Lessons from the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Creation Debate
I was one of the thousands whose internet browsers were humming on February 4 with the video feed coming from the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky. I watched with affectionate support of an earnest brother seeking to promote biblical doctrine and with an ear open to the critique of an attractive secularist personality. I did not expect real ground to be gained in the debate between evolution and biblical creation. My interest was mainly devoted to insights that this debate would shed on the relationship of biblical Christianity to a cultural dominated by hostile secularism. In this respect, I found the debate to be instructive, and would like to highlight three points that I thought were of interest.
1. Competing Worldviews, not Science. It was glaringly obvious that Ham and Nye view the data before them through the lenses of two differing worldviews. While this is obvious to Christians (Ken Ham freely admitted this), secularists are oblivious to the presuppositions which determine their doctrines. This is why the only approach that can be reasonably fruitful in debates like this is one that subjects the underlying assumptions to critique. Ken Ham did a little of this, but I would have liked much more. For instance, Nye admits that he believes that matter originated (apparently) from nothing. Ham might have pointed out that Nye and his supporters therefore claim to advance a rational position that is grounded on a blatant irrationality. Only the biblical doctrines of God and Creation provide the order in which the secularist's treasured reason can exist. As R. Albert Mohler commented: "the argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority?... Is there a Creator, and can we know him?"
On these matters, Ham and Nye are separated by a Christian worldview grounded on biblical authority versus a materialist worldview grounded on autonomous human reason. The true argument, therefore, is not over techniques of carbon dating (interesting though that discussion was during the debate), but over the basic issues of theology and philosophy. Can the secularist philosophy give a reasoned account of existence, let alone answer questions of meaning and identity? The answer is No, and Christians need to highlight the big issues that provide the worldview lenses through which we gaze upon the light of distant stars. In a generation where secular humanism occupies a virtual hegemony of culture, it is the failure of their worldview to give meaning and hope to actual people that truly frustrates people like Bill Nye in their attempts to eradicate the Christian intellectual remnant.
2. The Secularist Strategy of Ridicule. It was evident that Bill Nye knows very little about actual biblical Christianity, probably because of his cultural isolation from actual Bible-believing people. For instance, Nye ridiculed a Bible with which he is so unfamiliar that he criticized Ham for arguing from the Old Testament, apparently thinking that Christians should only accept the New Testament. While he acted cheerfully and respectfully, Nye's overall aim was to assert that a "reasonable" person simply cannot take the Christian position seriously.
The secularist strategy of demonization was especially evident in the atheist criticisms to which Nye was subjected after the debate. Michael Shulson of The Daily Beast excoriated Nye for even giving a creationist the courtesy of a platform from which to speak. The point is that hardened secularists look upon biblical Christians with a contempt constructed in isolation from interactions with actual believers. Their position requires them not to give basic respect and courtesy, on the grounds that the Christian position is unreasonable and therefore unworthy of fair consideration.
In this light, Ham's most effective tactic was showing video clips of creationist scientists who have made important contributions to society. It was hard for Nye to advance his central thesis that American scientific progress requires intolerance to creationism when Ham had just shown a creationist who helped invent the MRI machine. For Christians concerned with reaching the culture, this situation urges us to become more engaged with society at every level. The more that secularists interact with thoughtful, contributing Christians - at the workplace, in the university classroom, or on the Little League baseball diamond - the less secularist despisers will succeed in the strategy of demonization that insulates non-Christians from exposure to biblical truth and Christian love.
3. The Christian Temptation of Accommodation. While I was interested in the atheistic critique of Bill Nye, I found the evangelical Christian response to Ken Ham to be even more informative. From evolutionist Peter Enns to fundamentalist Pat Robertson,Christians showed embarrassment over Ham's gall in publicly reading the biblical account of Creation as if it is literally true. There are legitimate questions that Christians might ask of creationists like Ken Ham and there are disagreements that do not involve capitulation to secularist pressure. But the day-after evidence of the Christian response to Ham and creationism suggests to me that the secularist strategy of ridicule and demonization is working. Evangelicals desperate to be lauded as "reasonable" by their secularist neighbors could not reach for their keyboards fast enough to throw Ken Ham under the rhetorical bus.
I have argued elsewhere that biblical doctrines like creation, man, sin, and ultimately salvation cannot survive in an evolutionary worldview. Other Christian voices disagree, urging that believers will never gain a hearing to speak about Jesus if we insist on arguing over evolution. I answer that as soon as we bring up Jesus we have to treat the first chapters of Genesis as if they are historically true. What Jesus will we declare and what was Jesus doing on the cross if there was no historical Adam who cast our race into sin in Genesis 3? To be sure, Christians should desire to be thoughtful and we naturally desire to be accepted as reasonable by our secularist neighbors. But the Bill Nye - Ken Ham debate, and the media commentary that followed, argues that in order to remain faithful to God's Word and bear a faithful testimony to the Jesus of the Bible, we have to stand courageously in the face of unfair ridicule, bearing the scandal of a Savior who was also unfairly despised by the world.
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