Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Great Creationism Debate

On Tuesday night the Creationism debate between science educator Bill Nye and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham took place. It pretty much went as expected, with Nye presenting facts and Ham insisting that since none of us were there are the beginning of the world we can't really know anything besides what the Bible tells us. Some commentators were of the opinion that the debate should never have happened because it made Creationism look more credible, but I disagree. The debate made Creationism look ridiculous, and laid out that their supposed "scientific" critiques of evolution are nothing more than hollow literalism. The more people who realize this, the better.

Unsurprisingly, the predictable set-up gave way to predictable results. Nye referenced wide swaths of research on rocks, landforms, trees, and ice; Ham produced alternative explanations for some of Nye’s claims and not others, all the while roundly declaring that the past is essentially unknowable to us. From time to time, Ham refused to engage with Nye or the opposing side altogether; when presented with an audience question asking how he would respond to a hypothetical world in which evolution was proven to be true, Ham merely replied that such a thing could never happen.

It would be easy enough here to call Ham’s intelligence into question and berate him for so thoroughly and publicly missing the point of a hypothetical. But this evasion was only one of many refusals of engagement, which calls into question why, if Ham is convinced of the shoddiness of evolutionary science, he would avoid delving into the particulars of its problems. Indeed, the two men talked past each other for the entire evening: if Ham were really crusading to reveal the utter bankruptcy of evolutionary science, why would he let that happen?

The answer has to do with the category of project Ham’s activism falls under. It is not a scientific project, nor even one much related to knowledge of the natural world, scientific or not. Ham’s project is rather best understood as an ethical one.

At one point in his speech, Ham produced a PowerPoint slide with two opposing columns. On the left, “man’s ideas” gave rise to moral relativism, which in turn tossed the concept of marriage into confusion, allowed for euthanasia, and encouraged abortion. On the right, “God’s word” gave rise to moral absolutes, which support biblical marriage, the sanctity of life, and the notion that human life begins at fertilization.

While the dichotomy makes sense from an ethical standpoint, in some ways this was the oddest portion of the debate because modern Christians generally don't adhere to Old Testament law, and that goes for conservative Christians as well as liberal ones. Ken Ham may be of the opinion that God's word provides him with "moral absolutes," but in fact he picks and chooses which of them he wants to follow. That's not very absolute, all things considered.

If Ham were to, say, become a Seventh-Day Adventist, the only Christians I know of who make a point of trying to follow all the Old Testament laws, I would respect his position even though I don't agree with it. But if you have a list of commandments that supposedly represent absolute moral truths, and you decide that you only want to follow certain of them, I have a hard time seeing how you're not still being a moral relativist - just a more conservative one. As just one example, how many of the Christians who invoke Leviticus to condemn homosexuality actually keep kosher?

And, of course, that completely ignores the fact that science has nothing to say about ethics. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that ascribes meaning to action, whereas science studies how things work. As the whole Creationist debate shows, when you try to take concepts from one of those areas and apply them to the other, all you get is a mess. While we as a society agree that there are ethical guidelines that apply to scientific inquiry, they don't affect the workings of the science itself. Science itself is ethically neutral, entirely by design.

A related amusing point was Pat Robertson's commentary on the debate, who essentially told Ham to just knock it off.

“Let’s face it, there was a bishop [James Ussher] … who added up the dates listed in Genesis and he came up with the world had been around for 6,000 years,” Robertson began. “There ain’t no way that’s possible … To say that it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense and I think it’s time we come off of that stuff and say this isn’t possible.”

“We’ve got to be realistic that the dating of Bishop Ussher just doesn’t comport with anything that’s found in science,” Robertson continued, “and you can’t just totally deny the geological formations that are out there.”

“Let’s be real,” Robertson begged, “let’s not make a joke of ourselves.”

That right there tells me that the debate was worth having. If Pat Robertson, one of the most influential evangelical commentators, thinks Ham is a joke, that pretty much means the party's over for the young-earth crowd. And anyway, it's not like Bishop Ussher was reading a line in the Bible that explicitly stated "the Earth is six thousand solar years old." He relied on extensive interpretation to reach that conclusion, something I thought the young-earthers completely opposed.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: