The Creation of Debate

Contributed by
Feb 5, 2014, 1:34 PM EST

Last night, science advocate Bill Nye “debated” with creationist Ken Ham, the man who runs the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I was torn about the event; I think it’s important that science get its advocacy, but I also worry that by even showing up to such a thing, Nye would elevate the idea of creationism as something worth debating.

But I’ve thought about it, and here’s the important thing to remember: Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country.

I suspect that what’s wrong is our messaging. For too long, scientists have thought that facts speak for themselves. They don’t. They need advocates. If we ignore the attacks on science, or simply counter them by reciting facts, we’ll lose. That much is clear from the statistics. Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.

About last night’s debate, my colleague Mark Stern at Slate argues that Nye lost the debate just by showing up, and I see that same sentiment from people on social media. But I disagree. We’ve been losing this debate in the public’s mind all along by not showing up. Sure, science advocates are there when this topic comes up in court, and I’m glad for it. But I think that we need to have more of a voice, and that voice needs to change. What Nye did last night was at least a step in that direction, so in that sense I’m glad he did this.

But we need more, and it’s not so much what we need as who. Let me explain.

Let me be clear: Ham is wrong in pretty much everything he says; the debate last night gave ample evidence of that. I could list a hundred statements he made that are simply incorrect or grave distortions of reality. I won’t bother; you can find that information easily, including in my own blog posts about creationism.

But Ham is insidiously wrong on one important aspect: He insists evolution is anti-religious. But it’s not; it’s just anti-his-religion. This is, I think, the most critical aspect of this entire problem: The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs.

But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. There is no greater proof of this than Pope John Paul II—who, one must admit, was a deeply religious man—saying that evolution was an established fact. Clearly, not all religion has a problem with evolution. Given that a quarter of U.S. citizens are Catholics, this shows Ham’s claim that evolution is anti-religious to be wrong.

So evolution is not anti-religion in general. But is it atheistic? No. Evolution takes no stand on the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods. Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. It’s a bit like the Big Bang; we don’t know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation.

I can’t stress this enough. The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion. This is why, I think, evolution is so vehemently opposed by so many in the United States. The attacks on the specifics of evolution—the claims about irreducibility of the eye, for example, or other such incorrect statements—are a symptom, not a cause. I can talk about how we know the Universe is old until the Universe is substantially older and not convince someone whose heels are dug in. But if we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.

That’s not to say I’ll stop talking about the science itself. That still needs to be discussed! But simply saying science is right and faith is wrong will never, ever fix the problem.

And this won’t be easy. As long as this discussion is framed as “science versus religion” there will never be a resolution. A religious person who doesn’t necessarily think the Bible is literal, but who is a very faithful Christian, will more likely be sympathetic to the Ken Hams than the Bill Nyes, as long as science is cast as an atheistic dogma. For example, on the Catholic Online website, the argument is made that both Ham and Nye are wrong, and casts science as an atheistic venture.

That must change for progress to be made.

And who should do this? The answer to me is clear: Religious people who understand the reality of science. They have a huge advantage over someone who is not a believer. Because atheism is so reviled in America, someone with faith will have a much more sympathetic soapbox from which to speak to those who are more rigid in their beliefs.

I know a lot of religious folks read my blog. I am not a believer, but I hope that my message of science, of investigation, of honesty, of the joy and wonder revealed though it, gets across to everyone. That’s why I don’t attack religion; there’s no need. I am fine with people believing in what they want. I only step up on my own soapbox when a specific religion overreaches, when that belief is imposed on others.

So I urge anyone reading this who is a believer of any stripe to speak up. In almost every case, evolution is not a threat to your beliefs. It’s an important part of science, and the basis upon which our understanding of biology is founded. It’s like the Periodic Table in chemistry, or Newton’s Laws in physics; without it, biology makes no sense. And we know biology makes sense.

So overall, I suppose I’m glad Bill Nye took on this mantle. Debating a creationist may seem to elevate creationism as a debatable topic—and again, to be clear, it isn’t—but in this case, that may be the price paid to elevate the conversation, and to get the public talking. Clearly, what we’ve been doing for decades isn’t helping, so it may very well be time our methods evolved.