Movies speak to a common bias

  • May 22, 2009
{mosimage}Angels and Demons, which opened May 15 in North America, is the type of movie that can fill large theatres for weeks with people who like murder mysteries filled with action, interesting settings and suspense to the very end. It also takes the type of liberties with church history and modern-day reality that usually characterize movies with a strong Catholic component.

The movie is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code and describes a vendetta against the Catholic Church by a “centuries’ old secret society,” the Illuminati. Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, is asked by the Vatican to crack a secret code after the Illuminati kidnap four cardinals considered front-runners to be the next pope, and threaten to kill one an hour and then explode a bomb at the Vatican.
Unlike The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons is not a direct challenge to the foundations of Christianity. (The Da Vinci Code’s plot was based on the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children together, whose descendants live today.) While there are enough errors and stereotypes in Angels and Demons to annoy many Catholics, even the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has dismissed it as “harmless entertainment,” and jokingly suggests that bored moviegoers could entertain themselves by counting the mistakes.

It’s true that the errors and myths are numerous, and also unlikely that they will challenge the fundamentals of anyone’s faith. It could be argued, however, that the central myth of Angels and Demons — that the church is the enemy of science and has always done whatever it can to suppress scientific inquiry — is as widely held in news media and much of society as it is on the silver screen.

In Canada, it is quite common to be told that strong religious faith is a questionable trait in someone who holds public office or is otherwise in a position to influence policy.

In March of this year, a reporter wondered whether Gary Goodyear was a suitable choice for Minister of State, Science and Technology because he is a religious Christian and (gasps optional) may not believe in evolution. Because of the media-created controversy, Goodyear was asked several times if he believes in evolution, presumably because, if he doesn’t, it could influence his funding decisions about some scientific matters.

The concern about Goodyear could be challenged both on factual and philosophical grounds. The reporter was presumably unaware that the mainline expressions of Christianity accept evolutionary theory, as do some of the smaller ones. In fact, as the “controversy” unfolded, the Vatican was sponsoring a conference on the topic. Philosophically, experienced journalists usually say they make their best efforts to present all sides of an issue despite their individual beliefs. Perhaps they should respect the ability of others to be just as objective.

In similar commentary in late 2007, questions were raised about the qualifications of some of the appointees to the board of directors of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada. The problem was not with the education and experience listed on their resumes, but with the track record of one appointee who opposes some (but not all) embryonic stem cell research, and two others with a history of opposition to abortion.

As The Globe and Mail put it, “these views might steer the panel away from embracing scientific advances that might help those who seek to give birth to healthy children. The appointments may have ramifications for general stem-cell research as well.”

Admittedly, this criticism was not about religion in any sectarian sense, but more about the pro-life beliefs associated with some religions. However, the assumption that the candidates’ beliefs would make objective science difficult does come through strongly.

While there will always be exceptions, in general the concern is unwarranted. It’s almost impossible to imagine some of the scientific revolutions we have seen without the sponsorship of universities that developed under the auspices of the church and religious communities.

Most of the great conflicts between science and religion, upon examination, turn out to be conflicts between individuals rather than beliefs.

The belief that church and science are enemies may make great theatre, but it really shouldn’t be influencing news and opinion.

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