That's the premise of 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,' a documentary that showcases examples of campus censorship of professors and students who are interested in learning an alternative explanation of life called Intelligent Design.
Intelligent Design argues that life was not created as a random, purposeless, chance occurrence, but that all life has an apparent design that is the product of an intelligent designer. Hosted by author, economist, actor, presidential speechwriter, and comedian Ben Stein, the documentary (due in theaters nationwide April 18) examines specific cases of censorship across the country.
"There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can't possibly touch God," Stein said in the movie.
Among those featured in the documentary is Dr. Caroline Crocker, a full-time visiting faculty member at George Mason University. A cell biologist, Crocker said that three years ago she was teaching a course on the structure, function and evolution of cells when she included several slides about Intelligent Design, offering it as an alternative theory. Crocker said she was reprimanded by a supervisor, pulled from lecture duties and relegated to teaching labs for the remainder of the term. Her contract was not renewed the following semester.
"My purpose always in teaching was to make students think about what they are being taught, not just learn it and regurgitate it," she said in an interview. "Students are not allowed to question Darwinism. There are universities where they poll students on what they believe and single them out."
Crocker, who is working on a book about her experience, said she is contacted weekly by at least one student reporting repercussions from inquiring about Intelligent Design. One student, she said, was denied entrance into medical school while another was denied a doctorate degree.
"It's science; it's not a crime," she said.
In an effort to help students who want to pursue the science of Intelligent Design, Crocker recently accepted the post of executive director at the San Diego-based IDEA Center.
Founded in 2001, the center's name is an acronym for Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness. The nonprofit organization emerged from an IDEA club established in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego, according to co-founder Casey Luskin.
"We are working on some strategies to protect students who dare to question Darwinism," Crocker said. "Our two main purposes are to educate students and to protect them. They need it."
Luskin said he became interested in Intelligent Design as a UCSD student by reading books and attending a campus debate on the issue. Otherwise, he said, the theory was not discussed in his classes.
"The purpose is to help students learn about the debate over ID and the investigating of it," he said. "They want to learn about these things but they can't because their teachers won't talk about it. They are generally only being taught one side of an issue most of the time. When it was brought up, it came from a negative perspective."
The main focus of the IDEA Center is help students to start clubs on both college and high school campuses. The club at UCSD would host pizza and movie nights and other extracurricular activities to explore ID.
"The goal, really, is to have a serious intellectual investigation without getting angry about it, or being able to be friends while we were arguing about it," said Luskin, a program officer with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, one of the nation's leading ID think tanks.
In all, 35 IDEA clubs have been started, including local chapters at Poway and Scripps Ranch High Schools, the IDEA Web site said. Besides UCSD, other California colleges with chapters include California State University, Sacramento, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.
Critics of Intelligent Design argue that the concept closely mirrors creation and, as such, has no place in science.
Luskin disagrees with the argument that ID is based solely on religion.
"Whether people were religious or not, everyone (in the IDEA Club) would agree that ID was a scientific argument based on science," Luskin said.
Supporters of Intelligent Design said Darwin's research no longer holds up in light of significant scientific developments in the 150 years since Darwin's thought emerged. The study of DNA cells, microbiology and the emergence of the human genome, supporters say, all point to complexities that make random selection unrealistic. Design is the only reasonable scientific explanation of the origins of life.
In addition to the scientific study and its process, Stein uses the documentary to explore why the stakes are so high when it comes to the debate on Darwin, showing how the theory not only undermines the Old Testament record of creation, but also aims to diminish modern-day Christianity.
In documentary clips provided before the film's release, Stein interviews noted atheists Drs. Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers and Peter Atkins, all of whom support evolution. Each spokesman takes swipes at the spiritual realm.
Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, compared religion to a hobby, saying it brings some people the type of comfort one can find in knitting.
"What we have to do is get it to a place where religion is treated at the level it should be treated," he told Stein in the on-screen interview. "That it's something fun that people get together to do on the weekends and really doesn't affect their life as much as it has been so far."
Devaluing religion, Myers said, would benefit society by providing "greater science literacy, which is going to lead to the erosion of religion and then we'll get more and more science to replace it, and that will displace more and more religion, which will allow more and more science in, and we'll eventually get to the point where religion has taken that appropriate place as a side dish rather than a main course. If you separate out the ethical message from religion, what have you got left? You've got a bunch of fairy tales."
Dr. Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, was more direct in his 'Expelled' assessment.
"Religion, it's just fantasy, basically," he said. "It's particularly empty of any explanatory content and is evil as well."
Dr. Paul A. Nelson, a biology professor at Biola University in La Mirada, lauds the documentary, and not just because he's one of the Intelligent Design advocates interviewed by Stein.
"Long before there were any Christians by name, people were debating the issue of design," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. "It's a question that's as deep as humankind."
Nelson, a fellow with the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, said he believes the issue of academic freedom often collides with First Amendment issues, giving alternative science theories a distinct disadvantage.
"It creates this funny, tilted playing field," he said. "So we have this weird asymmetry in American high schools, especially, which is quite unnatural. All theories are equal, but not as equal as others."
The result, he believes, short-circuits inquiry and could ultimately be counterproductive to Darwin enthusiasts.
"They need to recognize that something has gone tremendously wrong," he said. "The open-ended inquiry of science has been distorted."
Despite the attempt to thwart Intelligent Design in higher education, Nelson said students "get a little inoculation" and learn just enough to become skeptical about evolution.
"The educational establishment has failed to persuade most Americans that they are right when it comes to evolution," Nelson said.
Nelson said he's hopeful the documentary will serve to keep the debate before the public and, by default, on school campuses.
"At the end of the day I am encouraged," he said. "Human curiosity is so powerful that it will win out. Intellectual freedom will win out the day. The message of 'Expelled' is that the Berlin wall did come down."