About a year ago, when atheism was new to me, I tried watching the debate between science communicator Bill Nye and young-earth creationist Ken Ham about whether or not creation is a viable model of origins. After no more than thirty minutes in, I was totally lost and had no idea what they were talking about. This week, however, I gave it another go. This time, I made it all the way through, and I was able to better understand the topics, although there were many claims made by Ken Ham that I found extremely underwhelming, extraordinary, and not convincing in the least. Whenever Ham would say something completely unfounded and outlandish, Nye would do his best to stay polite, referring to these as “extraordinary claims.” I’d like to point out some of these crazy statements that Ham made and give my thoughts on them.
Extraordinary Claim #1: Naturalism/atheism is a religion, and Christianity is not; Christianity is indeed nothing but historical fact.
Response: I have heard atheism being called a religion more than once, and still it baffles me. The only way you could refer to it as a religion is if you are using a completely different definition of the word religion than what we are used to. In one of my posts, I talked about how a famous Christian blogger, Matt Walsh, said that atheists were religious because they must have some kind of worldview that backs up their moral and logical choices, but having a worldview (which is inevitable) doesn’t make someone religious. Religion and worldview are completely different.
More recently, I was reading a post by someone who was claiming that atheism is a religion by defining that anything that you can be “religious” about in the sense that you can be zealous, excited, or obsessed with it, makes it a religion. This is a gross twisting of two completely separate definitions of the word religion. The common definition of religion includes belief and worship in some kind of supernatural deity, and if anyone claims that atheism is a religion, then they ought to specify what definition of religion they are referring to, because it certainly isn’t a religion in the same way that Christianity is.
Furthermore, the claim that Christianity is mere historical truth, and not a religion, is simply wrong on multiple levels. It is widely known that Christianity is far from perfect historical truth, but even if it weren’t, it would still be a religion. Hypothetically, if atheism did happen to be incorrect, and Christianity was right, Christianity would still be a religion, and atheism still would not be. Whether or not it is historically accurate wouldn’t change the fact that it is a religion.
Extraordinary Claim #2: You should be convinced that creationism is true because real scientists can operate under a young-earth, biblically literal worldview. For example, the inventor of the MRI machine was a young-earth creationist!
Response: Ken Ham refers to this argument again and again throughout the debate: great scientists who have made leaps and bounds in technology can be young-earth creationists. This is one claim that Ham makes in which that I find no wrong. It’s true that there are scientists and engineers who take Genesis to be historical fact, but my problem is why that should surprise me. He continually referred back to the fact that the inventor of the MRI machine was a young-earth creationist and didn’t believe in evolution. My question is: why would not believing in evolution impede your ability to invent a machine completely unrelated to the study of origins?
Extraordinary Claim #3: There are two types of science: observational science and historical science. Since we didn’t see the big bang or evolution happen by our own eyes, we have no reason to believe that they happened. After all, the natural laws of the universe could have changed between the beginning of the universe and the time when these phenomena were observed. Also, the age of the earth can’t be proven (although it is 100% absolutely 6,000 years old).
Response: I’m no scientific expert, but I am going to make a wild guess and say that science operates under the use of the scientific method. This method involves making observations, making hypotheses, testing these hypotheses, and applying your new scientific knowledge to reach conclusions and make more predictions about what you are testing.
Oftentimes, the predictions made can be found to be true or false. Ken Ham seems to think that it doesn’t work this way. He says that while we can observe things in nature, that is all we can do. We can’t apply the scientific method to any kind of past occurrence under the chance that scientific processes and laws may have changed since the formation of things such as trees, ice layers, rock layers, and fossils. He believes that all of the dating methods that have shown that the earth is older than 6,000 years, and its current geological makeup is older than 4,000 years (unchanged by a global flood) are completely unreliable because they were done using science to draw logical conclusions rather than being given up on because they can’t be 100% proven because we didn’t observe them with our own eyes.
Extraordinary Claim #4: I know where matter, language, intelligence, and the laws of logic and nature originated: it’s called the Bible. The fact that naturalists can’t answer these questions proves that they’re wrong and God exists.
Response: This is one claim that I see made by Christians constantly because they think that it means that they’ve won the great origins debate. I know that it can be hard to understand why “I don’t know” doesn’t mean “you’re right,” but the God of the Gaps theory doesn’t give any better explanation of the origins of matter, language, or intelligence than do the theories that they came about by natural causes. We all have the same evidence, but we draw different conclusions from them. We know that matter produced intelligence somehow, but we don’t know how. None of us do. Christians say it happened because the bible says that God made it happen, but that doesn’t mean that they know how it happened, only who did it.
I see this response as a placeholder that religious people can use until the scientists that are working hard to find an answer succeed in finding the answer. It takes humility to be able to say “we can’t answer that, but we are working on it,” instead of “God made it, and that’s all I need to know.” One of my favorite atheist quotes is from Richard Feynman: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
I hope to learn more about origins and how to better refute claims made by young-earth creationists as I read more about science and atheism. For Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend got me Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye, which was inspired by Nye’s participation in this debate. I’m excited to see more of what he has to say, but I would also love to take book recommendations and other thoughts in the comments!
23 thoughts on “The Great Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate”
I’ve also watched that debate, and I have to give props to Bill Nye for staying so calm in the face of such amazing confident ignorance demonstrated by Ken Ham. If it was Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens on stage they would have exploded within the first 20 mins haha as for book recommendations, I would suggest u read “A universe from nothing” by Lawrence Krauss, “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “The Blind Watchmaker”, both by Richard Dawkins. These books all focus on scientific method to explain our origins.
I know, I can’t imagine how Bill kept his cool the whole time. Especially when the audience were such huge fans of Ham (with the debate being held on Ham’s turf and all), and Nye barely got any reaction when he said something witty. Thanks for the recommendations!
I have the utter joy of living in the state where the debate took place (and the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter have been built); it was big news and I saw it aired on television that night; I haven’t seen it since, so my memory of what it was like might be a little off. It seemed to me that Ham consistently appealed to emotion: “You should believe what I’m saying because it’s the most moral explanation for our origins.” Ultimately, I think Nye’s final words – that a lack of appreciation for science has created an atmosphere where kids won’t learn, and kids who won’t learn won’t invent stuff, and kids who won’t invent stuff won’t be the ones shaping the future to any extent. We have all the cool stuff we do because those in the sciences are trying to figure out how stuff works and what we can do with that stuff.
What bothers me most about Young Earth Creationism that that it forms a daisy-chain of theology that apparently explains why marriage can only be between a man and a woman, why men have authority over women in those marriages, and it makes men God’s favorite creation and women God’s second-favorite creation that deserves being treated differently. I sometimes think they’re far more interested in the rest of the daisy chain than they are in the first point because of how useful it is. They only cling tightly to the first point in order to keep the rest of it intact.
Ham even said himself how the Bible gives the origins of the universe, the earth, sin, marriage, knowledge, matter, morals, science, men, women, language, culture, countries, you name it. That sounds a lot like your daisy chain to me.
I think you did a good job with this article. I come from a christian perspective but certainly have no problem saying I don’t know on a lot of subjects. Basically on my part it is a belief by faith, I cannot prove anything. According to my belief I think God created the earth but also believe that his time is not our time and a day could be thousands of years, so I don’t give much thought to the new-earth concept. Again, as a christian I only go by my interpretation, belief and who or what I choose to accept as truth just as you do as an atheist. I think we each have to go with what we feel is right and live accordingly. I really don’t think there will ever be definite proof one way or another in regard to the existence of God. It is a personal choice, but we should be able to accept one another even in our differences. By the way, enjoy your new book. Your boyfriend did good again.
I agree. One point that Nye made was that many, if not most, Christians, don’t even accept Ham’s literal Genesis creation model. I’m glad that you make your mind up for yourself instead of taking anything at face value. More importantly, I’m glad that you can see past our differences as Christian and atheist and live in peace. Also, I am really excited to read Nye’s book, and I think he did a good job too!
I’d recommend “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne for a start. Then, if you are up for more in-depth stuff, I’d read Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.” (Still a classic after all these years, and it includes the coining of the word “meme”!) I also recommend “The Ancestor’s Tale” also by Dawkins; quite a long book but worth it.
For science in general, I’d try “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan.
Thank you for the recommendations! 🙂
When you’re arguing with creationists, it’s more like educating them than an actual debate. Have you watched that debate of Dawkins with some creationist name Wendy or something? My God (irony), I can’t imagine how Dawkins tolerated her. The only reason I watched the entire “debate” was to see if Dawkins would snap. He remained nice throughout though.
I haven’t seen it, but it sounds intriguing! I have yet to see Dawkins in a debate, and I’d like to see how he responds.
How can you educate a person with a closed mind.
Just for future reference, Steve, you cannot educate someone with a closed mind. The thing is, they are NOT READY to hear anything that contradicts their view of the world. I happen to believe in reincarnation, and an incarnated spirit will only hear what it is ready to hear. Some people are born with open minds, others are born with closed minds. I wouldn’t even try to educate a spirit with a closed mind, not this incarnation. In another time, another place, a closed mind will open, and be ready to hear new ideas. But until then, you are just going to frustrate yourself, so why bother. If you have something that will help educate another being, look for a being that wants to be educated. That is where evolution of the mind lies, and that is where your energy is best spent, and renourished. It’s like love, the more you give away, the more you get in return. Have a happy.
It’s not a book, but when having a conversation with a Christian about the evidence for evolution, they recommended that I go on this site — http://www.godandscience.org/evolution/index.html — in order to learn how the Bible is, in fact, evidence for why the universe is the way it is.
I wasn’t convinced.
There are things about the universe that the Bible can’t explain, and isn’t meant to explain.
This effort by Christians to try and justify every single one of their beliefs with science and reason baffles me because, ultimately, some things have just got to be taken on faith:
“…flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Logic and fact is a different language to faith. People need to already be questioning to hear. I think it’s important to not be the obnoxious atheist.
Don’t be the thing you claim to hate.
I don’t think you aimed your comment at me, as my comment was pulled off the website. The problem is, I WAS the obnoxious atheist a few nights ago, but not in the way you mean. I don’t know where it came from, but I allowed myself to get frustrated reading all the comments here, and I took my frustration out on everyone here . I’m not going to get into what I said, none of it was deserved, and I seldom let my emotions run away with me like they did that night. So, whether you read my comment or not, I apologize for what I said. I went against all my own principles by writing my comment, and that is not a good way for an atheist to act.
What makes you feel as though that’s happening?
I don’t think I was clear. My first point was that while Bill Nye is admirable I think people only grasp the ideas when they are questioning. So I’m not sure of the usefulness of his time in this matter.
The obnoxious comment was directed at the Richard Dawkins types. It’s more general. I think it’s damaging and just positions Atheism as a competing religion because their methods are in step with religions that came before it.
I don’t think Dawkins is obnoxious. He states his views clearly, backed up by evidence. If people are offended by that, then I think that’s their problem. If people expect atheists to stand quietly in the corner while religious groups impose their questionable ideas and morality on society, then that’s unreasonable, and denies us freedom of expression.
I agree with what Dawkins says most of the time but hearing him speak reminds me of religious study, in his approach. Also the if they’re offended that’s their problem is great in theory but in practice divides more people than it brings together.
Atheists, which I am one, should not stand in the corner but nor should we act in a way we would condemn in others. It can come accross as if you don’t believe me you’re an idiot, and that feels an awful lot like if you don’t believe me you’re going to hell. Hell I assume would be filled with idiots if true.
Freedom of expression excludes the impact of how you say something might have on someone. Less force, those who are open with engage and those who don’t will go on believing what they believe.
People like Ham are very much like authors of fantasy fiction, except that, rather than creating their own fantasy universe, populating it with characters and writing adventures for them, they’re starting with a basic outline that it ridiculous, contradictory, and poorly thought out. And then trying to embellish it to create something credible, which doesn’t work. The bible is a collection of writings by unknown (and unverified) writers, translated through numerous languages, re-written, with bits taken out, and other bits put in. We can’t be sure the whole thing wasn’t actually intended as a work of fiction. So it doesn’t count as evidence. And as these people have no other evidence…
Ken Hamm = L. Ron Hubbard
That is probably more accurate than I would like to admit. However, I believe that Hubbard was purposely and knowingly manipulating people and scamming them out of their money, and it seems to me as though Ham might sincerely believe the things that he says…which is scary.
Hear are a number of comments based on the claims you write about in this blog. By the way, good post.
Claim #1 – Definitions are one of the major reasons people cannot come to a common understanding.
Claim #2 – There are some believers who are also scientists. While I have no figures to provide I think they make up a small percentage of practicing scientists. The ones who are believers surprisingly tend to be in the life sciences, such as Francis Collins, the director of NIH. However, Collins is not a creationist or young earth believer. But, practically all scientists when doing science are methodological naturalist. This is they eschew supernatural explanations, since the supernatural by definition is non-empirical, and science investigates the empirical.
Claim #3 – See my blog – “Are You Sure?” at https://wordpress.com/stats/day/aquestionersjourney.wordpress.com. If we had to rely on what we observed we would have very little knowledge. Has any Christian ever seen god, which can be verified. Your summation of science is fine, except that there are lots of nuances to it.
Claim #4 – Ham answer here is wrong. It assumes that god exists (in particular the biblical god) can be proved. The only proof given for the biblical god is the Bible itself. Also god’s existence cannot be proved by logic, by empirical evidence (which actually argues against god’s existence), or personal testimony.
We do know where matter came from. There is a very detail model that comes from the standard model of physics. Language was a product of evolution. There is just to much evidence for evolution by natural selection, and not one bit of disconfirming evidence. Intelligence was another product of evolution. The laws of logic are a human invention. And, if nature means living organism, they appeared along a sequence of events by the laws and with the materials of the universe.
Your right that saying god did it does not explain how, but it does not even answer why. For one god’s own existence needs to be explain. For another Christians argue among themselves about the reasons god created the universe in the first place. God being god certainly did not have to do anything.
Yes, the findings of science are subject to change, but such theories such as relativity, quantum physics, and evolution are so well confirmed that the possibility of them being totally wrong is practically nil.
I love the quote by Feynman. Do you know where it comes from?