Nobody Wins in Fundamentalist ‘Creation Debate’

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Thus far, the biggest event of the year for the scientific community was the “Creation Debate” between Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) and Ken Ham, a Young-Earth Creationist and founder of the Creation Museum. Other than this 3-minute clip which summarized the essence of the debate, I didn’t bother watching.

Why? For three reasons.

First, there are only 86 billion neurons in my brain and 24 hours in a day. Because my brain is limited by both space and time (“neural spacetime”?), I prefer to fill it with useful information. (Okay, sometimes my wife forces me to watch The Bachelor.) I haven’t yet reached the point where I have forgotten that the Earth revolves around the sun, like Sherlock Holmes, but I’m sympathetic to his intellectual strategy. I try to limit my daily intake of inanity.

Second, debates with people who embrace anti-scientific beliefs only serve to lend them credibility. I recently made the mistake of engaging in an online debate regarding GMOs. Of course, the “winner” of the debate — determined by online votes — was a business law professor who has little, if any, understanding of biotechnology. I won’t make that mistake again.

Third, and most importantly, the “Creation Debate” perpetuates the myth that science and religion are fundamentally in conflict. They are not.

The list of famous historical scientists who believed in God — specifically the God of Christianity — is very, very long. Harmony between science and religion still exists. Perhaps the most famous Christian practicing science today is Francis Collins, who helped sequence the human genome and is the current director of the National Institutes of Health. He has also published more than 500 papers and, as a result, is one of the most successful scientists alive. Even Richard Feynman, who described himself as an “avowed atheist,” recognized that it was entirely possible for a scientist to rationally believe in God.

Also, it is worth noting that Mr. Ham doesn’t represent the “Christian point of view,” although by comments he makes, it’s clear that he thinks he does. As The Economist reported, Mr. Ham said before the debate, “I’m a Christian. I know God’s word is true. Nothing [Mr. Nye] can say will cast doubt on that.” He also rebukes Christians who disagree with him. However, he is conflating his personal interpretation of the Bible with what he believes to be “God’s word.”

The Catholic Church, for instance, accepts evolution. Many icons in the Christian Church, such as St. Augustine, John Calvin and John Wesley, also rejected a literal interpretation of Genesis. While Young-Earth Creationism is more common among American evangelicals, it is still only accepted by 54% of U.S. pastors. Among the laity, belief in creationism varies widely by denomination. For example, 64% of white evangelicals reject evolution, but 68% of white Catholics and 78% of white mainline Protestants accept it.

So, why does the myth of an intrinsic incompability between science and religion persist? Well, it persists largely because so many fundamentalists say that there is a conflict. And those fundamentalists come in two flavors — both the religious and atheistic varieties.

For religious fundamentalists, science that challenges any aspect of their faith must be wrong. For atheistic fundamentalists, positivism is the only source of knowledge. Both adhere to a worldview that is dominated by a false dilemma: Either religion or science is true, and when a perceived conflict arises, there is simply no middle ground.

When one thinks about it, Young-Earth Creationists and fundamentalist atheists actually have quite a bit in common.