The Creation Debate as co-created spectacle

There’s no question the the Creation Debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye was a success – from the point of view of creating a spectacle event.  According to reports, the audience reached over half a million viewers at one point.  Whether it was equally successful intellectually, whether any new ideas, agreements, concessions, or reconciliations were reached—whether there was any real exchange of ideas at all is another matter entirely.  Most of the arguments that both men brought up were unoriginal, and many of the refutations they offered to the other’s perspective were either question begging, or simply mentioned and then ignored.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  we should really see this not as a debate between two individuals, but as a performance by two individuals for the purposes of a larger audience.  In that respect it is very similar to the creation of the spectacle during the 1925 Scopes trial (in which the legal question at hand – over the guilt or innocence of John Scopes, and later even the legal question of the law’s constitutionality) were left behind entirely.  In fact, observing the Creation debate as a co-created spectacle has helped me think more clearly about  some of my own research, contrasting the spectacular Scopes trial with the utterly obscure evolution trial that came a year earlier.



Tacit Consensus about Science and Religion

Seeing the Debate as a collaborative production of Ham and Nye can help make sense of some of the more confusing parts of last night’s debate.  Most important is the amount of tacit agreement between the two debaters.  I’m certainly not suggesting that Nye and Ham didn’t have some real points of difference, but they also agreed on the grounds of their disagreement and in so doing, created a strong impression of what the issues of creation are about.  When groups like the Discovery Institute and BioLogos both decried the debate, they did so because the presentation of Nye and Ham’s views as the two poles is dismissive of the distinct positions they each advocate.  More importantly, if forces advocates of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution (or any number of gradations of belief) to represent themselves as being somehow between these extremes.

This is something that happens frequently in science-religion discussions.  They’re arrayed on a spectrum, in which something like theistic evolution is portrayed as closer to atheism than religious antievolutionism, but also as less evolutionary than its atheistic cousin.  Some of the questions from the audience, and especially from the moderator conflated Intelligent Design with theistic evolution as if the ‘middle ground’ was all some unified position.  Even though Ham would claim that it’s not all of science, but evolution specifically that he opposes, this had the effect of setting up a science-religion dichotomy (with a quisling middle ground that compromises both its religious and its scientific values.)


The Debate and the Metadebate, 

On the face of it, the debate was over the question of whether or not creation was a ‘viable’ model of explanation of the origins of life.  But simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, there was also a metadebate going on about the nature of creation as a kind of explanation, particularly if it counts as a form of science – or whether evolutionary science rest on foundational assumptions that can be seen as equivalently religious or ideological.

It seems that oftentimes, Nye took the debate at face value in a way that left the metadebate to Ham.  In effect, it feels like Nye may have won the scientific debate, but in failing to challenge the idea that this was a scientific debate, Ham gained the larger victory.

The metadebate matters in part because of legal rulings in the US about the teaching of evolution.  Th US Constitution prohibits the promotion of one religion above another, or the State acting to establish a religion.  There is no Constitutional mandate to promote science (despite Nye mentioning one in the debate – I’ll discuss this more fully in a later post.)  However, an effect of the 1983 McLean v Arkansas federal court ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1987’s Edwards v Aguillard) one way of determining whether an ‘alternative’ to evolution is religious is evaluating whether or not it is science.  It was precisely for this reason that Judge John Jones III’s opinion in 2005’s Kitzmiller v Dover trial bothered to rule on the fact that intelligent design is not science.


The Metadebate and the Nature of Science

There is a real and historically longstanding difference between how Ham and Nye understand what science is.  Ham’s views were almost verbatim what some of his displayed in the Creation Museum says.  A trip through the museum begins with learning that “different scientists reach different conclusions because they have different starting assumptions.”  Ham emphasized this point early in the debate, claiming that there’s no difference in the available evidence from nature, the natural world doesn’t reveal itself in a different way to the creationist of the evolutionist, but that all scientists have operating assumptions that influence how they interpret evidence.  The act of interpretation is a human—and fallible—one.  (A point I will return to later on.)


"different scientists can reach very different conclusions, depending on their starting assumptions." From the Creation Museum's online virtual tour

“different scientists can reach very different conclusions, depending on their starting assumptions.” From the Creation Museum’s online virtual tour





For Ham there are two main possibilities for stating assumptions.  One is that God’s revealed Word (the Bible) is a source of certain and true knowledge, and teat investigations of teh natural world can confirm or extend that knowledge, but it cannot contradict it.  Revelation and Scripture has epistemic priority: it’s the thing we must know in order to make any other kind of knowledge possible.  The fact that the natural world shows itself in ways that we can study scientifically is made possible by the Creator God (note you don’t have to be a creationist to accept this last claim – it’s been a core tenant of natural theology for centuries.)

The alternative starting assumption is belief that human reason is the foundation of all knowledge.  By making human reason epistemically prior, the truth of Scripture, the ability to interpret it in ways we find satisfactory or logical, the ability to judge its credibility or authenticity are all dependent upon our ability to judge it in the light of human reason.  It’s the difference between these “starting assumptions” that leads one to creation science or evolution science.

What Ham does (brilliantly as a rhetorical strategy, I think) is that he initially presents this difference in starting assumptions as an epistemic difference, and only much later recasts it as a moral difference.  It’s not until later in the path through the museum (and later on in the debate) that Ham suggests that making all truths, religious and moral as well as scientific, conditional on the power of human reason leads to gross immorality and (in his view) the ‘fallen’ condition of humanity.  What was initially presented as a philosophical or personal choice is revealed to have moral consequences.  I’m not about to suggest that this argument is without logical flaw, but on a rhetorical level, it’s very well composed.

For Nye, as with other scientists, the rebuttal is that the ways in which nature is interpreted aren’t starting assumptions, they’re entangled with the process of collecting and observing data.  Scientists will readily except that there are sources of ideas outside science itself that inform the ways they interpret data, but (a point Nye failed to address) scientists and philosophers of science have long questioned the view that the aim of science is to confirm hypotheses that are generated from extra-scientific sources.  Nye was correct to say that the fundamental difference was over  “the nature of what you can prove to yourself,” but in part because of his naive views about theology, he didn’t fully understand what those differences were.


De-Nye-ing Theology

One of the most personally interesting (to me) parts of the debate came when Ken Ham was challenged to explain his literalism.  In fact it evoked almost exactly the famous Bryan-Darrow exchange during the Scopes trial.  But Nye (and the moderator in framing the question) conflated literalism with literal interpretation of scripture (almost exactly as Darrow did) Ham’s reply to this question started out fairly close to Bryan’s.  The literal truth of the Bible means that the text of the Bible was God-Inspired, that to the letters, the words, the authorship was divine in origin.  But this does not mean that the human act of interpretation is infallible.  Where Ham differed from Bryan however was in that the latter showed far more humility in Dayton Tennessee, more readily acknowledging that there were passages in the Bible that he accepted literally without knowing what they necessarily meant.  by the end of his answer, Ham seemed closer to defending Darrow’s version of Bryan’s literalism (as literal interpretation) than to Bryan’s own expressed views.

But Nye failed to capitalize on this position, in part because his understanding of theology was both logically and rhetorically flawed.  Nye relied on caricatures of religious arguments, imagining himself clever by pointing out that Noah’s ark was technologically improbable when the whole Flood was itself Divine action, or harping on the fact that there have been diverse translations of the Biblical text after Ham had already quoted a few specifics in Hebrew.  Nye’s failure to bother to understand the theological concepts that he was invoking and refuting made him appear religiously incredible.  It also made him appear to be dismissive, rather than engaging the theological questions raised by Ham’s view.

And there are some extraordinary theological presumptions and questions raised by Ham’s view.  As I blogged about a while ago, theologians have argued that the idea that ‘creation’ implied the sudden instance of something from nothing was an interpretation that came centuries into the Christian era, and that the Biblical ‘creation’ had better been understood as the formation of the world from eternal existing matter.


For those of us interested in the historical development of science and religion, the debate is an interesting phenomenon.  And it raises some very interesting questions about how public discussion of science religion functions, and what social groups engage in it.  Overall, I think this was an interesting event that will probably prompt a lot of discussion. But most of that discussion will accept the frame of the creation debate without challenging it.  For those interested in a more constructive dialogue of science and religion, this may do more harm than good.



4 thoughts on “The Creation Debate as co-created spectacle

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  1. Pingback: Replying to Evolutionists at the Creation Debate | Trying Biology

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