Recently there was a debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham regarding Creationism. The following is the most cogent and well-thought out response I have seen to that debate, written by my Not So Humble Friend, Patrick Hoolahan.
There are a couple of points that I’ll tackle individually but will start (and end) with this thought: there is useless or wasted pursuit of knowledge or exchange of ideas. There is no one who is unworthy to hear ideas and no one should be considered a waste of time to discuss ideas with.
To the first, I would disagree very strongly that, as some have asserted, religion and critical thinking cannot go together. In the papal encyclical “Fides et Ratio”, Pope John Paul II made the excellent point that faith without reason (that is to say critical thinking that falls under reason, as well as understanding of knowledge) leads to mere superstition and worse faith. As put better in said document: “[faith and reason together] serve to lead the search for truth to new depths, enabling the mind in its autonomous exploration to penetrate within the mystery by use of reason’s own methods. . .” (Section 13, paragraph 4). See also “In God there lies the origin of all things, in him is found the fullness of the mystery, and in this his glory consists; to men and women there falls the task of exploring truth with their reason, and in this their nobility consists.” (Section 17). Now, that is clearly coming from a religious belief system, yet it CLEARLY calls for reason to be used in the greater service of God. Again, it is not too far of a stretch to consider critical thinking as part of reason.
But let us take a bit of step back to discuss the nature of and focus of religion and the necessity of critical thinking as a part of a good religion. Religion is the outgrowth and separation from spiritual philosophy. As opposed to the natural philosophy of Socrates, Lucretius, Herodotus or other ancients who thought about how the world they observed moved around them, there were others (oddly including Pythagoras, Aristotle, and others) who thought not just about what was directly observed but about the nature of humanity and individuals. Lacking objective ways to measure and contain their axioms, they merely thought about how the universe may or may not work with logical aspects to each supposition. Each observable point was remarked upon, assumptions based on that were made and inductive reasoning took over from there.
For example, Aristotle’s theory of the Prime Mover (later borrowed by Aquinas for a theorem on God, but we’ll get there). Aristotle noticed things move. Ok. He then noticed that things are either moved by being acted upon by something else or by their own initiative. Makes sense. He further posited that even those thing that move on their own had to be put into motion by something, such as a child being born. Another example would be the bodies in the heavens -they move on their own, but they started from a stopped place (vide Newton’s Laws of Motion). He didn’t CALL it a law of motion, but he had basically deduced through observation and reason that a thing at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. He THEN posited that if all things had to be moved in order to move, that there must be a Prime Mover who made all the things move (move ALL the things!) and in so doing started the motion of everything. It was based on reason, deduction and observation but is clearly a spiritual argument since it assumes an intelligence and physicality of a being rather than just a set of laws.
Religion is merely taking these kinds of personalized spiritual exercises and understandings and putting them into organized form. What does that mean? Well, it means that some ideas in the pursuit of a given religion have to be examined and accepted or rejected in order to be part of that religion. There are a couple of different criteria by which ideas would be judged in terms of a religion: how much do they affirm current understandings and philosophies OR how much they expand current understandings and philosophies. Both of these require an exegesis style examination of the new ideas. A new idea is weighed against current ones and either found to support the old idea in a new way that does not contradict; or, it is examined for the new information or idea it brings and the logic or evidence is examined to see if it contradicts anything that is accepted before.
Note this is sadly not necessarily the case with all religions. However, it IS the case with some religions, especially Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam. These are religions that have serious scholarship involved in them and volumes of works that lay out very specific cases for how and why ideas are held. This is true of both revelation said to be from God (which is why the Catholic Church has the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints which investigates miracles) and for papers and written things (which is why the Catholic Church has the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith). Reason can be applied to religion, indeed has been. You might not agree with all the axioms, but they are stated quite plainly. Descartes had his axioms, Newton had his and really any study into anything has axioms. Even if it is just “time moves towards greatest entropy and the universe is consistent”.
If one does not use critical thinking skills in religion, then it is a weaker faith for falling for EVERY idea that claims to be religious. That is blind faith, not true faith. That is the mere acceptance of anything because someone in a different hat declared it so. . .and you get everything from Phelps to Jonestown. Critical thinking and reason are the best tools we have for understanding ourselves, our interactions with others, our world and the universe. Or at least so the priests taught me.
The second point I’d like to address about this kind of debate is the idea of it being a waste of time since no one is convinced and that it gives legitimacy to Ken Ham. I will discuss that here, as best as I can. I am first reminded of one of my favorite quotes from “Game of Thrones”, which is “We only make peace with our enemies; that’s why it’s called making peace.” If Nye were going to a place where everyone agreed it would not be a debate or discussion, it would be a symposium (from the Greek meaning, “Drinking together”). That would not be reaching out to people who need instruction, that would not be helping people who do not understand to understand better, and that would not be raising the aggregate understanding of science. It might raise the average since those 200 people might understand one thing REALLY well, but it does not do much for helping the average person understand better. Bill Nye has made his career after comedy about helping people who do not understand science understand it. Mostly, he focused on children. Children don’t understand because they often have not been taught or shown yet. It does not make them evil, it does not make them less than and it does not make them a waste of time.
But this was not for children, this was done at Ken Ham’s behest and invitation. Many have worried about this giving Ken Ham legitimacy and therefore should be shunned. I admit my own failing to see how Nye talking to Ham makes Ham more scientific any more than Ham talking to Nye makes Nye more religious. Nye going to a religious place didn’t mean the religious people took him as more religious nor does the scientific community look at Ham more seriously. Nor would most people all of a sudden take Ham more serious JUST because there is an event taking place. The debate garnered 500,000 viewers at the time, according to just one feed. Which means there were probably more watching on other feeds. Bill Nye required that the feed be broadcast uncensored and uncut. He is also offering it for free on his website for people to check out. Ham, hosting the event, is making money on it but then he is using his resources to host and all of that, so I have a hard time hating that too much. It might be an inequitable business deal, but I have not heard that point raised. The idea of debating with someone giving them legitimacy has been, so the focus shall remain on that idea.
Debates that are not meant to convince the other speaker have happened since time immemorial. Cicero’s Phillipics against Marcus Antonius, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, every trial in America, etc. Ham was not going to convince Nye and vice versa. Both men knew this and both men were okay with this. They were, however, both after the audience watching, and that is the part to keep in mind. Ham was looking for more the immediate win and be done, while Nye was much better about presenting the nature of science as a philosophy (which it is) and the connection from practical everyday things that each person could observe to the understanding of the age and nature of the creation of the earth. Again, this was a battle of competing philosophies, not right vs wrong. Unless there is an objective scoring system to which all participants agree, as in sports, then that was never the goal either. No points were awarded to either debater, as is the case in some debates, nor were votes taken at the end of the debate. This debate WAS NOT designed to stop ALL discussion of anything that disagrees with scientific consensus for now and all time. That would be a pointlessly lofty goal, and one that would be detrimental to the future of science. The point was NOT to destroy all questions, merely to put forth to a new audience the nature of the science involved in determining the origins of the earth in terms so plain as to command their assent.
My own bias as a student of politics comes to the fore here. Not debating with Ham and pretending he and his followers will either go away or suddenly, randomly embrace rational science is naive. To brand him and his followers as somehow incapable of rational thought for some reason is dehumanizing. To say you will not speak to him because of what he believes is the scientific equivalent of “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” A debate like this does not legitimize Ham in a serious way. Many more people who had not seen him speak now got to see him. Many people who had not seen Nye speak now got to see him. Nye clearly came off as both the better speaker and the more informed and prepared debater. He laid out real cases, showed real things and asked real questions that Ham dodged. Sunlight is the best disinfectant in politics, and it holds true in this battle of ideas as well. Both were shown to the world for what they believe and hold true and the audience got to judge.
How did it work out? Well, consider how many fundamentalists are all over the news proclaiming the great victory over the humanist: None. The silence is deafening. If anything, the opposite is happening. Pat Robertson is telling Ken Ham to stop with his crazy beliefs. Pat Robertson, who is no stranger to holding crazy beliefs, is saying there is no way a young earth is possible for Ken Ham to not make a joke of Christians. Did he say that before this debate came about? No. He said he didn’t believe in strict Creationism before, but he didn’t call out Ken Ham before. The creationist believers are shrinking and part of that is because of this debate. More fundamentalist Christians are calling out Ham and others for believing in Creationism when they say it’s just not true. And, if you really want to see who did better after the debate, consider this. As the debate went on, more and more heads started to nod with Nye (watch the footage, it’s kind of awesome) when he made points. At the end of it, Nye shook hands and talked to audience members and Ken Ham made a beeline for the door. This was HIS stage in HIS house with HIS people. He should have been like Caesar in a triumph in Rome, but he left ASAP. He knew he had lost hard and looked sillier for his attempts to try to embarrass Nye.
Nye was respectful of religion, respectful of Ham and generally respectful of people. Nye made it clear what he believed, why, how it works, what the limitations are and what steps a practical person could take to get to his kind of understanding. He didn’t disparage religion, didn’t say a word about God and didn’t say religion and reason were incompatible. He was, in short, the best person for this. He kept his cool while Ham lost his. He was excited about science and wanted to share that with people, not just lecture them for being wrong and deign to correct them. Which is where a lot of people fall apart in these debates. Empathy, as noted by Dr. Carl Rogers, goes a long way in so many things. One can be both scientific and respectful. Nye showed to previously skeptical people that science, evolution and all of that could be respectful of religion and that science is not out to destroy religious belief. In the era of Dawkins, it is a very necessary step to interrupt the confirmation bias that can take place.
While this did not end the debate forever, nothing should. Debates in science should never end. Debates in anything should never end. We advance our knowledge through the Socratic Method, to which Nye alluded when he pointed out that science “loves” to be shown they’re wrong. I disagree about being joyful about it, having known and fought with too many scientists, but agree with his point about science needing and relying on new evidence, debate and conflict to move forward in understanding. Nye showed a good side to science and the need and use for scientific study. He showed the limitations, what it can and cannot do and the simplest forms of how it works. And he did it to people who may not have been exposed to that.
I’m not sure how THAT can be seen as a bad thing.