Making Questioning Darwin made filmaker an agnostic

We know that Charles Darwin slowly changed from being religious to agnostic as a result of his research into how species originated. In an interview, Antony Thomas, the 73-year old British filmmaker who produced the documentary Questioning Darwin that looked at the worldview of creationists, says that during the making of the film, he too changed his views from believer to agnostic.

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.”

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.”

Thomas says that in pursuing his portrayal of creationists, he did find himself in agreement with them on one point.

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.

A belief in both god and evolution by natural selection are incompatible and forces one to choose one or the other. Creationists choose god whatever the evidence might say. As one person in the film says, if the Bible should happen to say that 2+2=5, he will believe that and try to work everything else around it.


  1. colnago80 says

    I suspect that the clown who would believe 2 + 2 = 5 if the bible said so would also believe that pi = 3. However, somehow Ken Miller accepts both evolution by natural selection and genetic drift and still believes in the Christian god. My PhD thesis adviser, who was on the short list for the Nobel Prize this year for his contribution to the Higgs boson theory, also accepted materialistic physics and was a born again Christian at the same time (in fairness, he didn’t accept common descent).

  2. mnb0 says

    “A belief in both god and evolution by natural selection are incompatible and forces one to choose one or the other.”
    When will you Americans realize your country does not contain the entire world, is not even representative? The Netherlands have 14% atheists and 14% agnosts. That makes 70% believers; say 60% christians. Still the vast majority of them doesn’t have any problem with Evolution Theory. Yeah, I know the answer: cognitive dissonance. Good luck proving that about 10 million Dutchies suffer from it.
    You can’t or you won’t? Then you’re following creationist methodology:

    1. Select a conclusion which you already believe is true.
    2. Find one piece of evidence that possibly might fit.
    3. Ignore all other evidence.
    4. That’s it.

    (The Sensuous Curmudgeon)

    Scepticism isn’t worth anything if not applied to your own wishful thinking. In this post you have failed this test.

  3. Anthony K says

    Yeah, I know the answer: cognitive dissonance.

    No, the answer is compartmentalisation. It’s cognitive dissonance if one recognises the incompatibility and struggles with it.

    I do agree that it’s not true that one is forced to choose. One can simply avoid acknowledging the incompatibility. No dissonance.

  4. doublereed says

    I like the way Eliezer Yudkowsky describes evolution:

    In a lot of ways, evolution is like unto theology. “Gods are ontologically distinct from creatures,” said Damien Broderick, “or they’re not worth the paper they’re written on.” And indeed, the Shaper of Life is not itself a creature. Evolution is bodiless, like the Judeo-Christian deity. Omnipresent in Nature, immanent in the fall of every leaf. Vast as a planet’s surface. Billions of years old. Itself unmade, arising naturally from the structure of physics. Doesn’t that all sound like something that might have been said about God?

    And yet the Maker has no mind, as well as no body. In some ways, its handiwork is incredibly poor design by human standards. It is internally divided. Most of all, it isn’t nice.

    In a way, Darwin discovered God—a God that failed to match the preconceptions of theology, and so passed unheralded. If Darwin had discovered that life was created by an intelligent agent—a bodiless mind that loves us, and will smite us with lightning if we dare say otherwise—people would have said “My gosh! That’s God!”

    But instead Darwin discovered a strange alien God—not comfortably “ineffable”, but really genuinely different from us. Evolution is not a God, but if it were, it wouldn’t be Jehovah. It would be H. P. Lovecraft’s Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.

  5. jamessweet says

    It’s a philosophical statement vs. an empirical statement. mnb0 is arguing the empirical statement, Mano is arguing the philosophical statement. Totally different arguments.

    Still, I think Mano is wrong anyway: Only the idea of a loving God is incompatible with evolution by natural selection. It does not contradict the idea of a cruel trickster god! (We can reject that hypothesis on other grounds, but it is not a problem for evolution)

    And even in that case, I prefer “difficult to reconcile” to “incompatible”. (To be clear, I do think faith is incompatible with science, but that’s not what we are talking about here; we are talking about whether a belief in a loving God is compatible with a belief in evolution via natural selection) There’s a lot of special pleading one can do to make the ideas compatible. That special pleading has all kinds of problems, and is not really very convincing. But still, “difficult to reconcile” is better, because this is an evidentiary case, not a logical case.

  6. Mano Singham says


    Evolution and belief in a god are compatible. There are many theistic evolutionists. Pat Robertson is one. It is evolution by natural selection that is the problem because it is a purely naturalistic process that does not allow for any supernatural intervention at any time. Only pure deists can accept evolution by natural selection and still think of themselves as religious.

  7. says

    On the 2 + 2 = 5 bit, your “neighbor” over at The Zingularity shared a Tom The Dancing Bug comic on this very point.

    As to James’ point, I suspect most theists believe in a loving God, so I don’t think that point, as correct as it is, is very useful for practical purposes.

    I would also add the loving part really isn’t all that significant. You could have a loving god that is powerless to do anything about suffering. That then raises the question of why that would be considered a god, though.

  8. notyet says

    Even though this has been pointed out in other places it is worth repeating. Evolution is incompatible not with religion in general but with Christianity. Evolution denies that God created Adam and Eve so no apple, no original sin, no fall, no need for Christ and his sacrifice, no basis for Christianity. I have read some fascinating Catholic apologetics on this topic (and by fascinating I mean convoluted, straw-grasping hilarious) and I see this as the irreconcilable problem with Christianity. The fact that most Christians won’t look deep enough into their beliefs to see the impossibility of the main tenet of their dogma is sad. It also explains a great deal about what purpose religion actually fills in their lives. Ego reinforcement rather than salvation.

  9. Chiroptera says

    <a href=""jamessweet, #5: Only the idea of a loving God is incompatible with evolution by natural selection.

    Or, perhaps, one that that is omnipotent and omniscient.

    I have thought that a lot of the logical contortions that Christians have to go through could be resolved if they were to go back to the ancient Hebrews’ conception of God: a deity who, although incredibly powerful, nonetheless clearly has limits on his power and his knowledge and who frequently seems to fly into a rage out of frustration with his inability to control events.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Chiroptera @ # 9: … the ancient Hebrews’ conception of God…

    The ancient H’s saw their god as a tribal chief, one among many other gods of other peoples/places (but uniquely hyperjealous of any attentions paid to same).

    2 Kings 3:27, e.g., apparently describes how the Moabites motivated their god to repel an Israelite invasion:

    Then he [King of Moab] took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.

    That “indignation” allegedly euphemizes what they call “wrath” when Yahveh did it, just as “departed” probably denotes a headlong rout after a humiliating defeat.

    Later H’s worked apparently combined Zoroastrian supergod ideas with the Platonic conceptions of ultimate archetypes to create their monotheism and revise tribal lore accordingly; various Catholics then polished the result into the OmniMax of today’s sophisticated theology.

    For the believers in the latter to give up one Planck length of their god’s domain would open a gateway for all the other gods to stampede through and ram themselves straight down the Christians’ tender throats.

  11. says

    A belief in both god and evolution by natural selection are incompatible and forces one to choose one or the other.

    That’s not really true: not all gods are as loving, in that saccarine-overdose kind of way, as the perfect protective parent-figure made up to soothe and coddle Christian kids. It’s quite possible to believe in a god who cares for us as we care for lower animal species: by letting us fend for ourselves so the strongest (or wisest, or most selfless) survive, thus making the species more viable overall.

    It’s also possible to believe in a god or gods who are NOT both all-powerful and all-knowing, who can love us without being able to make all suffering go away.

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