Tag Archives: Bill Nye

Ken Ham is a crazy-pants

In a much-hyped event live-streamed last night, “Science Guy” Bill Nye set out to defend evolution in a debate with Ken Ham, the CEO of Kentucky’s Creation Museum. But there was a fundamental problem: Ham’s young-earth creationism is not a religious belief, and it certainly is not scientific. To put it bluntly, it is quackery.

To understand Ham’s view, we need a brief history of how the Bible is interpreted, and where his radically new heuristic comes from. As Paul Fry notes, literary theory or the study of texts (hermeneutics) was originally developed to interpret the Bible. Interpretations have always been based on contemporary events and politics; for instance, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism were based on an attempt to placate the Roman empire. Biblical literalism as an interpretative method can be traced back to Martin Luther’s denunciation of the Catholic Church and his use of Scripture to undermine their authority. Martin Luther’s democratic mission later combined with the tenets of the scientific revolution and fundamentalist politics to produce biblical literalism, the idea that the Bible is a series of testable assertions that can be proven or disproven and that a layman can read and understand the meaning of Scripture.

Biblical literalism is absurd, but it is simple. The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

Because Ham’s claims are clearly unscientific (he denies radiometric dating, claims that the Earth is 6,000 years old based on incomplete genealogies and argues that the flood explains tectonic shifts) we must call them what they are: quackery. H.L. Mencken noted that human progress “tends to go too fast — that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable and incurious men.” Because of this, he worried that, “the average man, finding himself getting beyond his depth, instantly concludes that what lies beyond is simple nonsense.” This attitude was on display throughout the debate, when Bill Nye would accept ambiguity and Ken Ham simply substituted ambiguity for absolute and uncompromising and entirely unfounded certainty.

Creationism is a fraud. It is like witchcraft, the 9/11 conspiracy theory or homeopathy; it is a closed system, one that reason cannot penetrate. Nye’s decision to debate Ham and the decision to even air the debate was absurd. Bill Nye accepted the debate assuming he was debating about evolution; he was not. Rather he was debating a political issue. As Ken Ham has said elsewhere,  ”As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.” The Discovery Institute, which touts creationism with a different name (intelligent design), has espoused much the same opinions. Like all fundamentalist movements, they seek to explain all the world’s ills from one source. Barbara Forrest writes, “The ID movement developed out of the rejection of evolution by people who believe that the moral ills of the modern world have been caused by Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea.”

Both organizations (Ham’s Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute) are intimatelyintertwined with right-wing political causes. In the debate, Ham mentioned these ideas, noting that the biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman. The goal is not to defend the absurd idea of young-earth creationism, but rather biblical literalism, the ideology from which fundamentalists draw their strength. If evolution is true, if the Bible cannot be interpreted literally, then women can preach and seek abortion and gays can wed. Throughout its history, religious fundamentalism has been a force to mobilize and defend far-right causes — creationism is merely a “wedge” to expose children to fundamentalist beliefs.

Throughout the debate, Nye made the observation that Ham was essentially a cultish leader; he asked frequently why Ham’s followers would “believe him instead of what they could clearly see before his eyes.” Ham admitted that, “No one will ever convince me that the word of God is not true.” Unlike evolution, which would be easily falsifiable (As J.B.S. Haldane noted, all it would take to disprove evolution is “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era.”) Creationism is not falsifiable. Debating a creationist is like debating a 9/11 conspiracy theorist; one enters an alternate realm, one that is entirely self-reinforcing and impenetrable.

As Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922,

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

I have deep and profound disagreements with those who call themselves New Atheists. I worry with Rabindranath Tagore that, “material advantage … has tempted the modern man away from his inner realm of spiritual values,” and that these New Atheists, are the type of “precocious schoolboys of modern times, smart and superficially critical … driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbours’ houses on fire and are themselves enveloped by the flame.” But to degrade and exploit religion, as Ken Ham does, is appalling. It brings us no closer to an understanding of the deep questions that we struggle with. He and his ilk have no place in our intellectual life. I propose, with Stephen Jay Gould and the Catholic Church, that we recognize that religion and science are two entirely different realms.

As Martin Luther King Jr. argued, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”

Originally published on Salon.

An unedited, likely heretical and certainly underinformed answer to Mike MacRae

Mike MacRae asked me on Twitter:

First off, I don’t accept a literal reading of the New Testament, I also read the New Testament as a document influenced by the culture and politics of its time. The interpretation of the New Testament was further influenced by politics (see: Arianism and Constantine). I don’t really worry that much about the “historical Jesus,” nor do I worry about the “historical Plato.” All of these seem to me to be side discussions. I also try to be non-parochial about my approach to religion. My Christianity, as I’ve noted elsewhere has been influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Muhammad, Tagore, Confucius, Marx and Wilde (among others).

So, onto the question at hand. My definition of “quackery” is adapted from Mencken, who writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

So I’m referring to a specific thing – in modern society we have to trust experts to explain incredibly complex systems. Quacks are people who just throw this all out of the window. They say, global warming? Nah man, that’s just the sun! Evolution? Nah man, that’s just God. That’s what I think is dumb and quacky and needs to be condemned. Okay Sean, but what about people who accept evolution by natural selection and say God guided the process. Why? We know about Mendelian genetics. We know about how natural selection and the environment produces gradual changes. Is our God so small he has to tinker with mundane things (Oh shit! I have to go make some minor adjustments so a giraffe can eat). I see no reason to add this belief other than to make God banal.

Anyhow, why is the Resurrection not quackery? My understanding is that it is a metaphysical one-off. Now, if some scientist developed a way to bring people back to life, and a bunch of Christians said, no, you aren’t bringing people back to life, God is doing that they would be quacks. I think religion concerns itself with metaphysical, not physical claims. So if you want to say that the Son of God, a metaphysical being, came back to life, that is fine. If you want to claim that he is what causes volcanoes to explode, you are a quack (this is my NOMA coming out). The Catholic Church says we have souls. I can’t disprove that with science. Ken Ham claims the Earth is 6,000 years old. I can disprove that with science (that’s why he relies on this weird historical science bullshit). Some (most) Christians say a divine being walked among us, was killed and was raised from the dead. Well, I think we can say that a human couldn’t do that. But Christians don’t claim a human did it. I don’t think you can prove it happened, and you can certainly use a Humian logic to say it’s pretty unlikely, but I don’t think you can disprove it. You can accept the scientific method and believe the resurrection. You can’t accept the scientific method and accept creation.

Biblical literalism is quackery because it does exactly what Mencken warns us about, it “reduc[es] the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.” The Biblical literalist says anyone can open the Bible and read it and instantly understand it without any work or training or thinking. I worry that this way of reading the Bible is primarily concerned with what I call “weaponizing Christianity.” At the risk of vulgarizing my own position, I read the Bible to begin an investigation of deeper truths, not end one.That’s what separates me from Ham. Can I make the claim that this “true Christianity”? As Nietzsche remarked, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” I gave an example of how you weaponize Christianity in the Salon piece:

The fundamentalist is not interested in deeper truths, but rather weaponizing the Bible. A perfect example is women having authority in church. The verse fundamentalists cite to support this view is from, 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul tells the church of Corinth that women should be silent during the service. In many fundamentalist churches, this verse is used to deny women the right to become pastor, or even pray aloud during the service. Biblical scholar Ken Bailey notes that during this time in the Middle East, services were often held in classical Arabic, which women could not understand (most spoke a local dialect). Throughout the service they would begin to gossip, often so loudly that the minister would ask them to be silent. Paul, Bailey argues, was repeating this injunction in his letter. As Nye notes in the debate, Ham and other fundamentalists are rather selective with the verses they choose to interpret literally. The Rev. Cornel West put it bluntly, “Fundamentalists want to be fundamental about everything except, ‘love thy neighbor.’”

So, two answers. I think people who really wrestle with these questions deserve praise, it’s very clear Ham doesn’t. Ham and these guys read the Bible as a series of true or false, entirely testable propositions. I see the Bible as the beginning of deeper investigation into what it means to be human. I see religion as a humanism (As Bacon noted, ‘”If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”) I also think you can entirely accept science and the scientific method and believe in the Resurrection, because it’s not a claim about the natural world that is testable and repeatable. But if someone were to say, hey, we should ignore medicine because God can raise people from the dead. I would say that is quackery. That’s what Ham is asking us to do; he wants us to throw out biology because of the creation narrative.  But maybe I’m a quack.

 

Drew Miller misunderstands my argument

Drew Miller has a piece on Policymic about my piece on Salon (you can see my newer piece on Salon, essentially restating my position here). I think he misunderstands my argument and I want to correct it, and offer some points, but I also want to note that I looked at some of his work and found it enjoyable. So, yeah, this won’t be a rant (I know, I’m sorry).

He writes,

One common opinion is that meeting fundamentalists in debate only serves to strengthen their position; by giving them the platform of equal footing, the fundamentalist position is given the same weight as the litany of scientific fact proving otherwise. Richard DawkinsMark Joseph Stern, and Sean McElwee all make this argument.

Whenever I’m being lumped in with Dawkins, you know there might be a slight problem. My argument is in the same vein as Dawkins, but from a different angle. Dawkins said that Bill Nye does not represent him, nor the scientific community and should not debate Ham and give Ham scientific legitimacy. My argument is that Ham is not qualified to debate theology, does not represent the religious community and that the debate should not happen because Ham’s position should not be given religious legitimacy. As I’ve stated more recently, it is neither religion nor science, but rather it is bullshit.

I didn’t address this argument, but an even more powerful point is that Ham’s venture is hemorrhaging cash, and that by creating a new revenue stream for it, Nye is actively supporting the continued existence of the Creation Museum. That’s important because when children (children!) visit the museum which can now keep its doors open for another month or year, Nye won’t be there to disagree with them. Nye has brought up Ham’s public profile which may bolster efforts to get Creationism or ID back into schools, which would be a very, very destructive development.

Miller thinks engagement is the solution. I would encourage him to read the literature on cognitive dissonance (esp. Leon Festinger). This is part cult, part radical political movement and evolution is just a part of the iceberg. Reason simply isn’t going to win. And nor should it have to. We don’t engage the few people who still think interracial marriage is bad or that the earth is flat or that women are inferior. We don’t debate them because at a certain point we just move along. They can keep up or be marginalized. They’ll write angry Youtube comments, but for the most part, they are harmless. When they are on the national stage, they are very, very harmful.

Here’s a nasty fact. There are people out there who think women shouldn’t be allowed in the workforce. There are people who think Jewish people control the world. There are people who think the world will cease at the end of this year. There are people who think the government caused 9/11. We don’t debate them on the national stage, because at some point, you move on. Miller writes that,

As Staks Rorsh put it, ignoring ridiculous beliefs won’t make them go away. So while it may be a pain to actually take the time to explain why Noah’s Ark is utterly implausible, it’s a worthwhile task.

But at some point, that’s what we do. We don’t debate whether the Earth is flat, even though people believe it. We just let them marginalize themselves, because this simply isn’t a debatable issue. My dad always told me, “If you wrestle with a pig, all you get is muddy.”

A final note. Miller argues that,

Repressive systems do incredibly well when their adherents, whether willing or not, are prevented from conceiving of alternatives. How do the tyrants of Cuba and North Korea remain in power? By controlling the discussion.

This is a very bad argument for his case. Creationists do not live in a closed system. Had Bill Nye not come and discussed the issue, they would most certainly have been exposed, quite frequently to the alternative. Their children would hear the alternative in schools or see it on television. So this point is entirely irrelevant. If anything, Nye has allowed them more power to “control the discussion” by strengthening their organization.

Ken Ham and Bill Nye should not debate tonight

Co-written with Abigail Salvatore.

Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be debating creationism on Feb. 4, and it’s a bad idea for both scientists and Christians. Ham’s young-earth creationism represents the distinct tendency of American Christian fundamentalists to reject science and use their religion to defend economic ideas, environmental degradation and anti-science extremism. But these views aren’t actually inherent in Christianity — they’ve been imposed on the biblical text by politically motivated and theologically inept readers. The solution is not anti-theism but better theological and scientific awareness.

The vast majority of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are evangelicals, followers of an offshoot of Protestantism. Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.

Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” perfectly summarizes the American distaste for intellectualism and how egalitarian sentiments became intertwined with religion. He and Walter Lippmann point to the first wave of opposition to Darwinian evolution theory, led by William Jennings Bryan, as the quintessential example of the convergence of anti-intellectualism, the egalitarian spirit and religion. Bryan worried about the conflation of Darwinian evolution theory and capitalist economics that allowed elites to declare themselves superior to lower classes. He felt that the teaching of evolution challenged popular democracy: “What right have the evolutionists — a relatively small percentage of the population — to teach at public expense a so-called scientific interpretation of the Bible when orthodox Christians are not permitted to teach an orthodox interpretation of the Bible?” He notes further, “The one beauty of the word of God, is that it does not take an expert to understand it.”

This American distrust of experts isn’t confined to religion. It explains the popularity of books like “Wrong” by David Freedman (a book that purports  to show “why experts are wrong”) that take those snobbish “experts” down a peg.  The delightfully cynical H.L. Mencken writes,

The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.

Thus, an American need not understand economics to challenge Keynes, nor possess a PhD to question climate change, nor to have read Darwin to declare his entire book a fraud. One need not read journals, for Gladwell suffices, and Jenny McCarthy’s personal anecdotes trump the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences.

The irony of modern American Christian right-wing fundamentalism is that, for all its talk of tradition, it is a radically new way to read the Bible. The strict constructionist, or literal fundamentalist, biblical method of interpretation was invented in the 19th century. America at this time experienced rapid social change that played a key role in creating the fundamentalism that now lies at the core of the religious right. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the idea that technological progress is the way forward. American Protestants worried that all this science would encroach on their religious beliefs, so they turned to the Bible as the source of all knowledge — scientific and spiritual. During a time when Darwin’s followers were trying to explain everything in terms of evolutionary theory, American Protestants refused to look for truth outside their interpretation of Scripture.

In “Fundamentalism and American Culture,” George Marsden describes fundamentalism as “essentially the extreme and agonized defense of a dying way of life.” The American Protestant response to the Industrial Revolution was engendered by the fear that a small cabal of experts would dictate to Americans how to live their lives and that science would somehow replace their religion. In truth, the Christian tradition provides little support for the fundamentalist doctrines that arose during this period. Augustine believed that science and religion need not be in competition, and the Catholic Church has long held that evolution does not contradict the Church’s teachings. Fundamentalists who deny climate change and evolution have simply read their simplistic understanding of science into biblical texts.

Because the “fundamentalist problem” is not rooted in religion, the answer can’t be found in anti-theism, the preferred response of commentators like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Rather, American Protestants must learn to read the Bible as a religious text rather than a series of logical premises to be proven. The irony of debates like the one between Bill Nye and Ken Ham is that they pit two fundamentalist readers against each other. The fundamentalist Christian and the atheist both read the Bible as a series of falsifiable propositions — what Terry Eagleton calls the “Yeti” theory of belief. Disproving the creation narrative should strike any theologian as absurd — the way a literature professor would react if a student claimed to have “disproven” “Sons and Lovers.”

Religious conflicts can serve to obfuscate base political or economic motives. Christianity was used to justify slavery in the South, but it’s doubtful that without the Bible, Southerners would have freed their slaves (it may be worth noting that science was also used to justify racism, most famously documented in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man”).

In the same way that racism was read into the Bible, modern American Protestant positions, like climate change denialism and anti-evolutionary thinking, are being imposed on Scripture. The religious justification for denying climate change is tenuous, while the economic justification, for someone worried about keeping their job or filling up their tank, is not. Americans whose economic interests rely heavily on fossil-fuel-intensive industries aren’t keen to lower their standard of living by abandoning coal.

The upcoming Nye/Ham debate, and other debates like it, are merely reiterations of the classic debates between Adams and Jackson, Burke and Paine, Lippmann and Chomsky: the philosopher-king vs. the democrat. By singling out religion as the genesis of these anti-intellectual outbursts, the New Atheist movement only takes us away from the solution: divorcing religion and science. By claiming that religion needs to be abolished, the New Atheist movement justifies the worst fears of the religious. When a religious person makes a political assertion or an economic argument or a claim about science, it is exactly that: a disprovable assertion. Within religious circles, fundamentalists must be challenged (with appropriate love) for manipulating true religion.

The religious right’s stance on climate change, economics and evolution is not informed by their religious beliefs. Rather, these political and economic views are imposed on Scripture, which is often read without theological rigor. It is not religion that is the problem, but rather the use of religion as an ideological weapon. But to respond by using science as a weapon is equally problematic.

The best way to address the problem is to confront the underlying political and economic concerns that are obscured by religious dogma, rather than attacking the religion directly. Our problems require an entirely new political and economic paradigm, one that rests on understanding and empathetic action between people of all faiths. Religious reformers, concerned environmentalists, scientists and economists must work together toward a more sustainable future. Bill Nye is intensely concerned about climate change and evolution, as are we. He should therefore ally himself with sane religious leaders, rather than debate fundamentalists.

Originally published on Salon.