In our Curious World series, we’ve explored fascinating intersections of science and culture alongside National Geographic Channel. Now, with The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, National Geographic Channel tackles the biggest questions in the universe: why are we here, what does it all mean, and what can we learn from one another? We spoke with host and executive producer Morgan Freeman to find out what drew him to this bold, one-of-a-kind project.
Morgan Freeman bends down to gaze at the empty sarcophagus of Unas, the first ancient Egyptian pharaoh to have religious texts carved into the walls of his tomb, nearly 4,400 years ago. His people believed, every night for all eternity, the pharaoh’s soul would recite ancient spells to reanimate his mummified body, allowing him to cross lakes of fire, fight demons, and become one with sun god Ra. By ensuring the sun’s daily rise, Unas would protect the living.
“So this is maybe the birth of afterlife thought,” Freeman says. “I’m sorry he’s not here. I’d like to shake his hand, say hello, how’ve you been, what’s going on.”
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The moment illustrates how Freeman—the Oscar-winning actor whose warm, soulful voice has famously portrayed the Almighty himself—makes the new documentary series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman both approachable and scholarly. The six-episode series, premiering April 3 on National Geographic Channel, shows Freeman’s quest to understand how the world’s many shapes and layers of religion are interwoven, and how universal questions about human existence unite us all.
The Story of God visits nearly 20 cities in seven countries across five continents, exploring 5,000 years of human history to ask questions such as, “Why are we here? Why does evil happen? What happens when we die?” Freeman sings the call to prayer at a mosque in Cairo, pays a visit to the Western Wall, takes meditation lessons from the Buddhist leader of the oldest line of reincarnating Lamas, and discusses Galileo at the Papal Academy of Sciences.
And what does he discover? To him, God represents that unknowable piece of the “why are we here?” puzzle every person on Earth has contemplated, whether it be through religion, philosophy, or science.
“Everywhere, even on the smallest island, people have some concept of God, because we have to have answers,” Freeman says. “Humans, no matter where you find them, endeavor to answer the unanswerable, to come to grips with the unknowable.”
The series, co-executive produced by Freeman, Lori McCreary and James Younger of Revelations Entertainment, delves into five prominent religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. But it also examines historic cultures, such as the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs, that have shaped our collective global consciousness.
Rather than divide the episodes by individual religion, the series weaves together explorations of various faiths according to congruous topics, such as creation, miracles, and the apocalypse.
“We hope to shed light on how religious beliefs are global and share so much similarity,” Freeman says. “How you manifest your beliefs, what rituals you go through, who you talk to while you’re going through these rituals—we’re all aiming in the same direction. We’re all aiming at perfection.”
Some of those similarities came as a surprise to Freeman and McCreary six years ago on a tour of Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia site, which underwent histories as a Christian basilica and Islamic mosque before secularizing as a museum. There, they first learned that Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet. They felt a little naive and wanted to learn more.
“I don’t know that most people in America realize Jesus is a part of Islamic tradition, and those are the kinds of things that might engender conversations,” McCreary says. “Part of the reason we look at people as different is ignorance. We don’t know what they believe, and we just think it must be something completely different. But the three Abrahamic religions have so much in common, much more in common than they have differences.”
Beyond the scope of organized religion, the series makes a point to include another major belief system that studies the big questions of existence—science.
“We want to show people that faith practices that they think of as alien and foreign have elements in them that they will recognize in their own belief systems, and that includes science,” Younger says.
Freeman speaks with neurologists, academics, anthropologists, and even a robot whose creators believe that artificial intelligence may offer humans an eternal afterlife via cerebral download.
Further linking science and God, another episode features a physician who conducts brain scans of monks, nuns, and other religious practitioners as they pray, assessing the potential presence of God in a spiritually engaged mind. Freeman himself undergoes the scan while meditating.
“One of the things that we found really fascinating is that both scientists and people of faith are asking the same questions, just from different perspectives,” McCreary says. “But we ultimately all come to the same conclusion at a certain point, which is that there’s a part [of existence] we can’t understand. People of faith might say, ‘That’s where God lives.’ People of science say, ‘We haven’t gone far enough to figure that out yet,’ but either way, it’s the unanswerable.”
The team took efforts to make the show’s aesthetics as powerful as the subject matter. The series was shot in 4K film and makes creative use of drone and GoPro cameras to ensure the film remains visually relevant for the next couple of decades.
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“A lot of these places, like the Bodhi Tree in India, or the Al Hussein Mosque in Cairo, they’re special places to be,” Younger says. “So we want to make people feel like they were there and really be able to imbibe that atmosphere.”
Ultimately, The Story of God with Morgan Freeman is packed with an immense amount of information, but a six-hour series can only cover so much. Freeman and his co-executive producers hope audiences will be so enamored with the subject, they will keep exploring these big spiritual questions.
After all, “belief in God demands that we contemplate huge ideas—creation, our destiny,” Freeman says. “Our beliefs don’t have to divide us. They have the power to unite us. To allow us together to achieve remarkable things.”
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman premieres Sunday, April 3 at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel. Watch the video below for more.