American television’s “The Science Guy”, Bill Nye, is scheduled to debate Evolution versus Creationism Ken Ham, the head of the World’s largest Young Earth Creationist organisation, Answers In Genesis, on Evolution versus Creationism at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky in the US of A on 4 February 2014. A few years ago, in March 2008, I had the ordeal of sitting through one of Ham’s lectures at the University of Liverpool and recounted the experience just over a year later on Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies & Wheels website:
It was an appalling experience for an atheist to sit through. My blood boiled, my teeth gnashed and my choice as a non-believer was very much confirmed. It wasn’t just the scientific ignorance that this man was peddling; he was also selling something far more sinister: right-wing religious bigotry of a distinctly Falwell variety.
In a nutshell, Ham’s line is that the Bible is the unalterable, infallible, unquestionable, literal Word of God. Everything in the Bible happened exactly as it is described, ifs, not buts, no metaphors, no allegories. Seven days means seven days, not a Hebrew term for a long period of time. People must choose between the Bible and human reason. Clearly Ham is a devotee of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, who recommended that tearing out your eyes of reason was a prerequisite to being a Christian.
Where scientific evidence and the Bible conflict, the Bible is always to be preferred and evidence must be massaged in order to fit it. According to Ham, we all start with “presuppositions”. Atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Eugenie Scott start on the presupposition that God does not exist and the Bible is wrong; creationist scientists such as Kurt Wise start with the presupposition that God does exist and the Bible is correct. The differing conclusions result purely from differing interpretations of the same evidence.
The truly sinister side to Ham’s theology is that he believes in the cruel Old Testament God (so brilliantly summarised by Richard Dawkins at the beginning of Chapter 2 of The God Delusion) which became apparent in his explanation as to why God allows so much pain and suffering. Forget theodicy, none of Richard Swinburne’s logical gymnastics for this guy, the reason why there is so much evil in the World is because God is angry with us all.
No, God does not allow evil for its eventual good to the human race. No, we shouldn’t all have faith and hope for a better future. Instead, we are all paying for the original sin of Adam and Eve eating that damn apple. We all instinctively reject God and have been paying for it ever since. We are lucky even to be here in the first place since we are not worthy of our very existence. The only way of saving our miserable souls is to accept good old JC into our hearts. Cue slide of Hitler and Auschwitz victims: this was OUR fault!
Even as I copy and paste those words, I can still summon the rage that I felt in that lecture theatre all those years ago. Naturally, my heart sank at the news of Bill Nye’s debate against Ham. Richard Dawkins has stated categorically that he refuses to debate against Creationists as it would give the lay-public the erroneous impression that the scientific fact of evolution was in doubt and there was an issue worth debating. It would be like a respectable 20th Century historian such Martin Gilbert or Ian Kershaw sharing a platform with David Irving to discuss in earnest whether the Holocaust happened to the nature and extent described by the victims, perpetrators and rescuers, or at all:
Some time in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish. I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice. He was friendly and decisive: “Don’t do it.” The point is not, he said, whether or not you would ‘win’ the debate. Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. “There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.” Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.
The creationists’ tactic – which, for that matter, runs right across the religious apologetic board – is to duck their responsibility to provide any evidence for their claims and do their worst to discredit atheist scientists personally so their flock has a (wholly arbitrary) reason to discount their opinion and not worry about what they have said against religious faith. I seriously think that “Ad Hominem” and “Dirty Debating Tactics” are taught as core modules on theology and apologetics courses the World over, from Sunday school to Christian universities.
Dawkins was the victim of covert creationist propaganda in when 1997 he unwittingly allowed an Australian creationist film crew into his Oxford home. The interviewer’s question, “Can you give an example of a genetic mutation, or an evolutionary process, which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?” was a question that only a creationist would ask. Dawkins tumbled to the fact that they were creationists, paused to think about how to deal with the situation and then asked them to stop filming. He eventually continued with the interview after they pleaded with him on the basis that they had come from the other side of the World.
When the tape was published, Dawkins eventually discovered that the creationists had spliced the tape together to make it look like his was stumped by their question, asked them to stop filming while he considered his answer and then ducked the question and answered a completely different question. Dawkins gave his own account of the interview and why he paused and asked them to stop filming within the pages of A Devil’s Chaplin. Australian writer for The Skeptic, Barry Williams, published this exposé of the episode after Dawkins contacted the magazine to investigate the incident in a bid to protect his professional reputation.
The evolution side have been pretty unanimous in their condemnation of the Nye/Ham debate. American biologist, blogger and author of Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, has commented on the debate here and here (the second post contains this useful interview with Nye on CNN giving his reasons for taking part in the debate) predicting that “it might not end well.”
Dan Arel writing on Richard Dawkins Foundation has summed up the situation rather well:
I honestly think it would be fantastic to see Nye destroy Ham, but will that do any good? Suddenly a little known figure outside of his circles, Ham will be thrust into the spotlight, reaching impressionable youths around the world, and as great as it would be to see him taken down, the risks of him winning are greater.
The American people are not going to dissect Nye’s credentials to accept such a debate and if he goes down, he will take down a lot of hard work in science with him. If the American people, who are already weary of science and already disown the idea of evolution as quickly as possible, see who in their minds is a top scientist lose to a creationist, we will have taken steps backwards in time.
The risk versus reward in this scenario is not worth it. Nye is putting a lot at risk and he is not the man to do so.
Creationism is a worthless and uneducated position to hold in our modern society and Nye is about to treat it as an equal, debatable “controversy”.
I hope Nye proves us all wrong on the 4th of February. But eternal-pessimist-glass-is-always-half-empty-atheist that I am, I am bracing myself for the worst.