Tag Archives: debate

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.

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.