No shortage of opinions may be found when it comes to the Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate. Millions (myself included) have watched it. Twitter was flooded with incredulous one-liners from the befuddled religious and non-religious alike. Even though it is over, the blizzard of articles on who won or lost continue to pile up.
I hesitate to add to the noise and there is merit in asking, as many scientists and theologians have done, “why continue to give any more time to creationism?” This is akin to asking, why give time to improving scientific and biblical literacy? A significant number of Americans are behind in both.
As to the first, we might point to the Pew Research report from December that shows 33 percent of Americans rejecting evolution. Among those that do accept evolution in some form (60 percent), only half see it as a natural process, like natural selection. This indicates a strong creationist influence and a need to communicate clearly the strength of the evidence to a lay audience.
However, it is the recent National Science Foundation study that shows 1 in 4 Americans are geocentrists that is the real shocker, a number higher than the 18 percent of a Gallup poll from 1999. This opens the door for movies like The Principle, which is to be released in April and which (among many things) espouses geocentrism as truth. Perhaps a concerted effort to correct bad science is not so bad of an idea after all.
As to biblical literacy, specialists in the field of biblical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that when the evidence is taken at face value, a creationist reading of the Bible is very problematic. For example, when Ham was asked about his literal reading of the Bible in his debate with Nye, he launched into a discussion of genre, noting that he preferred the word “natural” rather than “literal.” There is much to unpack in that use of the word “natural.”
The fact is that Ken Ham’s reading of the Bible is really not natural in any sense of the word. Creationism is problematic on two fronts. It interprets the Bible in a way that makes it — as literature belonging to a particular historical context — incomprehensible or unnatural for the original ancient reader. It also turns science — which needs to follow the best and most current evidence — into something that can’t explain the natural world.
There are good reasons for not reading Genesis 1-3 as creation history. The most obvious is the oft-noted discrepancies between chapters one and two, which result in different chronologies, different names for God, and essentially different creation accounts. There are also plenty of indicators that the Torah’s final form is postexilic, meaning that scholars see Genesis 1-3 as actually intended to speak to the people of the post-Babylonian exile.
How? As Rabbi Jacob Neusner says, “For Judaism, what is important is how sages explicitly compare Adam and Israel, the first man and the last, and show how the story of Adam matches the story of Israel.” Both Israel and Adam are formed out of a world of chaotic waters. Both are provided a land or paradise. Both break a covenant with God, and both are exiled—Adam from the garden and Israel to Babylon. Adam in Genesis makes far better sense as a story about Israel for the original postexilic audience.
Ham may never accept the evidence for this, however, and not just because his thriving empire is based on creationism. I understand the creationist impulse to protect the Bible, but it appears that they are confusing their interpretation of scripture with the inerrancy they imbue it. In other words, Ham likely sees his reading of the Bible as divinely directed.
In the recent HBO documentary, Questioning Darwin, in which creationists are allowed to talk about their perspective on evolution fairly freely, Ham says, “When you have generations of people being taught that evolution is fact, and therefore Genesis is not true and you have to reinterpret the Bible … there’s no absolutes.” He finds his authority on maintaining his particular interpretation.
Ham definitely sees his role as one in which he and God have a special connection. Consider what he says in the post-debate interview: “I remember there was a question … can you explain where matter came from?” he recalls. In the debate, Nye admitted to mysteries in science that Ham felt were addressed by the Bible. “I was thinking about it,” he continues, “and I think the Lord uses my strange sense of humor … and it just came to mind, I thought, ‘There is a book’ … I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I really like that.’”
He really likes that, but not simply because he thought it was clever, rather because it appears he thinks it was inspired by God in the moment. What this means is that when the evidence of science points in an entirely different direction from creationism and the evidence of biblical scholarship agrees with science against creationism, it will never trump Ham’s view. His perspective is unfalsifiable because it is in some form inspired.
He is not alone in this view. It goes back to founding evangelical figures like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley who believed Christians have a divine and supernatural light in their souls, which provided special spiritual understanding. On multiple occasions my more evangelical students have turned in assignments other than the one assigned because “the Holy Spirit told them to.” (“The Holy Spirit should have read the syllabus” is now my regular comment in their papers.)
Frustration over scientific and biblical illiteracy persists (in part) because many opt for their feeling of divine approval over accepting the evidence. They choose the world they want, rather than accept the world they’ve got. This thinking leads me to another interview in Questioning Darwin, one that epitomizes the problem. “If somewhere in the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2=5,” Pastor Peter LaRuffa tells the camera, “I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then do my best to work it out and understand it.”
Many of my mainline, non-creationist Christian friends would have trouble wrapping their heads around that one. They would remind creationists that there are two books written by God — the Bible and the book of nature — and that both require individuals to accept what the evidence says. Ken Ham, unfortunately, has no idea how to read either of them.