Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Matter of Evidence

Some time ago, I watched the Evangelical movie A Matter of Faith. I figured at worst, I would get a few laughs. And maybe, just maybe, the movie would present some new argument in the evolution vs. creationism debate that I would have to think about. The laughs I got, even if they weren’t intended. My hopes for a new argument were obviously way too high. What follows is not a review as such, but rather some reflections on and about the movie and its themes. I hope the information on the movie’s website and the trailer will be enough to follow my thinking and the reader won’t have to watch the entire movie. Otherwise, see the Godless Wolf’s review, which goes through most of the plot points if you don’t want to watch the movie.

Sexism: The sexism starts near the beginning of the movie when Stephen tells Rachel not to get married until she’s at least 45. This is presented as a joke, but the underlying thought is the theme of the whole movie. Don’t make decisions for yourself and don’t think (especially about sex). Stephen becomes concerned that Rachel is losing her faith based on flimsy evidence. He is so concerned about Rachel’s “changing views” that instead of talking to her about it, he confronts her biology teacher. The biology teacher, Professor Kaman, then challenges Stephen to a debate. Libby Anne points out a contrast here with the similarly themed movie God's Not Dead: Does Josh Wheaton’s father even appear in God’s Not Dead? I’m pretty sure that’s a no. Why isn’t Josh’s father getting all concerned about the fact that, oh no, he sent his son to a school with an atheist philosophy professor?! Oh right, Josh has boy parts, so he doesn’t need daddy to rescue him, he can stand up for himself thank you very much” (italics as in original).

When Evan asks Rachel whether she thinks God created the world, she refuses to answer, which Evan takes to mean “no.” He never considers for an instant that Rachel might simply have been pushing back against his bullying. The bullying continues later when Evan guilt trips Rachel into seeing the “error” of her ways by questioning her Christianity based on (you guessed it) zero evidence. In what may be an unintentional window into the producers’ view of proper gender relations, the final scene depicts Rachel walking behind Evan into a park. This is where he reveals that they first met eight years previously when he bullied her out of a fifty cent coin she had found. Evan was a bully then, and is a bully now.

We never get to see how Rachel processes the information she receives in Kaman’s class. She shows discomfort at the new information—that is to be expected. Later, she flat out states she still believes God created the world. That is not good enough for Evan, hence the guilt trip. But I would have liked to know what her thoughts were. Was she trying to reconcile evolution to her religious beliefs? Compartmentalizing them? Outright rejecting evolution or the parts of her religious upbringing that conflict with it? Neither Stephen nor Evan care enough about her to explore what she is thinking—they just assume the “worst.” Given their binary view of the topic, perhaps it was impossible for them to ask these sorts of questions. In one of the many ironies of the film, Professor Kaman accurately describes the subject of the movie: Stephen is “a religious dad who doesn’t like his little girl thinking for herself.” For all the talk about “teaching the controversy” at the end of the film, this is exactly what no one except the “evil evolution teacher” allows her to do.

Rachel's mother, Kimberly, contributes nothing to the story. She has few lines, none of consequence, and mostly serves as set dressing. She could have been eliminated entirely from the movie and no one would have missed her. It seems the only point of having her in the movie at all is to demonstrate how a proper woman should act—in deference to her husband and for God’s sake not doing any thinking.

Unintentional hilarity: Stephen is shocked—shocked!--that a biology course in a secular university only teaches evolution. Where exactly did he have his head buried for the last hundred years?

Evan’s confrontation with “Guy in Library” actually makes Evan look like an idiot to anyone who has any real knowledge of evolution. Yes, Evan, my mother looks like an ape. So does my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. So do I. So do you. This is because we are apes!

Evan’s attempt to make Professor Kaman’s policy of giving a C to everyone who simply shows up to class into an evil plan to “get students to doubt their faith in God and the Bible” is absurd on its face. First, none of Kaman’s students need to take a biology class at all, with the possible exception of biology majors.1 This means someone who wants to avoid having their faith challenged can easily do so. Though Kaman’s grading policy is apparently well known, Rachel’s class has plenty of empty seats. Kaman is never depicted as mentioning God or the Bible in the classroom. In a fortunate contrast to God’s Not Dead, Kaman does not demand students accept evolution. Many, if not most of Kaman’s students would have already been introduced to evolution in the public school systems they came from. They either would have already dealt with any problems evolution caused for their faith or would already be well on their way to doing so. Kaman’s evil plan is a day late and a dollar short for most of his students.

The circumlocutions used to avoid directly saying Nice GuyTM Tyler is just trying to get into Rachel’s pants are embarrassing. Any idiot watching the movie knows what's going on, so why not use forthright language that people actually use? It’s not like the producers would have had to use vulgar language. Just say something like, “He’s only interested in you because he wants to have sex with you.” Or “He just wants to get you in bed.”

Unintentional ironies: The only generally likable character in this farce is Professor Kaman, the designated villain. The father is an overbearing meddler. The “good” Christian boy is a manipulative bully. Boys who have a romantic interest in Rachel turn out to be Nice GuysTM. Rachel herself is an empty object, being acted upon rather than being an actor in her own life; the writers should have given her the more appropriate name Abelia. Professor Portland remains bitter over his completely just firing for twelve years, but judging from his estate, he wasn’t exactly suffering because of it. The only possible marks against Kaman’s character are the way he goaded Stephen into the debate and then singles out Rachel in class when he announces it. But in the first case, as Kaman pointed out, Stephen did visit Kaman to confront him on the issue, and in the second case, it would have likely become known Stephen was Rachel’s father anyway. Kaman is portrayed as amiable, willing to live and let live, jovial, and reasonable; the movie even goes out of its way to show Kaman’s scientific credentials are impeccable. This is a definite improvement over the caricature presented in God’s Not Dead, but ironically it makes the Christian characters come off much worse when they cast aspersions on him.

The movie continually jumbles all kinds of things together with evolution, including abiogenesis and cosmology. But let’s focus on abiogenesis for the moment. Evan at one point says, “Life comes from life. It doesn’t come from non-life.” Yet ironically this is exactly what Genesis portrays. “Let the earth put forth vegetation:” (Genesis 1:12)2. “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind” (Genesis 1:24). “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). If that is not life from non-life, I don’t know what is.

The debate that wasn’t: When we finally get to the debate, it simply spirals out of control. Even though the debate was supposed to be “Evolution vs. Creationism,” the debate hit on just about every topic except evolution and creationism. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the fact that the only character who offered any evidence for their views was Kaman. It quickly becomes obvious Stephen is incapable of presenting any evidence for his view, while Portland does not intend to offer any evidence and would rather preach. Setting aside Stephen and Portland’s infantile views of what science is, presumably they would agree with Kaman that science is about evidence. And neither Stephen nor Portland offer any. All they have are platitudes and in Portland’s case, outright falsehoods. When Kaman declines to continue the debate after Portland’s speech, this is apparently meant to signal capitulation. In Kaman’s final scene, he looks at his rubber chicken with an enigmatic smile, which is apparently meant to signal he is reconsidering evolution. However, both could just as easily be read as Kaman following the Proverb that one should “not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself” (26:4). After all, under the circumstances, what would have been the point in continuing? Preaching is for churches, not debates.

Stephen and Portland try to paint evolution as a matter of faith. Ironically, however, their unwillingness and/or inability to present any evidence for their position only points to the exact opposite conclusion. The theory of evolution is a matter of evidence. Unlike creationism, no faith is needed when it comes to accepting evolution. Either the evidence supports it, or it does not. What would be a matter of faith is any metaphysical reflections the acceptance of evolutionary theory might spark. And this brings us to--

The excluded middle: The movie tries to paint evolution vs creationism as matter of atheism vs. Christianity. Stephen says in his opening statement, “Not only is the teaching of evolution an attack against those well-known first words of the Bible, ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,’ but it is an undermining assault against the authority of God, which really becomes the main issue here.” Portland accuses Kaman of accepting Freud’s3 views because “evolution leaves no room for a supernatural Creator” and goes on to make the standard slur-by-implication that atheists just want to do whatever they please. Despite a throwaway line that even “some Christian schools” teach evolution (the horror!), the movie completely ignores vast numbers of Christians, including scientists, who accept evolutionary theory without it diminishing their faith. For just a small list of Christian scientists who accept evolution, see the Godless Wolf’s review, linked above. Presumably the producers would deny these scientists are “real” Christians, but that would only raise the question of what gives them the authority to decide who is a Christian and who is not. Regardless, the point is that accepting evolution does not require one to become an atheist.

Why would they accept evolution? Because of the evidence, of course. As Pope John Paul II said:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of [Humani Generis], some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”

On “teaching the controversy”: As Dr. Kenneth Miller points out, calls to “teach the controversy” really amount to an attempt to short circuit the scientific method. In real science, it is damned hard to achieve a consensus. In order for a theory to gain a scientific consensus, it must be able to explain the most data, be coherent both internally and externally, provide avenues for further observation and/or experimentation, and do all this over time under the constant criticism of peer review. What “teaching the controversy” does is demand something, say creation science or intelligent design, be taught without going through the process of gaining a consensus in the scientific community. “Teaching the controversy” makes sense in areas where there is still a great deal of scientific debate going on. But when it comes to the broad outlines of evolutionary theory, there is no scientific debate. If intelligent design advocates want to make “teaching the controversy” a viable approach, they need to do the work of making intelligent design a valid scientific approach to biology first.

One must also wonder if we can take the producers at their word that all they want is for schools to “teach the controversy” so people can “decide for themselves.” Remember, the thing that gets the ball rolling in this movie is the fact that Stephen fears Rachel is changing her views, that is, deciding for herself. As Libby Anne also pointed out, it’s not like Stephen didn’t have eighteen years to affect Rachel’s views. Was he “teaching the controversy?” The movie depicts Kaman’s class as Rachel’s first exposure to evolutionary thought, so obviously the answer is no. Both Stephen and Evan’s actions are attempts to bludgeon Rachel into submission and have nothing to do with encouraging her to evaluate differing viewpoints. So it is with “teaching the controversy.” The Christian Right cannot get their religious views force fed to students in public schools, so they use the argument of “teaching the controversy” to make an end run around the First Amendment.

Teaching the controversy” is subterfuge, and a painfully obvious one at that. Notably, the movie’s own resource page contains links only to creationist sites. Suppose I started demanding schools start teaching a view of Native American origins according to Mormon Scripture.4 Failing to achieve that goal, suppose I then demanded that schools “teach the controversy.” Somehow, I seriously doubt those who want to “teach the controversy” when it comes to the origins of life would be very supportive of my demands. In fact, I’m pretty sure there would be a serious uproar on the Christian Right about it. All we need to do is witness how conservative Christians get so fired up when it comes banning Sharia, but have no problems when it comes to imposing so-called biblical law on the country.

Comments are, of course, welcome. Please keep them directed at the movie under discussion. I am not interested in debating evolution vs. creationism as such. Specifically, I will not respond to any attempts to Gish gallop.

1Most universities require all students to take some science classes, but the choice of which ones is usually up to the student.
2All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
3As a sidenote, the fact the writer/director has Kaman rely on Freud mostly demonstrates how far behind the times he is when it comes to religious scholarship.
4Obviously this would be very imaginative scenario.