Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham: Battle for the Ages?

Ain’t nothin’ like a good debate about a controversial issue!

In case it has not already come to your attention, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (a young-Earth creationist ministry) will be having a public debate this February 4th, just a few days from now. According to the press release, the official topic will be: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” Though not really an experienced debater, Nye, who does TV interviews about evolution and creation, accepted the offer to argue in favor of naturalism/evolution and against Ham’s biblical, young-Earth creationism. It was all the result of a video Nye put out back in 2012, followed by video responses posted by Ham and others.

Ham vs Nye debateThe debate will take place at the Kentucky-based Creation Museum near Cincinnati, OH. The price to attend in person was $25 per ticket, but those sold out very quickly. There is the option to stream it live thru debatelive.org (originally to be $5, but now free), plus there will be DVDs of the event that can be pre-ordered now or ordered afterward, as well as a digital version for download. Of course, AIG always has other products for sale, too. Some have cynically speculated that Ham is only doing the debate to raise money, since the museum — specifically, the life-size Ark exhibit — is having some financial problems. But, even if that’s the case, I don’t see the problem. Any organization, ministry or otherwise, needs to pay the bills and stay out of debt whenever possible. They have to pay for the event itself, too. Plus, as Ham pointed out, this is a rare opportunity for a Christian/creationist to present his case in what has become a relatively high-profile event with a popular science “personality”.

What can we expect in this “debate”?

Notice that I put the scare quotes around the word “debate”? In this case, it is meant to imply my skepticism that this will be formatted or treated as a real debate. I could be wrong, of course. I’m sure there will be a lot of spirited give-and-take, but I have a hard time imagining Ham being able to contain himself, adhering to the structure and courtesies of a more formal format. (For example, from what I’ve seen, he tends to interrupt and try to steamroll his opponents.) Again, I could be wrong.

Nye’s main concern, as evidenced from the video that got this all rolling, is that children need to believe in (Darwinian) evolution. It’s bad enough that a portion of the U.S. believe in creationism, which he believes has no sound basis whatsoever, because “it holds everybody back”, thus retarding progress.

“[W]e need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future”, like “engineers that build stuff, solve problems.” (See my Point #1 below.)

Teaching kids creationism — and it’s clear that he has the young-Earth variety primarily in mind — interferes with this, so he hopes to convince people that “this sort of thinking is not in the national interest.” He doesn’t come across as the excitable type, so he’ll probably keep his cool and be generally polite. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if elements of (feelings of) intellectual superiority and resulting condescension creep in, as is often the case with non-theists in these discussions. Nye is obviously frustrated with and perplexed by the very ideas of denying evolution and believing the Earth is only 6000 or so years old. I suspect, then, that he will a) harp on the age of the Earth/universe issue and the irrationality of YEC and b) try to persuade the audience of the “proof” of biological evolution, in an effort to demonstrate that creation(ism) is not a viable model of origins. “For the children…!”

While I count Ham as a Christian brother and appreciate his desire to honor Christ, I strongly disagree with his approach and position on the origins issue. Based on what I have seen/read/heard of and from him, I do not particularly like him as a person, either. I am frustrated both by his statements and treatment of those who hold to other positions and by the damage I feel he does for the Kingdom, despite his intentions. That said, this debate is an opportunity for Ham to be a bold, yet gracious, ambassador for Jesus Christ, both in what he says, how he conducts himself, and how he (and other Christians at the event) treat Nye. (In fact, it’s an opportunity for all Christians to educate, be educated, and conduct themselves as good ambassadors.)

If Ham is smart & careful, he will not let Nye spend too much time on the “billions of years” but instead keep the emphasis on the evidences for design and their improbability via purely natural processes. Unfortunately, Ham cannot use some of the best such evidence, because it violates his YEC sensibilities. Given that the age issue is central to Ham’s position and a major sticking point for Nye, I suspect it will actually be a central focus of the exchange. And that’s not good, ‘cuz the evidence is in Nye’s favor on that one.

I will be curious to find out how it all turns out, but I probably will not watch it live or order the DVD or digital download.

As with most debates, I doubt that those who already firmly hold a position will be convinced otherwise, though a few of those on the fence may be pushed one way or the other. Beyond that, I don’t really know what to expect in the Nye vs. Ham “debate”, but I am pretty sure that it will get people thinking and talking (as it already has), and it will reinforce the idea in many people’s minds that Nye’s naturalism and Ham’s young-Earth creationism are the only real options in the origins debate. Amateur and professional pundits alike will have a field day, and (the idea of) God and the Bible will liberally mocked, as usual.

I would like to remind everyone — and encourage those who are likeminded to do the same — that this “Naturalistic Evolution vs. Young-Earth Creationism” framing of the issue presents a false dichotomy. (As is “Science vs. Faith”.) There are other options. I would go so far as to argue that only one of these other options — old-Earth creationism (OEC) — addresses and accounts for both nature and Scripture with sufficient care, rigor, and respect.

With that in mind, but without going into detail, I would like to lay out a few points for those on all sides to consider:

1) Science has not and does not disprove the Christian faith/religion. (Other belief systems do not fair so well.) Nor must one be non-religious (or only marginally so) to understand scientific principles and do good scientific research. In fact, it has been argued by various scholars — including Stanley Jaki, Rodney Stark, James Hannam — that the bulk of scientific advancement from the Middle Ages forward is indebted to the spread of the Christian worldview and the hard work of many theistic (mostly “Christian”) scientists (or “natural philosophers”). (See my post: Can You Accept “Revealed Wisdom” and Still Be “Scientific”?)

Genesis 1:1 with Sun coming over edge of Earth2) “Billions of years” neither helps Darwinists — because there still isn’t enough time for natural processes to accomplish the developments observed in the record of nature (i.e., cosmological, geological, biochemical, biological, etc.) — nor does it hurt Christians who believe in Creation by the biblical Yahweh — because, rather than diminishing God’s miraculous power, the history of nature reveals multiple miraculous interventions of various sorts by God to design and prepare a world for life, to populate that world with diverse species in their various ecological niches, to enable advanced human civilization, and to carry out His Eternal Plan to conquer evil.

3) Taken from another angle, just because one holds to the generally accepted antiquity of the universe and of the Earth, an antiquity for life on Earth, and an antiquity for Mankind (however disputed), does not mean one embraces (or must embrace) an evolutionary framework. Not even with a theistic gloss. The ages of these things are separate from an evolutionary paradigm. However, we can — without any inconsistency — believe that there was a limited amount of change to various plant and animal populations over time, leading to a certain amount of biodiversity. The biblical text allows for this and the scientific evidence points to it, but it does not require an acceptance of macroevolution.

4) Over the centuries, very smart, learned, and theologically orthodox men within Christendom have posited and held to a variety of positions on how best to understand the Days of Creation, the diversity of life, the origin of Man, etc. Their peers did not, generally, see fit to accuse them of compromise or heresy when they disagreed on these matters.

5) In both scientific research and biblical hermeneutic, a certain amount of speculation is acceptable, as long as it remains within the bounds of logic and, with the latter, within the pale of Christian orthodoxy. That is how theories are formed, which can then be pursued and tested. But, we must take care not to get so fond of our speculations that we treat them as facts, assuming they are true, and dismissing alternate, viable positions as false, even impossible. (Yes, I’m talking to you!)

6) The vocabularies of the ancient languages of the Bible, especially Hebrew, were quite limited, and many words had several different meanings or connotations, often depending on genre usage and context. Don’t be too quick to assume you’ve got it all figured out.

7) The biblical text does not say that the Days of Creation were of the 24-hour variety. That is an interpretation and assumption made by some, and it is a popular position today. The Hebrew word “yom”, just like its English counterpart “day”, has several meanings. The definition intended in any particular passage is not always as obvious as it may seem and may require further study.

8) The Bible also does not say that the universe, or Earth, or life on Earth, or humanity were 6000 or 10000 years old, or any other age. Those dates are estimates, based on a beginning point of a 144-hour Creation Week, followed by a very concrete and contiguous reading of the Genesis 5 & 11 genealogies. Just the fact that some YECs allow for up to 10000 years (or more) means that they recognize there are at least a couple “missing” names (as indicated elsewhere). But, there are other conservative, biblical scholars that believe the text is a very “telescoped” record, not meant for calculating chronologies, such that there may have been many tens of thousands of years between Adam and Abraham (ca. 2100 BC).

9) There is also no reason to insist that the Flood account in Genesis is about a global phenomenon. In fact, there are many reasons, both scriptural and scientific, to believe that a local/regional flood — though one that wiped out all of humanity (save Noah’s family), which had not yet spread globally — is the more likely scenario. This also would have occurred a few tens of thousands of years ago.

10) Regarding the teaching of children, I suppose I can understand Nye’s concern from his point of view. But, I feel it is misguided. As I already pointed out, extraordinary scientific advancement has resulted from the influence of Christianity and the work of Christians in science, past and present. Some of them believed in an ancient Earth, others in a relatively young Earth. Some believed in some sort of evolution of the species, others did not. Plenty of harm, on the other hand, has come from naturalistic, non-theistic presuppositions in science — from eugenic experimentation to the more recent delays in progress in genetics due to assumptions about “junk DNA”.

For the record, from a policy standpoint I do not think young-Earth creationism should be mandated to either replace or be taught alongside Darwinian (or some other type of) evolution in public schools. (Not in Science class, anyway.) A more general Intelligent Design approach, however, should be an option to be addressed objectively. Private schools should be able to teach whatever they want, though I would hope they teach at least a working knowledge of the prevailing evolutionary theory, so that students are conversant and prepared for what they will encounter outside of creationist environs. In the home, though, the government has no authority from God or Constitution to decide and enforce what parents may and may not teach their children.

Please see the “Cre/Evol/ID” page linked at the top of this page for other posts I have done on this topic. The primary old-Earth creationist organization, which I highly recommend, is Reasons to Believe. They have some great books and other products, as well as scads of free resources at their website. Richard Deem also has many very good articles from an OEC position at Evidence for God from Science. You might also check out the Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, The GeoChristian, Rare Universe, and Questioning Answers in Genesis.

Finally, if you watch or listen to the “Ham on Nye” debate, feel free to comment here and let us know your impressions. Thanks!

UPDATE: “Quasi-Postmortem on Nye vs. Ham Debate”

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