Bill Nye v. Ken Ham: Why the Creationism Debate Is Just Another Fish War, Won't Change Minds

It's been six years since I visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the brainchild of Ken Ham and the public face of his organization, Answers in Genesis, in the United States. It was there, after touring the sprawling and impressive displays (easily on par with secular theme parks, if lacking the fossil assets of public museums) that I picked up my first standard-issue piece in the high-brow, intellectual clash known as the "fish wars." It was, of course, my duty to fight the good fight and glue this plastic ornament to my '03 Corolla-you know, for the Kingdom.

Ever since militant atheists first released the quadrupedal "DARWIN" fish to parody the ichthus (an ancient fish outline representing the Greek acronym "Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior," which became an icon of evangelical pop culture when I was still too young to care), the volleys have continued to fly (or swim) across the bumpers of millions of otherwise uncontroversial automobiles. Soon after the "DARWIN" fish crawled onto the scene, evangelicals made their stinging rejoinder: a larger fish labeled "TRUTH," gulping down the "DARWIN" fish (which is what I got).

Incensed, atheists summoned a dinosaur outline, which is depicted gnawing on the "TRUTH" fish. It has continued in like manner ever since. And while parking lots and stoplights are not particularly well-known venues for nuanced and enlightening discourse on origins, the upcoming debate between arch-Creationist Ken Ham and children's television host and atheist, Bill Nye "The Science Guy," is not likely to raise that bar. In fact, it might just be the next fish in the series.

But there are already plenty of those, as they say, in the sea. And they're not nourishing anybody.

One of the main reasons I finally removed my Creation Museum "TRUTH" ichthus (besides that it was getting old and flaking), is that nobody other than my Creationist friends ever mentioned it. As an evangelistic tool, it floundered. And delving into the marvelous work of Intelligent Design theorists like Dr. Stephen Meyer and others at the Discovery Institute, I came to realize why. The Fish Wars, like "Creation Science" itself, seeks to address one dogmatic category error by substituting an equally dogmatic category error.

Let's be clear: the evolutionary "science" of Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye and the sizable crowd of other pop-evangelists for unbelief amounts to little more than microwaved materialism. They're atheists, and they make no bones about it. They think Ken Ham and others who accept a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 are barking lunatics-on a level with flat-earthers and holdouts for Ptolemaic cosmology. Dawkins and Nye have both equated teaching Creationism in schools to child-abuse, and Nye has publically pleaded with parents not to cripple our future scientists and engineers by passing on suspicion toward Darwinism. But it's when Nye and his ilk bump up against the Intelligent Design movement that they really tip their hand.

Meyer and other robustly-credentialed Intelligent Design theorists contend that the record of life isn't consistent with an unguided, material process. They further argue that observational science yields clear evidence of cosmological and biological tinkering. Contrary to their critics, Intelligent Design proponents haven't proffered a theory-of-the-gaps, but a methodologically-sound explanation for the origins of the world, complete with specific, verifiable predictions. (You can explore these in greater depth in books like "Darwin's Black Box," "Signature in the Cell," and "Darwin's Doubt").

But for atheist apologists like Nye, "Intelligent Design" represents merely the latest attempt by religious propagandists to pass off faith as science. And he's not alone. As millions learned when Ben Stein released his lightning-rod documentary, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," members of academia who so much as breathe doubts about Neo-Darwinism find themselves purged in short order, or publicaly crucified with a swiftness Joe McCarthy would envy. As Meyer remarked in a recent appearance with BreakPoint co-host, Eric Metaxas at "Socrates in the City," these visceral denunciations and party-line tactics by many Darwinists betray the fact that, for them, more is at stake here than a biological theory. What's in the dock is a worldview-one which excises God from history, and is therefore committed to philosophical materialism-the idea that every effect can be explained by purely material causes.

That's why for Nye and others, this debate extends well beyond the borders of science, which historically restricts itself to observable cause-and-effect, and threatens presuppositions about the universe and the nature of reality. For Nye, atheism is not an unrelated addendum to Darwinian evolution-it is the heart and soul of it.

And that's why Meyer insists throughout his work that we take great care to define "evolution." He contends that willful obfuscation in the scientific community allows materialists to conceal their hulking worldview commitments behind benign-sounding textbook-speak, like "change over time," "random mutations," and "natural selection." In other words, they regard the concept of an unguided, material process-something incompatible with intelligent causation-as built into evolution. Ergo, all who would, as Stephen Jay Gould once put it, "allow a Divine foot in the door," are in the same league with dreaded young-earth Creationists. They're not doing science-they're pushing religion.

But many proponents of Intelligent Design-Meyer included-accept the scientific consensus on what the average high-school student would recognize as evolution: He believes in a multi-billion year-old earth, and acknowledges a degree of common descent as evidenced in the fossil record. But Meyer, like millions of educators and students who see harmony between this branch of science and God, rejects the idea that evolution, itself, demands an unguided process. In effect, he believes, that's Christmas-wrapped atheism. And no one should have to accept such a premise as a ground rule for participating in science-particularly in light of the overwhelming evidence for design.

Purposeless processes acting on genetic copy errors could not have produced the world of living supercomputers, nanotechnology, mind-boggling engineering feats and breathtaking art we call life. Our experience suggests that the best explanation for these things, say ID theorists, is intelligence. That's a scientific-not a religious-statement. But as Bill Nye will almost certainly argue at the Answers in Genesis museum next month, allowing for any purpose or design is tantamount to treating the Bible as a science textbook.

This is the reason the Nye-Ham debate-like the Fish Wars-isn't likely to win either side many converts. Neither opponent is approaching the question from a purely scientific standpoint, but is advancing philosophical commitments as science, and wondering why the other can't get on board. For Nye, science is synonymous with atheism. It obviates God or at least relegates Him to the place of the Tooth Fairy-a private fantasy some people entertain to make them and their children happy.

For Ham, meanwhile, as much as I respect him (and having met him, I do), science as a pursuit encompasses much more than seeking the best explanation for natural phenomena through observation and experimentation. It becomes a kind of baptized laboratory where the goal is to compel the evidence of the natural world to support a certain Scriptural hermeneutic (one which, to be honest, I actually share). As a consequence, not only does science lose its integrity and objectivity (as far as human souls can reason objectively), but legitimate disagreement among Christians about Scriptural interpretation becomes "compromise."

Ultimately, what Nye and Ham both refuse to do is distinguish between science and philosophical commitments. And that's why I don't expect their debate to yield much more success than the bumper Fish Wars. Christians are supposed to be fishers of men-and yes, there are tremendous problems with Darwinism as it's currently defined and accepted. But I never got any bites by sticking my presuppositions to the back of my car.

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