Understanding the Culture of Creationism

An HBO documentary looks at the backlash to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

A scene from the documentary "Questioning Darwin."

The HBO documentary "Questioning Darwin" examines the culture of the contemporary creationism movement.

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Creationists and Charles Darwin may have more in common than they would think, a documentary debuting on HBO Monday suggests.

“Questioning Darwin,” by British filmmaker Antony Thomas, examines the century and a half of backlash that Darwin’s theory of evolution, first published in 1859’s “The Origin of Species,” provoked.

“The strange thing to say is that the more carefully you look at Darwin’s journey, the more you realize [creationists] have got a point,” Thomas says.

[READ: Bill Nye Defends Evolution in Debate at Ky. Creation Museum]

His film compares the struggles Darwin had coming to terms with his findings to the views held by current creationists by letting the creationists – which include pastors, Creation Museum CEO Ken Ham and born-again Christians – speak for themselves.

“The first thing I really quarrel with – I am not going to name any names – but people who made films where they set out to make fools of people," Thomas says. “I didn’t want to make a film where I was asking questions like, ‘I calculated the volume of Noah’s Ark and it’s one-tenth the volume of a normal cruise ship.' I didn’t want to deal with any of that. I just wanted to find out why these beliefs are there and why people need them.”

A scene from "Questioning Darwin."
A scene from "Questioning Darwin."

The film’s broadcast premiere comes the week of Darwin’s 215th birthday. And if it feels that in some ways the debate surrounding his work has remained at a fever pitch – from last week’s Internet-streamed debate between Bill Nye and Ham to a congressional proposal declaring Feb. 12, Darwin’s birthday, a national holiday – that is because it has.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis (this includes those who think creation took place over six actual days and those who allow for a longer time period but believe humans were created in their present form), which is up from 40 percent in 2010 and in line with the last 40 years the poll has been taken.

The culture surrounding creationism – embodied in part by the Creation Museum in Kentucky and plans to build a Noah’s Ark theme park, also in Kentucky – is a uniquely American one, Thomas says.

“People ask me this question: Why we are sort of not struggling with any of this in Europe?” Thomas says. “It seems to be so much smaller and such a small minority of people who think this in Europe, and yet it’s very much alive in the United States, and I think that goes deeply back to the history.”

The 1925 Scopes trial – in which Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was convicted of violating the state’s law against teaching evolution – is often seen as a flashpoint in that history. But it was actually the launch of Sputnik more than 30 years later that reignited the debate as it stands today.

“After the Scopes trial, there was a sort of compromise and the issue went away and those states that didn’t want to teach evolution didn’t have to teach evolution. They could work things out themselves,” Thomas says.

That is, until the launch of the Russian satellite spurred a movement in the United States to improve science education across the country and with that, promote the teaching of biological evolution. Creationists pushed back, but this time, “Questioning Darwin” suggests, by couching their views within a scientific framework, particularly with the 1961 book “The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications.

"It is the very first moment when anyone attempted to offer 'scientific proof' of the literal truth of the book of Genesis," Thomas says.

[ALSO: Rep. Rush Holt's Darwin Day Is About Thinking, Not Shopping]

Now, legislators are steeped in arguments over which theories can and should be taught to American school children, with a number of publicly funded schools across the country including creationism and other “alternative theories” in their curricula.

“Questioning Darwin” goes deep into the misgivings people have about the theory of evolution and its moral implications. Some of the creationists explain that believing in a world where God didn’t have a direct hand in creation takes away their senses of hope and love, and renders their notions of right and wrong pointless.

“There are really deep human needs that are satisfied [by believing in creationism], and Darwin’s vision of a God who is just a prime mover and has no further part in our existence is a very bleak one,” Thomas says.

For some subjects in Thomas' film – such as a former prostitute who finds a second chance through her church or the family of a young woman who is critically injured in a car accident – their belief in creationism is firmly entrenched in their own personal relationships with religion and faith. It’s also worth noting the motivation at least partially driving one of Darwinism’s greatest foes: William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate who led the prosecution of Scopes.

"Not Darwin himself, but there were others who followed him who used his ideas to move forward to the position the Nazis finally took. This was already evident in Germany at the time of the first World War,” Thomas says. “William Jennings Bryan was so frightened that these ideas would take root in the United States, and they did at a certain level.”

But well before Jennings, Scopes and the current creationist movement, Darwin himself – who was a divinity student before embarking on his journey on the HMS Beagle – was frightened by his research in South America, as shown in his private letters and diaries examined by the film.

 “Let’s say you have the idea of the creator and you say evolution is the process of creation. It’s a very, very painful and horrible process – progressing forward by survival of the fittest, eliminating the weak, death and so on. It hardly points you to a loving God,” Thomas says. “And Darwin struggled with this.”