Theology

Bill Nye and Ken Ham: A debate worthy of our attention?

I know, no sooner am I back writing and I’m jumping into some theological debate. This one, though, has been more mainstream than usual, which has meant it’s been a little hard to avoid.

At the beginning of this month Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham (the creation ‘bloke’, as he names himself at one point) came together to conduct a debate on whether creation could be considered a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era. Some have speculated that this was a clear publicity stunt for Ken Ham’s struggling Creation museum (which, due to its nature, isn’t a fan of expanding – or even acknowledging – when new evidence emerges), where the debate took place. If publicity was its aim then it certainly succeeded.

Creationism (and let me specify that it is ‘young earth’ creationism we are talking about here) itself is something that many in the scientific community consider unworthy of even engaging with in debate – and frankly, if we take this one as a fair example, it’s easy to see why. Regardless, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible in my overview of how Bill Nye and Ken Ham each approached this topic. Here is my general breakdown of how the debate went:

To kick things off, Ken Ham argues that secular society has blurred the lines between ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ science – that people like Darwin have used observational science as a means to determine the historical. He says this is wrong. We cannot, according to Ham, perceive historical occurrences by merely present observation.

Bill Nye presents the debate as two stories. He tells of a story that was presented to him as a child, as true, before he realised upon growing up that, while the story had taught good values and morals, it was nonetheless false. He gives the impression that he thinks creation, and the Bible, should be seen in a similar fashion – as a sort of myth.

He then proceeds to outline how the fossils in the Grand Canyon do not cross over, having been found in multiple layers of rock. In other words, they at least give the impression of being from different time periods. He discredits the idea that Noah’s flood put them there by claiming that the animals would surely have swam to the surface if such a thing had actually happened.

Bill Nye also brings up one of the main points against Christianity as a whole: disagreement over creation among other doctrines. How are we to expect people like Nye to accept our ‘religion’, after all, when even within it we cannot agree on what is the right way to be a Christian, or whether what the Bible says about creation should be taken literally or not? We all seem to interpret it differently.

Thus, we arrive at one of the core problems that creationism is an example of – in openly discussing with the secular community what should, arguably, be dealt with among Christians alone, we end up making Christianity look extremely divided. This happens to the extent where ‘creationists’ are referred to as such over simply being, first and foremost, ‘Christians’ – that is, followers of Jesus. How would you know, on listening to the majority of mainstream creationists in debate of their dogmatic doctrine, that they follow Christ alone above all else? Because should that not be the case, then whether or not they are right in their creation account is nullified. But I’m guilty of digressing. Back to the debate itself!

Ken Ham continually presents videos of other influential scientists, apparently many of which are ‘closet’ creationists – note that he doesn’t specify whether they are young or old earth, which leaves the scope pretty wide indeed – who are afraid of coming out about it due to criticisms they would receive from the rest of the scientific and wider community. This perhaps may give the impression that he’s getting other people to do his debate for him, but at least in these instances he’s presenting evidence for his claims, something that can’t necessarily be said for the remainder of the debate.

Ham describes to us how the words ‘science’ and ‘evolution’ have been hijacked by secular society. He says that observational science shows young earth creationism to be true – admittedly without seeming to present any real evidence of how he came to this understanding. He just states that there is evidence, but I’m afraid if he isn’t going to go into what that evidence is, there’s no reason then for us to simply take his word for it.

For example, he lists some of the historical claims that the Bible makes, including the age of the Earth, events that happened surrounding the tower of Babel, the Great Flood, and all of humanity originating from one race, saying there is evidence to support all of these claims. Whether or not any or all of these things could indeed be classed as ‘historical claims’ made by the Bible would be a debate in itself, but Ham’s inferences about them clearly speak for themselves about where he stands.

He then states he “obviously won’t have time to go into all of them”, but in reality, this is his way of saying he won’t really go into the evidence for any. What he instead says almost devolves into a set of statements about what the secular scientific community is doing wrong, and how observational science outlines that creationism is true – trusting us, perhaps, to simply take the Bible’s (and therefore his) word for it.

One of the scientists in a video shown by Ken Ham states this; “I do my research from a creation perspective”. This seems to be the common practice of creationists in general, and it is where most others in the scientific community would say they make their first mistake. Is it right to come to science with the presupposition already in place that a certain kind of creationism is correct, and then trying to fit science in around that in a way that works? I’ll leave that question with you and move swiftly on.

Ken Ham plainly states that Charles Darwin is simply ‘wrong’, and then goes on to say again “if you look at it from a creation perspective” when attempting to explain why Darwin was wrong.

Ham then makes an average attempt to argue for God’s existence, saying ‘where do we get our morals from if not Him’? According to Ham, if there was no God then we may as well kill old people, because they’re clogging up our health system, and it is taking money to keep them alive.

This is tricky ground we get into here and, frankly, I think Ham could have done a much better job with it. The moral question is really quite simple. Yes, we get our morals from God, but no, we don’t necessarily need to ‘know’ God in the way that Christians claim, in order to benefit from these morals. For any Christian to assert that without God, we may as well ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ because there’d be no divine creator watching, is to give the impression that they themselves are only good, moral people because they know that God is always watching. Therefore when they do good things, we must question whether they are doing genuine good from their heart or good for the fear of punishment should they not. Of course, our real Christian message shouldn’t focus on either of these things. We teach that all are sinners and need repentance; we also teach that only through God’s grace we are saved and not through works. So whether or not someone is ‘good’ by our standards isn’t really the point (at least not in the sense we are thinking of here, anyway). Surely observational and historical science – if there is such a difference as Ken Ham claims – should show that all of humanity, in every culture throughout history, has had the capacity to be both good and bad regardless of religious belief?

Bill Nye then makes an assertion about creationism, based partly on his experience within this very debate: “It cannot make predictions, and show results”. This is, he asserts, precisely the opposite of what modern science is capable of doing, because it doesn’t come with the presuppositions of his opponent.

“Are the fish sinners? Have they done something wrong to get diseases”? Nye here shows a common misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin. Sickness is not a punishment for sin handed out to those who deserve it; it is the result of sin on a world now broken. I’d be reluctant to name this brokenness a form of ‘punishment’ at all. It is the natural outcome, or consequence, of sin; the only thing that it is really capable of – decay. This could naturally lead us on to questions about God’s sovereignty, certain passages in the Old Testament, even pre-destination and free will, but perhaps covering good and evil along with the problem of pain is enough for today.

In his conclusion, Nye’s opinion of Ken Ham’s debating style is simple. He states: “All you’ve done is come up with explanations about the past”. It is hard to honestly argue with this; Ham has not given any real evidence in a physical sense, but continually referenced the Bible as his starting point and then gave us stories and opinions based on that. In the end, it is also easy to understand why some other scientists refuse to get into these kinds of debates.

Yet, I would like to make one final thing clear. While I appear to have been more naturally critical of Ken Ham’s style and approach to this debate, it is not necessarily his stance I am critical of. In fact I would ultimately be more inclined to stand on his side of the fence. I would go even further and say that I think every Christian should feel the same.

Once we get into conversations among ourselves as Christians, things may then change. It is this crucial difference that I wish to highlight. You see, for the outsider it must seem incredibly silly that some Christians would agree more with Bill Nye than Ken Ham – that in fact, some of us may go so far as to ridicule the stupidity of these young earth creationists who pay little heed to any ‘real’ evidence. Yet what is their crime? Holding the Bible up as the true authority over everything, including scientific evidence to the contrary? In that case I agree with the outsider; it makes us look incredibly silly for being against them, especially once they hear our reasons why.

There is a deeper issue here of course, and it is one I will touch on again in future. Having just recently returned from a trip to the Caribbean, I had a chance while there to observe, over a decent period of time, how a slightly different culture ‘does’ church. My observation made me feel, admittedly, slightly uneasy. From what I saw, they are a people who, in general, do not put as much emphasis as we do on hard evidence – certainly not when it comes to Christianity, which appears almost untouchable as the dominant worldview in the region. Understand that I mean no offence to them when I say this; if anything, I mean it as a compliment. But it did remind me how arrogant we can all get when we think we know more than we actually do about something. This happens within both evolutionism and creationism. Just because you may feel inclined by your cynical mind towards one, does not mean you should immediately discount the other.

This is the true gripe most people ultimately have with Christianity; even when you have dealt with most of its other issues, there lies a final step before you can truly accept it as your worldview. That step is faith. You won’t get there solely by following the physical evidence, and there is little point, I think, in Ken Ham’s creationism trying to say you can.

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2 thoughts on “Bill Nye and Ken Ham: A debate worthy of our attention?

    1. Thank-you for your comment Michael. I agree with you that it seemed merely to be a big PR event for both men, and Ham’s creation museum in particular (as I have said above). Having checked out your own blog post that you have left a link to as well, I think it’s safe to say that we are, for the most part, in agreement about creation and how we should approach it as Christians.

      However, your comment about Ham being no biblical scholar presents another argument for me. While I may agree with you that he isn’t, I think it is worth bearing in mind that many Christians, and indeed many other debaters, scholars or not, take Ham’s position as well. Are you saying first, that you must be a biblical scholar in order to understand what scripture ‘really’ says? This seems to be what you are hinting at. And second, what of those people who have never, perhaps, been to university?

      Do people need Phd-level credentials in order for us to take them seriously? Because even the working class are entitled to their opinion on this, I think. I’m sure God did not, and does not intend for the Bible only to be read and understood fully by the elite in society.

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