I tried to resist, but I must admit to having watched the “Ham on Nye” debate in full. I find debates between creationists and atheist evolutionists tiring and deeply upsetting because I, as a theistic evolutionist, feel completely excluded and silenced while two groups of people I regard as deeply misinformed about the nature of the world beat up on each other. I argue here that the debate reinforces this dichotomy, one which pretty much everyone has reason to resist. I will also score the debate (Nye won, big time – and 92% of voters at Christian Today thought so too).
Let me begin on a personal note.
I. Dr. Dino and Me
Despite being a Christian, I find the creationists far more off-putting, in part because they frequently imply that theistic evolutionists are imperfect Christians and that they’re the real Christians. My negative reaction is probably due to a very negative experience I had with a creationist showman as a young teen, one that had a massive effect on my life.
I grew up in Fairhope, Alabama and when I was thirteen, I decided to leave Fairhope United Methodist Church, where my mother and grandparents attended, and go to Fairhope First Baptist Church with my friends, across the street (“Church Street,” if you can believe it). I was drawn into a youth group with strong charismatic influences (we were caught in the Pentecostal tendrils of the “Brownsville Revival.”). My friends and their friends were six-day creationists with a vengeance, and this in part due to a traveling Creationist huckster named Kent Hovind (“Dr. Dino”). (Like me, they too have moved on.)
I first met Kent Hovind that same year. I had just returned from a summer camp with Duke’s TIP program, where I took a course on the philosophy of science (we read, among other things, Dawkins’s The Extended Phenotype and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). I knew the guy was a fraud, but I was a kid and he was a professional debater and I lost in front of a bunch of my friends. I was furious and frustrated because they thought that if I just stopped fighting God, He’d make me a creationist too. I didn’t believe them. Instead, it was Hovind’s claim that if you’re not a creationist, you can’t be a Christian that worked its way into my mind.
Here’s the argument, (lazily) formalized:
- Jesus says the Bible is true.
- The Bible teaches six-day creationism.
- Jesus is a six-day creationist (from 1 and 2).
- If six-day creationism is false, Jesus is wrong (from 3).
- If Jesus is wrong, he can’t be God. (God knows everything and doesn’t lie.)
- If Jesus isn’t God, Christianity is false (from the definition of Christianity).
- If six-day creationism is false, Christianity is false (from 4, 5 and 6).
- You deny six-day creationism (so I said), so you’re committed to saying Christianity is false (from 7).
I was pretty convinced, I have to say. Premises 1 and 2 seemed true, and the other premises are either trivially true or follow from the others. But, well, I had taken a philosophy of science course and I played SimEarth on my Super Nintendo, so I knew evolution was true. So … I couldn’t be a Christian. Within a year’s time, I left the faith, I thought for good.
The details of my story since then aren’t relevant here. But I did encounter Hovind again, when I was sixteen, and I knew much more, and he still beat me. This time he added insult injury. He told me that I only believed evolution because (he assuned) I looked at pornography and that his IQ was much higher than mine.
I confess to chortling when I discovered that he’s now in jail for income tax fraud.
Sigh. I thought I had forgiven him, but well, the Ham on Nye debate brought it all back.
II. Hovind, Ham and Heresy
Kent Hovind is small creationist potatoes to Ken Ham, who is a much fairer and informed debater and has a much better character. But he shares with Hovind a conviction that theistic evolutionists are basically squishy liberal Christians denying God’s word. For evidence, check out his condemnation of the super awesome Biologos Foundation (founded by Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and now the head of the National Institutes of Health). The foundation is an evangelical group devoted to showing that evolution and Christian doctrine do not conflict. They have their sights set on people like Ham (you should check out their twitter feed from the debate), and rightly so: creationism is completely scientifically untenable. I say this despite worshiping with many, many creationists over the years and knowing some very thoughtful Christians who believe it, including some in my family. For them, creationism is largely about loyalty to God and God’s Word and resisting secular naturalism and its pernicious moral implications. I agree with them about God, loyalty to God’s word and resisting secular naturalism, but I am convinced that creationism has nothing to do with those causes and in fact frustrates them.
Why? Because creationists like Ham and Hovind allow people to refuse to engage with Christianity because they can simply dismiss the ridiculous scientific claims that these men bundle with Christian doctrine. These evolutionists are alienated from the Christian religion unnecessarily, just as I was years ago. Another sad truth is that Ham, Hovind and others alienate Christians from the scientific community. Thanks to Ham and others, many Christians view scientists as their ideological, political and theological enemies. And that’s a great and terrible shame.
Finally, Ham, Hovind and others act as if their interpretation of the Bible is the only “literal” one, when many church fathers have read Genesis 1-2 allegorically since Origen (184/5-253/4) (see Biologos’s discussion). Augustine is perhaps the most famous one of these. In the debate Ham says that you can believe in evolution and be a Christian, but he immediately adds that they have a severe theological conundrum in doing so (making sense of how death entered the world). Well, Mr. Ham, Augustine was pretty smart and he didn’t see the conundrum, so why should we?
I have written a book defending a freer public discourse, one where people can bring their religious beliefs to bear on political and social matters. But we can still criticize the form discourse takes, particularly if it obscures the philosophical terrain. A great many Americans are theistic evolutionists (32% in 2012) and many creationists don’t hold their beliefs very strongly (see the fascinating data on intensity of belief in evolution/creation here). Theistic evolutionists need more representatives, for the sake of the faith, for the sake of public discourse and for the sake of science education.
III. Ham vs. Nye – What Mattered? Bad Bundling!
The Ham on Nye debate proceeded much as you’d expect. Nye focused on showing that Ham’s empirical claims were completely implausible and Ham responded with two sorts of strategies: (1) casting doubt on our ability to know much about the past and (2) reinterpreting scientific disputes as philosophical ones. Ham makes a terrible distinction between “Historical science” and “Observational science.” Observational science is what we can see, whereas historical science is what we can infer about the past. Ham is fine with certainty drawn from observation, not from making inferences about the past.
One of Nye’s best moments came when he pointed out that Ham’s distinction makes no sense in astronomy, where the very act of looking into a telescope means looking back into the past billions of years. But the distinction is stupid on other levels as well. Rather than enumerating them, let me add what might be a novel criticism: it makes no sense for Ham to simultaneously claim (a) that we don’t have good enough evidence and models to say that the universe is billions of years old and (b) that we can know the Biblical authors’ intentions well enough to know they meant us to read Genesis 1-2 literally. To me, that is devastating for Ham. If he takes a skeptical line on evolutionary biology, he must take such a line on how to read the Bible literally. If we “weren’t there” for evolution, we “weren’t there” when Genesis was written, and we certainly “weren’t there” to discern the authors’ intent.
Ham drew the distinction so many times it was clear that his entire case depended on it, and on this point I think Nye should have hit him harder and made clear how silly a strategy it is.
But the strategy that really pissed me off was Ham’s attempt to skirt empirical questions by turning them into philosophical questions. I hate philosophical naturalism and most forms of scientism associated with it because they try to turn everything into a scientific question. But Ham is the worst example of someone who makes the opposite error – turning genuine empirical questions into philosophical ones. Ham talked over and over about worldviews, the truth of Christianity, the harm of teaching only evolution in public schools and other stuff totally irrelevant to the topic of the debate in order to win sympathy from his audience and convince them that they should agree with him to avoid Nye’s entire worldview.
This was an awful slight-of-hand because Ham is trying to make his view more plausible by deceptively conjoining it with views that are dramatically more respectable, such as theism and moral realism. It was that bundling strategy that alienated me from God, and it’s one that I think Ham is culpable for employing. Initially I didn’t think he did so in bad faith, but during the Q&A, Ham was asked if he came to abandon creationism due to good empirical evidence whether he would abandon Christianity. Any sensible Christian should have immediately said, “No! Of course not!” But Ham refused to answer the question, instead, denying that the two could possibly come apart. There is a reason he refuses to disaggregate Christianity and creationism – because if people believe they can be evolutionists and followers of Jesus, he will lose big in the battle of ideas.
Nye was especially effective in asking Ham whether his “creation model” could make any new predictions. From what I can tell, Ham never gave a coherent answer. His “scientific” model is completely post-hoc. It may, in some loose sense, “fit the data,” but it can’t accommodate new data. And that makes it a bad scientific theory.
Nye also won on the question of certainty. Ham was asked what evidence would convince him that he was wrong. His answer was, in effect, nothing. Nye immediately shot back that he would change his mind in the presence of any evidence to the contrary. I’m not sure that’s true of Nye, but the fact that Ham simply embraced the fact that he could not possibly be convinced he was wrong was another serious low point. As a Christian, I know there are a great many things that could convince me I was wrong, in particular compelling new historical evidence that undermines the non-miraculous and non-prophetic claims about Jesus, such as medical evidence which shows that the details of Christ’s death via crucifixion were erroneous, or a suitably deep and inventive version of the problem of evil. Why on earth couldn’t Ham have said the same thing? What loss would it have been to him to admit that, in the end, he could be wrong? I don’t know.
Incidentally, I also found really annoying Ham’s habit of repeatedly showing videos of the tiny handful of scientists who agree with him. They were the worst sort of anecdotal evidence.
What of Nye? I think Nye’s biggest mistake was criticizing the epistemic reliability of the Bible. He was on his best ground in arguing that Ham’s view is not the standard for Christians. But when he attacked the “Biblical” account of the flood, he allowed Ham the assumption that Ham is reading the Bible properly. So Nye bundled his argument with a rejection of what he himself admitted was the proper interpretation of the Bible. Why do that? He turned a lot of Christians off that way because he was bundling the case for evolution with an argument against the Bible. That said, he was careful to emphasize that the debate was focused on “Ken Ham’s creation model,” which was good.
His next error was repeatedly stressing the dubious economic claim that widespread belief in creationism will undermine economic innovation and scientific progress. We’ve done more cool science with hordes of creationists around for decades. I can’t see creationist belief really getting in the way.
Finally, I want to applaud Nye for bolding walking into the lion’s den. Nye had lots of funny jokes, but no one laughed. He pressed on. When he couldn’t immediately produce an explanation of where the world came from, the crowd laughed at him. He pressed on. He listened to some ridiculous arguments given in a completely serious manner with a calm, patient demeanor. He pressed on. And he ended with excitement and passion, even though I think his broader metaphysical picture of the world is completely, demonstrably wrong.
So who won the debate? Nye won, hands down, in large part because he focused on what was really at stake in the debate – not worldviews, not “Christianity vs. atheism” but whether it is at all plausible that the earth is six thousand years old. Ham asked pointed questions, seemed comfortable and careful and polite, but in the end he relied on bogus distinctions and an argumentative strategy that involved illicit conjunctions of distinct ideas.
IV. Let the Ham go Bad
One reason to regret the debate is that Ham is going to make a lot of money from it, probably. They’ll take the video down off of Youtube and then sell DVDs. But Ham is in financial trouble, and so supporting the debate may keep him going.
The ultimate problem with the debate is that whatever Nye did for science, and however much he stressed that there are people of faith who believe evolution, he still helped reinforce a dichotomy that makes Christians feel like they have to reject evolution to be good followers of Jesus. Ham thrives on this dangerous association and I suspect many atheists are happy to keep it around because it makes atheism easier to vindicate in the eyes of the unconverted. But Nye seems like a genuine truth-seeker, so while I respect and applaud his performance, me and my ilk left out in the cold, banging our heads against the walls of the Church, praying for a better debate. And you atheists should support us, as we’re the best hope of convincing Christians to embrace modern science wholeheartedly and ending the attempt establish religion by teaching creationism in public schools. You will never convince us. We will have to convince ourselves.