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Why the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate Makes Me Sad

It's the flawed "science and faith in conflict" narrative that needs debating.

Last week’s debate pitting Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) against young-earth creationist Ken Ham was a media field day, and a huge victory for Ken Ham.  I’m not talking about the actual debate, which by most accounts Bill Nye won handily (e.g., 92% of respondents to a ChristianToday poll said that Nye got the better of Ham). No, Ken Ham won before the debate even happened, in that Nye’s agreement to participate—at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, no less—gave Ham and his viewpoint the kind of attention and exposure that money can’t buy.  Speaking as a psychologist and also a Christian, I’ve felt downright depressed about the spectacle, because the debate has only reinforced the misguided but stubbornly pervasive belief that science and faith are in perpetual conflict.

The fact that Nye is an atheist and Ham a fundamentalist Christian meant that the table was set for the two to talk past each other the entire evening, and the format of the debate, which did not require each side to respond to each other’s questions, guaranteed it would happen. Although Nye tried hard to stick to the layer upon layer of evidence pointing to an evolutionary universe (and was most persuasive when he did so), he could not resist an occasional dig at Christians’ belief in a sacred text.  Ken Ham, for his part, continued his mission of framing a literal interpretation of the early chapters in Genesis as “the Biblical perspective” on the matter.  What resulted was a narrative in which modern science and Christian faith are fundamentally incompatible.  Was anyone’s mind changed by the debate? Reading through the myriad comments posted on the blogosphere by fans of both sides leads me to guess no. 

This “science and faith in conflict” narrative is deep-seated in American culture, both among Christians who find evolution a threat to the authority of scripture, and among metaphysical naturalists who view anything that cannot be tested using science to be irrational. I see this narrative all the time, including in views held by my students at Colorado State, and in the local Christian schools to which my wife and I considered sending our children. It is entrenched. And that is what saddens me. Psalm 19, one of my favorite chapters in the Old Testament, paints a beautiful picture of a God who reveals himself through the majesty of his creation, and also through the inspired words of scripture. If one believes in the unity of truth, or that “all truth is God’s truth,” this means that there is no actual conflict between what sound science discovers and what scripture teaches, there is only apparent conflict.  When such conflict appears, finite humans are getting something wrong, either in their science, or in their understanding of scripture. The Bill Nyes of the world resolve that conflict by denying the authority of scripture, if not the existence of God. The Ken Hams do so by denying the claims of mainstream science.

What I long for as an alternative is a debate between opponents who overlap a bit more in their worldviews, so they talk with each other rather than past each other.  I’m hard-pressed to name a high-profile atheist scientist who denies evolution, so that debate seems unlikely anytime soon.  But Christians who find evolution to be compelling and compatible with scripture—“evolutionary creationists,” they call themselves—are not hard to come by. 

Why doesn’t Ken Ham debate Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and author of Language of God, who advocates a viewpoint in which God uses evolution as his mechanism for creating? (Never mind that Collins wouldn’t accept such a debate while in his post at the NIH.) Why doesn’t he debate John Walton, the Wheaton College theologian who makes the case that the early chapters in Genesis were written to teach about Who created the universe, but not how he did it? Why doesn’t he debate Deb Haarsma, head of the BioLogos foundation and co-author (with her physicist husband) of the first book I recommend on this subject? Ken Ham has argued strongly that all three have compromised the authority of scripture by advocating for evolution, but what they have compromised is Ham’s particular interpretation of scripture. 

Christians believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, but Christians have a long track record of making interpretive mistakes. Which view of science, and which interpretation of Genesis, is the most honest, accurate, and compelling? Which brings us closest to the truth? This kind of debate would show that it may be possible to resolve the apparent conflict in ways that honor both the integrity of science and its findings and also the authority of scripture. People might learn something. Some minds might change. And the narrative it would reinforce is a different one—one in which science and faith are in fact compatible, and that exploring exactly how this is so is invigorating and exciting. That narrative instills me with hope.

Bryan J. Dik, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Colorado State University. He is the co-author of Make Your Job a Calling.

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