Why Ham Is Wrong and Nye Doesn’t Get It

I am well aware of my biases, as someone who grew up in a young-earth creationist (YEC) church and family context but has evolved (har-har) after eleven years of undergraduate and graduate study in Old Testament into something resembling an old-earth creationist (OEC) who is agnostic about the extent of God’s use of evolutionary processes in the multiplication of species.

That’s why “debates” (really, duet entertainment) like the one held at the Creation Science Museum between Ken Ham and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) last week are so frustrating for me. Please excuse the following rant and scattered thoughts…

1. Contra Ham: I’m so weary of debates about biblical literalism in Genesis. Literalism should mean “taking what the text means as literature,” which, anyone should conclude after study of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myths and king lists, cannot mean that Genesis 1-11 means that the world is 6,000 years old. The world may in fact be 6,000 years old, but you can’t credibly argue that the purpose of Genesis 1-11 is primarily to communicate that notion. If you think so, then you need to read this book.

2. Again, contra Ham’s side: as a student and scholar of the Old Testament I’m tired of all the inordinate focus on Genesis. We like Genesis because it contains many of the best-known Bible stories. The more you investigate OT theology, you realize that Deuteronomy is probably the most important book of the Pentateuch, because it forms the covenantal culmination of all that comes before it and the covenantal basis for all the rest of the Hebrew Bible. As a Christian, I note that the NT quotes from and alludes to Deuteronomy more frequently than from Genesis. I taught Pentateuch to 19-year-old evangelicals several times in a university, and most admitted they had never read Deuteronomy all the way through (many had never even heard a sermon on Deuteronomy). I’d even settle for focus on Exodus, because the promises to Israel in the exile (and the promises that are fulfilled in Christ) are based on the salvation from Egyptian captivity. As soon as you start engaging in the wider world of Hebrew Bible scholarship, you realize that it’s very rare to find anyone who takes the book of Exodus as reflecting anything close to historical fact (most scholars think that “Israel” originated in Canaan in what we call the time of the judges). In terms of Old Testament theology, a historical exodus is more crucial than a historical Adam. Let’s pick our battles carefully.

3. Contra Nye: I’m disgusted with the lack of epistemological awareness of many advocates of atheistic evolution. It’s fine to state that scientific laws are universal and unchanging, but you have to recognize that that is a presupposition on which your arguments are based, not evidence itself. It’s also fine to argue that for most scientific endeavors, arguing that “God did it” does not have explanatory value. I agree. But philosophically, you’re still left with the question of the origin of the universe and all matter and energy that currently behaves (and throughout recorded history has always behaved) according to regular principles. If there was a Big Bang, who was the Big Banger?

4. Contra Nye: It is fallacious to argue that creationism is bad because it will cripple America’s scientific output. America has arguably led the world in scientific innovation, despite creationism being a mostly American phenomenon that seems to be quite widely held in our country. As Ham showed, there are people who believe in the regularity of matter, but who believe that matter and the universal laws of science were created supernaturally 6,000 years ago. They might be wrong, but they exist, and they build useful things using science. (Reminds me of the man who, when asked if he believed in infant baptism, answered, “Sure–I’ve seen it done!”) And anyway, whether or not creationism will cripple our scientific output is not relevant to the question of whether it’s true or not.

5. Contra Ham again: I’d like to see Christians recognize that “naturalism” as a presupposition has some heuristic value for understanding humanity and the world around us. When the evolutionary biologist (or psychologist) looks at a particular characteristic in an organism, he says to himself, “OK: I know this trait must have evolved according to natural processes, and it must have been retained by natural selection because it gave this organism’s ancestors a reproductive/survival advantage–but how?” In other words, is a presupposition on which science is based. This rejects the supernatural as a cause, at least for explanatory purposes. But Christians need to be fair: on what other basis could science possibly proceed? It’s a belief that yields fruitful results–even if (see point 3) the scientist is not epistemologically self-aware. It’s just like Christians ask of the Bible: “OK, I know this passage is authoritatively true revelation from God–but how?” Economists ask themselves when they observe irrational behavior: “OK, I know that human beings behave according to their perceived self-interest, so these humans must perceive self-interest–the question is, how?” (Thus, a great deal of economic “science” is trying to discover the reasons why markets fail to produce desirable outcomes in every circumstance, and the reasons why people behave irrationally, etc.) Christians need to recognize that debates over “intelligent design” and “irreducible complexity” will not convince the committed naturalist, because design is precluded by the framework in which science operates. And–just like Nye needs to recognize that creationists can make good stuff (see point 4)–Christians need to recognize that science for practical reasons must proceed according to naturalistic presuppositions.

It seems to me that the question is really how “natural” processes actually work in the world. Both Nye and Ham agree that matter currently behaves regularly. Both believe that the world looks like it could be very old (though Ham disputes a great deal of this evidence). They diverge on this point: Nye fails to recognize that his belief that matter has and will always behave regularly is itself a presupposition that he cannot prove, and Ham fails to recognize that his presuppositions about the meaning of scripture lead him to deny that God has worked quite spectacularly in the world over millions of years using “natural” processes–i.e., laws of science that God himself set into motion.

Frankly, I’d rather see two self-aware philosophers of science, a Christian and an atheist, discuss the concept of naturalism. That would have been more fruitful than last week’s spectacle, which only served to confirm each member of the audience in his/her currently view.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why Ham Is Wrong and Nye Doesn’t Get It

  1. Pingback: Best of 2014 | think hard, think well

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