Debate between Nye and Ham answers the wrong questions about secular and religious worldviews


Contributing Writer

The Feb. 4 debate between Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and Bill Nye, “science guy” and former children’s television host, could have been a discussion of how their distinct understandings of the origin of species leads them to different—or similar—conclusions about how people should interact with the environment, where the human race is headed, why we are here at all and what we should do with that knowledge. Instead, Nye described advances in evolutionary biology research over the past few hundred years, while Ham described what things he believes are based on faith alone. The meat of the debate was simply descriptions of the two very distinct versions of background information that each side came to the table with, and not the implications or conclusions to be drawn from that information. This is not what dialogue between secular and religious worldviews should look like.

It would be too easy for me to use this space to “fact-check” Mr. Ham. Instead of correcting specific bits of information, the essential approach to the debate must be fixed. We should not be asking whether “creation is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era,” as Ham and Nye debated. We must better contextualize the issue. What role should both creationism and science play in developing any theology or life philosophy?

Science education and religious education are very distinct. Faith and knowledge are as well. Faith refers to a belief in things unseen and unprovable. Knowledge requires evidence, research, cause-and-effect and corroboration by others. Scientific knowledge is provable, testable and repeatable. Faith is a conviction that provides an anchor amidst the unknown. Science is the process that makes things known.

When somebody like Mr. Ham attempts to present a completely faith-based account of the origins of life as a substitute for scientific knowledge that has been tested and proven capable of answering one of humanity’s biggest questions, the faithful appear too stubborn, too unreasonable, too entrenched in devoutness to try to reconcile theology with science. I know that is not what the majority of believers are like; they deserve better representation.

Here’s a very telling example of this reality. During the debate, the moderator, Tom Foreman, asked the two men, “How did consciousness come from matter?” and “How did the atoms that created the Big Bang get there?” To both of these questions, Nye responded that scientists do not know but are excited to find an answer in the future. Ham, in response, said, “There is a book out there that documents that.”

I would be hard pressed to find someone in our community who truly thinks one book is the sole authority on all things. Young Earth Creationism is a fringe perspective of Christianity. Creationists can be great scientists. In fact, Mr. Ham cited many examples of important inventors who believe the creationist explanation of the origin of life. But when a solid half of the nation outright refuses to believe that natural selection made our species what it is, we’re in trouble.

According to a Gallup poll from 2012, “Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Meanwhile, 47 percent believe that humans and other great apes evolved from a common ancestor, whether or not a god or gods were involved. Are those 46 percent as unconvinced by scientific evidence as Ham is? Do they consider religion a substitute for science? I cannot say, but I would like to think not. Perhaps they simply need more science education to develop a more complete understanding of what evolution means.

My uncle is one of those 46 percent. He and I, about five or six years ago, discussed this very topic. At one point he asked me, “If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” These kinds of questions can be answered, as we know, by better understanding natural selection. We didn’t evolve from monkeys, but all primates evolved from a common ancestor. It’s a fairly simple answer, and it is supported by extensive research. My uncle is a very devout Christian, but his faith in a loving god should not feel compromised by accepting scientific knowledge into his understanding of the world.

While knowledge and faith serve separate roles, an understanding of natural selection and belief in a religious text are not mutually exclusive. One can believe in an omnipresent, omniscient god that is responsible for evolution. One can believe that Adam and Eve is a divinely inspired allegory for the first Homo sapiens. One can believe that even if the tales of Adam or Eve or Noah are not literally accurate, people should still follow the moral standards the Bible presents. Those notions of morality, and how people should interact with each other, should be the basis of discussions between seculars and believers—not the accuracy of evolutionary biology.

To quote Hank Green, the YouTube educator and Nerdfighter, “Evolution isn’t a debate. It’s a thing.”

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