Why Bill Nye Didn’t Win the #CreationDebate

I think Bill Nye had a far better scientific argument, but he didn’t win because he failed to realize that the debate was never about science. It was about faith. His words “I’m not a theologian” were the precise reason why he couldn’t convince a single person who believed in young-earth creationism to accept his perspective. For them, Ken Ham won the debate.

Which of them is the true scientist was obvious from the question “What would it take to change your mind?”

Ken Ham hemmed and hawed and argued his point again and again, but in the end, it was obvious that there was nothing that could change his mind because he was right.

Bill Nye said “One piece of evidence.”

Assuming that Nye wasn’t lying, he was the better scientist in the debate because he was willing to admit that he could be wrong and, by his protestation, would be incredibly excited to be proved so!

It’s a matter of what’s at stake. If Bill Nye is wrong, then he gets to learn something new and exciting. If Ken Ham is wrong, his entire belief system falls apart. As Micah J. Murray points out, “Young Earth Creationism was the foundation upon which Christianity was built.” If that falls, everything falls.

For Bill Nye, what’s at stake in the debate is the power and prowess of a country and the minds of young children being taught lies.

For Ken Ham, what’s at stake is everything. Kids going to hell. Adults going to hell. The entire foundation of Christianity crumbling. His own deeply held religious beliefs being wrong. Ken Ham (and his followers) cannot psychologically allow themselves to believe that Bill Nye might be right. That’s why the fight is so weird: It’s not about figuring out the best science based on the evidence. it’s about defending beliefs.

Bill Nye was going after the symptom. He chopped off one of the hydra’s heads, and two more grew back. The heart of the debate is about how to read the first two chapters of Genesis.

When I took history classes, I disagreed with their points about how humans came into existence.

My transformation started with two conversations. The first was when one of my film professors told me that I needed to be willing to go wherever the evidence led – to actually believe in what I believed in, rather than protecting it by refusing to look at certain evidence. “It’s not like we’re going to one day look under a rock that will prove that God doesn’t exist,” he said. The second conversation was with my friend Rachel. She suggested that I listen to him. (I had no respect for this professor at the time, but I had a great deal of respect for Rachel.) So I took her advice. I held off judgment.

When I took theology classes, I learned that the point of Genesis was not to be a modern history or science textbook. It was a theological book. The key words that I learned were “Orienting Narrative.” The creation narratives were the words of men trying to explain the world, and the spirit of God got involved in this particular telling, and that means that these words are more than just words. Converting them into a literal telling of how the world came into existence is not to take those words too seriously, but to not take them seriously enough.

When I saw this, creationism fell away without a shot. I no longer had a psychological need to reject the mainstream understanding of how the world came into existence. If acting as a science textbook wasn’t the Bible’s purpose (and it wasn’t), then I was free to accept the evidence as it was presented to me. I was free, like Bill Nye, to go where the evidence led.

I have something in common with Ken Ham, though. I don’t think there is anything that could convince me not to believe in God. Right now I’m not sure who God is, though. For me, God starts and ends with Jesus on the cross dying to save the world.

You can’t disprove the resurrection. Even if one day someone could somehow find the physical body / bones of Jesus, I could just make the shift to believing in a spiritual resurrection. Nobody could ever disprove that. I do believe in the physical resurrection, and that would be hard, if not impossible, to disprove. Certainly there is the argument that that sort of thing doesn’t happen, but that is precisely the sort of thing that would make it a miracle.

“If you believe in the physical resurrection, why not believe in six literal 24-hour days and a young earth?” Because I don’t need to.

Belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is essential to my understanding of Christianity and to my faith.

Belief in young earth creationism is not.

And this is why the Bill Nyes of the world will never defeat the Ken Hams on the creation vs evolution debate. They don’t realize that, for the Ken Hams, it’s not about science, and it never has been.

It’s about faith.

Of course, the Ken Hams don’t want to look stupid, so they build vast theories and arguments around their ignorance to protect their faith. Nobody wants to be a science denier, so they rewrite and redefine science to match their ends.

For Ken Ham, science is a tool to prove the Bible.

For Bill Nye, science is a means of wonderful discovery.

That’s why a professor who used to teach at my school wrote this after the debate:

What struck me most was that Ham came across as a hard-nosed empiricist (by which I don’t mean that his methodology is sound), while Nye radiated joy and wonder. His closing peroration would probably have convinced me to believe in God if I didn’t already 🙂
–Edwin Woodruff Tait

Bill Nye’s joy and wonder “would probably have convinced me to believe in God if I didn’t already.”

Further resources for what it is to be a Christian and believe in evolution are at biologos.org.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • I really like this post. Especially this: “I no longer had a psychological need to reject the mainstream understanding of how the world came into existence”

    And this:
    “Belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is essential to my understanding of Christianity and to my faith.

    Belief in young earth creationism is not.”!!!

  • That is fascinating, and I doubt the switcheroo is because they’re playing a part for the sake of the audience. Bill Nye really is overcome with joy and wonder at the prospect of being proven wrong because he’s a true believer in his epistemology. Ham, because he also believes that epistemology but simultaneously staked out unrelated claims on top of it, is not at all filled with joy and wonder at the prospect of being wrong. Essentially, Nye’s locus of truth is outside himself, and Ham’s locus of truth is inside himself, if you can just make up terms like that.

    Nye worries about where the evidence leads him, and Ham worries about the Bible and his existing set of hermeneutics. Both are flawed, and both for the same reason: There’s no practical protection for flawed human reason.

    ———–

    What theological import would a young-earth vs. old-earth view have? Where in history has the argument over this been as important as the arguers make it out to be? I’ve never really gotten a good answer to this, other than a cross-reference to somewhere else in the Old Testament. There’s never been a connection to clear theological principles, to clear ideas — other than the apparent assumption that to draw any other conclusion undermines sola scriptura. I don’t know how they get that connection, but that seems to be what they’re saying.

    • “Nye’s locus of truth is outside himself, and Ham’s locus of truth is inside himself, if you can just make up terms like that.”

      I don’t think that you made those terms up, but even if you did, I think that you should be able to, because that was awesome.

  • I believe that tangling up young earth creationism, abortion, and homosexuality up with essential tenets of the faith, as Ham does, is responsible for a LOT of young people abandoning their faith entirely once they hit college. These young people reach a point where they start hearing new viewpoints and thinking for themselves, and sometimes they land on a different side of the debate than their parents did or their church did. Problem is, they’ve been told all their lives that they can’t believe any of the things on this forbidden list AND have faith in God. So, much of the time, God is simply gone. “I believe this, so I guess I’m not really a Christian anymore.” Rather than finding a way to hold onto faith and wrestle through the issues, they’re stuck with this black-and-white either-or option that never allows them the opportunity to grow and change in their doctrine.

  • Bill Nye, the scientist, honestly stated, “I am not a theologian.” But Ken Ham was not as honest as Nye since he is not a theologian either. Any degrees he has in religion are honorary and not earned.

  • Hannah, one of the exhibits at the Creation Museum concerned someone (not someone I’d heard of, but it was in the late 19th or early 20th centuries) who allegedly lost his faith because he came to believe in evolution. I stood there looking at this guy’s picture and I thought, “Why can’t they see that this is an argument against their case–he concluded that if evolution is true then Christianity is false, because he’d been taught that these were mutually incompatible.” So I think they see the same phenomena you’re talking about, but they interpret them differently. You and I (and we’re right of course!) see people being driven away from the faith by the insistence that they must be creationists. The creationists see people being lured away from the faith by evolution.

    Ubiquitous, there are two basic issues with young-earth vs. old-earth. One, of course, is Biblical literalism. As you say, many fundamentalists think that if you question what Ham calls the “natural” reading of Genesis (which Ham and many fundamentalists think is a “historical” reading), then you have no “objective” way of interpreting any part of Scripture, which undermines the authority of Scripture. Now this isn’t as big an issue for me, because I don’t believe in sola scriptura. But the fact is that the great conservative Protestant theologians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including staunch defenders of inerrancy like Hodge and Warfield, had no problem with old earth. (Hodge rejected evolution; Warfield initially accepted it and then became a bit more skeptical later, but never completely ruled it out.) They weren’t what we’d now call “literalists,” and they had no problem maintaining sola scriptura and Biblical inerrancy.

    The other issue, which is a lot more serious from my perspective, has to do with the origin of death and “natural evil” generally (suffering, sickness, etc.) Even if you believe in special creation of human beings and other “kinds,” if you accept an old earth you must believe that animals suffered and died (on a vast scale) before there were any humans to sin. This isn’t a problem for everyone–in my experience Catholics (even very conservative ones) don’t seem to worry about this the way Protestants do. I’m not sure what’s going on there. But from my perspective it’s the one serious argument the young-earth creationists have.

  • John Cross

    Great post! I love how you don’t see your faith as depedent on how the earth came into existence. I don’t either, but I am still believe in a young earth. From my studies I have seen most of the evidence pointing to a young earth, and not out of making excuses or feeling like my worldview would come crashing down if it didn’t.

    If I can share thoughts about the debate, I think that Nye did a better job asking questions and debating but was also a bit unfair. For instance, he centered the debate around the issue of if the earth was 6000 years old or not while Ham was mainly prepared to talk about the approaches of the scientific method. Nye did a better job of steering the debate, but was also unfair when he blasted Ham with question after question in his 30 minute presentation, knowing that Ham wouldn’t have time to answer in the following 5 minute rebuttal. And to top it off he came back several times to say, “But you still didn’t answer my question on this!” Not to mention that he got onto other topics during the Q&A time. Ham, however, started his 30 minute presentation with sharing his views but not doing much debating or asking many questions for Nye to answer.

    David, I love your point about the debate being more about faith. I definitely agree. On the surface it was more about a young earth vs. old earth which is why Nye did a better job in debating (though I still agree on Ham’s views, just feeling like he didn’t express them well). But underlying it was each proponant’s deeply rooted worldview.

  • So wrong Hannah. It’s not an us vs them argument. The ones who make it this totally missed Jesus’s message. For God loved the WHOLE world. He loves all of us and his grace is for all of us. The only requirement is we accept it.

  • Although I am a Belgian and not acustomed with tose two people, I watched the debate too. I also found Bill Nye praiseworthy, civilized, polite… while Ken Ham was rude, proud, and lacking of arguments. Yes, an old-earth creationist would have had a read science debate with Bill Nye, and Ken Ham was not the right person for such a debate.

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