living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

A Few Words on the Creation Debate

with 8 comments

There’s a common character in horror flicks, the one who, after having gone missing, has just been discovered gagged in some unexplored room. This person will know something rather important, but, since they are unable to speak, those who have just discovered them will usually go on simply saying things like, “Oh Jimmy we were worried sick!” or perhaps “Wow, Jimmy, you wouldn’t believe the crazy stuff that’s been going on around here!” All the while the gagged person will be wide-eyed and struggling to warn their friends of the crazy dude with an axe (or what have you).

As as a theologian training in the academy, I had a lot of sympathy for that character as I watched (some) of the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye last night. Allow me to remove the gag for a moment.

creation debate

It was a sad experience for me on many levels. I know I was not alone in my general frustration, since my twitter feed was going nuts with a lot of irritated progressive-type religious commentators. Unfortunately, their enthusiastic support of Nye left me (almost) as bothered as Ken Ham’s insular framework. But why?

As the story goes, Nye stood against a particularly crafty form of dishonesty that could freely twist itself into almost any shape in order to appear honest. So far as that goes, it’s a good thing, yes? He was the champion of scientific rationality which is responsible for so much we in the modern world hold dear (including the very computer I use to compose this post!). Again, good stuff, so far as it goes.

But, among other things, what bothered me was his explicitly stated reasons for entering into the debate in the first place. Nye is worried that the rationality behind creation science is undermining America’s ability to produce more quality scientists. Specifically, he pointed to the work of scientifically trained engineers who, as he said, “make things.” And if we can’t compete in the worldwide game of “making things,” America will lose its place on the global scene.

Now, of course making things is, to a certain extent, good, but Ham and his followers have a larger vision that captivates them, one that outstrips any industry or nation. Yet it seemed that the highest Nye could reach was ultimately a utilitarian form of self-preservation. In Ernest Becker‘s terms, he, just as much as Ham, was engaged in a death denying ideology; he was invested in playing his role in the heroic drama that American society had carved out for the scientific community. And part of what keeps debates of this sort going is that Nye’s heroics were of a lesser caliber than that of Ham (even if it had more empirical support).

As strenuously as I’d also wish to criticize Ham, I can’t help but point out that Nye’s motivation is also a dangerous sham and a reduction of the greatness of scientific rationality. The greatness of science is its ruthless truth-seeking that methodologically cuts out, as much as possible, all “interests,” such as “preservation of the American way” or “showing a literalist reading of Bible to be true.” The moment science becomes a mere tool for achieving any end other than truth as such, it begins to lose its dignity. The ultimate dignity of science is its self-critical restraint which allows the mystery of reality to, in a limited way, emerge for us.

But it’s the practical results of science that tend to dominate the contemporary mind which Nye represented. As Sebastian Moore points out, “Our culture has in it a systematic reluctance to let the mystery of being consciousness suggest itself. We inhabit a scientific culture; and a scientific culture—as opposed to the open-ended desire-to-know which drives science itself—is one in which the results of scientific exploration at the practical level are what count in the fashioning of our common mind.”  (Let This Mind Be in You, 53)

What I would have loved to have seen Nye do would have been to embody the self-critical posture that makes science great (rather than go off half-cocked and try to counter Ham’s discovery of “wood encased in 85 bazillion year old rock” (or whatever) by suggesting that “maybe the rock moved over the wood?”). I would have loved for him to have explained the way that, though science is enormously fruitful in the realm of reality it is equipped to engage with, it nevertheless engages with only a narrow slice of reality (that which is amends itself to empirical testing). I would have loved to have heard how even within this limited domain, scientific rationality is not concerned with itself. And exactly because it is not concerned with itself, it is concerned only with the provisional truth that emerges through its particular method of study. I would have loved to have heard that no matter how impressive the findings of science may be, there will always be the rain that coveres both he and Ken Ham alike.


Written by Alex

February 5, 2014 at 8:16 am

8 Responses

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  1. Great stuff here Alex. The Sebastian Moore quote is so telling. I missed the debate, but find myself frustrated when these two views are pitted against each other, as if there isn’t a shape-shifting spectrum of belief within and between “classical” views of creation and evolution.

    Kiara Jorgenson

    February 5, 2014 at 8:39 am

  2. I really couldn’t disagree with you more. I thought Nye more than once admitted the length of science’s tether and effectively invoked mystery. Ham’s mix of classical skepticism and dogmatic supernaturalism is logically embarrassing and is in no way excused by any larger vision to which he lays claim. You can argue that supernatural truth claims make for better morality (Ham did so, in fact), but it doesn’t make them more true.

    Bryne Helen Lewis

    February 5, 2014 at 8:51 am

    • Hi Bryne,
      Nye may have done so. And to that extent, I apologize and ask that my post be read only as a dissatisfaction with the statements that I reference. I only watched about a quarter of it. And let me be clear, “Ham’s mix of classical skepticism and dogmatic supernatiuralism” is just as embarrassing to me as it is you. I felt that had been covered well enough elsewhere.


      February 5, 2014 at 9:02 am

      • I am teaching a class on Modern Belief this semester and the debate was extremely interesting in terms of the survey we’ve been conducting of cultural distinctives of modernity and hallmarks of enlightenment thinking. Honestly, I am morbidly obsessed with the way American supernaturalism claims divine authority in one hand and empirical validity in the other. It’s like Frankenstein’s creature. Horrible and marvelous to me.

        Bryne Helen Lewis

        February 5, 2014 at 10:06 am

        • It is that indeed! The one claim they did get right was that the real debate was on the matter of “authority.”


          February 5, 2014 at 10:12 am

  3. […] by imagining them behind their respective podiums, ready for another sensational debate (much like the “creation debate” I recently wrote about). “Prevailing habits of mind,” however, have much to learn from these two figures, but it’s […]

  4. […] thinking about something a colleague of mine, Bryne Helen Lewis, said in the comments section of a post I wrote awhile back concerning the “Creation Debate.” Her words were as follows: “Ham’s mix of classical skepticism and dogmatic supernaturalism […]

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