A film charting Charles Darwin’s passage from Christian to nonbeliever propelled its maker on a similar journey.
“Questioning Darwin,” a documentary on HBO, juxtaposes the story of the 19th-century British naturalist with contemporary American Christians who believe the world was created in six days, as described in Genesis.
British filmmaker Antony Thomas, 73, 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. “And that is what made this worthwhile for me.”
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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.
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.
In a twist, Thomas has come to identify with creationists in his film. They, he said, like Darwin realized they could not reconcile the randomness of millions of years of evolution and survival of the fittest with the God of Genesis. 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,” Thomas 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.”
“I feel most deeply that the whole subject (of a God) is too profound for the human intellect,” Darwin wrote in 1860. “... Let each man hope and believe what he can.”