory (and other scientific theories based in astronomy, physics, and geology that demonstrate that the universe and our planet are very, very old—Ken Ham at one point tries to argue down the idea that light from stars is millions of years old when it gets to us), and you know what? I found that argument persuasive. Certainly more persuasive than the typical attempt to reconcile the obvious fact that evolution is true with the desire to believe in a loving god, which is usually some variation of, “Well, God created the universe through evolution.” To believe that, the creationists point out, you have to believe their god is a complete and utter moron, that he spent billions of years spinning out galaxies and stars and let the Earth lay dormant for billions of years before sparking a single-celled life into being and then spending the next billion years carefully guiding evolution until finally he got what he wanted: A human civilization that is literally only a few thousand years old. If you’ve ever been to a museum where they put a piece of paper on top of a rock formation to show how insignificant we are in terms of time—or if you’ve ever pondered how tiny our planet is in the great expanse of space—then this is beyond idiotic. It’s like taking multiple generations of people tending an oven to make a cupcake.
The problem creationists have is similar to the problem that troubled Darwin, in other words: On one hand, you have the evidence. On the other hand, you have this need to believe that a god created the universe just for us. These two things do not work together. I didn’t feel the creationists were stupid. If anything, they were unable to just compartmentalize in the same way that Darwin was unable to compartmentalize, which strikes me as a sign of intelligence. What they were, instead, were people who looked at all the conflicts between what they want to believe and what the evidence says is true, and just chose to go with the former and put all their mental faculties towards defending that position. Darwin was a man who chose the latter, and put all his mental faculties towards trying to tease out the implications.
The difference, then, is not one of intelligence, but one of courage. Make of that what you will.