Antony Thomas, the 73-year-old British filmmaker behind the camera, said while his goal was to highlight the way his subjects answered big questions about the origins of life, a loving God and the purpose of suffering, he found his own answers to those questions changing. Photo by Janet Van Ham, courtesy of HBO

Antony Thomas, the 73-year-old British filmmaker behind the camera, said while his goal was to highlight the way his subjects answered big questions about the origins of life, a loving God and the purpose of suffering, he found his own answers to those questions changing. Photo by Janet Van Ham, courtesy of HBO


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) A new film charting Charles Darwin’s passage from Christian to nonbeliever propelled its maker on a similar journey.

Questioning Darwin,” a new, hourlong documentary airing on HBO throughout February, juxtaposes the story of the 19th-century British naturalist with looks into the lives of contemporary American Christians who believe the world was created in six days, as described in the Book of Genesis.

Antony Thomas, the 73-year-old British filmmaker behind the camera, said while his goal was to highlight the way his subjects answered big questions about the origins of life, a loving God and the purpose of suffering, he found his own answers to those questions changing.

“This is a personal feeling, but I do believe the two (a belief in God and in evolution) are not compatible,” Thomas said by telephone from New York, where he is working on another documentary. “And that is what made this worthwhile for me.”

Thomas, who describes himself — as Darwin did — as an agnostic, said 20 years ago he prayed every day. But during the two years he shot the film, his exploration of Darwin’s diaries and personal correspondence, in which he spelled out his movement away from belief in a loving God, caused him to shift, too.

During his five years aboard HMS Beagle — a voyage that laid the groundwork for “On the Origin of Species,” his masterpiece on his theory of evolution — Darwin confronted, for the first time, the problem of reconciling suffering and death with the Christian idea of a benevolent, all-powerful, all-knowing God.

“I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us,” Darwin wrote in a letter. “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae (wasp) with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

“Questioning Darwin,” a new, hourlong documentary airing on HBO throughout February, juxtaposes the story of the 19th-century British naturalist with looks into the lives of contemporary American Christians who believe the world was created in six days, as described in the Book of Genesis. Portrait of Charles Darwin (c. 1880) courtesy of HBO

“Questioning Darwin,” a new, hourlong documentary airing on HBO throughout February, juxtaposes the story of the 19th-century British naturalist with looks into the lives of contemporary American Christians who believe the world was created in six days, as described in the Book of Genesis. Portrait of Charles Darwin (c. 1880) courtesy of HBO


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Thomas said he has come to the same conclusion. “How could this be possible if we also have the idea of a loving creator?” he said. “That is really how I feel about things.”

But Darwin was never an atheist — an epithet thrown at him by many creationists, including some in the film. It pained Darwin that his belief had moved so far from that of his wife, Emma, and he attended church till his death in 1882. He had many friendships with clergy and was eulogized by many and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Thomas has tackled religion and fundamentalism before, most notably in “The Quran,” a look at contemporary interpretations of Islam, and “For Neda,” about a young woman shot as she protested an Iranian election. He is now at work on a film for PBS about the Vatican, he said.

Yet in a twist, Thomas has come to identify with some of the creationists in his film. They, he said — like Darwin — realized they could not reconcile the randomness and cruelty of millions of years of evolution and survival of the fittest with the God of Genesis. But unlike Darwin and Thomas, they choose God over evolution.

“I would hope in a tiny way this film could contribute to a feeling from the creationist side that Darwin isn’t the devil,” he said. “Let us consider what he actually said. And from the other side, I would like to see recognition that these people are not idiots.”

The film has been well reviewed, in large part because of its fairness to creationists. Writing in The New York Times, Neil Genzlinger said: “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.”

Darwin, it seems, did the same.

“I feel most deeply that the whole subject (of whether there is a God) is too profound for the human intellect,” he wrote in a letter in 1860 that is quoted in the film. “A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.”

YS/AMB END WINSTON

8 Comments

  1. Wonderful commentary, Kimberly.

    Darwin did let the Creationists off the hook too easily. He had good reasons at the time, apparently.

    But we must not be so obliging. However one may wish to appreciate the Creationist convictions or respect the fervent intelligence of the rationalizations behind it, The Creationist version of reality must never be taught in schools.

    Creationism is untrue. It is deceptive. It is an assault on critical thinking and an assault on the scientific method.

  2. It is fine to treat these creationists with respect

    to a point

    but when they insist on entering the political realm and attempt to impose their religious based morality on the rest of us (e.g. Dominionists like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry they are no better than the Taliban and need to be dealt with accordingly

    they are the antithesis of a free mind and they retard human development and its very existence with their End Times theology

    • “And from the other side, I would like to see recognition that these people [creationists] are not idiots.”

      Many of them are intelligent people. But they also willingly make dishonest arguments in support of their faith. Creationism is not about making factual claims and presenting evidence. It is about making excuses for one’s religious faith.

      Frankly there is nothing to respect from such blatant mendacity. Its intellectual and spiritual immaturity. Ultimately Creationism is a lack of understanding about religion or science and a childish desire to mix the two.

    • if we apply your comments fairly, then we must also apply it to the evolutionist. When they insist on entering the political realm and attempt to impose their non religious based immorality on the rest of us, we should also deal w/them accordingly. You make insults when you cannot defend your position. You obviously do not have a “free mind” and YOU are the one who retards human development.

      • No it doesn’t because you have no idea why evolution is accepted.
        Evolution is not believed and does not require one ounce of faith to be accepted. It is a scientific theory accepted on the basis of the evidence presented in support.

        It doesn’t matter whether you associate it with immorality or atheism. You can’t just will away scientific ideas and laws of nature because you find them unpleasant. Reality is reality. It is not subject to your whims and feelings.

        Either evolution is accepted as the prevailing scientific theory for biological research standards or you have to cough up evidence and research to disprove it. It does not go away because you find its implications distressing to your religious belief. It goes away if you can provide evidence and come up with a viable counter theory. Creationism isn’t that. It will never be that.

        Evolution is taught in science classes because it is science. Opposing it is like having trouble with the Law of Gravity or Atomic Theory. As I said, Creationism is the immature mixing of religion and science which displays a deep lack of understanding of both.

        • jimmy the great

          An “ounce of faith” is far too minute when forced to believe in schools, that an inanimate table can on day grow a conscience. To say with full conviction that nothing can produce something. It is still a generous ton of faith to say with conviction that 0 + 0 can equal all existence that we will ever know in our lifetime. On a side note remember all the fraud proven and admitted by those contributing in our text books. Evolutionary journey of a fish to grow legs for example. One of the many frauds later admitted. Athiest faith did no good for science. It cannot contribute to the creation of our technology, morality and more. And if you day religion caused may deaths, I say Athiest beliefs caused more. If you count Stalin’s alone. His death count far ecceeds. It’s all in history if you dare try to find it. Now ask yourself, why would material in school be forced if it were not fact. Is this not a form of mind control? Search and question material in science that is no longer valid. You have to have more faith when you will never see the fruits of evolution in your own lifetime.

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