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Arguing About Nothing

Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham are getting together tonight to argue about the Bible and science in what amounts to a YouTube comment thread come to life. Why do atheists and Christians insist on debating questions that can't be debated?

by Harry Cheadle
Feb 4 2014, 5:47pm

A few months ago, I flew to Nashville, Tennessee, to watch the founders of the Sunday Assembly establish one of their “atheist churches” there. While on the trip I was reading about congregational humanism, which is what you call it when a bunch of people get together to talk about philosophy, hear secular sermons, and/or celebrate life through rituals—church without a god or gods, basically. So on the plane I was reading a book by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, who is a major figure in the congregational humanist movement, and it turned out the guy next to me, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap, was reading a book about a science-based case for belief in a creator. He noticed that we were coincidentally reading books that were respectively about godlessness and God, and we struck up a conversation.

He told me he taught at a Bible college in Tennessee, and that he enjoyed watching debates between theologians and scientists about the existence of God. I was a little nervous as we chatted about this—I didn’t want to get into a situation where he’d try to convert me, and I also didn’t want to have a shouting match about Jesus and creation with a guy who clearly thought a lot about his faith. He talked about the book he was reading and how much science supposedly supported some form of creationism: If there was a Big Bang to begin everything, well, something or someone would have had to start that process, right? I said that that sort of thing was over my head and that the book I was reading was more concerned with morality; it wasn’t an argument against Christianity or any other religion. I mentioned that there was a section where it discussed the Ten Commandments and that it concluded that most of them were pretty good rules to live by. It was a pretty interesting conversation of a kind I wasn’t used to, since I live in New York and most of my friends are godless people who take godlessness as a given.

I imagine that most people, like me, live in bubbles where their beliefs are more or less reinforced. It’s nice on occasion to get out of those bubbles and talk with people who think crazy things—both because you can gain something from trying to explain your ideas to someone who doesn’t share them, and because it’s good to remind yourself that people who are on the other side of whichever debate aren’t unreasoning giant mouths screaming gibberish, but flesh-and-blood people who aren’t any scarier or more insane than anyone else.

There are conversations, though, and then there are debates. Tonight, Bill Nye the Science Guy is going onstage at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, to argue about evolution with the museum’s founder Ken Ham, who is a young-earth creationist, meaning he thinks the world is only a few thousand years old. Nye is going to “win” the debate in the eyes of anyone who thinks that science is right about anything; Ham’s going to be similarly celebrated by a lot of hardcore Biblical literalists. The debate is the WWE for pseudointellectuals who spend too much time on Reddit, a made-for-YouTube event that will serve as a soapbox for Nye and Ham to stand on and shout.

It should be noted that lots of people think this is a shitty idea. Many scientists have criticized Nye for agreeing to the debate, as young-earth creationism is such a discredited, ludicrous notion that arguing with its proponents just makes them look good. You wouldn’t argue with a crazy person about whether a giant pigeon is trying to eat his head from the inside—and giving him a serious response in public would make him look more logical than he is. In other words, don’t feed the trolls. Even Richard Dawkins, who has debated the existence of God in public countless times, has famously refused to debate creationists on the grounds that it would lend them credibility.

The don’t-debate-the-wackos-cause-it-just-makes-them-look-good strategy makes sense, but it obscures the larger question: Why do atheists want to debate believers at all?

Christians at least can say that arguing about God in public gives them a chance to preach the gospel to the unsaved—if they can convince someone that God is real and Jesus Christ died for our sins, that’s one more soul rescued from the fires of hell, which is no small achievement. If, however, an atheist convinces a Christian that the Bible is nothing more than a weird story written a couple thousand years ago, well, one more person is aware that death is just a cold void of absolute nonbeing and that our lives are not watched over by a compassionate god. Good job, I guess.

The act of standing up in front of a bunch of people and going, “No, no, your beliefs are wrong, let me lay a little bit of logic and science onto your ignorant heads” smacks of ego—at the Creation Museum tonight, Bill Nye won’t be talking about the wonders of science and the scientific method as much as will be telling Ken Ham that he’s wrong and everyone who agrees with him is dumb. The rightness of Nye’s cause aside, that just seems jerky.

Which isn't to say Nye doesn't have right on his side. Debating young-earth creationism is different than debating the existence of a deity—the latter becomes a fairly esoteric question when you start talking about existence and consciousness and so on, but the former is a more down-to-earth discussion. If you embrace Ham’s beliefs you have to deny a great deal of science, and children who are taught that the planet is only a few thousand years old and that evolution is a lie (this happens even in some schools that receive public money) are being misled and confused by adults. As Nye said in a viral YouTube video from 2012, “If you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we’ve observed in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.”

In shot: boo creationism, yay science. But matching creationism up against atheism is a “false dichotomy,” as an article in Catholic Online about the debate puts it. Plenty of Christians believe in both God and evolution, but the Nye-versus-Ham debate seemingly pits the Bible against Darwin as mutually exclusive systems of thought. “Viewers are being asked to either favor a Protestant fundamentalist young-earth creation story, or a scientific, atheistic view of the universe,” writes Catholic Online. What about a third option? What about the Christians who think Ham is a nut and carbon dating is not a bizarre conspiracy, but also don’t enjoy the tone atheists take when they dismiss the Bible out of hand? What about people who think natural selection explains a lot but that God could have set the process in motion? Why leave those voices out of a debate over creationism?

It’d be great if we could get Christians and atheists talking together in more public forums—by which I mean actually talking, not putting up billboards that mock sincerely held beliefs. It would give both sides a chance to discuss differences—like do people need God to be good, and is it offensive to say that only believers can be moral?—but also commonalities, like how great a guy Jesus was, or how mysterious the origins of existence and life and conscious are. At this debate, I imagine the only thing Nye and Ham will agree on is their shared unspoken desire for publicity. No one’s mind will be changed, no one will “win,” and the YouTube comments under the livestream of the debate will fill up with various versions of “I’M RIGHT YOU’RE WRONG HAHA.” Which, actually, would be a pretty good tagline for this whole mess.