Ham on Nye, a sandwich that needs mustard.

Last night (2/4/14) a few Americans bored enough to sit through a lengthy live broadcast event were treated to a debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham, director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

While almost everybody is familiar with Bill Nye’s body of work, I thought some background on Ham would be appropriate.

According to their website the Creation Museum “exists to point today’s culture back to the authority of Scripture and proclaim the gospel message.” As Ken explained during his time during the event, he believes that the earth is around 6000 years old and that its creation and total history are literally and fully explained in the Christian Bible. He was clear to say that he agrees with what he calls “observational science” (science we can do today in a lab), but does not agree that those principles extend into history (that is, that chemistry, physics, geology, etc. found today could be done in the same way thousands of years ago). He posits that the Bible explains historical science, and he works hard during the presentation to reconcile present day scientific principles (at least the ones he selects to agree with) with what he views as the clear and “literal” Bible explanation.

I will spare you my own attempt to debate Ken’s silly claims. Rather, I have three arguments against the usefulness of these types of events happening in the first place. Hopefully this will spark some conversation about what these events really seek to achieve.

First, it gives young earth creationists the appearance of having a valid scientific argument that is worthy of the scientific community’s concern/attention. I would argue that personal beliefs can never be disproved by science, and that isn’t the purpose of science anyway.

The fundamental notion of debating science *vs* religion is always lost/lose because, as Bill Nye points out during his time in the event, many Western scientists are Christians and do not espouse the young earth creationist views of science denial. Similarly, a majority of people in the world are religious, find great meaning in their religions, and can still reconcile science. They are not mutually exclusive. Science is not in the business of telling people what to believe about things that cannot be tested (God, the supernatural, etc.). Rather, it is in the business of exploring, testing, and offering well documented positions on things that are empirical. According to Gallup in 2011 fewer than 1/3 of American adults believe that the Bible is “literal”… and that is not to say that all Biblical literalists are young earth creationists and science deniers.

Second, these types of events validate irreligious people’s worst fears about religious people — that they are ignorant, unteachable, and willing to make any argument to fit the world to their pre-determined worldview. It leaves no room for real conversations between the majority of moderate religious people and the irreligious. Media fervor and public interest can only be generated around polarized and often absurd positions. Few are interested in hearing a serious discussion where ideas are exchanged and curiosity and creativity are cultivated (“discourse”).

The same argument is often made by the American Muslim community and their allies who say that Islam is a religion of peace. Many Americans are quick to retort some reference to war, the Taliban, or terrorism and the debate immediately becomes extreme and polarized. The moderate majority is rarely heard due to our greater interest in a fight rather than understanding or discourse.

Third, debating science vs. (American Christian literalist) Creationism (sometimes called “Intelligent Design”) is an incredibly ethnocentric debate. That is, it only focuses on the religious and social context of most Americans to the exclusion of all other countries, peoples, and religions.

For example, would creationists argue that *anyone* with a non-Darwinian view of human origins be allowed to posit their creation “theory” to be taught as “science” in K-12 public schools? Muslims? Scientologists? I doubt it. They only want *their* worldview used to the exclusion of all others… which invalidates the nature of scientific inquiry as well as democracy. Also, would Bill Nye give the time of day to a Scientologist or Taliban Muslim in the same way that he validates the debate with this Christian minority sect? I doubt that too.

If science and academia are going to host a debate around what it means to be human(e) and pluralistic while still maintaining democracy and religious freedom that we need to be willing to couch it in language and discourse that shows the spectrum (such as religious moderate thought) and verbalizes some hint of inclusiveness rather than simply giving a platform to a exclusivist.

Nye stood on the stage and suggested creativity and inquiry. Ham stood on the stage and mocked Nye for not making references to the Bible as empirical evidence.  Nye appealed to American exceptionalism on more than one occasion (which I do not suggest is helpful). Ham denied science even as he tried to describe how he embraces it. Both used a gross overabundance of male pronouns and rarely if ever sought to understand the other.

Did anyone at home come away from watching this with a better respect for either of these men or their positions? Did the discourse between the scientific community and the religious community benefit from this? For whom really was this debate? Who profited and at whose expense? A friend of mine suggested that this may be a way for these groups to release anxiety over issues such as this. I’m not so sure if it gives release, or simply further polarizes and removes the parties further into their “corners.”

Instead of talking about the things that would change and reconcile hearts and minds, we instead have a bad habit of voyeuring in on pitched battles that we know in advance have no satisfactory conclusions. If anything, events like this “evolution vs. creation debate” might provide us insight into the things in life that are even more futile than American politics in Washington D.C. – but only by a little.

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Here is another article from a Christian religious source with an argument that I believe is similar to my own and adds commentary regarding the history of this specific culture war issue:
Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham: Continuing Our Long American Tradition of Spectacle and Culture War

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