Nye/Ham Debate Pt1: Biblical Assumptions

Posted on February 14, 2014


It was cool to see that the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate drew such a huge amount of attention and was viewed by an estimated 3 million people. Americans remain interested in the subject, and hold a diversity of views that don’t all fit neatly into the two positions represented at the debate. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, here’s the breakdown among Americans concerning God’s role in the origins of mankind:

  1. 46% of Americans believe God created humans in present form within the last 10,000 years (Ken Ham’s view)
  2. 15% believe humans evolved with no involvement from God (Bill Nye’s view).
  3. 32% of Americans hold the view that humans evolved with God’s guidance (a view not represented in the debate).

Important note on evolution results: According to several polls,the total number of Americans identifying themselves as either atheist or agnostic is about 5-6%, which means it’s likely that over half of those who answered that humans evolved through entirely natural processes still believe in God and may believe God had a role, but didn’t agree that the process is “guided”. This is one of many problems with the wording and method of these polls. I’m not sure how I would answer the “God-guided” question unless they could supply more detail.

Important note on creation results: Many creationists such as Lee Strobel, Pat Robertson, Hugh Ross and his colleagues and supporters at Reasons to Believe accept an Old Earth age and modern geology, but reject evolution. Since the Old-Earth Creationist view isn’t an option in this and many other surveys, it’s hard to guess how they may have responded to this survey when asked “which statement comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings” since it needlessly specified “within the last 10,000 years” in the only answer without evolution. My guess would be that most would have picked the only creationist option as the closest, even though they would disagree on the point about the earth being under 10,000 years old.

The seeds for the recent debate were planted when Bill Nye The Science Guy made a video blasting creationism. He stated that creationism is “not appropriate for children,” and stifles scientific and technological advances.

“If you want to deny evolution and live in your [own] world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

Ken Ham, president of Answers of Genesis, took issue with these statements, and challenged Bill Nye to a debate. Instead of making Nye defend those statements by choosing a topic like “Can creationists be engineers?”, they agreed to the topic “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” This put Ham and creationism on the affirmative side, which meant Nye didn’t necessarily have to defend his own statement but could instead attack the creationist model.

You can check out my interview with Donald Prothero for more discussion on the debate’s format.

Ken Ham seemed prepared to prove that a creationist can be a scientist, and presented video statements from creationists such as Raymond Damadian, inventor of the MRI scanner, and award-winning engineer Stuart Burgess. Such examples are rare, as Ken Ham admitted, but there are a few of them out there. While Nye did repeat his concern that creationist interpretations defy reason and therefore inhibit one’s ability to understand the universe and make discoveries, he kept his focus on the debate topic and demonstrated many independent lines of evidence that point to a very old earth and other refutations of a Young-Earth creationist model.

That’s the interesting thing about this debate. Though it was often billed as a clash over evolution, more time was spent discussing the age of the earth than evolution. This is because Ken Ham isn’t just a creationist, he’s a Young-Earth creationist. This means he not only disagrees with nearly every biologist regarding evolution, but he’s also taking on the geologists, paleontologists, and astronomers regarding the age of the earth. (We’ve discussed the Young-Earth view in a previous post, and addressed Ham’s critiques of dating methods on the age of the earth in the following post.)

What’s important to understand about Ham’s model is that while he starts with the Bible, he builds his model with his own interpretations of the text and a list of assumptions. The same could be said of myself and every other Christian, because interpretation and human reason is always involved. We do well to acknowledge this reality and should always be wary of those who claim that something is “clear” in the Bible. Many Christians do not share Ham’s assumptions, and most have come to different interpretations. Many conservative American evangelicals have been quick to raise this point and explain how they differ from Ham, even though they agree that the Bible is without error.

Differences of opinion among Christians concerning Genesis and the Bible in general have always been part Christian history. Many scholars and theologians throughout the ages have taken allegorical interpretations of Genesis. For example, Origen, a 3rd century theologian and Church Father, writes:

“I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.”

Augustine, arguably one of the most influential Christian theologians of all time, also viewed the creation week allegorically and figuratively. He believed that everything was created simultaneously rather than in six days, which I suppose makes him an even younger-earth creationist, but not a literalist. He was aware that many of his contemporaries came to differing interpretations, and warned his fellow Christians not to assume that they can understand matters of science and history only through their readings of scripture.

“Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.”

The brilliant philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas echoed that warning in the 12th century:

“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Long before the challenges of modern geology, astronomy, and biology, they were aware that the account in Genesis may be figurative and that Christians should be careful when attempting to extract truths about the earth when that may not have been the purpose of the writing. They had seen others err in their interpretations concerning the shape of the earth and whether or not the sky (firmament) was solid. Centuries later, the founders of Protestantism preached the sufficiency of Scripture alone in matters of faith and doctrine, but agreed that the Bible was not a science textbook. The 16th century Reformer John Calvin explained that God “accommodated” His higher truths to the level of the listener. Just as God’s Word condescended to human languages and idioms, the content was also made to be understood by the recipient, rather than conveying unknown scientific information beyond their comprehension. This view seeks to explain the ancient cosmologies reflected in Scripture (like the solid firmament) as being part of the human writer’s cultural context and not God’s explicit revealed truth about the nature of the planet and the cosmos. This view likely became more appealing as the scientific data supporting heliocentricity piled up. Those who saw the idea of a moving earth as contrary to Scripture had based their stance not only on the Bible, but on the assumption that the verses they were using were written to reveal truths about the earth. Modern Christians have gotten over that issue now and accepted that the earth orbits the sun. But many, like Ham, have shown a stern unwillingness to apply the same reasoning and approach to the issue of the earth’s age.

Nye made it a point to direct his attacks on “Ken Ham’s Model”, repeatedly drawing attention to the fact that what Ken was proposing was not based only on the Bible, but on Ham’s personal understanding and interpretation of the Bible. Though Ham denies this, and sincerely believes he is understanding what is “clearly written,” he seems to be on the wrong side of history here and making the exact mistake that Augustine and others warned against. I have no doubt that he is trying his best to hold the highest view of Scripture, but in this case he is using it outside of it’s intended purpose.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

2 Timothy 3:16

Continue to Part 2: Scientific Assumptions