This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The cable TV series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman will return for a third season in 2019 on the National Geographic Channel. Hosted by Freeman who famously played “God” in the 2003 movie Bruce Almighty, the show attempts to be a comparative religion course translated into “edutainment.” Like many such courses, it espouses the claim that all religions are equally valid in their truth claims. Freeman and his writers emphasize similarities between religions in the attempt to foster mutual understanding and tolerance between religious people. But The Story of God is also honest about the differences between religions and at points seems to admit that Christianity was a genuine improvement over earlier religions. Yet the show takes an evolutionary approach to religion familiar from secular anthropology. Different religions are explained as various cultural responses to the same human “instincts” that are “hard-wired” into our brains. Thus Freeman typically concludes that a particular aspect of religion — belief in God, miracles, the afterlife, the end of the world — is grounded in “human nature” and contributes to the survival of the species by giving us “comfort” or helping us “cope” with fear and suffering. The Story of God is mostly accurate and fair but is guided by naturalistic assumptions and occasionally includes Freeman’s own New Age beliefs, such as the quasi-pantheist doctrine that every human being is God. Freeman is no Oprah, so it is unclear how much influence his theological ideas have on average Americans, but his series does illustrate some trends already prevalent in today’s culture. Indeed, it reflects an interesting combination of scientism and anti-intellectualism.
Despite admitting in numerous interviews that he is not religious himself, many Americans think of the actor Morgan Freeman whenever they hear the word God because he played the role of God in Bruce Almighty (2003) and its sequel Evan Almighty (2007). Apart from some unnecessarily crude humor and language by star Jim Carrey, Bruce Almighty was surprisingly good in its respectful portrayal of faith and thoughtful engagement with theological issues. The sequel with Steve Carrell was a fun family-friendly adaptation of the biblical account of Noah’s Ark set in modern day. Both films were made by professing Christian screenwriter Steve Oedekerk and practicing Catholic director Tom Shadyac. As an actor, Morgan Freeman presumably didn’t have much input into these films’ stories or their portrayal of God — actors get paid to say someone else’s words, after all, regardless of whether they agree with what they are saying — yet these roles made Freeman the most famous Hollywood actor to play God since George Burns in Oh, God! (1977) and its two sequels.
Now the National Geographic Channel is capitalizing on this association of Freeman with God in the TV documentary series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, which ran for two seasons in 2016–2017 and is set to return in 2019 with a third season. As one would expect from National Geographic, the series follows Freeman as he travels to beautifully photographed exotic locations (primarily Egypt, Jerusalem, and India) to interview a variety of scholars and practitioners of various religions. No longer just an actor for hire, Freeman is one of the show’s creators and executive producers, so we get a better idea of what Freeman himself believes about God. Each episode begins with a personal story from Freeman’s childhood in Mississippi — often involving lessons he learned from his devoutly Christian grandmother — and ends with a personal reflection by Freeman on what conclusions he thinks we can glean from the people he interviewed in that episode. It is hard to know how much of these reflections are written for Freeman by the show’s head writer James Younger, but viewers are left with the impression that these are Freeman’s own thoughts.
CLUES FROM THE PAST
Even though he claims he is not personally religious, Freeman has had a longstanding interest in religion and spirituality, especially in the scientific basis of religion. The Story of God is not the first TV series Freeman has created. From 2010 to 2015, Freeman hosted a science show on the Discovery Channel called Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman that focused mostly on explaining recent discoveries in areas such as theoretical physics and neuroscience. But even in a show ostensibly about science, Freeman included quite a bit about religion, such as episodes about the scientific evidence of intelligent design, near-death experiences, and free will.
It is rare to see a science show that discusses faith at all, and it is all the more surprising to see one that seems to assume that at some level science and faith are compatible. This reflects Freeman’s personal interest in religion, as well as the influence of freeman’s openly Christian producing partner Lori McCreary, cofounder of Freeman’s production company Revelations Entertainment. Through the Wormhole is a clue to understanding the worldview behind Freeman’s more recent series The Story of God. The first episode of Wormhole begins with Freeman’s observation that “every culture claims a god.” The rest of the episode follows Freeman interviewing a variety of scientists as he tries to understand why humans seem instinctively to believe in God.
Freeman, McCreary, Younger, and the other producers of Through the Wormhole clearly are trying to include interviews with a mixture of theistic and atheistic scientists and to balance skeptical interpretations with believing ones, and vice versa. Yet despite this attempt at balance, Wormhole seems to spend more time with atheists. Almost every episode about a religious topic highlights an atheistic evolutionary explanation of whatever phenomenon Freeman is investigating. Circular in their reasoning, such explanations use evolution to “debunk” religious beliefs by saying something like: human beings believe X because it was evolutionarily adaptive for us to believe X (i.e., believing in X helped our ancestors survive and reproduce), even though there is no scientific evidence that X is actually true. So while Freeman is interested in religious questions, his instinct is to look to science for answers to these questions, thus revealing that his underlying worldview is philosophical naturalism or even scientism (the views that nothing supernatural exists and that science is the only form of true knowledge). In one episode of Wormhole (Season 3, Episode 10), Freeman goes as far as to baldly state that human beings “invented” God due to various psychological and neurological mechanisms. This means that God only exists in our minds, which Freeman claims is nevertheless compatible with saying that God is “real.” (It should go without saying that this is precisely the opposite of what most people mean by “real”!).
THE NATURALISTIC EVOLUTION OF RELIGION
The same naturalistic and scientific worldview can be seen in The Story of God, albeit in a more subtle form. The first episode is about the afterlife. Here is Freeman’s opening speech from that episode (with my italics added for emphasis): “Some people have a certainty that helps them cope with grief. They are certain they will see their loved ones again in heaven. For some this is not that simple. In fact it is the greatest question we ask ourselves: what happens when we die?” Note that here Freeman is giving the sort of debunking explanation of religion popular in anthropology and evolutionary psychology. He frames religion as a psychological coping mechanism caused by fear, grief, and suffering — not about supernatural truths revealed to human beings by God. Moreover, Freeman sees religion as a dogmatic and simplistic way of pursuing certainties that preclude questioning. At the end of the episode, he says, “The hope of life beyond death seems to be an almost universal human instinct.” Here again he is giving a naturalistic explanation according to which we have an innate instinct that causes us believe in religion even though there is no rational evidence for these beliefs. The implication is that religion is a form of self-deception that arose as an evolutionary survival mechanism.
Freeman frequently flirts with religious pluralism (the belief that there are many equally good paths to God). For example, Season 1, Episode 3 is about “all the ways people connect to God.” Freeman begins with the claim that there is a “universal concept of God that people of all religions share,” though he adds that “the identity of God has changed throughout history,” meaning that various religions embody this supposedly universal idea of God in a variety of culturally specific ways. Throughout the episode, Freeman constantly refers to “the Divine” as a unified thing. He even finds commonality between Western monotheism and Eastern religions such as Hinduism, claiming that “underneath the surface” of Hindu polytheism, there is a belief in one single “energy” that Freeman identifies as “the same” as the Western God. He even traces the historical emergence of this idea of a universal divine energy to pagan sun worship.
Thus while Freeman’s naturalistic perspective leads him to look for patterns and commonalities between cultures (which is how science is supposed to work), it also makes him see an evolution of ideas, a common theory in secular anthropology and academic “religious studies.” For example, while the show argues that belief in the afterlife is due ultimately to innate human psychology (because similar ideas arose independently in various parts of the world), it also claims that later religious ideas evolved from earlier ideas. Specifically, the show argues that belief in the afterlife started in ancient Egypt and spread to other near-Eastern religions such as Judaism (and from there to Christianity).
RELATIVISM LIMITED BY PROGRESSIVISM
Despite the presence of Christians such as McCreary on the production team, all of Freeman’s TV shows take a naturalistic viewpoint on religion. The Story of God, like Through the Wormhole before it, assumes that religion is grounded in human nature in a way that must be explained scientifically (whether through biology, psychology, or sociology). This seems to stack the deck against supernaturalism. The truth of religious claims — about the existence of God or the afterlife or whatever — never comes into the analysis, because metaphysical questions are not considered scientific. Rather, the show emphasizes the naturalistic causes of belief. In other words, we explore what people believe and the psychological or sociological conditions that influence those beliefs, but we never get to ask whether those beliefs are true or false. Thus we’re left with individual subjectivism and cultural relativism.
Interestingly, however, there is a limit to Freeman’s relativism. Implied in the concept of evolution is that later religions are better than earlier ones at allowing human beings to cope with their struggle for survival. For example, in the afterlife episode, Freeman says, “Cruel as it seems to us now, the Aztecs saw human sacrifices as vital. Without human blood, they believed, the sun would lose power and crops would fail.” So, while he attempts to be fair by pointing out the good (though ignorant) intentions behind the practice, he admits that human sacrifice is “cruel.” And he portrays our culture as better than theirs, because we now know that their ideas about the sun are false and cruel. In the next scene, he even gives a pretty good explanation of the significance of Jesus’ death and how it fulfilled the Old Testament sacrificial system, thereby granting us access to eternal life. (Of course, Freeman himself doesn’t believe in the Christian doctrine of salvation. For him, it is merely a way of coping with the fear of death.)
So The Story of God portrays Christianity as an improvement on earlier religions. Unfortunately, Freeman’s story of progress doesn’t stop there. In the same episode, he argues that science is the next step in the evolution of religion: “Science is now quantifying death, even defining the soul. The afterlife, something that has fascinated us since the dawn of religion, now seems tangible.” These claims are based on neuroscientific studies of brain activity during near-death experiences — as well as technological attempts to create an afterlife by artificial intelligence so we can upload our minds to computers and potentially live forever. Freeman sees science as replacing traditional supernatural religions!
TOLERANCE OF GENUINE DIFFERENCE
Along with The Story of God, Freeman, McCreary, and Younger, created another series for National Geographic Channel called The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman, which focuses on inspiring stories of people doing good in the world. Freeman describes the show as a “journey to discover the ties that bind us and the common humanity inside us.” This description could apply just as well to The Story of God.
Ultimately, The Story of God is aimed at tolerance, not universalism. The goal is for people to have some basic familiarity with religions other than their own, not necessarily because it doesn’t matter what you believe but so that we can learn to live peacefully with each other. Freeman and company attempt to be fair while avoiding complete relativism. Treating all religions fairly and equally does not necessarily entail treating them all as “basically the same” or that they are all “equally true.” The series often does a good job at sidestepping these traps. For example, Freeman recognizes that Christianity is superior to Aztec religion.
The plus side of the attempt to be unbiased is that Christianity is treated fairly and respectfully, just like other religions. While the show does occasionally gloss over differences in the name of finding commonalities (such as when Freeman makes the false claim that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God), the writers typically do a good job of explaining differences in religion. For example, in Season 1, Episode 2 on “the apocalypse,” Freeman notes that Western monotheism’s idea of a final judgment at the end of the world is “not universal,” since Eastern religions tend to see history as an unending cycle. Likewise, he goes on to explain the differing ways that Jews and Christians think about the messiah and the differing views various religions have about the afterlife.
BLIND FAITH IN AN UNKNOWN GOD
At the same time, it is clear that Morgan Freeman doesn’t believe any of this stuff. It is tempting to think that Freeman’s personal beliefs shouldn’t matter as long as he is telling the truth. The negative side of being unbiased, however, is that Freeman and his writers never evaluate the claims of the religions they depict. Freeman typically ends each episode with a concluding reflection that implies that since there are lots of different religious beliefs about something (e.g., the afterlife or whatever), we can’t know the truth about it and ought to remain agnostic about its truth. This is an epistemological error. The mere existence of disagreement (even persistent disagreement) does not justify skepticism or agnosticism. People believe all sorts of irrational things, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t know the truth. There are still people who believe that the Earth is flat, but the existence of this disagreement about the shape of the Earth does not mean we should be agnostic about it. There is plenty of decisive proof that the Earth is round. For disagreement to be relevant at all (much less decisive), we would have to show that two or more incompatible theological claims are equally justified according to the available evidence. On the other hand, if the evidence in favor of one religion outweighs its rivals, then we are perfectly justified in believing it is likely to be true. Freeman never asks whether there is any rational evidence for the truth of any particular religion. Instead, he treats all religions as equally rational — which is to say, equally irrational.
Even in Season 2, Episode 3 titled “Proof of God” — precisely where viewers might expect a discussion of apologetic arguments for and against the existence of God — Freeman fails to examine any objective evidence. The episode opens with the claim that human beings are born with a natural desire to have “proof that God exists,” but then Freeman goes on to explain that this episode will be about “special moments when God breaks through and makes His presence known” and what follows is in fact interviews with people who have “felt God’s presence” in various personal mystical experiences. Yet these experiences are entirely subjective and private, accessible only to the one who personally feels them. There is never any discussion of rational proof of anything.
Even when Freeman speaks to Christian theoretical physicist, Ard Louis, in this episode, there is no discussion of reasons for belief in God. There is no discussion of the science of intelligent design or William Lane Craig–style arguments from Big Bang cosmology or anything familiar to students of Christian apologetics. Instead, Louis simply appeals to beauty and “the sense of wonder” that nature gives him, which he says points him toward God. He is quoted offering the vague claim that science has made him more confident in his belief in God, but he never gives any explanation of why or how science supports Christian faith. Either his comments about actual reasons for belief were edited out or Freeman never bothered to ask him about such reasons. In the end, we are left with Freeman’s anti-intellectual cliché that we need “a leap of faith” to believe in God.
Throughout the series, Freeman emphasizes the unknowability of God. For example, in Season 1, Episode 3, he starts from our inability to physically see God, and then he moves to the Jewish idea that that we cannot represent God in the form of idols. So far so good, but then he leaps from these more-or-less orthodox ideas to a fairly radical form of apophatic mysticism that asserts our inability to name God or even understand God in any way.
FREEMAN’S PERSONAL BELIEFS
When Freeman is reading narration that Younger and the other writers have created for him, the series is mostly reliable and accurate. But when he is responding off the cuff to interviewees or offering his own personal reflections, Freeman’s ignorance and personal bias emerges, especially as regards traditional Christianity. Freeman rejected the Christianity of his youth and is now attracted to Eastern religions and New Age spirituality. This bias leads him multiple times to take a traditional Christian doctrine and attribute it falsely to an Eastern religion. It is as if being Christian invalidates an idea, and being Buddhist or Hindu automatically makes it more likely to be true.
For example, in Season 1, Episode 5, while discussing the relationship between free will and evil, Freeman implies that Christian ethics is about earning your way into heaven, which is, of course, the opposite of Christianity’s doctrine of grace. In this episode, he also criticizes Christianity for being too “dualistic” in its view of good vs. evil and praises Hinduism for its view of redemption in which bad things can be made good — which is actually a Christian idea! (See Romans 8:28.) Similarly, in Season 1, Episode 2, he talks to a Buddhist teacher who says there is no idea of a final judgment in Buddhism, and then the next scene is about evangelical Christians who thought that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the sins of New Orleans. This is a none-too-subtle critique of Christianity’s doctrine of judgment for sin. The show then balances that negative portrayal of Christianity by showing a church in New Orleans that disagrees that God was punishing them. They articulate instead the traditional Christian view that God does not cause suffering but allows it so He can bring good out of it (as in Genesis 50:20). Oddly, Freeman says this mainstream Christian theodicy is a “Buddhist” idea because it reminds him of the Buddhist teachings that every end is a new beginning, and suffering leads to enlightenment. This could have been a good example of finding commonalities between religions, but instead Freeman used it to praise Buddhism and (falsely) to cast Christianity in a negative light.
One final example will illustrate the bizarre beliefs that Freeman occasionally injects into his otherwise well-researched show. In Season 1, Episode 3, he mentions evangelicals’ ideas of having a “personal relationship” with God and that God “lives in your heart.” He interprets these ideas as affirming the Hindu doctrine that each of us is God! He says you should have “faith in the God in you” adding that “there’s a bit of the divine in all of us.” This seems to be what Freeman himself really believes.
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.