Why We Should Debate Creationists

Published by timdean on

There are some who believe that Bill Nye “the science guy” lost the debate with Ken Ham on the question of “is creation a viable model of origins?”

And there are many who assert that he should never have agreed to the debate at all. That even debating Ham was to elevate creationism to the level where it vies with evolution for status as a credible theory.

Ken Ham, left, and Bill Nye, debate science and creationism.I will remain agnostic (if you’ll excuse the pun) on the former count, but I will firmly disagree on the latter.

We should always debate those who promote unreason, and we should do so with great vigour and care. Of course, we need to pick our battles, or we’d be hammering away at all manner of fringe views. But we should particularly engage and debate those irrationalists who are most effective at spreading their views and undermining reason and science. This includes creationists like Ham.

This I believe is the case whether Nye “won” the debate or not.

If it is found that Nye has changed some minds, then it reinforces the power and efficacy of debate. If it is found that Nye “lost” the debate, it only underscores the need for us to get better at debating.

After all, if someone agrees to a debate where the standards of rational argumentation and evidence apply, then those of us who believe rational and scientific enquiry are the most reliable means to discovering facts have already won half the battle.

And if someone doesn’t agree to conform to the standards of rational argumentation and appeal to evidence, then we can more easily and clearly flag them as being the irrationalists they are, and call for them to be dismissed from the conversation.

However, as Nye’s performance highlights, we also cannot underestimate the importance of persuasion. Facts don’t speak for themselves. And facts alone don’t change worldviews.

As loath as I am to link to Buzzfeed, this list of questions from creationists to those who “believe” in evolution is incredibly illuminating. It clearly demonstrates that those who believe in creationism hold a radically different worldview from those who find evolution to be the best theory to explain biology as we know it.

Just providing more facts in response to those questions, even if they’re offered eloquently, is sadly unlikely to sway many opinions – particularly if those opinions are informed by a radically different worldview.

What we need to get better at is understanding the way the world looks through the eyes of someone who is committed to creationism. We need to understand that to such a person, creationism isn’t the starting point of their beliefs, it is the end point. From there they work backwards in order to justify their beliefs.

They have often accepted on an emotional level a particular view of the world – one that is emotionally linked with the comfort that comes from believing there is a deity who cares about them – and that worldview itself is largely transparent to them. They are not stupid or bad people. They are simply acting sensibly given a particular view of the world. And we need to understand and respect that.

If they are confronted with an individual fact – or even a slew of facts – that contradict some aspect of their worldview, they are faced with a stark choice: reject their worldview (an emotionally traumatic experience akin to rejecting science or reason for us); or reject the individual fact by challenging it or explaining it away.

In light of that, we must address that worldview more directly. We must make that lens translucent and show how their worldview flavours their beliefs. Then encourage a discussion about competing worldviews and ways of thinking before we entertain a discussion about facts.

Above all we certainly should not allow irrationalists to spread their views unchallenged. Whenever we refuse to debate, we give them free reign to spread their views with the apparent authority that comes from us appearing to be afraid to challenge them.

Reason and science have the great virtue of being the most robust tools for discovering the nature of the world around us. We already have that intrinsic advantage. However, that advantage alone will not win the struggle against unreason.

We must debate. And we must do it better.


Clare Flourish · 7th February 2014 at 6:31 pm

Possibly, then, the debate is better pursued by non-YEC Christians. Facts from the Bible to refute the YEC beliefs, and alternative views to give the YEC something to love instead.

realthog · 7th February 2014 at 11:57 pm

An interesting and persuasive piece. One small point:

There are some who believe that Bill Nye “the science guy” lost the debate with Ken Ham

They’re in the very small minority. I’ve been following both rationalist and religionist views of the outcome, and it seems that all across the spectrum (rationalists, floaters, moderate Xtians, conservative Xtians, fundamentalists) the prevalent view is that Nye wiped the floor with him.

A view that I’ve seen expressed several times by the fundamentalists is that Ham deliberately threw the debate because, as a true Christian, he couldn’t bear the thought of upsetting that nice Mr. Nye. I’m taking this as a concession that Nye won.

@EdGibney · 9th February 2014 at 2:39 am

This reminds me of a stance that the existential psychologist Irwin Yalom (Love’s Executioner and Other Tales, When Nietzsche Wept) takes with his patients. Though an agnostic/atheist, he is reluctant to tear down a patient’s beliefs without first building up other support mechanisms to replace them. That’s a good goal for those of us who would rather move beyond this god debate.

GTChristie · 9th February 2014 at 4:28 pm

I think one technique that might work in situations like this is to ask why creationism should be taught in a science class. The opponent then must justify creationism as a science. Teach it anywhere you want … except in a science classroom, unless you can show how creationism is scientifically supported.

Now it’s true, some of those people say it is scientific. But if you argue correctly you must argue for empiricism. And if you proceed Socratically, it can be shown that in the end, if the theory rests on a God you cannot detect empirically, then any scientific claims of creationists are baseless. It’s not a science, then … what is it? UItimately: faith. But science never abandons the empirical, while faith is not empirical. Do you believe in science, or not? “I don’t.” “Then why do you want to argue a scientific basis for creationism? Just to make it sound scientific, or because it’s scientific?” Anyone who’s listening can tell there’s something off-center there. Game over.

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