Morgan Freeman: 'Science has produced answers to many of the big questions, but it can't give solutions to everything'
Religion is often seen as something that divides us but a new series hosted by Morgan Freeman highlights the ways it can unite us, too. The actor speaks to Susan Griffin about taking on The Story Of God
In a New York Times article on Morgan Freeman for the 2010 documentary series Through The Wormhole, after pondering the actor's career, the journalist offers the view that, "at this point, there's a little bit of God in everything Freeman does".
Today, the 78-year-old, who's played God in the comedy films Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty, chuckles when asked whether he's aware of this notion.
"I think that would be too much to be aware of," he says, in that distinctive, smooth, reassuring voice.
But frankly, who better to narrate and host the new, ambitiously titled series The Story Of God?
As executive producer Lori McCreary, who co-founded Revelations Entertainment with Freeman, says: "Who better on the planet to come to a subject that might be rife with strife, or that people might be nervous about? Who better to present it in a way that doesn't make people clash more?
"I think Morgan has a way of approaching people and situations with such genuine interest and inquisitiveness that people open up."
The six-part documentary sets out to understand how religion has evolved throughout the course of civilisation, and in turn how religion has shaped the evolution of a society on a quest to uncover the meaning of life, God, and everything in between.
"I can relate to the big questions that most of us ask ourselves at some point in our lives: Why am I here? What's my purpose? How did we get here? Those questions resonate with me," says Freeman, who describes himself as a man "cursed with enormous curiosity about life, people and things".
"And while science has produced answers to many of the big questions that people have asked throughout history, it doesn't offer answers for everything."
The idea for the documentary first took hold when he and McCreary were in Istanbul six years ago. "We were visiting the Hagia Sophia, a museum that, 1,400 years ago, was built as a church cathedral and then, in 1935, was transformed into a mosque," explains Freeman.
While observing the museum's frescoes, they noticed that many of the portrayals on them were of biblical stories usually associated with only the Jewish and Christian faiths. When they asked the tour guide about them, he said Muslims celebrated these stories, too. "We were both quite surprised that we didn't know how much history and narrative the three faiths have in common, and from there we developed the idea, thinking that a documentary about God, one that focused on telling the stories from myriad perspectives, could be very interesting."
Freeman and McCreary, along with fellow executive producer James Younger, set about planning the series, agreeing that if they could cover "the major five religions; Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, we could branch out from there".
"The six themes we landed on are driven by the fundamental questions that we humans have been asking ourselves since the beginning," notes Freeman of the episodes they eventually settled on, entitled: Creation, Who Is God?, Evil, Miracles, End Of Days and Resurrection.
"We don't set out opinions," adds the actor, who won an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby in 2005.
"We don't have opinions about people's religious beliefs or the rituals they undertake to express those religious beliefs, we merely observe them."
The documentary sees Freeman visit some of humanity's greatest religious sites, including Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, India's Bodhi Tree, Mayan temples in Guatemala and the pyramids of Egypt.
He travels with archaeologists to uncover the long-lost religions of our ancestors, immerses himself in religious experiences and rituals, and becomes a test subject in scientific labs, to examine how the frontiers of neuroscience are intersecting the traditional domain of religion.
But for Freeman, the standout moment was his experience at Joel Osteen's church in Houston.
"Just hearing him lift I don't know how many thousands of people," he explains.
"He wasn't preaching, he was merely saying, 'God has given you everything you need to succeed in life, now it's up to you'. Don't get up in the morning saying, 'Oh, I have an audition for a job but I know I'm not going to get it for whatever (reason)'. Negativity breeds failure. God has given you tools. God has given you talent, God has empowered you."
The actor also returns to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he lived "off and on from the age of seven until I was 18".
"I crossed a lot of hurdles here, learned how to drive a car, fell in love for the first time," he says to the camera.
"I also crossed another hurdle here. I experienced death; my paternal grandmother and my brother.
"We all go through this of course, everybody grieves, but 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 of us, it's not quite that simple.
"In fact, it's the greatest question we ask ourselves: what happens when we die?"
"I do not label myself as a religious person. I am not," Freeman states today. "But I know the draw, the necessity."
Asked what he hopes the audience will take away from series, he remarks: "That's always a tricky question because I don't want to expect anything from the audience, especially in terms of what they take away. Expectations always feel a little egotistical.
"But that said, my hope, I suppose, is that the audience will connect and find value in The Story Of God, because I connected and found value in making it.
"We are all in search of our truth," Freeman adds. "I found that a very unifying and surprising revelation as I was on this journey."
The Story Of God begins on National Geographic Channel on Sunday, 8pm