Today sees the release in UK cinemas of Creation, marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly give beautifully nuanced performances as Charles and Emma Darwin experiencing a difficult period of life. Directed by Jon Amiel, it’s a touching, unconventional biopic which looks at Darwin’s ideas, tensions in his marriage and his crumbling faith.
Primarily set in 1858, the year before On the Origin of the Species was published, the film has many flashbacks revealing Darwin’s struggles during the previous years. The key event was the death of his eldest daughter, Annie (Martha West). Charles was an unusually devoted father for his day, and Annie was his favourite child. He was with her, caring for her, while she died at the age of ten, far from home and the rest of the family. Her untimely death devastated him, and it made deeply personal what had been an intellectual struggle for years: the problem of suffering.
His careful observations of nature had confronted him with a brutal struggle for survival. It seemed utterly contrary to the agreeable world of William Paley’s Natural Theology, which had once greatly impressed Darwin. As the years went by, he never lost his conviction that a creator was behind the existence of the universe, but he doubted that God had any further involvement in it. He described himself as an agnostic, but his agnosticism had a distinctively deist hue.
Creation has been hailed by some as a celebration of atheism. On the Guardian website, Ariane Sherine described it as, ‘one of the most robust defences of atheism and agnosticism ever to appear in a mainstream film.’ It really isn’t. The one character who gives a strong atheist line is Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones), but he is portrayed as arrogant and bullying. He claims, like certain outspoken atheists today, that Darwin’s ideas have killed God, and that science and religion are at war.
Darwin himself doesn’t see it this way. Bettany portrays him as being distressed by this antagonism and anxious about the social consequences of undermining belief in God. Yes, we do see him lose faith in a personal, benevolent God, but it’s too simplistic to see this as simply a consequence of his scientific ideas, as Nick Spencer makes clear, also on the Guardian website and in his book, Darwin and God.
Emma Darwin is an important ingredient in the story. She was a committed, thoughtful Christian and Creation shows her real concern for her husband’s spiritual well-being. Letters reveal, however, that it wasn’t Charles’s ideas which were the real issue, but the fact that he was too preoccupied with scientific proof: he couldn’t engage with the possibility that God may also reveal truth in ways that are outside the scope of science. At the end of the film, Charles asks Emma to decide whether or not Origin should be published. It’s a clever way of dramatising a discussion that must have taken place between them. Emma calls herself his ‘accomplice’ for agreeing to publication, but she would never have done so if she thought his ideas really undermine belief in God.
For Huxley, perhaps for Darwin, and for many atheists today, Darwin’s ideas provide an alibi for scepticism about God. But the fact that there are Christians like Emma whose faith is not undermined by evolution shows that the alibi is far from watertight.
The relationship between science and faith is a hot topic in our society, and Creation raises some important questions as it tells the moving and significant story of one man’s struggles. That’s why Damaris was happy to produce a number of resources for churches on behalf of Icon Film Distribution. These are vital issues to discuss, and this film provides a fascinating opportunity to do so.