Some Preliminary Thoughts
Whenever I first became aware of the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate, I was…well, I was horrified. The discipline of science and faith is extraordinarily complex and there are several different perspectives on the proper integration of scientific data and Christian Scripture. So, to have a highly publicized debate (one even streamed by CNN) that pits Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism against the current theories of mainstream science regarding evolution and the age of the earth, I am convinced, is a very bad idea.
The Problem: An event such as this gives the non-believing community the impression that Ham’s creation model is representative of all Christian scholarship on the matter, and that to be a “biblical” Christian rather than a “compromising” Christian (to use Ham’s rhetoric), you must believe the earth is about 6,000 years old, universal common descent is false, and Noah’s flood explains most of geology and paleontology. This paints a picture of extreme polarization that is not reflective of the realities of Christian orthodoxy.
Think for a moment what this impression accomplishes. It immediately alienates an entire segment of the non-believing community (those who are very science-oriented, like Nye for example) that might otherwise be perfectly willing to investigate Christianity as a rational belief system. A huge, unnecessary, intellectual obstacle is hurled right into their path, an obstacle that, in reality, is not a part of coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. I’ll say it plainly here: young-earth creationism is not an essential Christian doctrine. There are other creation views within Christendom, within conservative evangelicalism, that readily accept the mainstream scientific dating of the universe and the earth. Individuals holding these other views are not compromising on the Bible in order to embrace scientific consensus, as Ham often alleges. They regard Scripture as the fully authoritative, inspired word of God. The difference is, they believe a starkly literalistic interpretation of the Genesis creation account is an egregious misunderstanding of how the text was intended (both by the human author and by God) and what its doctrinal and historical significance actually is for Christian theology. In a nutshell: To claim there is only one biblical view—young-earth creationism—is worse than false; it is an utter misrepresentation of the latitude there is on this issue and it directly hinders evangelism. (This is not to say that there isn’t one correct view, just that several models can be well-supported using Scripture.) The Nye/Ham debate totally shifted the focus from where it needs to be when Christian theism and science are being discussed in a public forum. More on that point later.
I will not give a full play-by-play, but my summary will cover some of the main points made by each participant. My highlights will include where I thought one or the other made an excellent point, and where I thought one or the other utterly failed in their argument.
I must first give you an important disclaimer:
I wasn’t pulling for either side in this debate, so I was in the rather unique position of unbiased observer. My Christian faith does not stand or fall on one interpretation of Genesis, the age of the earth/universe, or even on whether or not the theory of common descent is true (I happen to see some glaring scientific weaknesses in that last one, but that’s entirely beside the point). The ultimate authority and accuracy of Scripture doesn’t stand or fall on those things, either.
Now, on with the program…
Comments on Ken Ham’s Opening Statement
Ham began by stating the question up for debate: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”
The first thing to take note of is the ambiguous use of the word “creation.” I’ve already explained why this is a problem. The correct phrasing would have been “Is the young-earth creation model…”
Ham declared that the word “science” has been “hijacked” by secularists, and that it is entirely possible to be a “biblical creationist” and a scientist. He gave several impressive examples of successful scientists holding advanced degrees in their area of expertise who also happen to embrace young-earth creationism. Ham made a very good point here: that “molecules-to-man evolution belief has nothing to do with developing technology.” This is demonstrably true. One only has to look at every major achievement in medicine, engineering, and other technologies throughout history to notice that those advancements did not depend, in any way whatsoever, upon what the associated scientists believed about the origin of life or the origin of species.
Ham repeatedly attempted to draw a sharp distinction between “observational, operational sciences” and “historical sciences.” This has been a favored tactic of Ham’s for many years, and I understand his point, but in one respect this is very misleading. When scientists try to determine the nature of past events, they use quite a lot of observational science. In astronomy and astrophysics in particular, we are indeed able to directly observe the past, for example.
Ham claims that the “religion of naturalism” is imposed upon the origins sciences. Well, sometimes, yes, but again, Ham is drastically oversimplifying the matter. Do metaphysical views held by scientists influence how they interpret data related to origins investigations? In some important ways it does. One great example is in the field of cosmology. The Big Bang model, which is strongly supported by mountains of data, is incredibly supportive of the Christian doctrine of a creation event, an ultimate beginning of all space, matter, and time. (I won’t go into the details here, but I’ll point you to this excellent video.) This is a problem for cosmologists who reject the idea of a creator, because they must come up with an explanation of how everything (and I mean everything, including time) came from nothing. So, they go well beyond the boundaries of real science and speculate about things like an infinite succession/collection of universes or a self-conscious, mind-driven universe bringing itself into existence from nothing over and over in an endless cycle. Basically, their metaphysical view (commitment to naturalism at all costs) is driving their desire to circumvent the obvious conclusion to be drawn from our best data.
On the other hand, there are committed Christians working in the various fields related to origins (evolutionary biology, paleontology, astrophysics, etc.) who wholeheartedly reject what Ham calls the “religion of naturalism/secularism.” These practitioners are able to investigate the scientific matters directly, examine the data for themselves, and have carefully arrived at certain conclusions about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the extent of evolutionary change over time that directly conflict with Ham’s model of creation. These scientists don’t have a philosophical ax to grind. They are sincere in their faith and honest in their science. It’s unfair and incorrect to say they’re all driven by naturalism. Is it possible that some of their interpretations of the data are partly influenced by belief that God used natural processes in creation? It’s possible, but many scientists who are Christians are very open to evidence of God’s work in nature and don’t go out of their way to rule it out. The point is that Ham’s over-generalization fails.
In Part 2, I will evaluate Bill Nye’s opening statement. Stay tuned.