Assessing the "Debate:" Ham Was Wrong On Both Religious and Scientific Grounds

It's probably fair to say that much, and many might say too much, has been written about the "debate" between Ken Ham and Bill Nye on the nature of science and the relationship between religion and science. Nonetheless, I feel it might be useful to provide a bit of context for the critical moment in the evening.

When both were asked by moderator Tom Foreman, "What, if anything, would ever change your mind?," Ham responded honestly by saying, "The Bible is the word of God. I admit that that's where I start from. I can challenge people that you can go and test that."

While we can, and should, praise Ham's honesty, it doesn't mean that his position makes any sense scientifically or that it should be endorsed as a shining example of critical thinking skills. But his position is fully consistent with the long-standing creationist worldview.

Indeed, back in 1982, Federal District Judge William R. Overton referenced exactly this point in his decision outlawing an Arkansas law that mandated that "creation science" had to be taught in the state's public schools whenever evolution was offered. In footnote 7 of the McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education ruling, he cites the "statement of belief" that members of the Creation Research Society had to sign to become members of the organization.

Like Ham, they ascribed to a particular interpretation of the Bible and made it clear that no data would be able to sway themselves from this position. The statement reads, in full, as follows:

(1) The Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be inspired thruout [sic], all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all of the original autographs. To the student of nature, this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.

(2) All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during Creation Week as described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation have accomplished only changes within the original created kinds.

(3) The great Flood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Deluge, was an historical event, worldwide in its extent and effect.

(4) Finally, we are an organization of Christian men of science, who accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The account of the special creation of Adam and Eve as one man and one woman, and their subsequent Fall into sin, is the basis for our belief in the necessity of a Savior for all mankind. Therefore, salvation can come only thru [sic] accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior.

Nye, on the other hand, pointed to evidence, saying that such evidence would require him to alter his perspective. That is, after all, what science is all about.

Compare Ham's view and the Creation Research Society's state of belief with the motto adopted in the 1600s by the Royal Society of London, probably the world's oldest, extant scientific society. In 1663, they looked to Book I of Roman poet Horace's Epistles and adopted the phrase "nullius in verba" as their motto. As the Royal Society's website explains, "Nullius in verba roughly translates as 'take nobody's word for it'. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment."

Horace went on to say, in translation:

I am not bound to swear allegiance to any master.

Where the storm carries me, I put into port and make myself at home.

Good scientists have to be willing to permit the data to drive their conclusions. Although there are many examples I can mention to make this point, let me describe the work and beliefs of Nobel Laureate T.H. Morgan. In 1910, about a decade after the work of Gregor Mendel had been rediscovered, Morgan, who was active in trying to understand developmental processes, published a paper in American Naturalist rejecting Mendelian ideas broadly and the concept of genes more specifically. He argued that the data simply didn't warrant acceptance of such an idea.

But then, later that very same year, he changed his mind because of compelling data, data that came from his own laboratory. He went on, from his skepticism, to becoming the leading scientist to postulate the link between genes, chromosomes and developmental biology. It was for this work that Morgan was awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

While Ham's position is clearly fully at odds with the nature of science, there's good reason to believe that it is also at odds with the nature of religion, at least as proposed by many. As Calvin College geology professor Davis A. Young explained, none other than St. Augustine argued that "we ought to be willing to change our minds about the interpretation of Genesis 1-3, particularly as new information comes to light."

The Dalai Lama takes a very similar position when he wrote, "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims or adopt them as metaphor." Members of The Clergy Letter Project have adopted this statement as the lead to The Buddhist Clergy Letter which affirms the importance of the teaching of evolution.

I'll not even bother to mention the comments of Pat Robertson who admonished Ham to back off from his assertions that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. "To say it all dates back to 6,000 years is just nonsense. Let's be real. Let's not make a joke of ourselves."

The bottom line is as simple as it is important. Ham's position that the Bible has presented him with all the answers he needs to know makes a mockery of some very rich religious traditions while undercutting the very foundation of science.