“Introducing the God Question”—(Kharis productions)
[This review is kindly reproduced from RE Today, where it was originally published]
Reviewed by N Wardale and students from John Kyrle High School, Herefordshire.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling somewhat frustrated at the apparent lack of a recent, decent TV series that attempts to objectively explore the perceived conflict between science and religion, the nature of truth and the existence of God. Whilst there is much good material on the internet there is also a lot of rubbish and it can be a tedious process sifting the wheat from the chaff!
“Introducing the God Question” is a really well put together series of programmes that goes someway towards plugging this gap. These documentaries have already been broadcast by TV networks in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Despite it being a British production it has yet to be taken up by a UK broadcaster such as the BBC or Channel 4. However, it is available as a 3 DVD package for schools that includes a teachers’ guide on a memory stick); it is this version that my department has trialled with Year 9 and A level students.
The three one hour episodes (i. The Cosmos; ii. Life and Evolution; iii. Mind and Consciousness) from the TV series have been broken down into six 25-30 minute halves / units for use in schools. Each of these units can be broken down further or watched in their entirety, allowing the programmes to be used in a wide variety of different ways. One particular strength of the whole series is the impressive calibre of contributors. The programme makers have engaged with over fifty thinkers / experts; these are predominantly scientists but represent all sides of the Science / God question. Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Peter Atkins go into the metaphorical ring with Francis Collins, John Lennox, David Wilkinson and Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. A useful colour key is used throughout each episode indicating whether a contributor is Atheist, Theist or neutral / agnostic. These ‘vox-pop’ style contributions are balanced well with very good quality visuals and descriptions or explanations of key ideas from the programme narrator. Each programme has been produced very professionally. Whilst a good attempt has been made to be genuinely balanced in the contrast between religious / non-religious points of view it is rather quickly apparent that most (but not all) of the religious contributors come predominantly from a broad spectrum of Christian backgrounds.
The first programme explores why science and religion are so often portrayed as being in conflict. Richard Dawkins leads the contribution of the new atheists in this section. Some time is spent considering whether contemporary thinking about the origin and development of the universe supports or undermines belief in God. Also explored are arguments about the apparent fine tuning of the universe, the concept of the multiverse and whether belief in the Genesis creation stories can be maintained alongside current understanding of cosmology. The second programme deals with different issues surrounding the theory of evolution and whether blind forces can convincingly explain the appearance of design. The implications of random chance processes are also explored including whether this process could be relied upon to produce creatures in the image of God. The final episodes deal with the contribution made to the God debate by questions surrounding human consciousness, whether the popularity of religion is itself evidence of a supernatural reality or whether scientific understanding of the mind show religion to be a sign of wishful thinking on the part of humanity. Interesting accounts of Near Death Experiences are featured that will invariably capture interest. Useful extracts from the whole series can be found and viewed at www.thegodquestion.tv/introduce
John Kyrle sixth form students engaged well with the content and found it on the whole to be both accessible and interesting. Whilst the programmes have not been put together with one specific RS / Philosophy syllabus in mind the programmes did help students reflect thoughtfully upon the broader context of the perceived science / religion conflict. For example, programmes 1 and 2 would provide an excellent introduction to work on Teleological / Cosmological arguments and Scientific responses to these (A level RS). At a number of points in the “Life and Evolution” unit Richard Dawkins and John Lennox do appear on screen debating directly with each other and John Kyrle students really enjoyed this. Material on the origins of ethics and morality and briefly on religious pluralism are also discussed and explored at various points; this is all useful stuff for the new A level RS syllabi. The series will also be of interest to students following IB, RM/RE (Scotland), Cambridge Pre-U and other courses. It should also be possible to tailor the material for use on a whole sixth form “Science and Religion” day perhaps jointly organised by RS and Science departments. The teachers pack (available on a USB memory stick) provides a very useful checklist of topics and themes cross-referenced with each episode alongside useful questions for discussion and helpful suggestions for follow up activities. Curriculum links are made with A level RS and Philosophy and also Theory of Knowledge elements of the I.B. curriculum. A very comprehensive companion study guide is also provided; this contains a summary of each programme along with quotations from the key contributors alongside questions to think about and discuss. These can be purchased as class sets if required.
With younger students the series is accessible really only for the most able. With my own Year 9 students it was these students who got the most out of the episode on “Life and Evolution.” Other students struggled because of the complex language used at times; more on-screen definitions of key terms would be helpful. John Kyrle Year 9 students were asked to review both the content and presentation of the programme. Comments from the students themselves included:
- “It was clear and informative without scrambling my brain. I found it interesting and would watch it on TV.” (Rose)
- “I thought it was interesting and presented well. There were a lot of long words though.” (Chris)
- “I did find the DVD interesting. The information was presented in a way that I could understand and comprehend. However, the background music was repetitive!” (Becky)
These students had been following a programme of study on Philosophy, Science and Religion so the DVD was useful in helping students develop the knowledge and skills needed to further challenge the rather simplistic assumption that ‘clever or learned people will automatically have to choose intelligent science over old fashioned, irrational religion.’ In future I will probably just show short extracts to this age group rather than a whole episode; the DVD is helpfully set up in a way to make this very straightforward.
To conclude I have no hesitation in recommending this comprehensive resource. It will be of greatest use to sixth form students but is flexible enough to be used in a variety of contexts with younger students too. It will also prove informative perhaps for teachers with other specialisms being asked to teach about science and religion for the first time. The pack including the 3 DVDs, the study guide and the teacher’s guide retails for just under £50.