When Bill Nye approached the podium in his emblematic bowtie, turned to Ken Ham and said, “Mr. Ham, I learned something. Thank you,” I was shocked.
I find most public debates about science and religion pretty boring; the most recent debate — between atheist Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham, a young earth creationist and founder of the Christian apologetics ministry Answers in Genesis this past February — was no different.
Most debaters in these forums toe the party line to such an extent that everything seems scripted and predetermined. Scarcely, if ever, do opinions change or shift in the smallest degree. And on those rare occasions when a debater does admit to learning something, it’s slightly shocking. Even though, ironically, most debaters are academics who are supposed to make learning their profession.
But Nye’s was a genuine thank you, not a patronizing one that many post-debate commentators thought Ham deserved. Nye didn’t elaborate on what he actually learned, heaven forbid any candid thoughts would come to light in such a forum. Instead, he immediately moved into his presentation; the debate continued without any more surprises.
But such is the debate between science and religion, evolution and creation. It is mired in such strong political rhetoric that proponents on either side can’t help but turn their opposition into caricatures.
To atheists, religion is oppressive and ill informed. To religious fundamentalists, science is morally bankrupt. Debates must be won in order for opinions to be swayed and legislation to be passed. After all, future generations must be protected from science or religion, depending on your bent. And as a result, neither side is willing to even entertain the plausibility of their arguments, lest they lose the entire war.
Scientific secularists get to define religion as an evil social construction; religious fundamentalists get to define science as a skeptical philosophy used to corrupt our youth.
A crevasse has been created between science and religion with no obvious way to cross.
Thus, a crevasse has been created between science and religion with no obvious way to cross.
Of course, not everybody thinks and acts in such binary terms. But the problem is, those who do — the same people who also tend to yell the loudest — are usually the ones who get to define the terms of the debate.
Those of us who don’t see science and religion as living on opposite sides of a crevasse are then left to wonder: why we are forced to straddle this proverbial pit that seems to be growing wider by the day? Why do secularists or religious people have to be all right or all wrong? Can’t they be partly right and partly wrong? Can’t they at least acknowledge there are things they can actually learn from each other?
Maybe that’s why Nye’s thank you was so important: the crevasse was narrowed, even if it was ever so slight.
Dr. Denis Lamoureux is a professor of science and religion at the University of Alberta and the author of Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution. In his words, the Nye-Ham debate was “a complete disaster:”
“It was a propagation of the false dichotomy that a creationist has to be a young-earth creationist and a scientist has to be on the side of skepticism.” And if anyone knows a thing or two about skepticism, it’s Lamoureux.
Raised Roman Catholic in Edmonton, Alberta, he says he lost his faith — as many do — in university, when he began to learn about the world, philosophy, and most importantly, biological evolution. The more he discovered about evolution, the more convinced he became.
This eventually brought him to what he thought was a logical deduction: “If evolution is true, then the Bible must be wrong and Christianity is false.” With that conclusion, Lamoureux effectively broke with Christianity and considered himself a deist before fully embracing atheism a few years later.
But, in his last year of dental school Lamoureux attended a debate on evolution, where the anti-evolutionist, Duane Gish from the Institute of Creation Research, took the biological evolutionist to task. Lamoureux says the debate opened him to the possibility of being a scientist and a Christian.
After the debate with Gish, Lamoureux says he began to feel like he was being “duped” by the secular rhetoric he had heard from university professors about things like naturalism and scientism — views that are metaphysical, not scientific. So, when he had a “genuine conversion experience” a few years later, he became a full-fledged young-earth creationist. At the time there were few nuanced approaches to evoution so you could be a scientist and a Christian, but certainly not an evolutionist and a Christian.
This dichotomy between evolution and religion was solidified with the rise of Creation Science in the 1960s, the fundamentalist Christian movement which argued against the scientific evidence for evolution in favour of a literal reading of the six-day Genesis creation story.