The Science of Faith in the Nye/Ham Debate

Bill Nye, famous TV science personality and educator, and Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and defender of “creation science,” arranged and recorded a debate that is flying around the Internet, thanks to the uploading of the debate on YouTube.


I am not convinced that this was necessarily a good idea. Bill Nye did not convince, I am sure, many people in the audience at the Creation Museum. Nor did Ham change over the hearts and minds of many viewers to “Creation Science.” I am rather convinced most people are watching it either to affirm their own positions or to gloat over their own superiority compared to the ignorance of others (what we might call the “Honey Boo Boo” Effect). This kind of debate seems fruitless and counter-productive to me.


But it's not fruitless for the reasons many people think. In fact, the problem I have with these debates is NOT that debates over faith in principle are fruitless – quite the contrary. Nor do I think debates with creationists or fundamentalists are bad – in fact, done well, I think they are the only way to change peoples' minds and hearts. Debate in public is the single most fruitful way to expose the errors of bad thinking and bring about genuine dialogue and conversion.


So what's the problem with the Ham debate? The problem is that Bill Nye and many others, like Neal DeGrasse Tyson, who are all scientists who embrace an agnostic view of faith (if not an overtly atheistic view of the universe), are just not competent to engage in a debate with a creationist. The reason is simple: creationism is not really a debate about science, but a debate about theology. And a scientist won't be able to engage with Ham on any meaningful level. They both have different standards of verification, evidence, and debate. Nothing Nye says will be able to convince Ham. That's why it's fruitless.



But Nye seems to have made this point often, someone might object. Nye pointed out over and over again that Ham's view was a minority among Christians, that many Bible-believing Christians hold evolution to be true, and that Ham is picking Scripture quotes to serve his fancy.


The problem is that, apart from the science, Nye holds the position and tries to advance the view that belief in God, Scripture, and theology has no interaction with the real world. It is a pure agnostic position. We just can't know, or the evidence is completely private. It paints a picture of science-faith interaction that is one of two complete and non-overlapping systems. Stephen Jay Gould, biologist, famously called this a “non-overlapping magisteria” theory of faith and reason interaction.


The weakness is that, for Catholicism and most traditional Christian theologians, Nye's view of two non-overlapping systems is just false. It is entirely misleading because it makes faith a personal view of some vague “metaphysical” realities which science can neither prove nor disprove because it is private or transcendent. Science, on the other hand, is verifiable, public, and objective truth.


The real answer is that the Catholic faith involves multiple things, some of which can be proven and some of which cannot. The Church, for example, thinks that the existence of God and the truth of the moral law can be known without the Bible or revelation at all; it might be hard, but it's possible not only to believe it but to prove it because it's not part of the faith as such (it is something faith presumes; CCC 36). It isn't a part of natural science to prove God's existence (it's philosophy), but it isn't merely something you close your eyes and “believe” without evidence.


But even those things that cannot be proven can be indicated as probable, or at least as reasonable and not in conflict with science. So it doesn't mean, for example, that Lazarus' resurrection, despite being something contrary to ordinary laws of nature, must therefore be non-material or non-verifiable. No, instead, we hold it was a real and physical miracle. If you were there, you could verify it happened – much like verifying miracles at Lourdes today (CCC 156). We can say they have no medical explanation, and we can point to God as the most likely cause. Even the Trinity, while a mystery, is not mysterious because it's a contradiction. It isn't a mathematical claim that 1+1+1=3 (which would be false), but is easily compatible with a basic recognition that different things are being counted as “three” and as “one” (CCC 255).


What is at the center of the debate, really, is questions of biblical interpretation and standards of evidence not between science and faith, but between faith and faith. The problem with Ken Ham is that he is using bad standards to decide why one interpretation of Scripture is to be preferred to another.


Nye refers to it as “cherry-picking” Scripture to support your own views. In technical theological language, that's simply what we mean by “heresy.” The Catholic faith existed before the New Testament was written down – it came from the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. That's why, for Catholics, we believe not only in Scripture as divinely inspired, but the message itself that continues among us as “sacred Tradition” (which can be paraphrased as the “passed down interpretation of Scripture based on the preaching of the apostles”). It also continues among us in the living teaching office of the Church and her pastors, which helps us decide what is and is not authentic interpretation faithful to Christ and the apostles. Without these standards, Ken Ham's biblical positions are inevitable.


How could most people ever interpret the Bible correctly if all we had was the text? A text written over the course of 5,000 years is not self-interpreting or clear in meaning. Further, it's not the text that's at the center of the Christian faith, but the Trinity. It would make no sense for God to send the Holy Spirit to “teach” us all truth (Jn. 16:13) if He couldn't even give us clear signs on how to read Scripture correctly and avoid inevitable dissent (CCC 74).


This is where, on the other side, Nye gets it wrong. It is not convincing to argue that other Christians believe the Scriptures to support evolution. The real question Ham is asking is: “How do we interpret Scripture correctly?” For an atheist like Nye, this is insoluble. For Catholics, we can point out standards in theology for interpreting Scripture well and that Ham is just making basic mistakes.


What Ken Ham (and Nye) miss is that theology is a science, an ordered body of knowledge with standards of investigation, confirmation, and argumentation. Theology is not an exercise in throwing up our hands before mystery or believing complete obscure absurdity. Instead, it is embracing the mystery of Truth that, while greater than we can understand, is never in conflict with what physical science and our senses teach us. The Triune God is not a mystery because of lack of intelligibility, but of too much truth and understanding that can be had. “Faith seeking understanding” is not the same as “faith denying understanding,” and being able to decide between the two is critically important.


Humans riding dinosaurs is not the Gospel message. The Gospel message is that “God became man so that man might become God.”


And that's the mystery.