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Notes from the Creation Debate

There was a well-publicized debate last night on this question: “is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era”? On the pro side was Ken Ham, the head of Answers in Genesis; on the con side was Bill Nye, popular TV ‘science guy’. Hosted at Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, the two men debated for two-and-a-half hours in front of a large audience, with a CNN reporter serving as moderator.

The debate format included short opening statements, 30 minute presentations from each man, a series of short rebuttals, and then questions from the audience. For those of you who can’t or don’t want to watch the whole thing, I’ll summarize the debate briefly and then share some thoughts.

Overview

Ham’s Initial Presentation

Ham, of course, espouses the Young Earth Creation (YEC) view. He explained that, in his view, the earth was created in six 24-hour days, and that the Biblical book of Genesis presents a historical record from the diving being who was present at creation. Ham distinguishes between “observational science”, which he defines as conclusions that we can derive using the scientific method of experimentation, from “historical science”, which he defines as drawing “scientific” conclusions about the past without having been there to observe it.

Ham claims that secular scientists, by using the same word for both “observational” and “historical” science, are muddying the waters; that they arbitrarily outlaw the supernatural, and as such are imposing a “religion of naturalism/atheism” on students.

Ham went to great lengths to show that Christians can be (and have been) good scientists, but that their science relates only to the “observational”, not the “historical” science.

Nye’s Initial Presentation

Nye framed the debate question a bit differently, making it about “Ken Ham’s creation model” rather than addressing the formal question. (Was it a carefully-calculated strategy? Maybe. More on that in my commentary later.)

Nye made several points about the scientific evidence he sees for evolution and for an old universe, and noted several places where a literal reading of the Genesis creation and flood accounts is, in his opinion, highly unreasonable based on what we have observed about the universe.

As one example, Nye noted that Ham asserts that there were only about 7000 “kinds” of creatures taken on the ark, but more than 15 million species identified today. If, per Ham’s model, those 7000 “kinds” developed (via micro-evolution, cross-breeding, etc) into the 15 million species over a period of only 4000 years, Nye said we’d expect to see 11 new species *every day* since then.

Points from Ham’s rebuttals

  • Ham was steadfast that reasoning backwards based on what we see now isn’t “science”.
  • He provided quick anecdotal evidence about conflicting radio-carbon dates.
  • He said that the only infallible dating method is “from someone who was there, who told us” that the earth is only 6000 years old.

Points from Nye’s rebuttals

  • Nye suggests that perhaps rock and tree layers slid to create odd dating stratum.
  • Says that it is troubling that Ham relies on the Bible, translated into English as the top authority on the natural laws.
  • If death was caused by sin, he asks, are fish sinners? If not, why do they die?
  • All we can do is look at the past. All study of astronomy is looking at the past.
  • He said there is no suggestion in the universe that natural laws have changed.
  • He asked why the Bible’s text should be more respected than what we see in the natural world?

Q&A From the Audience

  • Nye notes that “what was before the Big Bang?” is a great mystery
  • Ham says there’s a book that tells us. God created it.
  • Q to Ham: What evidence other than the Bible would point to creation? A: One human race, various “kinds” of animals.
  • Q: what, if anything, would ever change your mind? Ham: “I’m a Christian.” Starts from the premise that the Bible is God’s word, and that you can check its veracity. No one will ever convince me that the Bible isn’t true. Nye: scientific evidence would change my mind.
  • Q to Ham: if evidence did exist that the earth was older than 10k years, would you still believe in God, historical Jesus, Jesus Son of God? Ham: well, you can’t prove that. it’s an invalid hypothetical. If Christians believe in an old earth, they have a problem with the Bible. Nye: it’s Ham’s interpretation of the Bible vs. all scientific observation.
  • Q to Ham: can the Bible all be taken literally? Ham: what does ‘literally’ mean? Take it ‘naturally’, based on genre. He then defined all of Genesis as history. “If it’s really the word of God, there won’t be any contradictions.”
  • Thoughts on the debate

    OK, so that was a long summary. Sorry. Now a few thoughts.

    First on the debate itself: it was refreshing to see a debate that was even-handed and cordial. Compared to what we see most of the time in political debates today, this was a breath of fresh air.

    Second: I wish they would’ve spent some time focusing on how they chose to define “science”. Ham’s view apparently refuses to make observations about the present and apply them to the past in ways that would contradict the YEC position. Nye pointed out in one rebuttal that Ham didn’t have an answer for polar ice that scientists interpret as being 680,000 years old, but Ham didn’t address the point at all.

    Third: This debate would’ve been much more interesting and valuable for Christians if, instead of Mr. Nye, the Ham’s opponent had been, say, Francis Collins (head of the National Institutes of Health, a Christian who believes in an old earth and evolutionary processes). That would’ve framed the debate around young-earth vs. old-earth creation and the definition and use of science. By inviting Nye instead, Ham manages to frame the debate as a part of a greater Christianity vs. Atheism conflict, which I can only assume he hopes will rally the Christian troops and help bring more visitors to his financially-struggling Creation Museum.

    Fourth: I doubt anybody really had their opinion changed by the debate. Your opinion of who “won” and “lost” is probably dependent on who you supported going in. Neither debater wanted to allow for any middle ground. As Jonathan Ryan pointed out over on Patheos both of them were determined to parrot their own position regardless of any “debate”. Frustrating.

    Finally

    I have some thoughts on the creation/evolution topic more generally, but seeing as I’m already past 1100 words I think I’ll save that for another post.

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