On February 4, 2014, the Creation Museum in Kentucky held a well-advertised and highly awaited debate between Ken Ham, the very well-known, Young Earth creationist who founded the museum, and Bill Nye, the very well-known media figure who has helped explain principles of science to millions of Americans. This “debate,” as it were, was streamed over the Internet and followed in real time by millions of people worldwide. It was two and a half hours long, modeled on rather strict debate principles and protocols, more or less, and represented a new kind of spectacle unheard of just a couple of decades ago. For me, it represented a chance to think about American attitudes toward learning in general, but more specifically it was a telling moment that revealed a great deal about how we currently package crucial issues of science.
On the one hand, I have become very weary of the steadfast defenders of Young Earth creationism. Debates like this one, in which a recognized scientist participates, actually further its appearance of legitimacy, which is precisely why most serious scientists refuse to debate Young Earth creationists anymore. And yet, perhaps surprisingly at this late date (although maybe not so late as we may think?), Young Earth creationism continues to appeal to many Christians, often including highly educated believers. Its appeal is strongest among persons who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, and who are committed to the simple idea that we should read the Bible “literally,” whatever that might mean. As an English professor, I can suggest first that the idea of “reading the Bible literally” does not mean very much; it is a bewitching phrase that is clearly a very large part of the problem. More alarming is that this resistance is getting worse: polling data by Gallup suggests that among certain groups, the percentage of Christians who accept a Young Earth model is actually growing (Newport 2012).
Such a blind spot among church members needs to be spotlighted and addressed, but how? Many pastors and church leaders avoid discussing the sacred cow of inerrancy with any sort of precision or detail, partly for fear of undermining the faith of members of the fold. And to some extent, a certain ignorance is understandable. I’ve always been interested in science and religion debates, but it does require time and effort for non-scientists to keep up with everything. I’d like to take scientists’ word for it when it comes to things like molecular biology and genetics, things about which I know almost nothing. The questions I’m trying to answer here are not about the age of the earth or the common origins of life, including humans. Rather than scientific questions like that, I’m wondering about other issues. For instance, why are so many American Christians obsessed with defending a Young Earth creationism? What does this say about our collective view of Scripture? And what does the debate at the Creation Museum tell us about the American church and its views of science and learning, and about its view of the life of the mind in general?
I think the Creation Museum debate can actually help Christian leaders and educators wrestle with these deeper issues. The debate is symptomatic of a widespread anti-intellectualism rampant in American culture, and more specifically, of a deep disrespect for science and learning. This is reflected in several major problems with the debate’s format. For one thing, this event broaches important topics in the form of what Fr. Walter Ong (1981), and later Deborah Tannen (1995), described as the “argument culture” of our day: a simplistic formula whereby complex issues are discussed in a polarized, winner-take-all competition. This model assumes that there are two legitimate sides to every question (and only two), and that even the most verifiably wacko views deserve a fair hearing in the court of public appeal. But in fact, complex issues are rarely if ever so easily framed as pro and con, and frankly, wacko opinions do not always deserve a serious hearing. The honoring of wackiness as needing to be heard lends itself to a paranoid, conspiracy-theory account of power and knowledge.
As a result, perhaps the main problem with the debate was that it featured two polarized debaters, with almost nothing in common, both of whom have been labeled showmen and entertainers more often than they have been celebrated for their research skills. What it represents, in other words, is a fairly dumbed down presentation for the masses, and it is that aspect of the debate that I find most repulsive. Even worse, both Ham and Nye are considered rank amateurs by the guild of credentialed biologists; neither has recognized expertise in the field of evolutionary biology, and neither proposed any reasonable alternatives to their own ossified positions. In such a misguided contest, listeners who consider themselves theistic believers in scientific evolution had no one to root for.
More generally, the form of the debate pitted religion against science. Thus the debate embodied a classic false dilemma, one evidently engineered by the organizers in hopes of achieving a stronger possibility of the illusion of victory. Their choice of Nye is also self-explanatory: they agreed to include another amateur who also is not a specialist in evolutionary biology. Furthermore, Nye is an agnostic, which makes him an easier target for religious listeners, already deeply skeptical of anyone not sharing their faith. It would have been much less polarizing to feature a theistic believer as a key witness for science. To be genuinely interested in an enlightened conversation, the organizers could have chosen some spokespersons in the middle: a theistic evolutionist.
That said, even in such a dubious format, science clearly won the night. The most striking weakness of Ham’s account (among many very serious weaknesses) surely is regarding the age of the earth. The process of determining the earth’s age was easily explained by Nye through commonplace appeals to radiometric readings, layers of ice, and fossils in the Grand Canyon. Overall, despite the fact that the debate offered some legitimacy to Young Earth creationism for non-scientists, Nye obviously presented the best arguments, and certainly won the debate for anyone who is not committed to a literal six-day reading of Genesis.
The entire Young Earth creationist account may simply be attributable to a very poor hermeneutics of Genesis. As such, conservative Christians are going to have to face the facts about the limits of inerrancy, because if one believes that the book of Genesis was written to be a kind of scientific/journalistic blow-by-blow account of the creation sequence, then of course one will be forced to believe just as Ken Ham and his followers do. In the past, when science discovered new ideas about the universe, biblical interpretation evolved in view of those developments. The “two books” version of God’s creation is well described, for example, in Mark Noll’s excellent volume, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). But this debate was set up to peddle disinformation, making the good information largely a smoke screen for very bad premises. The arrangement constitutes a major problem we have been facing for decades: the lie that science and religion must always be virulently at odds with each other. “It is this huge stereotype that all Christians reject science and an event like this reinforces that stereotype,” said Deborah Haarsma, president of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization whose motto is “science and faith in harmony.” “It looks like science versus Christianity and it ignores the people who have accepted the science of evolution and have not let go of their faith” (Winston 2013)
I find the belligerent hatred of true science by members of churches nationwide shocking. And as a literary critic and a cultural historian, I have run up against nasty skepticism and disrespect for my own learning scores of times over the years. Often it has to do with questions about America as a Christian nation, for instance, or with the purported Christian beliefs of some author or another. In The Anointed (2011) Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson describe the powerful influence certain “Christian” experts hold over grassroots Evangelical believers. The spirit of The Anointed is precisely correct: Led by “experts” like Ken Dew, Evangelicals and other conservative Christians have set up a parallel universe of learning on all kinds of subjects. And their fearfulness toward Darwin and evolution is very much fostered by their fearfulness about America’s decline as a nation. Social decline, according to these conservatives, is founded on an errant view of humans as having been evolved from lower forms like apes; to them evolutionary theory is without a doubt a satanic lie. So the hatred of evolution is linked, again, to the jeremiads of the political right, and our decline as a nation is linked to Darwin and his followers. Meanwhile, our best scientists insist that evolution is the foundation of everything we know about biology today.
Anti-intellectualism is still mainstream in much of the church, and if Christians wish to talk science, we’ll need to get more serious about it than the debate put on by the Creation Museum, which was pitched pretty low. We will need to take seriously, and read carefully, the work of the Christian intellectuals who embrace both a theistic evolutionary model and a theological fluency: experts who are recognized and credentialed, people like John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingrich, Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Alister McGrath, John Haught, and so on.
Haught, in particular, has made a career out of calling for a theology of evolution, and he makes a strong case for it. Drawing upon such theorists as Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead, Haught paints a marvelous picture of our need to move away from a mundane “design” model and to embrace a creative, yet messy, vision of how God works, and how evolutionary findings actually expand and transform our views of God in powerful ways. Haught’s work contains some potentially mind-blowing insights into the creative and fertile workings of our God, insights that speak of a universe shot through with hope and life.
And so I would echo Haught’s call for a deeper encounter with the facts of evolutionary biology by religious thinkers, as well as by the pastors, educators, and others who read The Cresset. This encounter, at the present time, is not for the faint of heart. Thankfully, we do have the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John tells us that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth. As such, there is still hope that as history proceeds, the church can move closer to its calling as the “pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15), for scientists, literary critics, pastors, and everyone else.
Hal Bush is Professor of English at Saint Louis University and author of Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (University of Alabama Press, 2007) and Lincoln in His Own Time (University of Iowa Press, 2011).
Newport, Frank. “In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins.” GallupPolitics, June 1, 2012. http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/Hold-Creationist-View-Human-Origins.aspx.
Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Ong, Walter J. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Stephens, Randall J. and Karl W. Giberson. The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, 2011.
Tannen, Deborah. The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue. New York: Random House, 1998.
Winston, Kimberly. “Ham-on-Nye Debate Pits Atheists, Creationists” Religion News Service, January 30, 2014. http://www.religionnews.com/2014/01/30/ham-nye-debate-pits-atheists-creationists.