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A Summary of the Bill Nye Ken Ham Debate

how creationists view atheists

Early last year, Ken Ham debated Bill Nye on  creationism/evolution. Bill Cohen, writing for The Daily Banter, summed up the debate nicely:

Bill Nye: We don’t know how the universe came about, that’s why we do science.

Ken Ham: There’s a book (Bible) that explains it all!!

Bill Nye: We don’t know how or why consciousness arose, but we use science to try and understand it.

Ken Ham:  There’s a book that explains it all!!

Bill Nye: We know for a scientific fact that the world is older than 6000 years because of carbon dating, fossil records, genetics and the study of DNA etc etc.

Ken Ham: There’s a book that says otherwise!!

Video Link

Al Mohler, the fundamentalist Southern Baptist president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attended the debate. He posted his thoughts about the debate on his blog. (though it seems this post was written BEFORE the debate took place) Here is what Mohler had to say:

…As the debate began, it was clear that Ham and Nye do not even agree on definitions. The most friction on definition came when Nye rejected Ham’s distinction between “historical science” and “observational science” out of hand. Nye maintained his argument that science is a unitary method, without any distinction between historical and observational modes. Ham pressed his case that science cannot begin without making certain assumptions about the past, which cannot be observed. Furthermore, Ham rightly insisted that observational science generally does not require any specific commitment to a model of historical science. In other words, both evolutionists and creationists do similar experimental science, and sometimes even side-by-side.

Nye’s main presentation contained a clear rejection of biblical Christianity. At several points in the debate, he dismissed the Bible’s account of Noah and the ark as unbelievable. Oddly, he even made this a major point in his most lengthy argument. As any informed observer would have anticipated, Nye based his argument on the modern consensus and went to the customary lines of evidence, from fossils to ice rods. Ham argued back with fossil and geological arguments of his own. Those portions of the debate did not advance the arguments much past where they were left in the late nineteenth century, with both sides attempting to keep score by rocks and fossils…

…In this light, the debate proved both sides right on one central point: If you agreed with Bill Nye you would agree with his reading of the evidence. The same was equally true for those who entered the room agreeing with Ken Ham; they would agree with his interpretation of the evidence.

That’s because the argument was never really about ice rods and sediment layers. It was about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all? On what basis do we grant intellectual authority? Is the universe self-contained and self-explanatory? Is there a Creator, and can we know him?

On those questions, Ham and Nye were separated by infinite intellectual space. They shared the stage, but they do not live in the same intellectual world. Nye is truly committed to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview. Ham is an evangelical Christian committed to the authority of the Bible. The clash of ultimate worldview questions was vividly displayed for all to see.

When asked how matter came to exist and how consciousness arose, Nye responded simply and honestly: “I don’t know.” Responding to the same questions, Ham went straight to the Bible, pointing to the Genesis narrative as a full and singular answer to these questions. Nye went on the attack whenever Ham cited the Bible, referring to the implausibility of believing what he kept describing as “Ken Ham’s interpretation of a 3,000 year old book translated into American English.”

To Bill Nye, the idea of divine revelation is apparently nonsensical. He ridiculed the very idea.

This is where the debate was most important. Both men were asked if any evidence could ever force them to change their basic understanding. Ham said no, pointing to the authority of Scripture. Nye said that evidence for creation would change his mind. But Nye made clear that he was unconditionally committed to a naturalistic worldview, which would make such evidence impossible.  Neither man is actually willing to allow for any dispositive evidence to change his mind. Both operate in basically closed intellectual systems. The main problem is that Ken Ham knows this to be the case, but Bill Nye apparently does not. Ham was consistently bold in citing his confidence in God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in the full authority and divine inspiration of the Bible. He never pulled a punch or hid behind an argument. Nye seems to believe that he is genuinely open to any and all new information, but it is clear that his ultimate intellectual authority is the prevailing scientific consensus. More than once he asserted a virtually unblemished confidence in the ability of modern science to correct itself. He steadfastly refused to admit that any intellectual presuppositions color his own judgment.

But the single most defining moments in the debate came as Bill Nye repeatedly cited the “reasonable man” argument in his presentation and responses. He cited Adolphe Quetelet’s famed l’homme moyen—“a reasonable man”—as the measure of his intellectual authority. Writing in 1835, Quetelet, a French intellectual, made his “reasonable man” famous. The “reasonable man” is a man of intellect and education and knowledge who can judge evidence and arguments and function as an intellectual authority on his own two feet. The “reasonable man” is a truly modern man. Very quickly, jurists seized on the “reasonable man” to define the law and lawyers used him to make arguments before juries. A “reasonable man” would interpret the evidence and make a reasoned judgment, free from intellectual pressure.

Bill Nye repeatedly cited the reasonable man in making his arguments. He is a firm believer in autonomous human reason and the ability of the human intellect to solve the great problems of existence without any need of divine revelation. He spoke of modern science revealing “what we all can know” as it operates on the basis of natural laws. As Nye sees it, Ken Ham has a worldview, but Nye does not. He referred to “Ken Ham’s worldview,” but claimed that science merely provides knowledge. He sees himself as the quintessential “reasonable man,” and he repeatedly dismissed Christian arguments as “not reasonable.”…

…The ark is not the real problem; autonomous human reason is. Bill Nye is a true believer in human reason and the ability of modern science to deliver us. Humanity is just “one germ away” from extinction, he said. But science provides him with the joy of discovery and understanding…

…The problem with human reason is that it, along with every other aspect of our humanity, was corrupted by the fall. This is what theologians refer to as the “noetic effects of the fall.” We have not lost the ability to know all things, but we have lost the ability to know them on our own authority and power. We are completely dependent upon divine revelation for the answers to the most important questions of life. Our sin keeps us from seeing what is right before our eyes in nature. We are dependent upon the God who loves us enough to reveal himself to us—and to give us his Word.

As it turns out, the reality and authority of divine revelation, more than any other issue, was what the debate last night was all about…

..It was about the central worldview clash of our times, and of any time: the clash between the worldview of the self-declared “reasonable man” and the worldview of the sinner saved by grace…

I quite agree with Al Mohler. This indeed is a clash of worldviews. Where I disagree, of course, is that I believe the creationist/Christian worldview is outdated, inadequate, and often contrary to what we now know about the universe and our place in it. For Al Mohler and Ken Ham, their worldview begins and ends with Bible. Any fact, evidence, or truth that does not fit the Bible paradigm, which is really Mohler’s and Ham’s personal interpretation of the Bible, must be rejected.

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    The debate is summed up by reference to the issue of what would change minds. Ham said ‘nothing’. Nye said ‘evidence’. Somehow Mohler manages in his piece to completely distort this fact, seemingly turning it into a plus point for Ham?

    I’m still not sure why Nye bothered with the debate in that, ultimately, it gave the impression there is something ‘to debate’. There isn’t. The existence of species by way of evolution is a matter of established fact, though the exact details of precisely how every aspect of evolution actually worked may never be fully known (simply because there are so many billions of variations).

    On the other hand, I’m conscious that many in the rest of the world, largely less educated (which is why I’m surprised it’s so prevalent in the US) don’t realise this. Maybe Nye was addressing that audience?

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    I believe that the writers of the Bible used suspension of disbelief in their writing. As the bible verse in the comic does, because you acknowledge that god is invisible, that some people don’t believe in god etc. these arguments lose their strength, because you already mentioned and refuted them. This is also goes for Paul saying (paraphrasing here) “if it isn’t true, the resurrection of the dead, we would be the most pitiable beings of all” the implication being: would I believe something that is not true? Of course not! The same argument is used by martyrs of many faiths and times: of course, they wouldn’t want to die over an untruth and they do sincerely believe in the truth of their religion or ideology.

    With Jesus’ grave being empty, a similar thing happens, the bible already mentions several other possible reasons, such as the body being taken away etc, to refute precisely those claims, so if someone uses them as an argument against the bible, the bible is smarter and therefore wins because it already mentions that argument.

    Or “the fool says in his heart there is no god.” By already acknowledging that some people don’t believe, by branding them fools, you keep the reader engaged and on your side: look you’ve already mentioned this option, so it can’t be used as proof anymore… The bible doesn’t deny these people exist so their existence doesn’t mean anything argument-wise.

    Anyway, as someone who likes to write fiction I find this stuff interesting. I realized the implication of suspension of disbelief when reading a Donald Duck story once 🙂 lol. Something really unbelievable happened, and I was thinking; this is such freaking nonsense, this is sooo unbelievable, I can’t believe this is happening! So what happened, therefore, in the story? A character said precisely what I was thinking, i.e. this is sooo unbelievable and because your idea as a reader is acknowledged you are drawn back into the story, your doubts are taken seriously and you can continue reading knowing that you have been taken seriously and your argument has been addressed.

    I think the “noetic effects of the fall” does a similar thing as well. You fill in the problems with solutions such as this and people continue believing the story.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      You raise some interesting points that I have not considered. Shocking, I know. 🙂 The verses (stories) you mention allow the Christian to dismiss people out of hand. No need to hear what an atheist has to say because the Bible says they are a fool and no one listens to a fool.

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        It played a bit of a role in my deconversion because surely an omnipotent god doesn’t need to resort to literary devices and rethorical tricks to defend his existence: that’s just for us mere mortals… But people building some sort of case for defending their faith would have.

        The fool text is quite interesting, because it could also mean that there were fools who were possibly put to death for saying God didn’t exist, making rather them foolish in saying so, or it could mean that the psalmist had some doubts himself…

        Of course, if your expression of unpopular ideas makes you a fool worthy of death…well, that puts a whole new light on christianity itself 🙂

      • Avatar
        Rupert Kennedy

        That is an unfortunate perception of Christians. It is also an unfortunate attitude taken by some who might be labeled as Christians. The truth is that neither the Bible nor true Christianity do not in the slightest way promote such behavior or attitude. The Bible commands mutual respect of our fellows as “The Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you have them do unto you”. And it goes even further than the rational mind would accept. It calls for a self sacrificial attitude towards those who will even “hate, despise and persecute you.

        The supposed reference to what the “Bible says” about a “fool” and “atheist is also grossly incorrect and misleading. The Bible does not use the word “fool” as a person with deficient intellect. In fact it warns of extreme judgment to anyone who does this as being “in danger of hell-fire”.(Matt. 5:25) The context in which “fool” is used concerns one who deliberately denies self evident truths or facts. In fact it does not even refer to overt behavior, showing that it expects no one to express this. It says: “The fool says in his heart there is no God”. It is not referring to level of intelligence rather basic human cognition that differentiates us from the lower animals. This is made clear by this reference : “Man that is honour and understandeth not is like the Beast that perish” Ps. 49:20. This speaks to a self deception to the fact that man is a superior being to animals, the crowning work of all God’s creation. For no other created beings not even angels are created “in the image of God.

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    I finally got around to watching this debate a few months ago. Ken Ham’s response of “Because Bible” ad nauseum… Just ugh! I can’t believe I watched the whole 3 hours. And to think that I had friends on Facebook, posting the night of the debate, saying things like, “Ken Ham really showed Bill Nye!” That now leaves me wondering if they possess any critical thinking skills at all. If I were still a Bible thumper I would have been vastly disappointed with Ham’s defense.

    By the way, Bruce, I love your blog. Thank you so much for the time you spend on it.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      1st Breath,

      Thank you for the kind words.

      I watched it live. I knew how it would go. For Ken Ham, it isn’t about science. It’s about the Bible and faith. And that’s exactly what he appealed to over and over.

      One of the big things I live learned since deconverting is that it is OK to say I DON’T KNOW.


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