“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
So said Bill Nye in Tuesday night’s debate, quoting his famous mentor Carl Sagan to explain his own personal commitment to science education.
The aspect of Nye’s performance in the Creation Debate that most impressed me had nothing to do with his scientific arguments, his command of logic, his skilled rebuttals, or even his patience. What has stayed with me is the enthusiasm and passion with which he communicated. It’s the same passion — that unabashed sense of “Wow, isn’t this stuff neat!” — that made me a fan of his television show all those years ago. Put simply, I love that Bill Nye is in love.
That passion matters. The debate we saw may have been about facts and logic, but the real fight (which Nye referenced more than once and has spoken about in the past) is for the future of society. Will we continue to learn about the world around us in ways that let us explain, predict, and problem-solve? Or will we cling to superstitions that stunt the growth of our knowledge, preferring to find our answers in literalized ancient mythology?
If you understand the purpose of the debate as having been to show beyond any possibility of denial that Ken Ham’s worldview is inconsistent with reality, the debate was a failure and a waste of Bill Nye’s time, because many people’s minds are made up beyond the possibility of change. Their position is based on emotion, not reason, so you can’t argue them out of it with cold hard facts. It’s a more subtle art than that.
It’s about being an ambassador — dare I say an evangelist? — for science and reason.
See, there’s this stereotype in Christian culture (and elsewhere) that atheists are joyless, unhappy God-haters with hearts full of anger and lives devoid of purpose. That makes loss of faith a scary prospect, because who wants a life like that?
Just by being himself, letting his love of science shine through, Nye demonstrated how joy, wonder, excitement, passion, and purpose — all things religious people tend to associate with service to God — can be a part of an atheist’s life. (To be fair, I don’t know for sure what Nye’s beliefs are, but Creationist fundamentalism does rather tend to lump together evolution belief and atheism, along with homosexuality, Communism, and baby-eating.)
Showing that joy and Jesus don’t have to go hand in hand strikes a blow against the prevailing narrative in fundamentalist culture. But it couldn’t have happened unless the fundamentalists could see Nye delighting in science — and for that to happen, he had to meet them on their turf.
Fundamentalist religious culture is generally permeated with the sense that the wrong kind of information can lead believers astray and, consequently, it’s not very keen on seeking out and evaluating alternative points of view. Granted, Ken Ham often writes about the beliefs, suppositions, and worldviews of science-accepters on his Answers In Genesis website. But when he does this, he generally sets up a strawman version of the scientific arguments, easily defeated by a blend of fast-and-loose science and biblical authority.
By agreeing to this debate, Nye created a situation in which Ham’s fans hear what scientists actually have to say on the subject, as reported directly by the scientists themselves, and nary a strawman in sight.
For some people — maybe even most people — that may not matter. But all it takes is one nagging doubt to bring the entire edifice of superstitious belief tumbling down. How many non-believers’ stories revolve around exposure to one compelling detail, the desire to debunk that detail in favor of faith, and the subsequent realization that maybe the facts didn’t truly support religious belief after all? I know that’s the story of my journey from hardcore Catholicism into agnostic atheism, and I know I’ve heard it told by others more than a few times.
In Christian evangelism, there’s a common metaphor of “sowing the seeds” of faith. The idea is that you want to expose non-believers to your version of Truth, and avoid quitting or getting discouraged even if it seems hopeless or ineffectual, because you’re giving them something to think about that might (with a hefty dose of prayer and God’s grace) lead them in time to conversion — the fruits of that seed you sowed.
We’re not into prayer, and we don’t rely on God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in sowing seeds. And it seems to me there must be some people who came to the Nye-Ham debate rooting for Ken Ham, unaware of the arguments Nye might bring to bear on the question, and who learned something new. Maybe not enough to create an instantaneous rejection of the Bible’s origin myth, but something to start them thinking, asking questions, trying to learn more — even, perhaps, with the intention of debunking Nye’s argument. But in time, all that thought and learning might ultimately lead that seed of doubt to fruition — especially in some of the young people I saw in the debate audience at the Creation Museum, teens just coming to their most formative years, starting to separate from parents and forge their own identity.
That’s fertile ground for the seeds of scientific interest that Bill Nye planted on Tuesday night.