Lessons From the Nye-Ham Debate

Lessons From the Nye-Ham Debate February 13, 2014

I didn’t watch last week’s evolution vs. creationism debate between Science Guy Bill Nye and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham.  I had better things to do than listen to them talk past each other.  That was all they could do – Nye and Ham share no common ground from which to begin a rational debate.

I’m familiar with their arguments.  I’ve read excerpts and commentary of the debate.  I’ve read more of Ham’s Answers in Genesis than I wish I had.  Any lingering doubts I might have had about evolution were crushed when I read Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.  While I agree with those who said the debate was unlikely to change anyone’s mind, it presented some issues of importance to us all.

A third of Americans reject the theory of evolution, a theory so strong and so in line with the evidence that cries of “it’s just a theory” are laughable.  How can this be?  Despite my cynicism around contemporary culture, I don’t think a third of Americans are intellectually inferior or tragically uninformed.  Most, I suspect, unmindfully repeat what they were taught by parents or preachers.  Some are uncomfortable with our close relation to other animals and the loss of our privileged position as the sole creatures “made in the image of God.”  A few can’t or won’t grasp the concept of deep time.

In the words of philosopher Brendan Myers, “no one is served or benefitted by believing in false or faulty ideas.”

What do we unquestioningly accept because it’s what we’ve always believed?  What meaningful concepts do we reject simply because they’re hard?

This doesn’t fully explain the allure of creationism.  There are some highly intelligent, very well educated people who are creationists.  Rev. Al Mohler is the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He is a fundamentalist, but there is no questioning his intellect.  How can that be?  Here’s a quote from an essay Rev. Mohler wrote in 2011 about the incompatibility of Evangelical Christianity with evolution:

the denial of a historical Adam means not only the rejection of a clear biblical teaching, but also the denial of the biblical doctrine of the Fall, leading to a very different way of telling the story of the Bible and the meaning of the Gospel.

In other words, if evolution is correct and Genesis is not literally true, then his entire religion tumbles like a house of cards (not Christianity, just his particular flavor of Christianity).  Rev. Mohler carefully refrains from claiming that the undesirable (for him) consequences mean his conclusion must be correct, but his self-identification as a young earth creationist shows this is what he believes.

What do we cling to not because we’re sure it’s true but because of what we would have to change if it wasn’t? 

Because of science’s demonstrated reliability in explaining the natural world, it is a tremendous source of authority.  No one – not even a fundamentalist – can completely dismiss science and still be taken seriously.  So Ken Ham and his fellow creationists misrepresent science, claiming there is a categorical difference between “microevolution” and “macroevolution” and between “observational science” and “historical science.”  They accept what they can see with their own eyes (some of it, anyway) and rationalize away anything that does not conform to their desired conclusions.

How can they do that?  Here’s Rev. Mohler again, this time commenting on the recent debate.

The argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority? Is the universe self-contained and self-explanatory? Is there a Creator, and can we know him?

On those questions, Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see.

This brings us to the issue of worldviews, of our core assumptions about the Universe and the way it works.  Creationists claim we can’t know the answers to the big questions of life.  I agree with them here, though I strongly disagree as to why we can’t know.  So since we can’t know, and they aren’t willing to live with not knowing, they assume the Bible is literally true and go from there.

There is a kind of freedom in not knowing – where we don’t know, we’re free to believe what seems most likely to us.  But we aren’t free to believe anything we want.  We’re not free to ignore clear evidence and say “you can’t prove me wrong.”

What facts do we ignore because they don’t match our assumptions?  What experiences do we dismiss because they don’t fit into our worldview?

Creationists claim they understand their presuppositions while everyone else ignores their own.  But ironically, fundamentalists and atheists alike share an unexamined assumption: that the only real truth is literal truth.  Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic here on Patheos has a very good – if overly long – explanation.

Fundamentalism, which includes creationism, is a modern phenomenon. The Middle Ages, though rife with scientific illiteracy in comparison with our age, never bred such a beast. It is a 20th century frenzy, not the product of ignorance as much as a by-product of materialism, and I daily blame …  the propagators of this selfsame materialism for cursing the world with the idiocies of devil-buried fossils and 6-day literalism. For evolution is only ever a threat to the idea of God if your idea of God has been hopelessly manhandled by materialistic assumptions. That’s right kids. Creationism is materialism’s inescapable, obnoxious spouse.

This assumption overvalues literal truth and devalues mythical truth and mystical truth.  It demands black or white answers and ignores the rainbow.  I’ve long said bad science makes bad religion – I should add that unexamined assumptions make bad religion too.

What unexamined assumptions – about the way things are or about the way they should be – are causing problems in your life?  What other assumptions would be more likely or more helpful?

There is another issue here that nobody’s talking about – fear.  If you grow up being taught that accepting the Evangelical version of the story of Jesus means you’ll go to heaven and rejecting it means you’ll suffer unspeakable torments for ever and ever, then continuing to accept that story – no matter how implausible it is – becomes very important.

To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s hard to get someone to understand science when they believe the eternal fate of their soul depends on not understanding it.

I grew up in that environment.  I know the fear it brings.  I couldn’t overcome that fear intellectually.  Oh, I was convinced the Bible couldn’t be literally true and that the god of fundamentalism couldn’t be the Creator of the Universe.  But something in my head kept whispering “but what if you’re wrong?”  I didn’t break completely free of fundamentalism until I began to experience the Gods and Goddesses of my ancestors.  Bad religion had to be crowded out by good religion.

Where is fear ruling your life?  Where is a bad experience from long ago keeping you from pursuing your dreams, responding to the Gods, or simply accepting the truth of what is?

Science has shown itself to be a reliable authority on the natural world and on literal truth.  When we ignore or deny its results we lose integrity and we live lives that are less than they could be.

But science has limitations.  Or perhaps, the limitations are not with the scientific method but with the scientific operators.  Perhaps there are things we can’t know not because we haven’t discovered them yet but because they’re beyond the capacity of our huge-but-finite human brains.  But there are other ways of knowing, and when we ignore mythic truth and mystical truth we live lives that are less than they could be.

A healthy religion is a combination of lore and received wisdom, the values and ethics of the tradition, the rituals and customs that have proved meaningful and helpful, dedicated personal and group practice, and the experience of the Divine here and now.  A healthy religion respects both the results of science and its limitations.

I doubt the Nye-Ham debate changed your mind about evolution.  I hope it causes you to ask some hard questions – and to diligently search for answers.

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  • Beautiful. There are several atheist philosophers who concur with the view that literalistic interpretations of the Bible aren’t a response to the actual practice of science but to the Religion of Science (or Scientism, as it’s often called), and its proposal that there is nothing but the material. That is, a certain sort of science (and an accompanying secular-liberalism) which exclusively embraces Materialism and declares itself the sole truth against monotheistic religions, created its own opposition (a common Hegelian/Marxist notion). Literalistic notions of the creation stories were almost absent before evolutionary theory became a spiritual and sociological position, not just a scientific one.

    By the way, have you ever read John Michael Greer’s take on evolution and Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas? It’s fantastic. : )

    • I’ve read parts of the Barddas but not all of it. I didn’t know Greer had written a book on evolution – what’s the title? Or is it an article somewhere?

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Certainly I’ll grant that movement exists, and gets a disproportionate share of the voice when it comes to a mass media that serves as a megaphone for cranks. The sad state of religious discourse in mass media is reflected in the standing FOX News religion panel, which consists of Silverman, Donahue, and a conservative Rabbi. I don’t know that anyone is well-served by that combination.

      However, New Atheism is:
      1. A minority of a minority, if we trust any of the research about atheists in our culture.
      2. A relatively new movement that came into existence after 9/11.

      The idea that the Niagara Creed was developed in the late 19th century in response to a 20th century philosophical movement that was repeatedly persecuted in American culture until it found its most vocal (but still a minority) form in the 21st century is a revisionist absurdity. Darwin’s Bulldog, who was a contemporary of the Niagara Bible Conferences, coined the term “agnostic” to describe himself.

      Perhaps it can be blamed on Marxism, which likely was a bigger voice for atheism as part of the growing labor movement and not an anachronism. But there you run into a problem that Marxists lean toward Historical Materialism and Social Constructivism, epistemologies that New Atheists arguably hate more than fundamentalism.

      Of course, there are much less sexy fingers in the pie of American Fundamentalism. The Anti-Immigration movement which was both anti-Marxist AND anti-Catholic was a powerful force in American politics at the time. Post WWII, you have the conservative Southern Strategy which included an ideological shift, takeover, and then a purge of non-fundamentalists from key Christian denominations and seminaries. But it’s apparently easier to blame outsiders who were a minority of a minority than a political movement that successfully steeplejacked entire denominations and seminaries a full decade before the “Four Horsemen.”

      • “much less sexy fingers in the pie of American Fundamentalism” !!!!

        An apt and very disturbing image. : )

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      In fact, American Fundamentalists primarily adopted Evolution as a bogyman with the first Red Scare in World War I. The primary concerns of the Niagara Bible Conference appear to have been millennialism, eschatology, and literary analysis of biblical texts within their own congregations.

      The associations of atheism = communism = evolution invented by Red Scare propaganda actually is quite absurd considering that Communists had their own philosophical and ideological objections to Darwin’s theory, choosing to champion Lamarck and Lysenko instead. (Ironically this validates a key Marxist claim about science, that it often exists to provide theoretical support for existing power structures.)

      • You bring up a really damn good point, and one that I’m surprised no one else has confronted me on: Marxism, particularly its political uses in the 20th century, aligned itself heavily with “Scientism” (I’ve got no better word for it at the moment, sorry!). Lenin’s “Scientific Socialism” contributed as much to this as Capitalist theorists, and there’s a fascinating elucidation of this where George Orwell asserts that one is either scientific about socialism, or is a “juice-drinker” and “sandal-wearer” (both things, to his mind, abhorrent things!).

        Glad you’re around, mate. : )

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          Certainly, I think the main problem is that there’s not really a unified philosophy of science out there. We’re not that far beyond Wilson getting a pitcher of water poured over his head and Pinker’s attempt to paint most of psychology as Communist in “The Blank Slate.”

          • More than anyone, I’ve got it out for Pinker. He’s changed his mind on some stuff recently, but fails to acknowledge how his previous, un-retracted statements have really fouled some things up.

            Also, I find myself with many aversions to his hair. This is irrelevant to that matter, but I really needed to confess this to someone. : )

          • I read and liked Pinker’s book on language. Haven’t read his later stuff.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Barnes, not surprisingly, is coming from an Aristotelian metaphysics, and defines his limited view of materialism within that framework. I don’t think a framework that depends on completely passive matter stands up well in the light of 20th century physics where matter sings, dances, mutates, and self-creates. Nor is materialism particularly a conflict for the number of world theologies where that dualism is not assumed.

    You write: But ironically, fundamentalists and atheists alike share an unexamined assumption: that the only real truth is literal truth.

    Well no. Atheists don’t share a single theory of truth at all. I don’t know that fundamentalists do either. (I suspect not.)

  • texcee

    I think about it this way, having worked in the legal profession for over 35 years. If this were a case presented in a court of law, which would you accept — forensic evidence or hearsay? If you were on a jury that was trying a murder case and what the prosecuting attorney presented was observable, demonstrable facts about the condition of the corpse, and what the defense presented was a reading from a millennia old commentary from another culture on the other side of the world as their rebuttal, what verdict would you render? No question in my mind.

    • AnantaAndroscoggin

      Yep, they’ll go with the one that doesn’t make them have to think at all. Rely on Authority rather than reason. Thinking’s too much like work for many people.

      Maybe someday, I’ll learn how to . . .

  • Y. A. Warren

    The best news, in my recent memory, is how many people are now declaring that they accept no religion. Why do we have to adhere to the same beliefs in order to enjoy the company of others? I prefer to sit with different people at every event I attend, in order to broaden my base of interests, influence, and knowledge, but I know I’m not in the norm.

  • Don’t forget the role of abusive comments in reinforcing people’s existing ideas. This study was on internet commenting, but I can only imagine it applies to real-time debate as well: